Sunday, June 21, 2009

STI: Live and go with the flow

June 21, 2009

Live and go with the flow

Even my best-laid plans can go awry - and for a good reason - on a recent trip to a Malaysian turtle sanctuary

By Chua Mui Hoong

I'm the kind of person who researches a vacation to death.

I read up vociferously and draw up a fairly detailed itinerary, with notes on transport options and lodging possibilities.

I always pack cereal bars to gnaw during hunger pangs, Milo packs in case I need a sugar rush late at night, and some munchies for long car drives. As a former Girl Guide, I believe in Being Prepared.

This trip, though, was different.

I was travelling with a friend who had lived in Malaysia for a few years and told me there was no need to pre-book anything.

I tried, really tried, to just go with the flow.

I trawled only two or three websites, not dozens, to read up about the Malaysian East Coast. I went to the library and took out just three guidebooks to bring along.

The planner in me schemed the itinerary. Lunch around Mersing, and then north towards Kuantan, into Terengganu where I aimed to get us to a turtle sanctuary near Dungun town. If we were lucky, we might see leatherback or green turtles amble up on shore to lay eggs.

The Garmin GPS system made navigating a breeze and the drive up north was pleasant.

Lunch break in Mersing unearthed a surprisingly good seafood restaurant where the highlight was fresh sea cucumber cooked to a perfect springy sponginess.

But because we dilly-dallied along the way, we had only made it to Cherating when night descended.

'We're not going to make it to Dungun to see the turtles,' I grumbled.

My friend shrugged. Whatever will be, will be.

But sometimes, life has a way of surprising you.

As I fiddled with the GPS system to look for lodging choices for the evening, I came across a reference to a Turtle Sanctuary nearby.

'Let's go,' I said, excited.

The Cherating turtle sanctuary was not mentioned in the guidebooks I read. It's a smallish station on a quiet stretch of beach. We got there at about 9pm, in time to catch a video of the turtles.

We were told to sit and wait. If there were turtles on shore, the rangers would take us out to the beach.

By 10.30pm, the planner in me surfaced and I began to worry that we had no lodging for the night. All the books I read said turtles tended to come on shore to lay their eggs around 11pm to midnight or later, so I reckoned it was safe to sneak out for a bit to find a room. We headed off into town, secured a room, and returned.

It was just our luck that shortly after we left, turtles were sighted on the beach and the guide led the group out to see them.

When we returned to the turtle station, there was no one from the group around.

We ventured out to seek them. The beach was pitch dark, save for the light of stars. Eventually, we saw a cluster of people, and joined them.

A turtle lay in a hole in the sand, its backside facing the sea, head pointing to shore. Its flippered legs dug up sand, sending sprays flying. We heard the others say the turtle took an hour to clamber up on shore.

By the time we got there, she had finished laying her eggs, and they had all been collected by the rangers for safekeeping. The eggs will be nurtured till they hatch and the baby turtles released back into the wild. Without that human intervention, most eggs get eaten up by birds of prey.

Disappointed to miss that first laying, we walked up and down the beach a few times, in hopes of catching another turtle in the act. We did come across two more turtles in their nest. But each time we got to its side, the turtle had just finished its performance.

At one turtle's nesting hole, we saw the ranger hold a plastic bag. The turtle had laid 93 eggs that night, some still with afterbirth goo stuck to the shells.

It was our karma that we did not get to see even a single egg get laid that night.

We did get to see the turtle amble back to the sea, though - a slow, laborious process that took over 30 minutes, with the turtle heaving its heavy shell and body, inch by inch, over the soft sand before launching itself smoothly into the sea.

A family from Kota Tinggi told me they had gone up to the Dungun turtle sanctuary. Rangers there told them that this year, the turtles were nesting back at Cherating. They turned south and headed back to the station where we had met, and were rewarded.

In the car on the way to our chalet for the night, I ruminated.

I had been dead set on making it to Dungun. If we had pressed on, we would have bypassed Cherating and missed the chance to see any turtles.

If we had not been anxious about getting a room for the night, we would have stayed long enough at the sanctuary to follow the rest onto the beach in time to see the turtles laying eggs.

There was a lesson in there somewhere for me.

I like things planned and under control. But life is full of twists and turns. The best-laid plans can go awry. But when something doesn't happen as I have planned, why, maybe something better will come along.

I reminded myself I was on holiday, not plagued by the need to juggle different projects with different bosses and different demands and deadlines. Let go and go with the flow, I told myself.

By our last night, I gave up planning. And so we ended up at Rompin, about three hours north of Singapore.

There happened to be a fun town fair going on. It was the last night of the fair, and the highlight was a drifting rally - drifting being a newfangled popular sport where you over-steer and let the car spin round. It was thrilling watching cars spin round mere metres away, with no barricade except a string to mark the rally area.

The next morning, I was surprised to find that Rompin had a nice beach with sand softer than some of the famed beaches of Terengganu.

Starfish flashed their tentacles at me all down the beach. A white-bellied sea eagle glistened golden in the sky. A pair of kingfishers flashed their azure blue at us. We rescued three baby bamboo sharks from fishermen's nets and threw them back into the sea.

The most memorable bits of this trip have been unplanned - like the turtles I nearly missed and whose birthing I nearly saw.

Life has a way of springing delightful surprises when you least expect it.

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