On a marine conservation and community outreach programme at Pulau Aur, Zulkifly Ab Latif discovers its lush surroundings and magnificent scenery
THE speedboat hits a swell and sea water splashes over my face and upper torso but I am well past the point of caring if I’m soaked.
It has been nearly two hours since the boat departed Mersing, Johor and I am teetering on the edge of patience to reach dry land.
I am sitting at the back of a Johor Marine Parks Department patrol boat heading towards Pulau Aur, the farthest island from the mainland of Peninsular Malaysia at 38 nautical miles (70.3 kilometres).
Looking to the horizon, I spot the faint silhouette of an island. Pointing towards it, I ask Zulkifly Mohd Supri, a Fisheries Assistant from Johor Marine Parks Department, if it is Pulau Aur.
“Yes, and it’s another 20 to 30 minutes until we reach it,” he answers as the patrol boat ploughs through the waves.
His answer grants me a measure of relief from the pitch and roll of the boat, and I steel myself for the last leg of the journey by imagining crystal-clear azure waters and powdery white sands.
Located within Johor’s Sultan Iskandar Marine Park area, Pulau Aur is 28 square kilometres in area and is sparsely inhabited.
The island is surrounded by three smaller islands making the Aur Island group: Pulau Dayang in the north, Pulau Pinang in the southeast and Pulau Lang in the northwest.
Possibly due to its distance from the mainland and its protected status within the Sultan Iskandar Marine Park, Pulau Aur is said to be one of the least untouched tropical islands in the country, with a verdant green interior surrounded by clear turquoise waters teeming with marine life.
I am tagging along with the Johor Marine Park Department, one of the government agencies responsible in protecting and conserving Pulau Aur and its surrounding area, for a three-day marine conservation and community outreach programme but I am also hoping to discover more about this farthest island jewel.
SEBUKANG BAY RESORT
Finally reaching Pulau Aur, the patrol boat then slowly makes its way towards a secluded bay. The island has about 12 bays, with some of them having interesting and evocative names such as Teluk Meriam (Cannon Bay), Teluk Sawah (Rice Fields Bay) and Teluk Jong (Junk Bay).
We are headed for a bay named Sebukang, and nestled along the bay’s beach is the rustic Sebukang Bay Resort, a locally owned and operated island retreat which will be my lodgings for the next three days.
It is here that I meet Rumizi Abd Manaf, a bubbly female entrepreneur who manages the resort.
Keen on promoting the island as a travel destination but at same time conserving its natural heritage, Rumizi is also one of the participants of the marine conservation programme.
Consisting of simple wooden chalets, Sebukang Bay Resort exudes a rustic and almost village-like charm, complete with a sun bleached wooden jetty and swaying coconut trees lining the beach.
The little family owned resort’s basic but adequate amenities reflect how far away the island is from civilisation. After settling in, I instinctively check my smartphone for messages, only to see that it is not displaying any signal bars.
I asks Rumizi if the resort has Wi-Fi, with the answer being an outright “No”. Curiously though, Rumizi tells me that I can still receive SMS messages if I leave my phone at a certain spot near the jetty, which is the only known spot in the resort that occasionally gets a signal.
Located on the west side of Pulau Aur, a stay at Sebukang Bay Resort is a tranquil and secluded experience.
Out of reach from the trappings of the digital age, this is a place for those seeking to unwind and seek solace in nature.
Taking a quiet stroll along its beach, I see little evidence of any other people other than the resort’s few guests.
This near Castaway environment is because the island’s main inhabited area is located at Kampong Teluk Sakinah, a bay up on Pulau Aur’s north tip facing Pulau Dayang.
Built along the beach and jungle cliffs is a wooden plank pathway connecting Teluk Sebukang to the main village, making it possible for a leisurely hike that takes about an hour or so.
GASING, A LOCAL ISLAND TRADITION
As part of its community outreach programme, I head towards Kampong Teluk Sakinah, the main populated area on Pulau Aur, along with the participants and Johor Marine Park Department employees.
The main jetty, mosque, school, rural clinic and police station are located here. The only grocery store can also be found here, although it is modestly stocked.
To facilitate its operations in patrolling and conserving the area around the Aur Island Group, a forward operations base for Johor Marine Park Department has also been built in Kampong Teluk Sakinah.
Realising that conservation involves close cooperation and rapport with the local community that calls Pulau Aur their home, a friendly match of Gasing Pangkah, a traditional Malay top-spinning game has been organised between the marine park staff and villagers.
Mohd Nizam Ismail, a director from Department of Marine Parks Malaysia, tells me that the match is a good way to get to know the islanders and their traditions a little bit better, while smoothing out relations for future cooperation.
Talking to one of the villagers, I learn that the gasing or spinning top of Pulau Aur is uniquely different from those in other parts of Malaysia.
Hand-crafted from the Kemuning tree that is locally sourced from the island’s jungle interior, the spinning top of Aur differs slightly in its shape and also in the way it does not use any nails for the point that hits and spins on the ground.
Observing how the islanders teach the marine park workers how to coil the rope around the wooden spinning tops and pull it quickly to spin, I see that it not only promotes camaraderie but also affirms the continuation of this cultural tradition.
In the low early morning light, I see a few of the marine park workers head out in a small boat towards the patrol boat moored further out at sea.
Many participants have also risen early and are visibly excited. This sense of excitement is perfectly understandable, since we are about to experience a rare and much prized privilege: scuba diving in the waters of Pulau Aur.
Due to efforts in conserving the marine eco-system of the Aur Island Group, recreational scuba diving activities have been halted here.
I and the other participants are only able to dive since we are helping the marine park divers in an underwater survey: collecting valuable data to assess the condition of the coral reef and ecosystem using the Eco Diver programme, a globally standardised scientific protocol by Reef Check, a non-profit organisation that is working to protect coral reefs around the world.
Having gone through an introductory session the previous night by Bahrinah Bahrim from Johor Marine Park Department who is also a certified Eco Diver instructor, our dive group’s main task is to identify key indicator fish, invertebrates and substrates at a coral reef nearby the small island of Pulau Lang.
I must admit it is a surreal feeling, diving at a depth of 10-12 metres between magnificent formations of soft and hard coral while collecting data that I hope will help in protecting this beautiful natural heritage in the long term.
Although scuba diving is prohibited, the vibrant coral gardens and marine life of Pulau Aur can still be enjoyed by visitors even when swimming or snorkelling, since the exquisite clarity of the island’s turquoise waters often means superb visibility from the ocean’s surface.
Indeed, many of the participants continue to snorkel on the surface after the dive has ended, as if trying to take in as much as the underwater scenery below as possible.
MONOLITH OF PULAU DAYANG
With the main task of the programme completed, Rumizi of Sebukang Bay Resort announces a treat for the participants: a hike up the monolith of Pulau Dayang.
Named Letak Semalu by the islanders, the monolith is a towering rocky formation stretching almost the length of the small island.
Looking at the island from afar, I judge the height of the monolith to be at least 70 metres. One does not immediately go hiking after diving, I think to myself, and one member the group jokingly announces he’s a diver, not a hiker.
Even so, Rumizi is persistent in her offer, as if there is something worthwhile she wants to show us. Most of the people on the boat including myself eventually agree.
With our dive boots still soggy with salt water, we make our way to the start of the Letak Semalu trail which interestingly begins behind a resort’s building.
The hike towards the top takes only about 40 minutes, involving some scrambling up root-covered paths and climbing a steep rock face with the aid of a fixed rope. It is when I reach the top that I understand why Rumizi is so persistent in her invitation. The view is simply extraordinary.
Standing on top of the monolith, I have a panoramic view of the entire island of Pulau Aur, along with the channel of ocean that separates it from Pulau Dayang.
Looking down, I can see fishing boats coming into the channel seeking safe harbour for the night, and the jungle-covered hills of Pulau Aur.
From beneath the ocean’s surface to the now bird’s eye view of the island, it is a profound and enjoyable change in perspective, and I cannot think of any better way to mark the end of this indelible island adventure.
Due to its distance, it will take a bit more effort and time to visit Pulau Aur when compared with other island destinations of
Malaysia. But despite that, the sheer natural beauty of Pulau Aur which is continually protected by the efforts of Sultan Iskandar Marine Park and Johor Marine Park Department promises an unforgettable experience for those that do take the journey.
Sebukang Bay Resort
Pulau Aur, 86800 Mersing,
Johor Darul Takzim.
Do Take the island walkway from Sebukang Bay to Sakinah Bay to experience the lush tropical interior of the island. Snorkelling trips are arranged
by the resort.
Go Hike up Letak Semalu on Pulau Dayang and take in
the magnificent scenery.
Visit www.johorparks.gov.my/en/parks/taman-laut-sultan-iskandar for information on Pulau Aur and the other islands within Sultan Iskandar Marine Park.