Stranded on Tioman Island, Malaysia

We arrived back in the coastal town of Mersing on Malaysia’s East Coast with absolutely the lowest of expectations and were not disappointed at all.  The town is a bore. We had six hours to wait for our ferry out of Mersing. We watched the cats roam around the bus station, then went and had KFC, stopped in at the 7/11 and finally sat at the café near the wharf – all the time counting the fun seconds as they ticked on slowly by.

Hundreds of cats are in Mersing

We were there to catch the ferry to Tioman Island. At this time of year, in low season, the ferry has strange departure and arrival times that all depend on the tides. Our ferry was leaving at 6.30pm which meant we would arrive at Paya, Tioman Island in the dark some two hours later. The ferry needs to depart near hide tide and arrive in high tide to be able moor at the wharf. Each day or so the daily depart time of the ferry changes and our ferry left in the evening but the next days’ ferry left at 7am. Then each couple of days the departure time will change, 8am, 8.30am, so on as the tides change. This makes booking a ferry ticket a long time in advance a little tricky as departure times are released about three weeks in advance.

Our ferry was packed. A group of European tourists put their bags next to the gate leading to the ferry and then wandered off – first in line they thought. The two hour ferry trip from Mersing to Tioman Island costs AUD$11 each.

As more and more western tourists arrived the line of bags near the gate for the ferry grew. When the locals started to arrive about 30 minutes before departure they kept their bags with them.

Where is Dave? Can you see him?

Di and I have a simple plan when getting on ferries, trains or buses where there isn’t reserved seating. Di, without carrying a bag, uses her height and brute strength to battle her way on to the ferry, etc – she is normally in the first three and often gets a medal. Whilst I have all the bags and wait to the end and casually get on. Di gets the seat she wants and saves me one. Our luggage is the last on and thus does not have piles and piles of other passengers’ luggage on top of it and is easy to get out.

Well, ten minutes before the ferry arrived all the local Malay people stood as one, Di saw them move and, with reflexes of a fat kid reaching for a donut, she joined the local push to get on the ferry. The Europeans’ bags were bypassed as a mere hindrance. The Europeans’ looked astonished and looked around for someone to complain to – but the boat was filling fast and they had to push their way through to their bags. Me, well I sat back and cheered Di on to a bronze medal, which was a pretty good effort considering the calibre of the local competition.

The journey over to Tioman Island was in relatively calm seas. This was our first night time ferry so we were a little apprehensive. We were staying at Paya which is the second of five stops the ferry makes on various parts of Tioman Island.

Our bags were conveniently placed next to the exit door and on arrival at Paya we smoothly exited without having to search for our bags – yeah team Meanderers!

On exiting the ferry we found ourselves in the dark on a jetty walking towards a few lights on the shore. We knew there were only a couple of hotels here and ours was close by, but it was very eerie arriving in the dark. We set off and soon had all the other passengers, who got off at Paya, following behind us, there was only one resort open, the Paya Beach Resort, everywhere else was closed.

We had five nights here and the cost was AUD$55 per night, including breakfast.

TIoman island is famous for the 1958 movie ‘South Pacific’ as the island was depicted as ‘Bali Hai’.  Kampung Tekek is the main town of the island and is the third stop for the ferry. Kampung Tekek has a new marina with 175 metre break wall jetty and is the main port for the island.

Paya is very small. In fact the only building of any real note is the resort we stayed at.

The weather for the first day or two was nice.

The beach was good, but low tide was in the middle of the day and the water drops significantly leaving a mass of coral to wander through.

There were very few restaurants open and all the dive shops and tour desks were shut. Other than our resort the place was virtually a ghost town.

It was mid February whilst we were there and the high season did not start until March, when the monsoon season ended. This, of course, meant our resort was relatively cheap but there was not much to do. We made enquiries about boat rides around the island, or visits to waterfalls on the other side of the island but each time were told the seas on the other side of the island were too rough. Reluctantly, we settled down for days by the pool, on the beach, reading and blogging.

Unfortunately internet reception on the island was poor. Both Di and I have Malay Sim cards but couldn’t get any reception. The resort’s WiIFi was poor to say the least and often you would waste a lot of your precious life waiting for a download to be complete. I kind of got over it early but Di had to ween herself off a lot longer. It is funny watching a group of twenty people clustered as close to a modem as possible all staring at a small handheld device praying for an extra bar of reception to appear. What is the world coming to!!!!

The first three nights were great then the bad weather and high winds struck and everything went pear-shaped.

On Sunday morning at breakfast Di and I seemed to the only ones relaxed. We saw groups of people running around with backpacks on all seemingly concerned about something. Apparently the morning ferry to the mainland was supposed to leave at 8am but the ferry did not arrive. Now word had arrived the ferries for the next seven days were cancelled and no one was getting on or off the island.

We soon learned the ones wearing the backpacks were a group of French university students who were studying in Singapore and had come to Tioman Island for the weekend, before Uni exams the next week. These kids were in panic mode. They had come up with a scheme to hike the two hours to Kampung Tekek and see if they could hire a boat or even a plane to get them off the island. We had accommodation booked in Singapore in  a few days’ time and with policy we would lose our money and the cost of the hotel was below the excess for an insurance claim – we were out a few hundred dollars. Di said to these students that if they could charter a plane we may join them. I had concerns about trekking for two hours with all our bags so I set out later that day to test the trail.

There are no cars in Paya only a few motorbikes with a type of sidecar to transport goods and bags around. The only way to Kampung Tekek is walk or by boat. Thus with no boats going anywhere the option to walk could not yet be discounted.

I walked the trek and the first thirty minutes was difficult, as it was straight up hill and then down hill. There were constant rain storms sweeping in and the trek was muddy. Once you got over the first main hill though you came to a lovely beach and turtle sanctuary – though I saw no turtles I saw lots of floating plastic bottles. There was a rough dirt road leading to the turtle sanctuary which a car could get along. There are cars in Kampung Tekek. This dirt road led to a better road and on to the golf course. So once getting past the initial mountain trek it was possible to get there with all our bags.

However, I soon ran into the French students who had made the dash to charter a plane. The news was not good. The first commercial plan did not start flying to the island until high season, the first of March. A charter plane had not been available to hire on the island for over two years and the Maritime Authority would not allow boats to leave the island for the mainland. We were stuck.

We celebrated our first anniversary of travel whilst marooned on an island – a fitting way to celebrate I think. The bonus of being on Tioman Island is that it is a duty-free island and the alcohol is a quarter of the price of mainland Malaysia – yep we could celebrate our first 12 months of travel with four times the alcohol consumption for the same price!!!

The resort said that any day we stayed beyond what he had booked would be at no cost, including breakfast, so that was good of them. We were due to leave Tuesday morning but many others should have left Sunday and Monday.

This, of course, put a lot of strain on the already useless WiFi internet as people tried to advise work, other hotels, flights, family, etc, what was happening. Me, I read my Kindle. Have you ever seen the movie Lord of Flies, or perhaps even read the book? Well the Kindle advised me of what I could expect from my fellow trapped travellers as they slowly sunk into group madness!!! Well you will be pleased to know no one made spears and no faces were painted with war paint so sanity prevailed – though WiFi rage did simmer away!

Our entertainment

To keep my feet firmly planted into reality I found myself mesmerised by the resort artists’ interpretation of what an ideal female snorkeler should look like – the big boobs and bootie, who knew!

On Wednesday morning, three days into our ‘maroonment’ we were advised at 8.30am that the ferry would come and get us at 10am and we had to be packed and on the jetty by 9.30am. There was a huge buzz around as everyone packed and raced to the jetty.

We had become friendly with a guy named Denzel who was Australian and worked in Singapore. Denzel was with his son Dynon, who had now missed his plane back to Sydney, and both were eager to escape their extended weekend away.

Right on cue everyone was jammed under a small roof at the end of the jetty and as 10am ticked over it poured down with rain. We huddled together and watched for the ferry – that never came.

Shortly after 10am the word came the ferry was not coming until 2pm so we went back to the resort. We heard that the Malaysian Navy was actually coming out to get us and bring food to the island as the weather would be bad for another week. Now I was living an adventure!!!!

The resort allowed us to return to our rooms. We just got settled into our room when the room phone rang and we were told the ferry was now coming at midday and we needed to be on the jetty by 11.30am. We spoke with Denzel and he said he saw the Navy ship pass by at 11.15am heading to the mainland – were we forgotten?

At 11.30am off we all went go to the jetty, the rain pours down, it clears, midday comes and goes, it rains, we huddle together, 1pm comes and goes, it rains, we huddle together, we fed the fish bread and watched the eagles swoop on the bread feeding fish – you have to entertain yourself when marooned you know. Unbelievably at 1.40pm we saw a small ferry come bobbing around the headland.

The smaller ferry that took us to Tekek

Di was second on the ferry and received a silver medal. Though everyone crammed on the steps to get on the ferry, few were game to go first as the ferry was bouncing around next to the steps and timing was so important. Di had learned a lot from the rivers of Taman Negara and she boldly stepped over without incident – she also had no luggage, I had it all – this will be fun.

After about twenty of the sixty or so people trying to get on the ferry had gotten on, it was becoming increasing more difficult to get on the ferry as it was sloshing around next to the jetty. The decision was made to move the ferry to the other side of the jetty and try from there. This seemed like a better move and when it came time for me to pass my bags over and take my one giant leap I was relieved to make it. It was though very interesting watching as each person stepped up to the end of the steps, passed their luggage over and then timed their step on to ferry – I was amazed and relieved there were no mishaps.

Meanwhile Di had been on the ferry for twenty minutes and she struck up a friendship with a lady called Paula, her husband John and their son Daniel who were on the boat from the first stop around the corner – she was having a grand old time. Thus our number grew to about 80 people made up of both tourists (50 ish) and locals (30 ish). This was only a small ferry and people were standing in the aisles. It was unclear where we were going and whether this boat was taking us across to the mainland. The ferry went twenty minutes up the coast to Kampung Tekek and moored.

It was about 2.30pm when we arrived at Kampung Tekek. We were told to leave our bags in the ferry and get off. Then for the first time we had a kind of ‘official’ briefing. We were advised the navy vessel had picked up people at 11am that morning and had taken the tourists from Kampung Tekek to the mainland. The navy had dropped off supplies for the island and would be returning between and 7.30pm that evening, to pick the rest of us up with a departure time of 8pm. We finally had some clarity and not just rumour or hearsay to work with. I immediately started humming the Village People song from the 70’s, ‘In the Navy……….’

Di and I walked into a deserted town looking for somewhere to eat. The two restaurants close to the port were crammed with people from our ferry as most of the restaurants were closed. We found a restaurant with John and Paula and a group of French people in a restaurant a little way from the port. We had a meal and talked until just after 5pm and then set off back to the port. On arrival at the port Di asked me to go to the only ATM on the island before we leave and get some more cash – being obedient off I went. After a ten minute walk I was approaching the ATM when a motorbike pulled up beside me with a Malay man on it – what was surprising was the biker chick riding pillion to him – it was DI!!!! Lord of the Flies flashed through my mind, it had started!!!!

Di jumped off the back of the bike and said a large ferry had come and it was leaving now, we had to go and get on. It was 5.35pm – what the #$%$# happened to the plan!!!!!!! Di raced off and I slowly followed – running with a titanium knee was not on the cards yet – it then started to pour down – Di left me in her spray and was off – I slogged along alone in the pouring rain.

Apparently, the navy boat did not want to return for a measly 50 ish tourists as they had ‘saved’ about 80 tourists and would get a medal for that. So they were not coming back – damn I just sold the movie rights to Steven Spielberg and Brad Pitt had agreed to play me – it looked like we would now have to settle for M. Night Shyamalan and a surprise ending with Bruce Willis – drats!!!

Rather than leave us stranded the Maritime Authority had given permission for the larger ferry to set sail immediately for the mainland – hence the big rush. The ferry was sounding its horn and people were scurrying on board – nothing like unorganised chaos and misinformation to make your day fun!

Fortunately we were on the bigger ferry back to the mainland

The ferry was large and there was plenty of seating. Di had taken two sea-sick tables on each attempt to get on a ferry, so now she had consumed six sea-sick tables. Nothing like pharmaceuticals to pass the time of day.

Finally on our way

The ferry took its time and the tide was with us. This meant when the seas became big we seemed to surf along with the waves rather than bash up and over them. I was surprised how smooth the ride was and all seemed to be going well, until…….!! We had gone about 90 minutes and all seemed good, the trouble was the tide was too low at Mersing for the ferry to get to the jetty, so we stopped in darkness in the middle of the ocean about 30 minutes from Mersing and waited for the tide to come in. We waited for two and half hours bobbing in the ocean. During this time some bright spark decided to show the movie ‘Police Academy’ on the ferry’s TV channel, not once but twice!!! It was whilst the bobbed up and down in the ocean watching Police Academy that people started to get sick. In fact the lady next to me used most of the plastic bags I had for Di – Di ignored what was happening around her and played the game Spider Solitaire and listened to music on her phone, blocking out the vomiting noises around her. As the ferry bobbed and Police Academy played, more and more passengers became sick – turn the #$#%$##$% movie off!!!!!

After what seemed an eternity the engines started up and the $#$%$# movie Police Academy was turned off and a sigh of relief swept through the boat. Thirty minutes later we pulled into Mersing at 10pm – what a $#$%$# day!! I was sad not to be rescued by a sailor but hey there are more fish in the ocean!!

We said our hurried goodbyes and Di and I walked into town. We stayed at the same dumpy hotel we did the previous month for AUD$24, it had gone up AUD$4 from the previous month. We hit the sack at 11.11pm and neither of us could sleep we were still hyped up.

The adventure just keeps continuing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!




  1. John Bains

    Great tale and we liked the Golding and Village People references – be wary of YMCA’s!
    Margot’s very much like Di in the ferry queue when we are at the airport carousel – I try to hang back and look cool which really annoys her.

    Best wishes, Margot and John

    1. (Post author)

      Thanks guys!!! Margot you’re my best friend now hahaha Di 🙂


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