I Was Emergency Evacuated From The Island They Filmed Survivor

My blog posts came to an abrupt halt almost a year and a half ago because…well…my trip came to an abrupt halt almost a year and a half ago. I was sucked back into the world of apartments and boyfriends and Netflix and cubicles and finishing a blog post just didn’t make the cut. But, as I sit here on an over-airconditioned Brazilian bus 4 hours into an 18 hour journey North, I figure I can spare the time to tell the story of that abrupt halt of my trip a year and a half ago.

According to my insurance company I was “emergency evacuated” out of Borneo. Personally I think the term is a bit over dramatic but it makes for a catchy headline. Here’s what happened:

I honestly don’t remember how I heard about Pulao Tiga, the island they filmed the first season of Survivor, but I read about it somewhere and as I was (somewhat) in the area I wanted to pay the place a visit. Unfortunately a visit to “Survivor Island” was (as per usual in Asia) easier said than done.

Leaving Brunei I caught a boat to Kota Kinabulu with plans to book a tour to the island from there. However, there was only one tour company offering the trip and because the tour’s accommodation was in a “resort” (I use this term very loosely) said tour was very much out of my price range. I immediately nixed that idea.

Further research told me the national park (I think the whole island is a park) offered more affordable dorm-like accommodation on the island and with a combination of local buses and a private boat you could visit Pulao Tiga on your own. Everything had to be booked over the phone (difficult when half the people don’t speak English) but with the help of Wikitravel and my Kota Kinabulu hostel I secured a spot in the dorm and a man with a boat.

Unfortunately, dorm availability limitations meant I had to wait a week until my visit so I spent 7 days killing time in the rather lackluster city of Kota Kinabulu. I went to the movies twice and visited the base of Mt. Kinabulu. I also spent a very bizarre afternoon with some  English guy on his spiritual journey visiting the volcanoes of the world. He was starting his own religion and wanted to recruit me for when the world ended and it was time to repopulate the earth (thinking I’ll pass on that one). Oh – and I also spent an evening at a market where a 6 year old tried to mug me. Good times in KK…

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Finally the day came for my visit to Pulao Tiga. Schedules were tight. I had to take two buses, both running only once per day, and rush to make it to the “jetty” (aka dock) in time to meet my hired boat. The first bus (of course) took longer than anticipated and when they dropped me off to wait for the second bus it never showed. I ended up having to hitch hike to make it to the jetty in time.

The Survivor Island tour operator I mentioned had an office at the jetty so I waited there for my boat driver. I waited. And waited. And waited. An hour after my scheduled departure time the manager of the tour operator suggested that maybe I misunderstood and was to meet my driver at the other jetty 10 minutes away (I wasn’t aware there was another jetty…). I loaded myself back up (backpacks, purse, other worldly belongings putting a strain on my back) and hoofed it to the next jetty over.

Nada. Again I waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Eventually a national park employee drove up on a motorcycle. He happened to know the boat driver I was talking about and gave him a call for me. A sort of dispatcher answered the phone and said the driver was running late but would be at the first jetty within the hour. I loaded myself back up again, wrote down the dispatch number just in case, and returned to jetty number 1.

Yet another hour passed. I used the tour operator’s phone to call dispatch again but there was no answer. Discouraged, I started to weigh my options. The tour operator was taking one lone foreign couple to the island in a couple of hours, but the trip would cost me $150 one way (insanity). My other option was to give up on the island I’d waited a week to visit and see if there was a bus returning to Kota Kinabulu (highly unlikely – this is a very out of the way place). I did not like this option.

I dialed dispatch again. This time I got an answer. She told me that the boat driver’s daughter was sick but he would be by to pick me up after he’d taken her to the doctor. This was annoying but promising so, again, I waited.

I will note here that I’ve been waiting at this point for about 4 hours, most of it while sitting in the office of the English-speaking tour manager. We got to know each other fairly well, him telling me all about the island and the deadly creatures that inhabit it (mainly: snakes). He shared a story about the time a boa constrictor fell from the ceiling of his bungalow into his room (Jesus Christ). He also told me that just next to the island there is a breeding ground for one of the world’s deadliest sea snakes. You can snorkel there (Nope.). I assumed that if I stayed out of the jungly bits and watched where I stepped I would remain snake-free but the manager disagreed, telling me that the snakes sometimes lurch out at you and bite you from the trees. He was trying to scare me…and it was working.

But alas, when you’ve waited this long to get somewhere you are going to go, deadly snakes be damned. I decided to call the dispatcher ONE more time to see what the status was with my boat. This is when it all fell apart. Dispatch said that they didn’t know what I was talking about and the boat driver had the day off. He wouldn’t have scheduled a trip on that day. I was told I was mistaken and the driver would not be coming to get me.

Honestly, I was dumbfounded. Why did she lead me on for so long? And the fuck was I supposed to do now? Hanging up the phone the tour manager asked me what happened and my voice cracked as I told him (I cry when I’m frustrated – it’s an issue). I walked out of the office and sat on the jetty trying to hold back tears. The tour manager soon followed.

He sat down, put his hand on my shoulder, looked at me with pure pity and told me he would get me a spot on his cargo boat for free. I would have to wait until his supplies for the resort restaurant (the island has no stores) arrived in a few hours for it to depart and I could return to the mainland only on Wednesday but he would get me to and from the island for free. It was incredibly nice of him. I may or may not have welled up (I cry at beautiful moments – it’s also an issue).

I spent the next 2 hours patiently (so patiently) waiting for the cargo boat’s departure and chit chatting with the restaurant cook as he was the second of two people from the island that spoke English. He was nice enough but was a bit too friendly, if you know what I mean. By the time I arrived on Pulao Tiga it was sunset. I spent literally an entire day sitting on that damned jetty.

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There’s not a lot to do on Pulao Tiga…the Survivor fan in me just wanted to see what it was like. There’s the “resort” (originally built to house the film crew) which to me looked like a campsite with an outdoor restaurant, the beach, a mud volcano, the national park hostel, and Snake Island (aka the breeding ground). That’s it. That’s everything on Survivor Island.

The park hostel was essentially a big wooden shack and I was the only person staying there. It sat next to pure jungle, a 10 minute walk along the beach from the resort. It felt eerily deserted. Also, not one of the park employees spoke English so this just added to the eerie deserted feeling. I was very alone.

I walked to the beach to watch the sunset but when darkness hit there was nowhere else to go so I returned to the hostel where I sat on the bed for half an hour pondering what to do with myself. There was obviously no WiFi and I was bored. So very bored. I decided to walk to the resort to befriend the two other tourists I’d heard were staying there.

So there I was, walking alone along the beach in complete darkness on an island known for its snakes and rats (oh yeah – I forgot to mention the rats) with nothing but an on the fritz headlamp (splurge for the one in Canada; never buy on the street in Thailand) to guide me. All I could think about were deadly creatures and the lights of the resort seemed very far away. I was definitely on edge. I was maybe half way to the resort when I felt something scurry over my foot. Nope nope nope. Not cool.

I turned around on the spot and ran back to my hostel where I locked the door, closed the blinds (I had the plot of every horror movie running through my head at this point and if the bad guys can’t see me they can’t hurt me), and sat on my bed with nothing but my PB&J sandwiches (the only groceries that I knew would keep well) to keep me company.

That was Day 1 on Survivor Island. Day 2 would be my emergency evacuation.

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3 Comments

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  1. Wicked girl! Will have to hold onto my nickers!

  2. Don’t leave me hanging!!

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