Desert Islands, Terrorists, M16s and the Worst Coffee I’ve Ever Tasted

We didn’t mean to end up on Kalapuan. We were heading for another tiny blip in the Celebes Sea entirely. But the Celebes Sea had other ideas, so when clinging on to our very tiny boat for dear life became insufficient as a tactic, we headed to the closest land in the interests of saving life and stuff. And that happened to be Kalapuan.

For somewhere so remote, we were greeted by a surprising number of men with big guns (M16s). We approached their camp a little cautiously, but no one batted an eyelid at 6 foreigners unexpectedly showing up bedraggled and soaked to the skin in the middle of nowhere – they all seemed very happy to see us. We were immediately asked if we’d like to walk around the village (under armed guard) of the Bajau Laut, or Sea Gypsies – the only permanent inhabitants of this 1.5km long strip of palm tree punctuated sand.

Bajau Laut houses

It was not legal for us to be there of course, we had not applied for permits. At the same time it became rapidly not legal for us to leave either – there is a strict, no boat curfew on the water after dark. So we were in for the night.

We sat on an upturned boat with 29 year old Jamal and his M16, chain smoking and shooting the breeze.

Special Forces

We couldn’t go more than 50yds without a man with an M16 accompanying us. On the surface of it, this seemed a rather unnecessary precaution. Jamal told us that unknown boats from the Sulu Archipelago had been sighted in nearby waters that day, so they were on high alert. High alert for what? We wondered. He explained that an extremist group called Abu Sayyaf use Kalapuan as a transit point. Transit to and from what? We asked. He took us the 200yards or so to the other side of the island and while we watched the moon rise and swung on the biggest rope swing I’ve ever seen, he pointed out two tiny islands a few km away – that’s Pom Pom, where you were trying to go, he said. And that’s Mataking – Abu Sayyaf come here and watch and wait for dark then go to Pom Pom and Mataking to try to kidnap foreigners for ransom. Right. And tonight they don’t even need to go to Pom Pom and Mataking, because we have foreigners here, was the implication.

Post rope swing dizziness

If anything happens to you, we are dead, he said. What?! You’ll be executed?! No no – we will lose our jobs and they will not let us work anywhere else so we will have no way to support our families. He spoke about gun battles. What it’s like to be in one. Terrifying apparently. It’s loud and confusing and you don’t know where the bullets are. You can hear them though, it’s not the report that’s most frightening, it’s the way they rip the air close to your head on their way past. Have you shot your gun? We asked, passing round a bottle of Black Jack. Of course, many times. Did you ever kill anyone? I don’t know! We all just shoot and shoot and no one knows who is hitting anyone. How much ammo do you carry? The magazine takes 20 and I have another 45 here – he points to compartments in his vest. We wonder how safe we are. It doesn’t feel unsafe. And we’ve never had so much weapon cover in our lives. But it does feel odd.

Jamal and Julie

Jamal tells us that as well as the M16s who will guard our hut until morning, there are patrols on both sides of the island and we have our own sniper who’ll be covering us all night.

That torch beam of light to the right is our armed guard perusing the waterfront

Abu Sayyaf have been blamed for various kidnappings in recent years – the last one on Pom Pom (our ultimate destination for 4 months) occurred in 2013. 8 guys in speedboats came ashore and broke into one of the water chalets on the Pom Pom Island Resort. This was apparently an attack with intelligence – they picked the wealthiest people on the island – A Taiwanese woman and man. The man died from a shot to the head during the kidnapping and the woman was taken and held for 7 months until her ransom was paid. Local rumour has it that the man was not her husband. Her husband, not being overly enthused by this, arranged the whole thing. He had his rival shot and his wife taught a lesson. Not Abu Sayyaf at all. But who knows. Later kidnappings are somewhat confusing. What is clear is that intelligence levels were not especially high in either the planning or implementation phases. A Malay Security Guard, local seaweed fishermen and an unwealthy Chinese student are among the more recently targeted.

We sang, some of us danced and then went to bed latish, camped out on the floor of Sophia’s Bajau home.

Celine and Sophie

She made us welcome and earlier in the evening had provided us with an entire washing up bowl full of Mie Goreng (noodles). I don’t think anybody slept particularly well. The generator and lights remained on for hours – the former being positioned directly behind our heads, on the other side of a wooden partition. And our M16 guards chatted rather loudly among themselves, also just the other side of a partition. We lay there, coming up with potential hiding strategies – grab the snorkels and swim out to lie low behind a Bajau house piling or boat… Climb to the top of a partition wall and lie on top, very still in the space below the roof… With all the houses clustered on one side of the island, separated from the other side by a narrow strip of scrub with little cover, there really was nowhere to go. Though of course in the end we didn’t need to go anywhere.

A very tired guard having been up all night keeping watch over us

In the morning we were up in time for a sickly sweet 3in1 coffee then left early before low tide could strand us. On the way to the boat, Bajau children splashed around, hamming it up for the camera,

Happy, splashy kids

sunshine glanced off clear turquoise water. Piles of rubbish abounded – mainly plastic and oddly, clothing. I hoped to return.

A kiss from Kalapuan



2 thoughts on “Desert Islands, Terrorists, M16s and the Worst Coffee I’ve Ever Tasted”

  1. Some fabulous pictures – including the one of my daughter Sophie! She’s already told us about the experience, of course, but it was fascinating to read more and to hear your point of view. Hope you enjoyed POm-Pom once you made it there.


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