Travel: Jeepneys and phosphorescence in South-east Asia

Sharon Leach sets off for the fairytale Turtle Islands where the giant creatures lay their eggs

After a 45-minute hair-raising speedboat ride from Sandakan, Sabah, I clambered over the boxes of cans, bread, and bottles of water, elbowing my way past my fellow sardines, finally landing nimbly on the shore of the tiny island. No wonder turtles chose this as a place to begin life. The whole place spoke of magic.

The Pulau Penyu National Park consists of three islets dotted among sapphire seas between Sabah and the Philippines that are basically maternity wards for the green and hawksbill turtles that come ashore and lay their eggs. There is a visitors' centre on Selingan Island and, as it is not possible to visit the Turtle Islands on a day trip, limited accommodation. As my feet sunk into the fairy-snow sand, I wished that I had ignored the advice to stay here only one night.

It looked like paradise. The only means of obtaining sustenance was from the visitors' centre, and meals were served at the specific times stated on my arrival. You could walk the circumference of the island in less than 20 minutes, but beyond the white sand, fringed with bowing palms and the odd sleepily swinging hammock, the island was very green. You might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a monitor lizard.

There were few tourists because accommodation was so limited. During daylight, there was little to do, beyond getting wet and drying off (you can hire snorkling equipment very cheaply from the visitors' centre). The water remained shallow for quite some distance, but the coral was beautiful as long as you could avoid its sharpness. When I got bored of soaking up the sun, I took a wander along the sand looking for the turtle tracks which resemble wide Caterpillar tracks.

After expending so little energy, dinner, consisting of delicately spiced variations of fresh seafood, vegetables and rice, was more than ample. The atmosphere at the centre was relaxed. Over dinner I saw no more than 30 visitors, wide-ranging in ages and interests - you don't have to be a wildlife fanatic to come here. After dinner, all that remained was to wait for the turtles to appear.

Despite my child-like impatience, the newly born turtles actually materialised quite quickly and unexpectedly. As I looked up from my book, all of a sudden, through the gloom I could just make out that one of the wire cylinders within the hatchery, opposite the centre, was alive with tiny crawling creatures, struggling to reach the top, fighting for survival.

The rangers allowed each of us to hold a baby turtle between thumb and finger. Their miniscule perfection took my breath away. Like mechanical bath toys, approximately two-and-a-half inches long and a little less wide, their flippers rhythmically

struck the air, as if powered by tiny motors. My baby turtle had the most beautiful face, its eyes so sleepy, it was hard to resist the temptation to put it in my pocket and take it home to live in my bath.

The baby turtles made the short and unceremonious journey to the shoreline in a bucket. There, by gentle torchlight, we watched them race towards the white foam, like madcap cartoon characters. As the tide swept the tiny creatures towards their destiny, we wished them luck, knowing that the majority would not survive this maiden voyage. Due to man's selfishness, these turtles were lucky to have got this far. Despite the best efforts of rangers, there is a flourishing trade on the black market in a country where turtle eggs are considered a delicacy.

Light of heart, I would have been perfectly satisfied by this experience alone. But Mother Nature was not finished with us.

A ranger beckoned and led us through branches and driftwood to an awkward spot that had been carefully chosen by an expectant green turtle. Is nothing sacred? We eagerly crowded round the mother turtle with a torch strategically positioned towards her back end.

She had already made a false pit to fool predators as to where her eggs were laid. Intent on perpetuating the species, she was unaware of the awe and astonishment surrounding her as she squeezed out her ping-pong ball-shaped eggs in continuous succession. In hushed voices we marvelled at her enormous size, which surprised even the rangers as they measured her.

As each of the grand total of 126 eggs emerged, it was placed in a bucket to be transported to the hatchery. We passed one egg around and it felt sturdy and hard, like a gobstopper, magically fluorescent and unreal in the torchlight. It felt rather cruel to have duped the mother turtle into covering the now empty pit, as we left with her eggs in the bucket.

But by this stage, many of us were serenely smiling, like children who knew a special secret. People were quietly moved by the whole experience. Lovers held hands. It was all a bit like the end of a very cheesy Disney movie.

Drunk on the sweetness of it all, I wandered back along the beach alongside the glimmering phosphorus that winked between the waves. There were more stars in the sky than I had ever seen, and far more chance of seeing a shooting star on this island full of magic. Even the moon hung at a different angle to the moon in England, a moon straight out of a children's picture book.

As I headed back, I dreaded stumbling on a monitor lizard in the dark. Instead I was rewarded by the surreal sight of fireflies dancing in the trees. If all this sounded as though it was the stuff of fairytales, then all I can say is that perhaps it was.

MALAYSIA AND THE PHILIPPINES

GETTING THERE

Sabah: Malaysian Airlines (tel: 0171-341 2020) offers return flights from Heathrow to Kota Kinabalu via Kuala Lumpur for pounds 403 if you book before 15 November. Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3939) offers return flights via Brunei for pounds 539 if you depart before 9 December.

A two-day trip to see the Green Turtles costs about pounds 40 per person, including return ferry crossings from Sandikan to Pulau Selingan, one night's accommodation and food. You must book in advance through the Sabah Parks office (tel: 00 6 088 211 881). There is plenty of reasonable accommodation available in Sandikan itself if you need to stop over for a night there.

The Philippines: Return flights with British Airways from Heathrow to Manila with Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3939) costs from pounds 600. Alternatively, it offers return flights via Kuwait City in November for pounds 379.

WHEN TO GO

The main time to see the Green Turtles is during our summertime, but sightings at other times of year are possible. The weather in both Sabah and the Philippines is warm and humid year round.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Sabah Tourism Promotion Corporation (tel: 00 6 088 212 121; fax: 00 6 088 212075; web-site: http://www.jaring. my/sabah). Embassy of Philippines Tourism and Cultural office (tel: 0171-835 1100).

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