A blast of warm, humid air hit me as I stepped out of the Kuala Terengganu Airport. For the first time in my life, I emerged from an airport alone, determined to make the most of my first attempt at solo travel.
This state of Terengganu in West Malaysia is the gateway to Redang island which was where I was headed to spend the next eight days volunteering with SEATRU at the Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary.Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary.
The Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary is located on Chagar Hutang beach, on the northernmost tip of Redang island. In 2005, the Terengganu state government declared the beach a turtle sanctuary thus rendering it closed to the public. Only SEATRU researchers and volunteers are allowed there. Some outsiders are allowed but only as part of educational day trips organised by nearby resorts, and that too only on alternate days so that the delicate ecosystem of Chagar Hutang beach isn’t disturbed.
My journey to Redang turned out to be more straightforward than I imagined. Sitting in a small speedboat, riding the waves towards the island was where I met my fellow volunteers, with whom I would spend all of my eight days during the programme.
The speedboat slowed down and stopped in a shallow part of the clear blue waters surrounding us, and the driver told us this is where we had to get off. Holding my bright green suitcase above my head, I stepped into the water and looked at my fellow volunteers. They were all holding backpacks and were already making their way to shore. I suddenly realised this may not be the trip I envisioned.
We made our way to the shared accommodation we would call home for the following days, and it was there that I got to know my future friends better. There were eight of us – six Malaysians and two Singaporeans – all young and energetic. Many of them were experienced in solo travelling and backpacking already. I also learned I was the youngest one.
After unpacking, we made our way to the briefing area where we are told what to expect for the next week we were there. Our jobs would take place mainly at night when the turtles came ashore, focusing on beach patrols to locate and monitor nesting activities. We would be required to time the various stages of nesting, tagging the turtles, and counting their eggs. During the day, patrols would be carried out to deter predators from the nests, and we’d also assist in cooking and cleaning activities. When not on patrol, we were free to relax and enjoy the beauty of the beach.
Immediately, we started our first night beach patrol duty. We were paired off and assigned a section of the beach. From 8pm to 12am, all volunteers would be on the beach as that is when the turtles came ashore most often. After that, we were split into two shifts, either 12am to 3am or 3am to 6am. That first night, I nodded off at least a dozen times as we sat on the beach and watched the ocean for turtles to come ashore. As the days progressed, my sleep schedule altered and I was able to stay up all night, and sleep in the afternoons instead.
Our daytime was occupied with lounging on the beach, catching up on some reading, or snorkelling in the bay, with the occasional cooking duties and day patrol. Due to the remoteness of the location, we were cut off from the outside world, with no access to the internet or any phone connection. Our only entertainment was nature and each other. We took this time to learn about each other, our lives outside of this island, and what brought us all here. Even after so many years, I have maintained friendships with my fellow volunteers, and we try to meet up once a year.
The basic amenities provided at the facility made me realise what a privileged life we live in the city, and that there is beauty is basic. We slept under the stars on certain days due to the heat. We were even able to see the Milky Way because of that.
There was one day during our volunteer period where we were able to take a day off. The SEATRU staff took us snorkelling around the island in the morning and then hiking in the afternoon. That was the day I learned to truly appreciate the beauty of Malaysia. Putting your head underwater and watching the marine life uninterrupted, it was like entering a whole new world. It was an overwhelming experience every time I did it, and something I never got used to even though I did it every day I was there. Hiking towards Turtle Rock Point was another exciting highlight of the trip. We made our way to the highest point of the island, and from that vantage point, we were able to see stingrays swimming around the bay as the water was that clear!
This truly unique programme had allowed me to get up close and personal with sea turtles and understand these amazing endangered creatures. Not only that, I have made friendships and shared remarkable experiences that I cherish even to this day.
With travel restrictions in place, there is no better time to explore our own backyard and see what else Malaysia has to offer us.