Geordie Greig travels to an obscure Malaysian island to fulfil a child’s dream
Where do we find Nemo, apart from on the big screen? That was our holiday quest, and the answer was off an obscure island called Tenggol, 30km off the east coast of Malaysia. My children are all obsessed by Nemo, the cartoon orange fish now seen by more than a billion goggle-eyed children. Vulnerable, brave, cute and a survivor, he is sort of EveryGoldfish. Well, except that he isn’t. As we found out, he is really a clown anemone fish. Yes, that’s right, of course, you spotted n-e-m-o in the word anemone.
But before this all sounds too fishy, first things first, and that is a 12-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines. Unlike on BA where the cabin staff refuse to help you put your luggage above your seat for reasons of (their) health and (their) safety, the marvellously smiley Malays grabbed and lifted our heavy children’s bags up into place without even asking. A case of Far Eastern promise easily outgunning our increasingly litigious Western fear of simple common sense and courtesy. No Nemo in the flight film choices, Shrek 3 instead did the trick for the children for a good two hours before we all tried to drift off to sleep to avoid jetlag as we left at noon (BST) and arrived at 7.30 a.m. Malaysian time.
And so on to Terengganu airport on a 50-minute internal flight eastwards and the final frontier to finding Nemo. Richard from Hammersmith is our fit diving guide (well, OK, in my case, shallow snorkelling guide). My odyssey is to take us all of 12 feet under. Richard has a colour photographic chart of our quarry: the clown anemone fish. Forget the sergeant major fish, trumpet fishes, zebra fish, or even the more exotic types of shark, we told him. We were laser-focused on Nemo.
Or at least we were before our children’s lovely nanny projectile-vomited her breakfast (fresh mango) on to a hapless German tourist with his teenage girlfriend sitting in front of her. We were in the middle of the only properly stormy day recorded in August in Malaysia in the last 50 years. It usually pours only at night on Tenggol. Thunder and rollocking waves made two Japanese tourists turn green and lie horizontal on the boat while hearty Scandinavians scoffed and quoffed around us. All three of my children went very quiet on our hour-long sea voyage and eventually also turned green as we headed to snorkel paradise. And so on to our elusive quarry.
Snorkels on and we were off. Baby sharks came and went. The sea was not the tranquil turquoise glass surface seen in our brochure. The waves were briskly choppy but my daughter Octavia, aged seven, was undeterred. As the Japanese lay like corpses on the floor of the makeshift café, with a shark’s jaw hanging from the ceiling and the sound of rain drumming on the tin roof, Octavia pleaded with me to head towards the reef with Yus, a 22-year-old Malay diver, as our guide. Richard from Hammersmith had gone with the real men to do some real diving. Incongruously, our hotel had given us a 24-hour butler called Deborah from Paris, with mermaid-gold hair and a diamond-pierced belly button, who swapped her butler’s uniform for a bikini to accompany us. Sea cucumbers? Pah. Baby sharks? Who cares. We were not to be deterred. We had one goal.
And finally there he was. Wiggling and whirling and waving among the coral: Nemo in all his iridescent orange glory. Jasper, nine, and Monica, seven, were too scared by the waves but Octavia and I hit gold. We met Nemo. Not, however, without a price. My sea legs are embarrassingly feeble and as soon as I put on a mask and breathing tube in the sea I feel like death. I am so nauseous and enfeebled that if even lightly pressed, I would give away every state or even marital secret. But when you are 100 yards out and accompanying a young child with a dream you have to make some semblance of being a macho dad — well, all right then, one that at least was trying. ‘Please don’t throw up dad,’ she shouted. We both kept going and Nemo made one little girl very happy.
So back to our hotel. Another 90-minute crossing of the South China Sea. Everyone slept. As we stepped on to the shore back at Tanjong Jara, one of Malaysia’s best spa resorts (with top treatment, so the brochure goes, for strengthening post-pregnancy vagina muscles), it was time for what it does best, being spoiled by their amazing hot-and-cold running staff and basking in the glow of having hit gold — cartoon gold.