Lessons from a Redang turtle
By Paul Jansen
Turtles are thought of as slow movers. They have become synonymous with an image of lassitude. But a trip I made to the idyllic isle of Redang off the northern coast of Malaysia opened my eyes to what ideal teachers they can be to those who would be pilots.
My journey there nearly did not happen.
The group I was supposed to be a part of disintegrated at a late hour. I was informed that there were several reasons our flight could not proceed. Difficulty in securing fuel. No permission to park on the apron overnight. Other pilots had withdrawn because of other commitments.
I had been looking forward to the flight from Senai (WMKJ) and was disappointed but unbowed. Life had taught me that you must beat your own path. I went into a huddle with my co-pilot, Roger Lee. If there is a Captain with a more adventurous spirit or bulldog mentality, I have yet to meet him. Roger’s instantaneous response was: “Let’s go.”
He immediately began the intricate dance to solve the problem of acquiring fuel at an airport close to Redang without us having to sell our houses. Meanwhile, I checked the NOTAMS for restrictions regarding Redang (WMPR). At the same time, Marjorie, my wife, tried to find hotel rooms on the island.
Because all these were initiated barely 48 hours before our planned arrival there, we really had to scramble.
In the end, all the reasons why we should not have been able to go melted away in the heat of our enthusiasm. The NOTAMS spoke of no requirements to vacate the apron at night. Fuel was obtained, thanks to Roger’s persuasive powers and contacts. And accommodation was reserved. However, the lateness of the hour required Marjorie to book a chalet suite instead of the normal rooms we wanted.
But bright and early on a Saturday, Roger and I stood in front of 9M-JFX, a Piper Archer operated by the Johor Flying Club, savouring our little victories.
The distance between WMKJ and WMPR was 248 nautical miles, or 460 kilometres, as the sparrow flies, if it aimed at 310 degrees North and did not wander. With JFX cruising at 110 knots (nautical miles), this would have meant a flight of a little over two hours. But we are not sparrows. And, for general aviation pilots, there is some joy in meandering. Our flight plan, therefore, included the usual diversions to waypoints and avoided restricted areas, ending in a stopover at the Sultan Ismail Petra airport (WMKC) at Kota Bahru, 49 nautical miles, or 91 kilometres, northwest of Redang.
The new Kota Bahru terminal had recently been completed and the runway extended and since it was just a hop away from Redang, Roger and I decided to drop by to check it out. It did not hurt that he had arranged for aviation gasoline for JFX there.
Our journey took us to the eastern coastline of Malaysia, and then over a series of stunning beaches separating the green swathes of plantations and jungles from the open waters of the South China Sea. The sea changed shades like a watery chameleon testing a new cloak for our approval. Scattered clouds posed no challenge and the hours slipped by.
The only time when we were stretched was when an air traffic controller along our route asked how far we were from a particular island. We could not find it on our GPS devices, or our printed maps. The controller had to describe it and give us a vector on its location. Thankfully, there was only one rock in the sea and we were not corrected by the controller (with her radar and superior maps and local knowledge) when we based our answer on it.
Soon, we were requesting a landing at Kota Bahru and given permission for a touchdown, at Runway 10. There was no other traffic and we settled down nicely into the Final leg and back on the ground. The total time from engine start to shutdown was 3 hours 20 minutes.
We met Roger’s contact who helped us with our re-fuelling needs and we took off for Redang immediately after. WMPR has no tower and pilots have to get descent clearance from Terengganu Tower as well as phone it for departure permission before taking off.
The hop from WMKC to WMPR took 30 minutes from chocks-off to chocks-on in crisp, clear skies. The approach was over water, which took us to Runway 02. There was only one way in and one way out because of a resettlement village just after the end of 02. As we slid into Finals, the slope on the left side left little room for angle error. Redang River, which flowed past the right side, explained why the bitumen had to sit so close to the base of the hill.
After we shut down, a friendly police officer from the compact terminal arrived and without our asking, helped us push JFX to the end of the apron to give more space for the commercial aircraft to turn around, unload and load passengers for the return trip. It was a good start to our stay.
A van from Berjaya Redang whisked us to the hotel, which sat at the other end of the island from the runway.
The location was impressive. Luxurious wooden-faced chalets clustered together beside the white sand beach.
To the left and up a hill were blocks housing more rooms with unimpeded views of the sea. The water was clear enough to see marine life scampering six feet below a jetty.
Our “room” was actually the entire upper floor of one of the two-storey chalets.
It was divided into a spacious living area and a bedroom. A generously-sized bathroom with a designer standalone bathtub added to the image of luxury.
When we were informed while making the booking that the only accommodation available would cost us over Singapore $500 a night, we were not happy.
Like many recreational pilots, our mental computers processed this in terms of fuel for flying. The amount was the equivalent of two hours of flight time.
But, standing in the chalet, the sum seemed reasonable.
A shower later and Roger and I then went on a walk. The sun set and we walked on under the stars. The lack of artificial light allowed the heavens to shine.
Fruit bats wheeled overhead, IFR pilots who needed no planes, no navigational aids. It was a long walk, but a nice one.
The next day was the eye-opener.
We joined a turtle-watching tour. Two boats took our group from the hotel jetty to a nearby inlet.
We jumped into the warm water, rented goggles and snorkels our pass into the marine world. Within seconds, we were surrounded by schools of fish, which had learned that people equals food.
The guides scattered some edible incentives for the marine life to approach us and they did. I drifted away from the group as I followed some brightly coloured fish, oblivious to the gasps and cries of delight from my fellows.
Only later, as I was getting ready to clamber back on to the boat did I see what they had been enjoying all along, wild green sea turtles coasting through the water.
Roger told me that he had seen a few which seemed unworried about the human company. As the rest of the company boarded the boats, one chelonian took its time circling us.
That lone turtle made me pause. I was struck by how alike it and I were. Air-breathers both, we made hay in a domain unnatural to us – it the sea, I the air.
It developed aids, such as an aerodynamic shape, flippers and stronger lungs, to enable it to travel and find food in the water. It adapted to its environment over millions of years. I had no such luck. My tools had to be man-made, but they enabled me to shorten the evolutionary cycle and move through the air like the turtle did the water.
But it seems that in our rush to emulate or outdo the turtle, bird and beast, we have missed something. The turtle seems content to leave small “footprints” in life. It carries its home on its back, instead of building ever-bigger units like we do, disproportionate to our actual requirements. It takes with it all it needs, instead of stowing items in different places like we do, often hoarding wasteful duplicates in different locations.
It is so in tune with the universe, its internal GPS system enables it to head unerringly to the same place to lay its eggs each time.
It is a long-distance traveler too. Scientists from the Fisheries and Marine Science Centre of Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (UPM), and the University of Pisa in Italy, found, after attaching a transmitter on a green sea turtle, that it traveled 750 kilometres in just 13 days, an average of 58 kilometres per day, to Pulau Natuna Besar, Indonesia.
The green sea turtle appears to have discovered the fountain of youth. Not only has the species been around a long time – they were here when the dinosaurs ruled the Earth – they also live long lives.
I wondered what stops our turtle made on its way to the coast of Redang and us. How it treated each one. In our desire to achieve “goals”, we often treat the waypoints to our destination as millstones rather than milestones – an exam to pass, an interview to get through, a budget to meet, an assignment to complete.
I know we should not be too quick to anthropomorphise, but I could not help feeling that the turtle had a smile on its face, indicating its satisfaction with its lot in life. I made a resolution to treat my waypoints, in flying and in life, with more attention, lingering longer, and savouring each arrival as an achievement, not a box to tick off.
I also thought about how the turtle worked with the rhythms of the sea. Hardware and software have replaced much of the guesstimates of flying, but I decided to pay more attention to the air and the sky, as fishermen I once knew did so sensitively that they could tell when the weather would turn, even though there was not a cloud on the horizon or a whitecap in sight.
I may never reach their levels of competence, but not for want of trying.
The turtle, which had lingered around our boat slipped away. I looked at the faces of my turtle-seeking compatriots. They were uniformly aglow. So there was one more thing the turtle had succeeded in doing.
Slow? Perhaps, it is us who are slow to absorb what these creatures have been showing us.
In Redang, in the company of green sea turtles, the difficulties Roger and I faced just a few days ago seemed a world away.
Copyright: Paul Jansen 2011. All rights reserved.
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