I knew nothing of Tiamon, not even of its anonymous existence. But in a quest to discover a beautiful and peaceful Malaysian beach its name had come up. The small island, 32 kilometres off the country’s east coast, wasn’t as picture perfect as some but it was a contender.
And then I found its X factor.
Apparently Tioman has one of the most perilous plane take off and landings in the world. It appears in numerous “top tens” for scary. That did it for me. It went from invisible to irresistible.
I found a flight with Berjaya. Not being one of aviation’s premier carriers I checked the company website. The picture of a sleek new flying machine in its shimmering livery oozed safety and quality. I knew the pilots’ abilities would be unimpeachable. There would be no greenhorns on this run.
Suitably comforted I bought a ticket and arrived at the airport carrying a backpack and a very bullish attitude. But as the flight was called and I walked onto the tarmac my bulls dropped. It was an old bucket. Looked in very dodgy health. Its engine casings a mish mash of faded colours. In some places no colour at all. The paint had peeled off. Above the cockpit were a few wild lashings of grey, the work of a Do It Yourself amateur who’d run out of time, patience and paint.
I decided the only flight about to happen would be mine on foot in a frenzied escape from the airport. But it was too late. I was whisked up half a dozen steps and into the bowels of the beast.
The interior of the plane matched the outside. It looked old and a little tatty. The signs were not promising.
I’d checked in early to get a great view and had bagged seat 1A. It shouldn’t have surprised me to find the seat faced backwards down the plane. Everybody would be able to see the terror in my eyes and the whimpering on my lips.
I’ve seen way too many emergency briefings in my time but this one had my full attention. I even took notes, just in case. I also gave a forensic once over of the the hostie doing the drill. She had no visible scars, broken bones or nervous twitches that would have been tell tale signs of previous crash landings at Tioman.
Briefing done it was time for takeoff. The bucket seemed ominously slow gaining height and I cursed the carrot cake I’d had at the airport. On this old dame small weight margins could mean the difference between life and death. But after an eternity we finally made it above head height and the flight was underway.
Half way through the journey I went for a nervous pee. I walked tentatively down the exact middle of the plane. My footsteps were featherlike for fear the slightest movement would unbalance the old crate. The toilet lid too was eased smoothly up and down to avoid creating turbulence. Although the way my knotted stomach was feeling I’d probably be making some of my own very soon.
Forty or so minutes into the flight the Captain gave the traditional “we’re about to start our approach speech”. This sounded rather more grave than normal and finished with the ominous words, ” I hope to see you again”. Something a little more definite would have eased my growing anxiety.
Oh dear, could I fit in a second toilet trip? I decided against. I’d made it once without bringing us down, rolling the dice a second time on this tub seemed a little risky.
Here goes. We start out descent. Very soon it mutates into a full on dive and we lose height rapidly.
Jungled hills appear. They soon begin to tower above us and fill the left hand side windows. I crane my neck trying to search for the runway ahead. Suddenly it appears, but not where I expected. It was way off to my right. A crazy angle away and we are already very, very low. How the hell?
This is a one shot deal. There is no turning around.
I grip the armrests. The trees crowd in on us, closer and closer. The water below is rising up. The angle of approach goes from extreme to bloody ridiculous. As we arrow in to a wall of jungle the bucket suddenly banks sharply right. Trees and roof tops hustle the plane for room. At the moment of imminent death the captain suddenly flips it back left. We straighten momentarily and a nano second later hit the runway. Hallelujah.
Only after I leave the plane is the full, daunting scenario revealed and I stare frozen in astonished disbelief. The Tarmac points straight at the hillside, a steep, impenetrable wall just a brief distance away. There is no way over, only around at a right angle.
Barely out of my stupor I hear the engines roar and watch the plane hurtle headlong at the hill. It hardly leaves the ground when it wheels away in another street level 90 degrees twist.
I vow there and then to find the ferry times for the journey home.
The island turns out to be a nice relief. The film South Pacific used Tioman as Bali Hai. At its best it’s a photographer’s dream. Jungle spilling down hillsides to the sand and beautifully blue water. But a few parts, such as Air Batang Bay where I stayed, are a little careworn. It feels untidy and unloved. Salang, just a short boat ride up the coast is much easier on the eye but its suffers from the cursed sandflies. Most of the island is impassable jungle and I confess to seeing little of the place.
One day I met Asram, a fireman at the landing strip. He assured me in the four years he’s been there Berjaya have had a flawless flying record.
However, he advises against coming during the monsoon. Lots of circling waiting for the torrential rains to ease, he says. Advice noted.
I ask him what happens if pilots have to abort a landing at the last moment. He shakes his head and says”one go only”. He may or may not have been pulling my leg but sheer hills rise up astonishingly close to each end of the runway.
I laugh nervously at Asram’s words and amble as nonchantly as possible to the ferry office to recheck the timetable for the umpteenth time.
Note 1: I found this excellent footage on Youtube. it ‘s not mine but it shows the takeoff and landing in all its terrifying glory.
Note 2: Given the madly litigious world we now live in I probably should point out that Berjaya’s planes meet all necessary aviation standards…..that I’m aware of. Their planes and pilots get the job done. And in the interest of a good yarn I have obviously exaggerated the hell out of the story……..but it is a corker of a landing.