Since it was late, the last of the scheduled boats had left. We managed to hire a disused fishing boat late at night, and it was eerie being on the boat chugging along in the darkness, and feeling vulnerable in the open sea. The diesel engine was so noisy, and the rocking waves made sure that we stayed awake, frequently spraying salt water on our faces.
We arrived on the island precisely at midnight. The boat landed us on the shore several metres from the sandy beach, away from the jetty that was reserved for the ferries, catamarans and speedboats that brought tourists to the resort-hotel which was a popular tourist destination then.
Our landing site was right in front of the resort’s seaside sports complex, and the owner of the resort ( whom I happen to know of since he is a relative of mine ) happened to be there on the beach attending to something.
Imagine his amazement on seeing me with my wife and young daughters wading through the shallow sea up onto the beach at midnight. The moon was full, and the lights from the sports complex were also bright, so the spectacle of my family emerging from the sea must have been very clear. I introduced myself and he promptly asked me why I had come so late at night. Imagine his shock when I told him I was under instructions to do so!
We were tucked comfortably in the beachfront chalets for a well-deserved rest before embarking on the entrusted task the next morning. Fortunately, the mausoleum was only 10 minutes’ walk from the resort. We were even driven on golf-buggies right up to the edge of the burial grounds by the resort staff.
I discovered that there was an incessant flow of visitors to the many graves that make up the entire burial grounds. The centre of attraction and reverence was the tomb of Sultan Ariffin Sheikh Ismail, the Sufi Master who was most responsible for preaching the spiritual teachings of Islam to the Malay Peninsula in his time. He was a descendent of Prophet Muhammad ( peace be upon him ) and preached purity, peace, tolerance and wisdom to the local Muslims several hundred years ago. The other graves belonged to his family members, teacher and followers.
Many Muslims on the spiritual path come here to pay their respects to this great spiritual teacher, much as we are encouraged to frequently visit the graves of our dead elders, loved ones, teachers, and friends with reverence, and pray for their eternal peace.
Unfortunately, there are also those who go there and commit blasphemous practices. Because of this, the caretakers have now locked the Sheikh’s tomb in a fenced enclosure. Interestingly, often there are also non-Muslims who visit the Sheikh’s tomb for whatever reasons.
A visit to the Sheikh’s tomb is a must for the Sufis here. And visiting Sufi Masters from all over the world never fail to pay their respects to him. And like many Sufis, my spiritual journey is very much guided by him, as is my healing journey. There are certain spiritual exercises, including seclusion, which have to be done when one is on the spiritual path. There will also be severe tests, as the aspirant will be tested on his or her faith.
You may still be wondering which is this island that I am talking about? At that time, the island was indeed a Fantasy Island much like what we saw on TV. You could reach there by boat and catamaran, or by helicopter. The international-class resort had a beautiful golf course, and the beaches were secluded and unspoilt.
I last visited the island on Christmas Day recently. The modern boat terminal on the mainland is surrounded by seafood restaurants, which is another reason why people flock to this area ( Pernu and Umbai ). The boat ride took about 30 minutes and was smooth and comfortable. The jetty on the island has not changed. It is also used by some visitors as a vantage point for casting their fishing lines.
The resort-hotel that I stayed in on my first visit has since been abandoned after an unfortunate incident several years back when many of its workers drowned when the overloaded boat they were in capsized in the middle of the sea. There is now another resort-hotel which is situated on a hill just a short walk from the shore.
The beach fronting the abandoned chalets is still pristine and quiet, and is a good place to enjoy doing Qigong and other exercises. The shoreline would be perfect for a long Qigong walk, with the sea-breeze blowing in your face, and if you walk close enough to the sea, the gentle waves will wash your feet while you take your healing steps.
The beach fronting the mausoleum and other burial grounds are however perpetually full of visitors who come to pay homage to the Sheikh and his family. On weekends, public holidays, and especially on certain religious occasions, there is a festive mood. Many visitors would share their sacrificial meats and other foodstuff, and so there is a kitchen serving free meals to all. The beach would be dotted with tents and campers. There are stalls selling religious materials, and even a row of brick-walled restaurants on the beach to cater to the hungry visitors.
Over the last few years a “gypsy” woman can be seen permanently sitting under an umbrella about 30 metres in front of the mausoleum. She is surrounded by all kinds of personal stuff and trinkets. Who she is and what she does there is a mystery.
Pulau Besar, or “The Great Island” as it is officially called in English, should be redeveloped by the state government to exploit its rich natural beauty. What was the Pandanusa Resort can be refurbished and is capable of charming the tourists who are looking for alternatives to the island and beach resorts annihilated by the recent tsunami. A boat ride around the island would reveal a treasure of wonders, with sandy beaches alternating with huge rocks and dense forests. Sailing at sunset would be even more enchanting. For golfers, the beautiful golf course would certainly be a favourite destination. The island is sheltered from tidal waves by being in between eastern Sumatra and the coast of Melaka, while most of the seismic activities occur on the west coast of Sumatra. It still has the potential of being the Fantasy Island that it once was, without having to fear the wrath of a future tsunami.
Perhaps I can help popularize the island by bringing my Qigong students and readers on adventure retreats on the island. And the mouth-watering seafood feast after the return journey would make a good ending to every trip.