Sitting a fair distance, some 80km east of the Mersing jetty,are the islands of Pulau Dayang, Pulau Lang, Pulau Aur and Pulau Pinang *. This cluster of islands is particularly difficult to get to -one reason being that the boats going to and fro are irregular and another being that many of the dive operators seem to have monopolised the islands for 'weekend' SCUBA divers and friends.
But it is not impossible to travel to these islands if time and money is not an issue. Of course there are packages offered by a few live aboards and dive boats that take passengers on a passage to discovery, or you could hire a boat to take you to the island (with a group 10 friends or so to split the cost), or even join in with weekend dive or snorkelling groups organised by the dive operators from Singapore or Malaysia. Do bear in mind that most of the resorts on the islands are owned by these weekend dive operators or have joint-partnerships with the locals which means that often when the weekend crowd returns home, the resorts will close for the week. There are of course a few locally owned resorts at the villages where you can stay.
If you have the time, you could hop on the weekend dive boats to the islands, stay a week and then hop back onto the next batch of boats heading to the mainland the weekend after.
One can only but wonder if the Aur islands have been reserved specifically for the elite with a lot of money to spend. However, this really shouldn't deter the traveller in a quest for the perfect island to explore, to laze about or to indulge in the culture and hospitality of the local fishermen and their families. Once you're there, you'd know that all that hassle was worth every penny. The relief is that once the weekend crowd has disappeared, you will discover the true beauty of the islands and its waters.
* (Pulau Pinang sounds mighty familiar to you? Don't be misinformed now, it is not the one also commonly known as ' the Pearl of the Orient'. There are a number of islands around Malaysia with the same name, named after the betelnut trees found growing on the islands - pokok pinang, so!)
The battles at Aur
Pulau Aur has always been a stopover point for fishermen. With a supply of frsh water and plenty of fish in the waters, a few later moved their families to the island. However Aur was never the peaceful island as we see now. The deep dark secrets of the wild days are only beginning to unravel within the historic data collected from salvaged treasures hoisted from sunken Chinese junks, sailboats and old merchants ships found shattered in its watery grave.
In 1803, whilst the Napoleonic War was raging in Europe, a sea battle was brewing in the South China Sea. The Emperor of France and his advisors decided that it was time to infiltrate and dislodge the British from their trade stronghold with the Chinese. With this, France sent a fleet of 5 warships under the command of Admiral Linois to Pulau Aur. By early January 1804, Admiral Linois' fleet had safely parked themselves at Aur.
News that war had recommenced with the French in Europe had not filtered down to the East at that time. Many of the heavily laden ships that had set sail before the war were vulnerable to attacks and the captains were unaware that war had broke out in Europe. The ships lacked accompanying warships to fend off marauders and they were caught off guard. With this advantage, Admiral Linois' fleet successfully intercepted a handful of trading ships along the way.
Meanwhile, on 31st January 1904 also unaware of the danger, a 30 British-China fleet and a single armed brig left Canton for Pulau Aur. Upon leaving China, Captain Nathaniel Dance who was the Commanding officer,had the foresight to fit 3 of the merchant ships with false gun ports and have them fly the Royal Navy flag.
Admiral Linois laid in wait for the fleet from China to arrive in hope of a surprise attack which would put the French in a favourable position to confiscate the lucrative cargo. When the China-British fleet sailed into Aur on February 14th, Admiral Linois was himself taken by surprise by the three 'warships' accompanying the fleet. Uncertain of the strength of the British warships, the Admiral went ahead with couple of disastrous attacks and eventually retreated to Batavia (Jakarta) in defeat. Captain Nathaniel Dance sailed back to England and was showered with rewards especially from the insurers of the fleet and rightly so as the cargoes had at that time an estimated value of 8 million pounds! Emperor Bonaparte suffered an embarrassing defeat and just to add salt to his wound, it was his British sources that first broke the news to him.
In the 19th Century, Aur harboured a thriving population of about 1,400 inhabitants consisting of fishermen, traders and slaves. The islands were an ideal location for pirates to run their business of pillaging, ravaging, slave trading and even sinking a great number of boats during fierce raids with foreign boats enroute to Indonesia or to Thailand and beyond.
Today, not much of the tumultuous history can be traced from above the shoreline. Beneath, there are several wrecks that has been discovered and partly recovered but beyond the reaches of recreational divers. They are rumoured to contain treasures and wrecks beyond our imagination. Perhaps they should left in peace in these graves together with their masters from a long forgotten era of great sea voyages.