Gypsy queen

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am

Thirteen years ago, Linda Wills stood on an idyllic Malaysian beach, stared across the South China Sea and made a tough decision. Recently widowed, Wills faced the dilemma of whether to remain at the remote beach resort she had intended to refurbish and run with her diver/photographer husband, Daniel, or return home.

Daniel was killed in a boating accident in 1993 and, alone in a foreign country with two small children, Wills seemed to have little choice but to go back to England - or so most people thought. She didn't. Instead, she employed a team of local staff - some of whom are still working with her - and set about establishing the Sea Gypsy Village Resort and Dive Base.

'Actually, it wasn't so hard a decision to make, now that I look back,' she says. 'Who wouldn't want to live in a beach paradise?'

Sibu Island, home to the resort, forms part of the Seribuat chain and lies 12km off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. It is shaped like an hourglass, about 6km long and never more than 1km wide. The area around Pulau Sibu is part of a protected marine park.

The island's topography makes it an ideal place for budding divers - especially children and teenagers - to test the waters for the first time. The only way to reach it from the mainland is on a small, motorised longboat from the pier at Tanjong Leman - a journey that'll only begin when there are enough passengers.

Our boat sputters around a short bluff into the resort at about 10pm. We are met by resident dive master, stand-in manager and all-round nice guy Sam Smith - the man you go to when you need to know something, want to organise an activity or just feel like a chat.

There are no cars, telephones or computers at the resort, so if you really must make a call, you have to trudge through the jungle to the other side of the island to get a line of sight to the mainland. The staff encourage guests, who stay in A-frame huts, chalets on stilts or family-sized dormitory chalets with huge en suite bathrooms, to 'leave all that guff at home'.

Busy doing nothing one evening, I watch the moon rise while sipping cocktails at Dan's Dive. The bar is open as long as any guest wants to drink and Hanif, a master cocktail maker, is happy to ply them with concoctions from a range of his own making - just the thing for a first-time diver nervous about heading for watery depths the following day, as I am.

The diving around Pulau Sibu takes place among fields of soft coral, which produces a kaleidoscope of colours, countless types of hard coral and an astounding variety of marine life. The visibility averages about 10 metres. 'Unfortunately, there seems to be little rhyme or reason nowadays as to when the visibility will be good or bad,' says Wills. 'Our weather patterns have changed and we can't quite figure it all out.'

Now I am no sissy. I have done plenty of adrenalin-junkie things, including flinging myself out of aircraft, shooting the rapids on the Zambezi River, hang-gliding and skidding down a snow-covered mountain on an old mattress. But the thought of donning a heavy oxygen tank, mask and snorkel and submerging myself many metres below the surface of the ocean has always filled me with horror. I am worried about feeling claustrophobic and panicking. I imagine myself shooting up to the surface, getting the bends and writhing around in agony in my death throes on the beach.

But after a short training session, Sea Gypsy's dive leader and I hit the water; before I know it, I am 60 metres offshore and exploring an artificial reef six metres down. Water clarity may not be what it once was but, as a novice, I am more than happy to hang out with the not-quite-as-visible-as-it-could-be marine life.

Breathing correctly and controlling one's buoyancy are the most important things, I have been told. I am not too good at those. Apparently women with bigger backsides are better than their more svelte counterparts at managing their buoyancy. I'm so enthralled, I forget to feel claustrophobic. I don't even think about sharks - venturing out from the golden sands is remarkably safe and serene - much like life on Pulau Sibu.

'It might have seemed crazy on the surface to others,' says Wills, 'but my children grew up running around free on a beach in the sun. They are surrounded by people who love them and I have a crew of loyal staff. Who wouldn't want a life like mine?'

Getting there: Singapore Airlines ( flies from Hong Kong to Singapore. Sea Gypsy Village staff will collect guests for the three-hour drive to Tanjong Leman. The boat trip takes about 15 minutes. E-mail: