Dusk Campfire on Skull Beach

Dusk Campfire on Skull Beach


At the northernmost tip of Malaysia, on the far edge of the Andaman sea bordering Southern Thailand, sits a lonely little cove quietly unbeknownst to most people as perhaps the oldest beach on planet Earth. Arriving at the beach, there’s very little signage. No big resorts (yet), no world-heritage listing. No landscaping or tourism or slick operators. In fact, nothing much at all except a hell of a lot of monkeys, five of the dodgiest little squat-toilet shacks you could hope to catch bed bugs in for fifty bucks a night; and a rocky headland dated at 550 million years old. Which makes this cove among the oldest on earth; a good 100 million years older than the Himalayas in fact. Welcome, my friends, to Skull beach.

I came to stay at Skull beach for a week during monsoon in late 2015. In between torrential downpours, empty, quiet nights and the 10 til 3 bustle of Malay day-trippers, I became enchanted by the white sand shoreline, the perfect artistry of ancient geology, and the quiet lapping of waves. During the days there were steady streams of visitors. Not many tourists, but a healthy supply of locals, come to dig and swim and eat coconut rice and fish up on the shore. In the afternoons however, everybody left, and by sunset each day, I would be alone on the beach, with nothing but the dusky sky above me, the ancient, textured landscape around me, and the echo of stories in my head. The chilling, thrilling stories. 

Standing on Skull beach each evening, water quietly lapping on my toes, the first thing I always noticed was the craggy horizon, dominated by the hulk of Koh Tarutao only a couple of kilometres offshore. Tarutao is nothing but dense jungle nowadays, but a century ago it earned its reputation as Thailand’s most notorious prison, now overgrown and abandoned. And it’s so close it feels like it fills the horizon. It feels like you could swim the Malacca strait and go check it out. Or perhaps borrow a kayak and paddle over the invisible border for an afternoon in Thailand. Given the border patrol I don’t think it would be wise to attempt either option, but to be honest, I certainly wouldn’t be the first to attempt the journey. A century ago, Skull beach earned it’s name for the sheer number of human skulls washing up onshore, after the Thai prisoners next door tried to escape prison by swimming the Strait to Malaysia. Unfortunately for the prisoners, as regularly as they attempted to escape, they just as regularly drowned or were eaten by crocodiles and sharks en route. Due to the flow of ocean currents, the body parts of these lost souls always found their way washing up onshore several days later; earning the beach it’s name. Coupled with a history rich in pirates, shipwrecks and treachery, these were notorious waters, filled with grisly stories and lost lives.

When I arrived at Skull beach of course, all of these stories were ancient history, and we were assured by the locals that the crocodiles and sharks had left the area a good fifty years earlier. I hoped they were right, and swam every day. Then, each night as the tourists left for the day, I would find myself wandering the shore, or lying on the sand watching the light flicker through the trees above, sensing the deep history and tapestry of experience this place carried with it.

During my last solitary evening on Skull beach, I gathered my family around to build a bonfire. 

We sat on the beach in the dying light of a purple dusk, watching the sky fade over the ocean; the light twinkling through the treetops and the sparks flickering from our bonfire. It was a beautiful evening spent in a beautiful place, and it will stay with me long after the beach is developed and the monkeys are gone and the sand is raked and fenced and decked out with pay-by-the-hour deck chairs.

For now, Skull beach is the same. The rocks are still older than any you will find anywhere on earth. The water is still turquoise and warm as a bathtub. The huts are still dodgy enough to keep the tourists away. And the ocean currents are still washing up remnants on shore for the early morning seacombers: Fishing nets. Ropes. A chair leg. And on our last morning, a motorcycle helmet.

Well, at least it was an empty helmet. What a relief.

Until next time Skull beach.

With love, Heidi

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