|IN THE COUNTRY'S official language, Bahasa Malaysia, "Pulau Tiga" means "three islands." This tiny archipelago is known to tourists as Pulau Tiga Park. The smallest island, Pulau Kalumpunian Besar, is sinking; at low tide only an S-shaped strip of sandbar pokes through the surf. The middle islet is a fang-shaped bit of wild terra 200 yards long known as Pulau Ular, or Snake Island. It's home to gazillions of yellow-lipped sea kraits, striped, three-foot nasties with flattened tails and sealable nostrils enabling them to swim underwater every night while they feast on eels. By day they return to the beaches to lay eggs, suntan, and excrete salt. Not a bad gig for serpents, but their crib was certainly not a fit habitat for Richard Kraneum, mostly because the krait is one of the planet's top ten poisonous snakes.
The big island of Pulau Tiga itself, all 1,500 acres of it, is a can of Volcano Lite: Its main geographical features are three low hills formed from superheated mud that spews periodically from the earth's bowels. The last major spewage occurred in 1941, and there are still vents here and there that fart gases and steam. The island is home to troops of long-tailed macaques that live on the mangosteens, rambutans, jambus, mata kucings, and other fruits thriving among the groves of palm and dense thickets of casuarina and barrington trees. Flying foxes also live here, plus sea turtles, monitor lizards, pythons, and bearded pigs. Then there's the curious megapode, a big-footed bird that is built like a chicken and emits a cry they say sounds just like a cat's.
To the credit of the Malaysians, this peculiar little world of sea and jungle was designated a forest reserve way back in 1933, one of the many sanctuaries the government has put aside to save them from ruin. But Pulau Tiga Park is not, as CBS would like the world to believe, deserted. And it is certainly not undeveloped. There are groomed trails, park service buildings where rangers live, a guest house, and a hostel. Plus a diving operator named Douglas Primus has a small, new resort whose first guests have been Mark Burnett's production crews. Last year a thousand tourists visited Pulau Tiga Park, up more than 10 percent from the year before, which was 10 percent more than the year before that.
"But you cannot go there," I was told by Francis Liew, the deputy director of the board of trustees of the Sabah Parks. I had taken a cab to his office in a slab of government buildings facing the central market. "Not until after April 20, when they're done filming."
I asked him what sort of money CBS had put up for the use of Pulau Tiga.
"Oh, none at all."
"Then what are you guys getting out of it?"
"Americans will see the program and they'll visit Sabah."
At dawn the next morning I stood in my skivvies on the balcony of my room and surveyed the restless sea. Suddenly a pack of skinny Malaysian dogs shot onto the lawns below, chasing a feral cat. One of the dogs lunged and caught the tip of the cat's tail. They played catch with the poor animal and then killed it in a murderous frenzy that left me nauseated. This was a dark omen for my assault on the island, but I packed my bag anyway, including two dozen units of booze-with-message, the 12-inch conch shell I'd also brought all the way from home, and a box of hotel matches in a Baggie.
I hired a cab to take me the 60 miles south to Kuala Penyu, a fishing village clustered around an estuary. In his confusion about the mission, the Indonesian driver took me straight to a dock owned by the Sabah Park Service. As I surveyed the waterfront, a cabin cruiser pulled up and deposited a large Indian man with gleaming teeth before pulling away again. I told him I wanted to go to the island and could he arrange for that cabin cruiser to come back and get me?
"Sir, that is certainly a fine boat," he cried happily. "But it belongs to CBS, and since you are not CBS you cannot ride upon it. Were you CBS you would be on your way"—and here he brushed the palm of one hand against the other—"as we speak."
CBS can't own all these stupid boats, I thought. Behind a grimy café called Kedai Ah Ann I found a row of wooden dories bobbing in the dirty brown water. A crowd emerged from the café, led by a boss man. They turned out to be fishermen who worked at night.
"How much will you pay?" the boss man asked when I told him what I wanted.
I withdrew a $100 bill.
"These will take you," he said, pointing to Robin Sabribummus and Saoler Koril.
As we motored along the estuary and into the bay I scrunched down in the bow as far as I could so the bureaucrats at the Park Service office couldn't spot me. Five minutes out to sea the squall hit and I thought I might die. My heart was pounding with fear and the acidic zeal of the rejected suitor.