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All that glitters is not Gold.

AUSTRALIA | Friday, 23 March 2012 | Views [773]

I love the tropics.

That hot stinking humidity that envelops every pore on your body. That wafting scent of thickness that only South East Asia can produce with muggy resolve.

It was an ordinary night, so ordinary that it was abnormal. That strange lull, rich in serenity and calmness was in the air...ripe for the picking of the predatorily inclined. That toothy golden grin glistening in the eerie full moon light.

Much ado about nothing I say. The usual downing of the cold local brew at any given bar, too lazy laden to even dodge the oversized rat that scurries past the concrete floor. As another happy hour comes to a close and an early retreat to a single foam mattress beckons, an unfamiliar shadow appears.  You know the type. The one that looks like they’re not really there for a drink but yet they are there...for a drink.

We all grow up hearing of stories about treasure, or at least watched a movie or two about it. The maps, the excitement finding the treasure chests at the end of an arduous journey, and the obvious joy of basking in the spoils obtained.

Zul didn’t look an assuming man. Well spoken English for a local. Polite and courteous, didn’t smoke or drink, nor did he swear. Drinking in the same bar for weeks on end we never really spoke much, I ordered my drinks and he poured it. From what I could tell he just another hard working fella with a wife and young daughter to feed. That night he whispered his family secret...

Zul's grandfather, as a young fisherman had accidentally discovered a secret underground cave in one of the foremost northerly islands of North Borneo. Swimming under a rock-wall and upon surfacing there would be a narrow passageway, barely wide enough for a grown man to squeeze through that led to a small entrance filled with scattered large stacks of nickel and silver to please. Attached to that entrance was the passageway to a larger chamber, nearly completely sealed off with more stacks of nickel. It was not explored further as barely visible wires attached to the nickel that looked like booby-traps deterred him from doing so. His imagination made him ask: What was in that second chamber that was so valuable it had to be booby-trapped? But as a curious young man, his grandfather peered through a small opening not covered by the nickel and could see within reaching distance a small pile of ornately boxed bullion. Reaching in, at full stretch he retrieved one with his fingertips. What he held in his hands was an ingot of pure platinum, encased in a bronze shell stamped with the assayers name 'Johnson Matthey', a trademark inverted horseshoe and each with a serial number.

Efforts to exhume the booty were realised more than an decade earlier when Zul was just a boy, whereby the dangerous and financially taxing multiple day journey across wild seas to the remote island were undertaken by his father and uncle. Returning with only 2 bars as samples, the men had procured a buyer via contacts with a local goldsmith. A Bruneian man emerged as a likely buyer, handing over a Rm10,000 deposit for an ingot of platinum that he would take back to Brunei to have authenticated and therefore arrange finance to purchase the remaining 50 ingots remaining within the cave. Two weeks had passed and it was clear the buyer had run off without a trace.

Jilted, deceived and angry the two brothers had abandoned hopes of retrieving the treasure altogether. Of the remaining ingot, it is now in Sandakan with the uncle for safe keeping. As time passed, the Philippines Navy had begun to heavily patrol the Balabac Straights, the seas between Borneo and the Philippines policed in emergence of violent maritime kidnappings by the militant group Abu Sayyaf in 2001. This made any attempt to reach the treasure even more treacherous and taxing. Poor and illiterate labourers, the two brothers were forced to forget their family secret in order to focus on work, to provide their families with food, shelter and clothing. And as time passed even more, the two brothers were becoming soon to be old men too entrenched in their living to risk it all in now even more dangerous conditions.

By 2007, Zul was a grown man, married with a wife and baby daughter to feed, had hit financial hardship and in desperation started to explore the idea of retrieving not all, but only some of the platinum in order to make a better future for his young family.

As it turned out, with some research but with no hard evidence to prove it, it became likely that the treasure was in fact part of urban legend of Yamashita's Gold.

Japan's dream of world domination encapsulated World War Two as a truly global affair. To finance its war efforts, under direct orders from the then Emperor Hirohito, Japan's superior Navy headed by the ruthless General Yamashita 'The Tiger of Malaya', plundered and looted from all the countries it had invaded; Philippines, Singapore, Malaya and Borneo. As the war was nearing, it became obvious to Japan that they were losing the war and began strategically hiding their hoards of loot in the Philippines in hope of retrieving it once the war was over. Why the Philippines? With its strategic location Japan saw it as a perfect base to help rebuild its empire post-war. Japan had hoped to broker a deal with the US to keep the Philippines as part of the Japanese empire in anticipation of an imminent surrender. As Japan surrendered, their naval operations were dismantled and General Yamashita hanged by the US for the atrocities committed by the Japanese forces under his direct orders. Unfortunately, as it seems, the only person/s to know the exact locations of each and every treasure site was Yamashita himself. And so the legend was born...

To this day, no one really knows whether the treasures exist or not. Not even the infamous Roxas lawsuit against Ferdinand Marcos himself could verify any legitimacy. As the story's notoriety grow, so does the emergence of countless schemes to rob those in search for it. Fancy maps, imitation bullion, long lost rare US Treasury notes and perhaps even fake treasure sites themselves to lure those blinded by their own gold fever.

In moving onto my next destination I carried this story with me to the next bar, on the next beach, on the next island. I’ve always loved a good drink at sunset. That magical moment where the skyline becomes a painted masterpiece and epiphanies flow freer than the drinks themselves. As I regurgitated my latest travel tale to the next traveller the alcohol cum truth serum delivered a simple but yet insightful query from the undercover brunette beside me:

If the treasure existed, do you seriously think it would still be there?

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