Almost up: a month in the Maldives. We reminisce and say: wonderful – the Maldives' exceptional beauty, different geography (and the fascinating way it functions as a result of that) make it a great place to visit.Here is our month…
Male: capital city, vibrant, busy, noisy, colourful; huge green trees left in place to shade busy streets and the myriad motorbikes and pedestrians.
|Rolf and Sandy exploring the congested city|
Almost everyone of working age in the Maldives works in Male - but almost no-one lives here (no space). So they live on other islands, particularly one artificial island which is the airport island and dormitory for Male. Interestingly, this island (Hulhumale) is the highest one in the Maldives: 3m above sea level, woohoo!!
Transport around the Maldives and between islands presents very different issues from most other countries in the world… and it is incredibly efficient here. Ferries (between islands and also between atolls) are frequent, cheap and huge, carrying you and your bike. Taxis in Male are all a standard price, no haggling.
|Motorbike on the ferry to Male|
We left Male and headed for Ari Atoll;Sandy was still with us and we wanted to show her secluded anchorages and uninhabited islands. These we did not find in this heavily-touristed atoll, but we stopped at resorts on a few nights and got to know how tourism works here: a huge money-generator in the Maldives (along with fishing). It goes like this: buy your package trip, fly to Male, get a sea-plane to the resort island, live in luxury and fly home.
|The number of sea-planes made us think we were anchored at an airport sometimes!|
We enjoyed going on shore and also snorkelling the resorts’ house reefs. While some resorts clearly do not want yachts visiting (previous blog) many are welcoming.
Contemplating the issues confronting the GM of the resorts was mind-boggling. Add to the regular resort considerations of guest needs, the following difficulties of being placed on (and spilling over) a tiny island base: fresh water, power,food supply, waste. Each resort deals with these in the following way, on their own island: huge reverse osmosis salt-water de-salinators; generators; fly food in from Australia and Europe twice weekly; and …. Um…. waste?? The ?? stands, at the moment, for taking solid waste to the Male atoll waste island, where it is burned. Waste is a problem in this country, and currently under consideration is a plan to build a waste-island in the middle of a few atolls where it will be dealt with. Sewage management is not mentioned and most islands have pipes discharging into the sea – it all seems to be a matter of dilution and with the present numbers of Maldivians and tourists, has no adverse impact on sea life, clarity of water, etc. provided you keep your distance from the effluent pipes.
Another plan for tourists: build a floating golf resort! So, if watersports, marine-viewing, tennis and beaches are not your thing, there is a novel attraction (not many rolling hills on this golf course!)
Happily we did find a lovely anchorage at the bottom of this atoll that was not resort-based so enjoyed more lovely snorkelling with Sandy, beach walking and a trip through the village.
|Maldives villages have wide, swept, picturesque streets|
Travelling south after Sandy left us, we entered less-touristy atolls and found more “rural” life. Here the villages were smaller; many times, we were welcomed by local people and in some cases they came out to the boat and invited us onto the island.
Most villages could not be seen from where we were anchored: they are screened by a wide band of coconut palms and trees round the island, which forms a cool, shaded recreational area for children to play, people to rest, and ladies to prepare leaves for the curry meal.
|This man rests on the platform, ignoring typical hammock-style seating… and the ladies work in the background.|
It was great to watch how people went about their daily chores: this laden boat needs to get its cargo across the deeper water (dark blue), typically less calm and flat than in the lagoon… hope he got there dry, but it is hard to imagine how!
Maldivians are really friendly people – living in small island communities as most of them do, they seem to take collective pride in their domain and want to share with outsiders. One island had a new guest house, of which many boasted proudly; at another, the man in charge of the clinic came to visit us on the boat with three others, bringing gifts of coconuts and welcoming us:“You are our neighbours”.
They explained how villages on islands address their particular problems. Water? No desalination plants like the resorts (costly!) but an abundance of rain-water tanks. Power?All villages have “power houses”: this one serves a village of about 700 people.
At a café you will find great coffee (steamed milk with coffee powder sprinkled on foam: a basic latte, really) and typical Maldivian short eats: snacks you select from a display, mostly deep-fried delicious fish- or curry-based or, for dessert, coconut balls. Oh, and pizza slices! Then a palate cleanser: a leaf in which to wrap slices of a hard nut, some cloves and a sprinkle of crystallised fruit and veg salts. It is really refreshing!
|Palate cleanser after meal|
The fishing industry has changed; since the country has boats able to do cold-storage that travel to collect catches or factory ships that process at sea, men are away from home for many weeks now, and less fishing boats are island-based. There is still fishing for home, and we bought two dinners from these guys!
Everywhere we went, the marine life was extraordinarily rich and abundant: every type of reef fish you can name (and in so many cases larger than we have yet seen); a great range of corals that bore little sign of deterioration, and many signs of new growth; reefs with really interesting topography and wall drop-offs along which the predators patrolled, often in big shoals, casting speculative eyes at us, never mind the fish!
As well as the coral fish, we revelled in sighting rays, turtles, sharks (black-tip)… and of course, the dolphin that came to play in the bows or jumped and cavorted off the side or feeding pods that cruised by our anchored boat.
We had some exceptional sightings: at the anchorage where we bought our fish, the day we came in brought disappointment in that the water appeared “dirty”: in general, the water is crystal clear here. But man’s “dirty” appears to be creature’s food – to our absolute awe, two big manta rays came to feed directly in front of Ketoro. Initially confused about what we were seeing (look at that white sheet… what is it? Now I see black.. now white…) the rays were doing lazy large loops, giant mouths agape, and we were seeing them from the top (black) then undersides (white), showing their gill-slits. When finished, they cruised past us but returned another day to thrill us again.
Then here was our “best of the Maldives”… really hard to find a place to anchor, but occasionally we hit gems: uninhabited islands.
Dream islands: powdery white sand, coconut palms and crystal-clear water.
We are now putting aside the memories of sleepless nights with storms putting us at risk of collision with reefs, and times when we could not find anchorages as the information was incorrect and we had to race to get anchored before dark, or spend the night outside the atoll, at sea.
This is why you can only travel inside the atolls in good light:
|Leaving a lagoon - this man-made channel is very easy to identify; often there is no more than a pole or a buoy.|
Towards the end of our month here (6 April), we crossed the equator: a chilled glass of bubbly alongside the chart shows that we made the most of it!
The red yacht icon further east on the equator is where we made the crossing on the way up: in foul, freezing weather early morning on 16 April 2010. This time we celebrated the glorious weather by “swimming” across the equator (well, we were dragged… no way we were letting that boat go!)
|Camera on timer well tilted back to not fall off the steps, but our folly is recorded!|
We were on a high, having just experienced a most incredible whale sighting. Approaching the equator, we saw a pod of whales blowing ahead: we slowed down (are a bit nervous of the big fellows) and next minute were speechless as one was alongside the boat… from the helm, we looked down on turquoise and white breaking water over the spine and barnacled head of one, not 10m away from us! (Which means that the rest of his bulk was… where? Under us?) The whale was about 50 foot long (smallish, as whales go, but bigger than Ketoro) and the small dorsal fin and knobbly-looking jaw make us think it was a humpback. It was right at the surface, then blew just behind the boat and dove down. We were stunned and awed; a bit unnerved too… no pics: did not leave the scene for the camera!
So now we sit in Addu Atoll: doing engine work, buying food and fuel, and enjoying the fact that even at this functional harbour we have had two rays, a turtle and numerous fish under the boat. We are about to clear out of the country for Chagos – to see more island beauty and another marine wonderland!