Mar 12-20, 2017
Part 1: Mahibadhoo
What do you think of when someone mentions the Maldives? Pristine islands with fine white sand and countless shades of turquoise and blue waters? Honeymoon villas built over the water fit for Beyoncé and Jay-Z (who Tracy reminds me honeymooned here back in 2008)? A conservative Muslim country with sharia law and citizens running off to join ISIS in the Middle East? The country in the world most affected by global warming and which is effectively sinking?
Well, it happens to be all of these and is far more complex than just idyllic islands with unbelievable beaches.
The Maldives consists of 1190 coral islands clustered in a chain of 19 atolls, located in the Indian Ocean (and in the middle of nowhere), southwest of Sri Lanka.
It is a conservative Muslim nation, boasting all 407,660 of its citizens adhering to the strict tenants of Islam.
Its two major industries are fishing and tourism, the latter leading to many of the strict Sharia laws being not applicable on the resorts.
Speaking of resorts, out of the 1190 islands, 116 are private resorts and more and more are being sold off to the highest bidders each year. In fact, only 188 islands are inhabited by Maldivians.
From Mount Lavinia, in Sri Lanka, it took us one train, 2 public buses, one flight and one taxi to reach our first destination in the Maldives: Hulhumalé. Hulhumalé is attached to the airport’s island (Hulhulé) by a narrow roadway and we were picked up by our guesthouse in a minivan, much to the dismay of Tracy, who saw many of the other arrivals being picked up by their respective 5-star resorts by luxurious yachts and motorboats.
This island was a reclamation project started in 1997 to ease the overcrowding issue of the country’s small yet bustling capital, Malé.
We stayed at the Hotel Elite Inn, which was a luxurious room compared to everywhere we stayed at in Sri Lanka.
We got a good night sleep despite the air-con set to Antarctic with no way to modify it.
We ate the breakfast the hotel provided and walked down the steamy streets to the public bus stop.
Before long, we were dropped off at the public ferry and took it to Malé. Before arriving, we pictured a small sleepy capital with a handful of people but it actually looked like a mini Manhattan, filled to the brim with real estate and relative high rises to accommodate its 100,000 residents.
The buildings are also painted in a variety of colours and, to be honest, it looked like a really cool place that we were excited to explore.
Once we got off the ferry, we were greeted by a staff member of our guesthouse in Mahibadhoo, the wonderful Liberty Guesthouse (www.libertyguesthouse.mv).
I had been in contact with them prior to our arrival in the Maldives and they assured me they would take care of everything.
Our guy hailed us a cab and we made our way to the Villimalé ferry terminal. We purchased the tickets and by 9am our public ferry departed towards Mahibadhoo.
Mahibadhoo is located in the Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, around 40 kilometres southwest of Malé. It takes four-and-a-half hours by public ferry to get there, and we were the only foreigners in sight.
The first hour or so of the ride is really scenic and you do see the idyllic white sand island resorts with their manicured beaches and picture perfect honeymoon villas. Tracy stared at them dreamy-eyed as we passed them by in our dated ride.
Then, after an hour or so, all you see is the beautiful deep blue sea and nothing more.
Like clockwork, we pulled up to Mahibadhoo at 1:30pm and were greeted by three men in matching floral shirts.
We were escorted to Liberty and welcomed with fresh fruit juice and a description of the excursions that they offered. The Alifu Dhaalu Atoll is renowned for its reefs and water fauna, and is a scuba and snorkeler’s wet dream.
The facilities at Liberty were really nice but we were kind of surprised by the state of the public beach located at the edge of its property: it was littered with garbage including broken glass and looked way more like Mount Lavinia in Sri Lanka than a postcard we would send back home. Oh yeah, and crows, hundreds of crows.
We walked around the perimeter of the island, which took a total of 15-20 minutes (it was the atoll capital, you know!) and marvelled at the sorry state of the island and its mountains of garbage, which happened to be burning just next to the public beach.
That evening we snorkelled fully clothed because of Sharia law but still didn’t mind because of the remnants of our sunburns from Sri Lanka. It didn’t hurt that the house reef was also pretty beautiful.
“Enzo”, the guesthouse manager, assured us that there was a 95% chance of seeing them so we thought our odds were pretty damn good.
Within 5 minutes of leaving the jetty, it started to rain and the waves intensified. Did I mention that this would be a 45-minute speedboat ride just to get there? And by speedboat I mean a small little thing with no roof?
The German girl who accompanied us got burnt to an absolute crisp on the days prior to our arrival and it looked like her skin was going to fall off with every movement she made. Not only that, but the waves made her seasick and she proceeded to throw up into the sea on more than one occasion, right next to Tracy (who absolutely hates anything that has to do with vomit).
“Fruity”, our badass (despite his name) Maldivian guide started looking for mantas as soon as we arrived. He had seen eight the previous day and his reputation was at stake. He had to deliver the mantas. Myself, Tracy, and Crispy McThrow-up were depending on him.
Unfortunately, after 3 hours on the rough water, we still had not seen any. This seemed to make Fruity even more determined and it almost seemed like he would rather die than leave Manta Point manta-less.
After some more hard staring into the dark blue sea, he told us to get ready because he had finally seen one from atop the boat. We jumped into the water and beneath us we could see the massive silhouette of a graceful manta ray!
Manta rays have been known to measure up to 5 meters across and are truly a sight to behold.
We were fortunate enough to swim with it for around 10 minutes before it glided beyond our sight.
Fruity, being a gentleman, chased that same manta down two more times and allowed us to swim with it.
We may have only seen and swam with one manta that day, but one is still better than none!
As we started to head back to Mahibadhoo, the skies turned from blue, to grey, to black. Before long the skies opened up and it started pissing rain. Raining so hard that it was hard to keep your eyes open.
Our boat captain somehow managed to navigate back to Mahibadhoo (although it seemed as though him and Fruity got lost halfway through, which was quite scary because it was so intense that you couldn’t see a foot in front of you) without covering his head or wearing sunglasses, and we pretty much got pelted with painful raindrops the whole time. Our hats off to him, though!
That afternoon, the rains did eventually subside and Tracy and I did some snorkelling at another reef which we were brought to by Liberty’s dive boat (we asked the German girl along for the ride but she declined and couldn’t believe we were going back out to sea following our rough morning).
The health of the reef, the multitude of fish and the water’s visibility (at least 40 meters) were the stuff of dreams.
We spent a good hour-and-a-half in the water before currents intensified and our guide deemed it too difficult to continue.
During the night it started raining like I’ve always imagined monsoons to look like. Sheets of rain so dense that you couldn’t even see a foot in front of you. The perfect conditions for scuba diving, which I planned on doing that morning!
This was supposed to be the dry season and Enzo had told us that ever since the tsunami of 2004 it had been next to impossible to predict the weather.
By the morning it was still raining really hard, but we seemed to have a narrow window to go diving and four willing participants, including myself, decided that if we could dive, we would dive.
Because of the rain and rough seas we wouldn’t be able to go to the Atoll’s signature sites but were assured they would still be nice.
We still had two beautiful reef dives and a surface interval that included snorkelling at a third.
The big pelagics I saw were a spotted eagle ray and a black-tipped reef shark.
Unfortunately it was my only day to dive and the weather ruined my chances at seeing more heavy-hitters but it was the best we could do considering the circumstances.
After lunch, Tracy and I walked around Mahibadhoo and were surprised by the amount of flooding following the rains.
There were some roads, in Mahibadhoo roads are all sand, that were impassable because of the water and this was following only a day and a half of rain. We couldn’t imagine during the rainy season.
The highest point in the Maldives is an incredible 2.4 meters, or just under 8 feet. The Maldives has the distinction of being the flattest country in the world. This title would be cool except for the fact that the average elevation is around 1-1.5 meters (3-4 feet), meaning that any increase in global water levels would result in the Maldives effectively sinking. It’s a good thing global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese!
Actually, the Maldives IS currently sinking and scientists estimate that at this current rate of rising water levels, the country could become uninhabitable by 2050. Scary stuff.
Our stay on Mahibadhoo had come to an end and it was incredibly interesting to see what local life is like in this remote island nation. The image of a woman in a Niqab and gloves on a windswept beach will be forever etched in my mind.
Tracy and I found that despite the fact that inhabited islands have only been open to tourists for the past 5 years, it seemed like the locals were very cold towards us; but perhaps it was just difficult for them to communicate with us despite our smiles or the fact that we were infidels. Or maybe it’s because they are bored out of their minds and have nothing to do on this tiny island. Who knows. Either way, it was cool to be staying with only four other foreigners on the entire island.
The staff at Liberty were absolutely phenomenal: from Enzo with his attention to every hospitable detail to Fruity and his sheer determination at making our underwater experiences the best possible to the Bangladeshi chef who made us phenomenal food and would beam with pride every time we told him how excellent his potato curry was.
Mahibadhoo delivered when the weather failed us. We would highly recommend it if you love underwater sports and want a true taste of the Maldives.