Malevolent Maldives - Coral Atolls, Luxury Resorts and Torture
Maldives are the tip of a massive mountain range that rises 4000 metres from
the depth of the Indian Ocean to just 1 metre above sea level, in 26 atolls
and 1190 coral islands running 500 miles north to south, just north of the
equator, and south of Iran. As the mountain range sank down, coral grew so
that the peaks remained at sea level, creating tiny islands scattered across
miles of ocean. The capital Malle is one of the smallest most densely
populated capital cities in the world, while most other of the tiny (100
metres across) islands in the tightly controlled tourist zones have one self
contained resort hotel ranging from budget ($250/night) through mid-range
($600) to luxury ($2000+/night). In all 80+ major resorts run by
international chains. To feed this there is a full size international airport, and most
tourists are then whisked to their resort by boat or seaplane, so never see
Malle at all. On other inhabited islands, tourists must be off by 6pm.
Maldives aims at honeymoons and focused up market tourism, so different
resorts specialize on different sectors of the market - Italian (aerobics,
activities, dancing), Japanese (karaoke, organized activities), British
(restrained, diving, dinghies), honeymooners (water bungalows nothing
We had sailed the 420 miles from Sri Lanka in un-forecast 30-40 knot gales
and 3-4 metre waves in a little under 3 days, arriving at 7am off Malle.
There are very few navigation lights so a night entrance is unwise. One
night, the autopilot played up (they do on all yachts) and Hilary and I had
to hand steer for 8 hours in pitch dark before daylight when I was able to
diagnose and fix the problem. I also set a personal best time for catching a
fish - I was sharpening hooks when Nicky noticed sea birds diving, I let the
line and lure down, a fish caught, I reeled it in as Nicky slowed Intrepid,
Hilary handed me the gaffe, and the blackfin tuna was on board within 4
minutes of deploying the lure. Tuna are numerous around here - in part
because Maldives only allow fishing by hook and line, not net, which
preserves fish stocks for their fish canning industry.
Being only 1 metre above sea level and heavily dependant on tourism must
concentrate the Maldivian mind, because the whole archipelago is zoned and
environmentally aware - even to building an overspill island (Hulumahle) 2
metres above sea level for when Malle is submerged, and (rumour has it)
arranging with Australia to take all Maldivians if the sea level rises
further, in exchange for giving Australia sovereignty over the semi
submerged remains and all fish and mineral rights.
Not that Maldivian Government is democratic. It used to be an Islamic
sultanate which was conquered by the Portuguese but their rule was very
harsh and (unusually) the Maldivians lead a successful counter insurgency,
and in a final attack slaughtered all the Portuguese. Independent Maldives
then invited Indian traders to establish warehouses in Maldives, but as
their influence grew too powerful, the Maldive sultans eventually signed a
treaty with the British which recognised Maldivian statehood as a British
Protectorate. The British established an airbase in Gan in the south, and in
1965 granted Maldives independence. The Sultan lasted a further 12 years
before poverty and general dissatisfaction lead to him fleeing to Singapore
with his last $4 million.
Maldives ambassador to the UN and former University lecturer Maumoon Gayoom
took over, and rules to this day, in spite of violent protests that most
tourists never see (because they don't set foot in Malle). Gayoom appears to
be a clever man but a despot, who has developed the country's massive
tourist industry, retained its fishing industry and preserved Maldives
marvellous ecosystem. But all the wealth has gone to a few cronies and most
Maldivians are relatively poor, and police torture, repression and single
candidate referenda to 're-elect' Gayoom continue. In fact it's probably
only because of the Maldivian innate conservatism embodied in the 100%
devout Sunni Islam faith that Gayoom continues as President.
There was an attempted coup in 1988 when local businessmen hired 100 Tamil
Tigers as mercenaries, but India sent 1600 troops and the Tigers were gunned
down or fled and were caught by the Indian navy. Tourism development and job
creation in the 1990's kept things quiet, but in 2003 there were further
protests at police torture in prison (the mutilated body of a 19 year old
became a centre for protest), and in 2004 there were mass protests that were
put down by huge force and brutality with over 1000 imprisoned. Quite why
Gayoom feels the need to torture Maldivians is beyond me. Gayoom
subsequently hired a London PR firm, Hill and Knowlton to whitewash him,
while Friends of Maldives organized a boycott of the Maldives. The Tsunami
of 2005 killed 80 people but Maldive's deep channels and sea walls absorbed
much of the force, and international hoteliers are so keen on their
profitable luxury island resorts that most were rebuilt within 12 months.
It's a sort of apartheid, tourists are kept away from ordinary Maldivians, and
resorts are responsible for the behaviour of their guests and staff. All
alcohol is banned except in resorts, where beers are typically $7, meals
about $40-70. A Maldivian waiter earns about $250/month on a resort miles
away from his family - typically they get home once/4 months.
Unsurprisingly Maldives are keen to vet any vessels that may carry
contraband so yachts have to use agents - the one recommended never replied,
but Antrec did - they usually service super yachts but were happy enough to
act for us for $160 including 2 water taxi fees to bring officials out to
Intrepid while we stayed in the channel between Malle and Viligili (the
island to the west). Coastguard were first, and half of their form was
devoted to firearms. We don't carry any guns, (I hope we don't regret this
later) so this was easy, then customs, and health, and finally the agent
went away with our passports to clear immigration and we sailed through pure
azure waters to the anchorage on Hulule island near the vast airport.
The ferry to Malle is only 5 Rufiyah (about 15 pence), we collected our
passports, bought a sim card (Maldives have spent some $200 million on
mobile telephone systems so that the entire area is covered) and looked
(unsuccessfully) for a bar. Malle is full of Government offices protected by
discrete machine gun emplacements, international banks and offices and
schools, with the rest being narrow streets, run down huts and crumbling old
Arabic style buildings.
The 26 atolls into which the islands are clustered are generally very deep
(about 30-40 metres) which makes anchoring difficult, so we chose Velassaru
island on South Malle Atoll, and after an anxious time getting through the
narrow entrance and then avoiding coral 'bombies' (coral heads that rise to
near the surface) we anchored in 10 metres. Then the coral heads which are a
problem to navigation become a delight - the 1998 El Nino killed most of the
coral on Maldives and the 2006 Tsunami shook the re-growth up, but the fish
are numerous, colorful and unafraid. I could actually hear parrot fish
chomping away at the coral, and watch the dances of the surgeon fish.
Resorts usually like yachts to eat at their restaurants when they anchor
nearby, and this is often a reasonable approach. The Laguna was friendly,
and had 5 restaurants ranging from the all full-board standard ($39 dinner)
through BBQ, Italian, Chinese, Coffee shop. We chose Italian and had great
handmade pasta from a .Sri Lankan chef. Second night we invited George and
Melama from Moonshine the only other yacht nearby onto Intrepid. George, in
his 40's, from California, set off from Florida in 1992, and has only made
it this far, stopping off in New Zealand for a few years to work and find
Next day we sailed off to our own private coral reef for lunch. A yacht in
these places is elegant luxury, as we choose where we go, whereas everyone
else has to sit on small islands or go on organized tours. Only drawback is
that if we hit an uncharted coral head we sink...(and 80% of the place is
uncharted). Maldivian fishing boats hit reefs all the time so even local
knowledge does not guarantee safety.
Towards evening we tried another resort. You know those ratings that compare
hotels etc? Well we should have known - Bulifushi resort rated just one star
(on a scale of 1-5) on both service and food in spite of charging
$240/night. Luckily when we went ashore to eat at their restaurant, they
told we should have telephoned first and asked permission, so we never did
experience the dubious delights of what looked like an industrial canteen.
Instead I rustled up a superlative fillet steak au poivre with a view of the
spectacular sunset, (which you couldn't see from their canteen/restaurant),
and later watched the resort dump 4 wheelie bins of their rubbish 50 yards
off their own beach. In Maldives they seem to believe that PR can rescue
them from the consequences of their deplorable practices. And next day we
returned to our (clean) private reef for more and even more varied fish
while our new awning kept us cool.
Hilary had to fly back to UK, so we sailed back to Malle, cleared out, then
the fresh water boat refused to deliver unless we bought 2000 litres (we
need 300) then when we complained they developed a 'technical fault'.
Problem: without fresh water we could not sail to Oman. So our agent finally
managed to get us into the large commercial dock during prayer-time, we took
on our water through an outlet the size of a fire-hose, shopped for the
remaining provisions, and picked up Lanah who had flown from NZ via Indiana
(USA), Ireland and India to join Intrepid for the leg to Oman.
Lanah is 29, American, has just completed developing NZ's debt strategy for
social services (she specializes in public administration), and only took up
sailing in Wellington where she was living after staying on Intrepid in
Fiji. A relative 'Newbie' to sailing she is infectiously enthusiastic, but a
bit nervous about a 1400 mile continuous sail in fickle monsoon winds and
busy shipping lanes. But then so are we.
Did I say fickle winds? The radio net is reporting boats with 0 wind, or 3
knots, we had 5 - from exactly the direction we wanted to go in. So we
motored then sailed NW through North Malle Atoll - which is a bit like
walking blind-fold through a mine field -the coral heads are 1 metre below
the surface and are not reliably charted - a yacht hit one at 6 knots last
week - the whole boat crashed and rose up to rest on the coral - the Dutch
skipper we later heard had been relying on his 'perfect' electronic chart
which he had been perusing down below.
We use everything we have - paper charts, electronics, and a person on the
bow to spot the colour changes, so managed to avoid the coral heads while
Lanah improved her tan. We made a leisurely journey, stopping overnight off
Baros de-luxe resort with Intrepid fresh caught tuna as sashimi and for
dinner, then for lunch at a remote coral head, and finally anchored off Taj
Resort and went in for our last dinner on dry land before Oman 14-16 days
away. Their reef was brilliant, but we seemed to be the only ones on it, and
the range of nationalities made the atmosphere a little subdued, although
the Indian and Maldivian staff were friendly.
There is a semi-official race to be the most extreme de luxe resort - the
freshest organic food, 'spas' where the stressed guests can have
'treatments', water bungalows are built over the reef with their own private stairs down,
sand is scattered on the dining floor to give that authentic 'desert island
natural' feel, myriad staff to do everything for you before you even thought
you wanted it. But I would imagine 2 weeks on an island which we walked
round in 4 minutes would be claustrophobic.
A final rigging check up the mast, and we carefully negotiated the tricky
coral at the fringes of the atoll and we were off - in 2 knots of wind, so
we may anchor at a really remote island 20 miles away to wait for the
forecast NE wind.
Hopefully there will be little to report for the next 2 weeks apart from
regular monsoon winds and smooth sailing all the way to Oman - but maybe
not. We'll see.
Andy, Nicky and Lanah