Sunday, May 19, 2013


Leysin, Switzerland, May 19, 2013

Our tiny piece of paradise, Makunudu
It’s a snowy mid-May morning here in the Alps, so it’s a good time to catch up on my shamefully neglected travel blog.  With a trip to Iceland coming up next month, and a student trip to Cyprus before that, I should get the fingers loose and type up a few words about my trip to the Maldives, my 112th country. 

The view from our cottage of an afternoon storm rolling in.
The swing where we whiled away many enjoyable minutes.

I rarely take package holidays; mass tourism is not really my style, and I think that tour buses, charter flights and cruise liners bring out the worst in human nature.  Having said that, there are certain countries, like Bhutan (see my post from my 2008 trip there) that essentially require you to take a tour in order to enter the country, and the Maldives is one of these.  You can fly to Male independently, but if you want to get out to one of the paradisiacal islands that dot the Indian Ocean, booking a package tour is the only reasonable way to go.  Years ago, while backpacking around India in 1997, I looked into booking a holiday deal to the Maldives from Madras or Trivandrum, but it was well beyond my microscopic budget at the time. 

Since then, the Maldives (like pretty much every country on Earth that I haven’t yet visited) has been on my radar.  It’s legendary for its diving, its manta rays, its sybaritic luxury resorts and its outrageous prices.  This March, when, despite a December-mid February ski season of record-breaking snowfall, it seemed as though the Engadin valley wasn’t going to provide Terri and me with great ski touring, we made a snap decision to go to the Maldives.  Although our trip coincided with Easter, a huge holiday season in Europe, we managed to get reasonably inexpensive package deals to a little island named Makunudu through a Swiss holiday outfit called Manta Reisen.  Within a couple of weeks of deciding that we would head for the sun, Terri and I found ourselves getting on an Edelweiss Air direct flight to Male, the capital of the Maldives.

Our first afternoon on Makunudu
The Maldives, a bit like Bhutan, has adopted a model of tourism in which they try to maximize economic benefit to the country from foreign visitors while minimizing the impact of the tourists on the daily life and culture of the country.  While Bhutan has done this by restricting tourist numbers, the Maldives has thrown open the doors to tourists but restricted where they can go inside the country.  The country’s 1192 islands, grouped in 26 oval atolls, are divided into either tourist islands or local islands.  The tourist islands are completely given over to expensive resorts, while the local islands have only local Maldivean inhabitants.  Given the bare flesh and booze of the resorts and the strict Sharia law in force on the local islands, it seems to make sense to keep the two cultures apart.  However, given the long history of repressive government, particularly under the former president Maumoun Abdul Gayoom, it also points to a government keen on maintaining control over the economy and individual citizens.

The colourful crabs that prowled the rocks of the breakwater
We landed in Male a bit bleary-eyed, met our Manta Reisen rep and strolled across the street to the boat jetty where a sleek speedboat awaited.  There were 15 or  so other tourists aboard, all destined for a different island resort owned by the same company as owns Makunudu.  As we sped off across the gentle waters inside North Male atoll, we could see the highrises of the crowded capital city off to our left.  The individual islets of the atoll are so low (the highest point of land in the entire country is only 2.4 metres above sea level) that we didn’t see many islands until we were quite close, giving the strange feeling of speeding off on a small speedboat into the far reaches of the Indian Ocean.  After a stop at Cocoa Island resort, a big hotel bristling with water cottages built directly over the ocean, Terri and I arrived at the tiny island of Makunudu and immediately fell in love.

Friendly hermit crab
Big Bertha of the hermit crab world
Makunudu is a microscopic island, perhaps 150 metres long and 50 metres across at its widest point.  It contains 40 or so bungalows, a restaurant, bar, dive shop and employee housing.  The island is densely forested and is surrounded by a huge expanse of coral reefs.  There is basically nothing to do other than swim, snorkel, scuba dive, eat, sleep, read and watch stunning sunsets.  Hermit crabs trek across the beach, stingrays cruise into the sandy shallow and waterhens prowl the undergrowth.  

The juvenile stingray who cruised right up to the shoreline every day

Since it was such an inactive vacation, it seems as though there is little to describe about our trip, but the underwater action was really quite spectacular.  When we went, Terri, who last dived well over a decade ago, wasn’t sure whether she would dive or not.  As it turned out, she loved diving so much that she did her advanced open water certification, and she and I dived quite a lot.  The coral reefs weren’t as spectacular as they might have been (the Maldives has been prone to lots of coral bleaching as the Indian Ocean water temperatures increase), but the fish life is very healthy.  The shark population seems pretty robust, there are lots of turtles, and we saw manta rays.  

Feeling pretty happy with life on Makunudu

The manta ray encounter, appropriately at Manta Point, was pretty spectacular.  We were making our way along a steeply sloping coral wall, and I was the first to spot the manta sailing serenely into view.  I had seen a manta before, in the Philippines, but this one was in much clearer water and so was much easier to see.  It was huge, a good 2.5 metres across, and he headed directly towards Terri, much to her alarm.  Something that big, even if you know it’s a gentle giant filter feeder, can feel menacing when he’s making a bee-line at you.  He passed perhaps a metre from us and soared effortlessly past us up the slope, his wings flapping lazily but efficiently.   We missed another manta while we were in the water, but snorkelers at the surface saw more than the divers did, with mantas circling just below the surface and breaching from time to time.

We saw plenty of white-tip sharks on most dives, with a few blacktips here and there.  The best shark experience, however, was on a night dive right off the beach in front of the restaurant.  We saw a few sharks here and there as we drifted down to 10 metres, but then our guide had us kneel on the sandy bottom and hide our torchlights against our chests.  After a minute or two we all shone our lights around, and the torch beams lit up a good half-dozen nurse sharks cruising around us in circles, an experience which definitely got our pulses racing.

Terri and her dive instructor Satoko, on the way home from diving

We went diving on a fairly slow local boat, giving us lots of time to absorb the sun and the views from the roof.  One particular coral patch that we passed frequently was a favourite hunting ground for a pod of dolphins, and we saw their dorsal fins bobbing up and down through the surface as they rounded up shoals of fish.  The marine life in general seemed to be in good shape; we didn’t see a lot of fishing going on near the dive sites, and there seems to be a marine reserve in place around a lot of islands.  There were always a few tuna and trevally flashing past in the deep water, and vast clouds of colourful reef fish like red tooth triggerfish.  It was good to get underwater for the first time since my trip to Oman in December, 2011.

Warming up in the sun after a dive
Terri atop our dive boat

Our days above the water floated by delightfully.  I read several books on my Kindle, did yoga, snorkeled, caught up on a few months of grading physics labs, and ate meals of sybaritic luxury.  We had saved a bundle of money by only signing up for half board at the hotel, but the breakfasts were vast spreads that kept us going through the day, aided by a clandestine sandwich that we would sneak out of the restaurant every morning.  The food, like the service and the room cleaning, was remarkably good.  Evening meals would be preceded by sunset cocktails at the western end of the island, and by 10 pm we would be tucked up in bed (usually decorated in clever ways by the man who cleaned our room), ready for another day of relaxation.  It was hard to peel ourselves off the beach and get back on the long flight back to Zurich at the end of the week!

Not a bad seat for a lazy afternoon
Decoration by our room cleaning man
I’m not sure I would go back to the Maldives anytime soon (there are still nearly 100 countries left to explore first), but it was a wonderful, restoring experience with some of the best diving I’ve done.  It's well worth visiting, not just to tick off another country, but also to see some of the best-preserved marine life in the Indian Ocean, and experience some luxurious pampering. It was fascinating from the point of view of natural beauty.   

Night life in the Maldives
Another Makunudu light show

However, on the human front the country’s political future is still unclear, with the reformist former president (jailed and tortured for years for opposing Gayoom) having been removed from office after an army mutiny in 2012 and now under arrest for abuse of office, and the old tyrant Gayoom positioning himself to run for president again.

While we were on Makunudu, we watched a documentary called The Island President, about ex-president Nasheed, his years in jail and his attempt to get the Maldives’ position on climate change and the dangers posed by rising sea levels recognized at the Copenhagen climate change conference.  The optimistic tone of that film contrasts with the political gloom currently enveloping the country.  Given the natural beauty of so much of the Maldives, I can only hope that it manages to steer clear of the political and civic ugliness that has marred so much of its recent history.

The culmination of a week of innovative towel and flower arrangement

In an amusing postscript to our trip, as we were waiting in Male airport, I spotted a bottle of 50-year-old Balvenie’s whisky for sale in the duty free.  It’s faintly ironic that in a country where the inhabitants are prohibited from buying alcohol, they’re selling some of the most expensive whisky on earth.  And who on earth buys a $46,000 bottle of hooch on the spur of the moment in airport duty free?

Yes, you read that price right