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Cargo-boat cruise round the Maldives

Sailing on the high seas aboard a Maldivian cargo vessel is the best way to see the real Maldives. Donna Richardson undertook an epic adventure to the furthermost southern region of the Maldives to uncover the astounding beauty of the archipelago in a very unconventional way.

As one of the first independent travellers’ to charter a Maldivian cargo vessel, and certainly the only western woman on deck, I undertook this incredible journey across more than five atolls to escape the maddening crowd of the capital Male. During this journey of self discovery, the vessel navigated through the pristine and unspoilt waters which make up 99 per cent of the Maldives. Bound for Addu Atoll the journey would take three-and-a-half days and I made some life-long friends along the way and learned a lot about the true Maldives.

The cargo ship trip came about quite by accident. January is always a boring month, wherever you are in the world and as an expat forced to spend Christmas in a Muslim country as many of my friends spent the festive period at home, I could think of nothing more depressing than hanging around waiting for things to happen on island time (without the cocktails).

Fortunately being in-between work meant I found myself lots of time on my hands, so I decided to fulfil a dream I had harboured for months since arriving, visiting the Royal Air Force’s staging post during the Second World War – RAF Gan which is located in the far south of the archipelago and one of the few historical sights left in the Maldives.

For tourists there is only one way get to Gan – a domestic flight via Maldivian airlines. Soon there will be direct flights to the south but I actually craved a real adventure. So, following the advice of a Guardian article penned by resident writer and editor of Minivan News, JJ Robinson, I made a few discreet enquiries at the docks close to the Fruit and Vegetable Market in Male and it wasn’t long before soon found a willing crew and captain to transport me to my destination of Addu.

I have always wanted a collection of brown leather trunks with brightly coloured stickers from all the world’s corners. Perhaps because I am a hopeless romantic at heart, the notion of travelling by sea conjures up images of travellers in the early 1900s who spent days on the ocean in order to reach their destinations. Back then, arriving at the destination was as much a part of the trip as the destination itself.

This also constituted the first ‘real’ travelling experience out of my comfort zone. I have worked and travelled in Dubai, and travelling to Europe for holidays, I have never started a journey not knowing where I would end up. So it made it all the more thrilling in a country which until recently did not even allow independent travel in one atoll, never mind across half of the country.

What is more, this uniquely thrilling experience was so simple to organise and actually cost peanuts compared to organised tours. There are many safari boats which also create a similar experience without the rough edges, but expect to pay at least $2,000US compared to $36US or MRF300 per round trip.

Now ship travel is not for the faint hearted, so I have to warn you that my vessel aptly named ‘Best Line’ was a rudimentary but sturdy wooden three-tiered boat, not a luxurious safari boat. Depending on sea conditions, I was told it would be a three to four day/night trip across rough seas but for less than 12 dollars a day and the chance to live an experience of a lifetime, and see things most only dream of – or pay good money to do. And so it was worth the less glamorous aspects of the journey such as there being no shower, hairdryer or creature comforts. It was not going to be pleasant but as an aspiring war correspondent I felt that it would test my mettle and prove if I could tough it out under extreme circumstances.

Hence, just 12 hours later I found myself boarding the vessel with two dozen or so other Maldivian ‘stowaways’. Passengers make a nice sideline to subsidise the crew’s wages. As they are transporting the ship’s main cargo of fruit, vegetables, household goods and consumables to various locations across the Gaaf Alif and Addu Atoll, they don’t mind having a few more additions to the crew aboard. In fact the ship’s contact number is boldly displayed for this purpose as well as for suppliers to get in contact with the captain and crew.

We sail by nightfall, originally scheduled to set off at midnight but delayed due to the heavy traffic on the water. The crew help me to load my luggage onto the vessel and I meet some of the other passengers. As the only westerner on board, I receive the royal treatment, given the only cabin on deck to sleep by the captain and the best china mug and dinner plate.

The captain Abdul Hakeem spent 30 years working his way up to become the captain of this ship. He joined me for tea on deck. He briefs me about the journey ahead and the places we will visit and we also have a nice chat about his life and family.

During the trip the boat would make around three port drops where we could explore the local islands of the enormous Gaaf Alif atoll. This coral formation of hundreds of islands, with two districts is one of the Maldives’ best kept secrets. Our destination would be Addu – a beautiful heart shaped formation of coral islets in the deepest south of the archipelago.”

The engine starts up but we cannot get out of the busy port. It is choked with other vessels all vying for a launch out of Male. The mouth of the harbour is about five vessels deep. Many of the other Maldivian passengers had already begun to settle down in various nooks and crannies around the boat, their prayer mats doubling as mattresses. Bodies line the floor on the lower deck and the crew, including the deckhands and cooks sandwich themselves into a claustrophobic middle tier of the ship, just large enough to crawl in to, spread out your sleeping bag and to sit up. As I make my way to the top deck to the captain’s cabin, which I have use of I feel very guilty as there are around two dozen other passengers. Many of whom are working in Male and use the boat to travel home and visit their family. For many travellers sleeping out on deck under the stars is the only option. I envy them as they have an endless canopy of stars to stare at. I’d rather swap my cabin for that experience rather than sleep in the captains’ cabin and decide to accept the hospitality tonight but try and sleep under the stars the next night.

Crew's sleeping quarters

I reach the cabin and drift off to sleep blissfully unaware that we have even left the hustle and bustle of overcrowded Male behind. (I’m told we finally left the crowded port at 3am). I wake at 5.45am just as the new dawn breaks over the Vaavu Atoll and feel an enormous relief to have left South Male behind as the sun rises out of the gleaming ocean.

The first rays permeate through the blanket of dark clouds to reveal the shining glory of a new day over the boundary-less sea. With seeming infinity in any one direction, this, and the prospect of the unknown fills me with excitement. I dream and imagine the new possibilities away from the choking smog and suffocation of Male – one of the most densely populated cities in the world. As the sun rose higher into the sky, its warm rays beat down on my cool skin warming me with energy, as the cool sea sprays against my face.

Below deck, I start the day with a feast of jam and bread, followed by hard boiled eggs, all washed down with a mug of hot tea laced with sugar.

Vaavu atoll is vast so it takes the rest of the morning to sail through. I’m told that the first day we will sail continuously and only make our port drops the following day and on the third day we will pass through the equator and arrive at our destination by nightfall if all goes well.

While many people fear cabin fever, I actually embrace the opportunity to relax, tend to my thoughts, write and read. I welcome the open ocean backdrop to help me clarify my thoughts.

Naturally many of the ships’ passengers shy away from the sun under canopies and below the deck but as a sun-worshipping Brit I decide to take full advantage of the sun deck and ocean breeze as it is one of the fastest ways to tan.

I find myself a prime spot at the helm of the ship and spread out my towel. I plan to while away the hours staring wistfully into the ocean and spend hours engaged in Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ – a tale about the high seas and personal discovery. Very apt as I live my own sea dog adventure in real life. Treasure Island was my first choice but I could not get hold of it in Male book shops.

Positioning myself near the bow I occasionally glance up at the unspoilt islands of the Vaavu and Meemu atolls. We pass beautiful emerald centred islands ringed with white sand and glorious turquoise lagoons. Each has their own unique shape and character.

The blazing sun moves eastwards we enter Laamu atoll. This is going to be the government’s newest ‘zone’ developments. I am struck by the beauty of the islands, all uninhabited save the Six Senses resort Laamu which is due to open its doors this month. However, there is to be much change in this atoll over the coming years with the government’s new plans to extend transportation networks and extend into mid-market tourism. In fact there is talk of a three star ‘Costa Del Maldives’ of guest houses, restaurants and bars happening here to bring in hordes of backpackers and mid marketers, making the Maldives much more accessible in the near future.

Laamu and its nearest neighbour, the giant Huvadhoo Atoll in the south is separated by a 90 km wide stretch of water called the Huvadoo Kandu or One and a Half Degree Channel. Because of its latitude this channel is one of the safest places for ships to pass between the atolls that make up the Maldives archipelago.

Crossing the channel it seems that we sail for hours without a single land mass in sight. Just like the desert, the open ocean is full of wonder and mystery – I am transfixed. Sometimes mirages appear on the glistening and glimmering horizon in the form of ships and land which without rhyme or reason appears and disappears. The ocean is calm and glassy and stretches infinitely into the distance with flying fish and the occasional wave breaking the calm.

I am so grateful to be away from the concrete buildings which imprison us in Male. To be out on the ocean and appreciating nature in its truest form, in a sense this is the closest to freedom I have ever been.

I also feel relaxed in the ships company even though it is male dominated. Whether it is due to the Adduan gentle character, or the liberty afforded by being on the ocean away from society and watchful eyes, the people are friendlier and gentler than in the city. Spending three days at sea with a Maldivian crew aboard a cargo ship gave me the chance to live and eat with Muslims, but at no time did any member preach their religion or practice patriarchal archaic attitudes.

Of course I had to be respectful of their customs and was mindful of not showing too much flesh but I felt perfectly safe and comfortable – even as much as to be able to sunbathe showing my shoulders. A stark contrast to spending most of my time in Male walking around avoiding the stares of clucking randy old fundamentalist Maldivian men with their menacing ‘Allos’.

Whether you are religious or not, sailing on the open seas is a spiritual journey and I enjoyed the chance to get in touch with nature and the wonder of the world and its elements as a non-believer in any man-made religion.

To an outsider the practice of prayer on a ship seems more relaxed, more peaceful and most of all very spiritual. I did not even notice that passengers were still observing their religion.
I noticed that at sea there appears to be a more relaxed attitude towards religion with no official timing or social graces. A small mosque exists on the uppermost top of the deck in the form of a simple prayer mat is placed pointing in the direction of Mecca.

However it differs from the mainland as rather than the strict five calls to prayer per day by a baying imam, passengers were free to observe their calls to prayer discreetly. In fact as a fellow passenger I hardly even noticed the timings in the absence of the minarets. It was up to the individual when they went to pray and thus appeared to be freer and more relaxed than in Male or any inhabited islands.

Out on the open sea, the curvature of the earth is more pronounced in the absence of any other landmarks. If you divide the sky into an imaginary half clock face, the time can be told by the position of the sun. Guessing the time to be around 2pm, I check and find I am not too far off as it is already 2.20pm.

In the late afternoon light suddenly dolphin flipped playfully against the boat. A group of small boys ran to the bow and yelled excitedly as these beautiful intelligent creatures’ splashed in and out of the waves. I join in, delighted to share this wonderful experience with these enthusiastic children.

Eager to practice their English skills I soon get talking and I learn that the children are from Gaaf Alif and Gaaf Dhaal, two districts which make up the giant Huvadhoo atoll, one of the biggest atolls in the country. This is where three of our port drops will be the following day.

Luckily thanks to decentralisation efforts since the changeover of government – a good education appears to be priority in the islands. As a result Shami, Shau and Libfa all speak very good English, while their elders have limited conversational skills.

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