by Leigh Dome.
The Maldives (although pronounced Mawl-deeves) is probably one of the world’s most aptly named countries with a well earned reputation as one of the top scuba diving locations on the planet.
Arriving at the Maldives is an experience in itself. I must admit, apart from a cursory glance at the Lonely Planet guide I hadn’t done a lot of research about my tropical destination.
White, palm fringed beaches, warm turquoise seas and an abundance of underwater adventure was all the information needed.
My night arrival (and again, my meagre research) meant I was also unaware that our Boeing 777 would be landing on Hulhule Island –which essentially is the airport as the runway and terminal building fill the entire atoll. Hulhule Island which amounts in size and shape to a permanently fixed aircraft carrier, is four kilometres from the island capital Male and services over 200,000 travellers each year.
I had discovered, however that the Maldives is an Islamic Republic and has some interesting border and customs control as a result.
Apart from the obvious prohibited drug and firearm importation, visitors are unable to take pork, pornography, spear guns or dogs into the country. Although the latter may seem very bad news for guide dog owners, there are no dogs at all in the Maldives.
Alcohol is prohibited for Maldivian but foreigners can drink in resorts and the airport hotel. Therefore, any duty free tipple is held at the airport until the time of departure (meanwhile you are paying full $US prices for sunset cocktails at your licensed resort.)
Tourism in the Maldives is carefully regulated and travellers must have a confirmed hotel reservation or Maldivian sponsor. All visitors are given a thirty day visa on arrival but free and independent travellers are discouraged.
On arrival, passengers and their luggage are expertly identified at the arrival gate by a swarm of staff from the island resorts and hotels - no one is left unclaimed.
Feeling somewhat like a flock of sheep having been drafted off to separate destinations we are led onto the wharf to witness the aquatic equivalent of a busy taxi stand.
Eventually the piles of luggage and weary travellers are loaded into the appropriate resort launches and whisked out into a black, moonlit sea – at full throttle!
The next morning reveals the true, tropical postcard beauty of the Maldives.
The 27C waters would challenge anyone’s vocabulary for the word blue but it is the beauty and wonder beneath the sea that attracts most visitors.
Almost all of the Maldives’ 100 resort islands run well equipped dive centres with excellent dive instructors catering for any ability from experienced divers to first timers.
Dive sites are plentiful and diverse with exotic names like Emboodhoo Wall, Kandu Giri and Maa Kandu each with their own unique characteristics and inhabitants.
Manta Point as the name suggests, is a favourite dive spot for viewing the Giant Manta Rays. Gathering at ‘cleaning stations’ where tiny fish remove parasites from their gills and skin, the 3 metre wing spanned rays swoop and gambol, oblivious to their scuba geared audience.
Swimming amongst the thousands of vividly coloured fish and varieties of coral is like diving in an aquarium, the only apparent danger is of sensory overload. So long as you keep your hands to yourself, the plentiful Moray eels and reef sharks pay little attention.
For the less adventurous, there is just as much to see while snorkelling in the calm and safe waters of a lagoon. Masks, snorkels and fins can be hired at the resort.
A half day visit to the Republic’s capital Male is a must, even if it is only to witness how 74,000 people live and work on the two square kilometre island.
Land reclamation projects have more than doubled the size of the original island but the population density and rate of growth have forced the development of nearby islands for future housing.
Despite the bustling nature of the city (not helped by 40,000 motor scooters), the traditional fishing boats or dhoni, tie up directly outside the fish market as they always have and the city comes to a standstill five times a day for prayers.
Maldivians clearly display a mix of African, Malaysian, Indian and Arabic in their facial features and possess the longest, lushest and curliest eyelashes I have ever seen.
Their gentle unassuming manner is refreshing and although Dhivehi is spoken throughout the Maldives, most are fluent English speakers.
For Maldivian people, managing the marine environment is paramount. The sea has been their food source for centuries and now they rely on its pristine, natural beauty to attract tourists.
While tourism has undoubtedly become the country’s major resource, one can only hope the Maldives is successful in preserving its isolated archipelago for future generations to enjoy.
Located 600 kilometres south of India the Maldives is made up of 1190 equatorial coral islands scattered over about 90,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean.
Average air temperatures range between 30C and 33C. December to April (north-east monsoon) is drier and offers the best diving conditions.
The Maldives are served by several scheduled airlines and is a five hour flight from Singapore.
Rufiya (Rf) is the unit of currency ($NZ1 = Rf 7.4) but most vendors will accept US dollars.
Photos (by Leigh Dome).
Maldive1: Lagoon villas provide the ultimate in tropical luxury.
Maldive2: The acres of tranquil lagoon waters are a snorkeller’s paradise.
Published: Manawatu Standard Dec04.