Maldives By Tramp Steamer

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The Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Tab Hauser photo
The Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Tab Hauser photo

Tramping around the Maldives By Cargo Ship

By Donna Richardson

A boy on deck in the Maldives sunset. photos by Donna Richardson.
A boy on deck in the Maldives sunset. photos by Donna Richardson.

Sailing on the high seas is the best way to see the real Maldives, writes Donna Richardson, who undertook an epic adventure aboard a Maldivian cargo vessel to the southernmost tip of the country.

The notion of traveling by sea may conjure up images of travelers in the early 1900s who spent days on the ocean in order to reach their journey’s end. Back then, traveling was as much a part of the trip as arriving at the destination itself.

Captain in the cockpit.
Captain in the cockpit.

Independent travel is challenging in the Maldives, especially for women. After all, it is a country which, until a couple of years ago, restricted movement by boat even in one atoll – never mind across half of the country.

First Female Western Traveler

Yet I became the first independent female western traveler to charter a Maldivian cargo vessel across more than five atolls, through pristine and unspoiled waters.

Bound for Addu Atoll, the former home of the Royal Air Force (RAF) base at Gan in the far south, the journey took three days and spanned some 450 km.

As an expatriate living in the Maldives– I simply made a few inquiries at the docks close to the Fruit and Vegetable Market in Male’. There are a few safari boats that create a similar experience, without the rough edges, but expect to pay at least US$2,000 compared to US$36 (MRF300) per round trip; less than 12 US dollars a day.

Less than 12 hours later I found myself boarding the cargo vessel with two dozen other Maldivian ‘stowaways’. The ship’s mission was to transport a cargo of fruit, vegetables, household goods, and consumables across the Gaafu Alif and Addu Atolls and the crew didn’t mind a few passengers aboard to subsidize their wages. As the only westerner on board, I was given the only cabin on deck and the best china mug and dinner plate.

New horizons, faraway shores

I awoke at 5.45 am as new dawn broke over the Vaavu Atoll. The first rays permeated through a blanket of dark clouds, revealing the shining glory of a new day. The infinity view of the open ocean filled me with the spirit of adventure as I imagined new possibilities away from the choking smog and suffocation of Male’ – one of the most densely populated islands in the world. I felt an overwhelming sense of freedom as the sun rose higher into the sky, its warm rays beating down on my skin.

Best Line Cargo boat.
Best Line Cargo boat.

The first day involved continuous sailing through Vaavu, Meemu, and Laamu atolls. Positioning myself at the helm of the ship, I whiled away a few hours reading Robert Louis Stevenson. Each time I glanced up, emerald islands, fringed with white sand and glorious turquoise lagoons, gleamed in the sunshine, reminding me I was living my own “Treasure Island” adventure.

Each island had its unique shape and character. I wondered about the people who lived there and imagined myself as a castaway on these islands.

The blazing sun moved across the sky as we entered the government’s newest ‘tourism zone’ – Laamu. From a distance, the unspoiled beauty of the uninhabited islands was not lost upon me. As transportation networks open up to cater to mid-market tourism, many guest houses are planned, and at the time of my journey, the luxurious Six Senses Laamu resort had just opened, offering beds at US$600 a night.

The sleeping quarters under the deck of the tramp steamer.
The sleeping quarters under the deck of the tramp steamer.

In contrast, mid-market options will see options start as low as US$50 a night. The region is now served by several airports and ferry networks, making it an ideal backpacker destination. We sailed for hours without a single island in sight.

The Laamu atoll is separated from the giant Huvadhoo Atoll by a 90 km wide stretch of water known as the One and a Half Degree Channel (Huvadhoo Kandu). This broad channel divides the northern and central Maldives from the southern atolls and is said to be the safest place for ships to pass in the Maldives.

Between atolls, the Indian Ocean stretched infinitely into the distance. How liberating it felt to be at sea, appreciating nature in its truest form. To fathom the Indian Ocean’s vastness; the subcontinent of India and Sri Lanka in the North constitutes the largest landmass and to the West lies Africa and to the east Indonesia and Malaysia, and to the south the Chagos archipelago.

Dolphins and making new friends

Suddenly a dolphin flipped playfully against the boat, followed by another, and another. A group of small boys ran to the bow and yelled excitedly. I watched as a playful pod of dolphins splashed in and out of the waves. As they squealed in delight and their enthusiasm was so infectious that I joined them for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Watching the intelligent creatures’ spin acrobatics in the air, and then disappear under the waves chirping away, was purely magical.

The boys – -Shami, Shau, and Libfa, from Dhaandhoo were keen to practice their English skills. I learned that, in the islands, children spend their time exploring, swimming and having fun outdoors; unlike kids in the west who spend much of their time playing on video games.

As we chatted and played on the deck, the sun lowered over the islands, casting shadows on the waves and announcing the call to prayer. The children said goodbye, and I sat on the deck watching the moon seemingly rise out of the sea.

A night under the stars

I watched people climb up to the uppermost deck to pray in the small mosque area, where a simple prayer mat was pointed in the direction of Mecca. How different to the islands where five strict calls to prayer are announced by loud minarets. At sea, there appeared to be no social graces. Passengers were able to observe their religion discreetly.

Supper consisted of a delicious fish curry, which I ate at the captain’s table alongside the senior crew. The first officer’s wife joined us. All of them were keen to practice their English skills and tell me about their lives at sea.

After supper, I returned to the deck to stargaze. The velvet sky was filled with millions of stars shining like sparkling diamonds, forming a stark contrast to the fathomless inky black sea. This was illuminated only by pale moonlight on the waves and the blinking lights of faraway vessels on the horizon.

Maldives mom.
A Maldives mom.

Here I lay, mystified by the cosmos. I’d never seen so many stars in my life. In the early hours, just before dawn, fate conspired to reveal the magnificent Southern Cross, the brightest constellation in the southern hemisphere, and then the rhythm of the ocean rocked me to sleep.

Island hopping and local life

The sun’s warm rays roused me as we motored into the island of Dhaandhoo. A stunning pink sky illuminated the exotic landscape.
As the crew offloaded the island’s supplies, I took the opportunity to explore my new surroundings. Walking along a barren beach, I witnessed the sun rise from the sea and out of dark clouds, a wild bird flew. It was a poignant moment.

Beyond the jutting palm trees, I observed local life in action. Women swept their yards and collected water from traditional wells as their husbands prepared for work on the fishing boats. A little old woman pushed a wheelbarrow onto the beach and then casually offloaded a pile of rubbish into the sea. Upon closer inspection, I saw much rubbish on the beach, which somewhat spoiled my idyllic image of the island.

Exploring further, I also noticed evidence of reclamation –the artificial creation of space on this tiny island of 800 inhabitants and growing, was needed to accommodate future generations. It took just 20 minutes to circumnavigate the island perimeter and we then set sail to our next destination – the local inhabited island of Gemanafushi. Here, I was invited into a beautiful coral cottage by a local family. Inside was humble but cozy.

A seabird in the Maldives.

Family photographs adorned the wall. We sat on an undoli (giant swing) in the center of the room, chatting and sipping tea. My guide then took me to the local school, hospital, and council offices, where I was introduced to local teachers, doctors, and politicians.

Fishing and boat building form the backbone of the island’s economy. Many of the 1,300 islanders are employed by the nearby Park Hyatt resort. There is a connecting ferry to the resort for workers. The resort also brings tourists to the islands.

On to Kanduhulhudhoo

Our next stop was Kanduhulhudhoo. During the journey there I struck up a conversation with a native islander – a 16-year old girl called Nashfa who told me about her island village – a little oasis, pristine and unspoiled by the outside world. Here islanders live a simple life in quaint coral cottages, handed down through generations.

This cargo boat is one of the island’s few connections to the outside world. As we navigated the coral harbor locals ran to greet us; waving and cheering.

Nashfa met her father and I visited the local shop to pick up some supplies.

A quick exploration of the island unearthed a small unspoiled beach where I sat with my feet in the water watching local children play in the lagoon. Baby reef sharks and tropical fish darted back and forth between the coral and a traditional dhoni floated past a picnic island. I soaked in this tranquillity before returning to the ship.

Crossing the Equator

Back on the boat, Ekbal, the Bangladeshi chef taught me how to fish. We tied four long lines to the back of the boat, cast them out, and waited for a result. It took a few attempts but we managed to reel in a grouper fish and a small tuna. Leaving the Gaafu Dhaalu islands behind, we began to cross the Equatorial Channel, just a few nautical miles from the Equator, beyond which lay our destination of Addu.

We marked crossing the equator by eating our fresh catch from earlier on the top deck in the ocean breeze. My eating partners were a recently married young couple from Gaafu Alif who were visiting family in Addu. The husband was 22 and his wife 19. They met in the local shop and married six months later.

I also spoke to a businessman who imported sea cucumbers between the Maldives and China – where it is somewhat of a delicacy. He told me he made this trip from Male’ to Addu at least once a month. Originally from Gan, he spoke in a slightly different dialect to the other Maldivians I had met and told me this was due to many years of separation between the islands.

Above deck sleeping quarters.

The southern states began to evolve their own language and culture and even formed an unsuccessful attempt at independence with the movement to create the Suvadive Republic. He told me that Adduans have a particular fondness for the British who occupied an air force base there up until the 1970s.

We arrived at Gan two hours earlier than expected. I gathered my things and bid farewell to the friends I’d made as the crew unloaded the remaining supplies at the Feydhoo harbor. Even in the dark, Gan was noticeably quite unlike anywhere else in the Maldives.

One legacy left by the Brits is a long causeway stretching along the island enabling movement by taxi and moped, yet it had a calm air as opposed to Male’s incessant noise – and plenty of open space and trees.

I flagged down a taxi and set off to the Equator Village resort, looking forward to a shower and a good night’s sleep in a comfy bed. I could not wait for my backpacking adventure to begin.


Donna Richardson

Donna Richardson lives a life on the open sea.