The Maldives: A Turquoise Kind of Life
I sit here looking out the window at the rain falling steadily as a fog rolls in over the hills. As I watch the drops falling into my birdbath I sigh, remembering a week spent on a dive boat in the Maldives back in February 2013. A perfectly blissful week of saltwater and sunshine, candy-coloured fish, and the softest deep white sand.
Suddenly I am back there looking out over the vastness of the Indian ocean, punctuated with islands scattered carelessly across its surface like glittering jewels.
The Atoll Explorer takes its name from its meandering journey through some of the world’s most stunning coral atolls. There was nothing grand about this dive boat, designed more for function than elegance, but it quickly became home, the captain and his small crew of young men, friends, and the turquoise water my constant companion.
Most people who visit the Maldives spend their time at one of the exclusive resorts, each on its own island, and often featuring overwater bungalows. I didn’t have the money for such a luxury experience, besides my preference has always been for the simple life - floating adrift on the sea, the wind in my hair, the view changing every day.
What made this trip so memorable was the fact that there had been a big cancellation just prior to sailing, leaving only six of us to board the vessel in Male: Maribeth from California, Özgür and Ahmet, a gorgeous young couple from Turkey, Myra and Melissa, from the Philippines and of course me – the lone Australian. The tiny passenger list became our greatest gift, because within hours we had become the best of friends … and we remain friends today. As we waited to get underway, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. We were about to experience what now amounted to a private cruise through the Maldives.
I think it was the joyfulness of our Maldivian crew that made this trip one of the best holidays I’ve ever had. They were always thinking up fun things to do, and had such boyish enthusiasm for absolutely everything, that you couldn’t help being excited right along with them. They were kind, gentle, concerned, and loved clowning around – true masters of life’s simple pleasures. And one of the most exquisite of these pleasures, for me, was soaking in the sheer beauty of the natural world that surrounded us. The water - turquoise with bands of cobalt and luminescent green - the sand, blinding white and soft like talcum powder.
During the seven days I was onboard I was always barefoot. Even when we went ashore to an island or sand bank there was no need even for thongs because the sand is so soft and pristine. Also bare feet made getting on and off the boat easier, because we either had to drop down into a little dinghy or jump across onto the deck of our dhoni, and toes grip better than rubber.
Some days we would pull in to a resort island for a morning of swimming and snorkelling in water that was only thigh deep. The sea creatures were plentiful and without fear. Whole schools of bright silver fish would, at times, swim in circles around me in a breathtaking glittering dance. Sometimes they would rub against me, the sensation of them brushing lightly over my skin like nothing else I had experienced. Others loved to admire their reflection in my snorkelling mask, kissing me lightly before swimming off.
On one occasion I spent ages stalking a yellow fish as big as a dinner plate, taking photos as I swam right behind him. From time to time he would hover in place, posing, looking back at me to make sure I was watching his antics. It was completely bewitching. Later as I proudly showed the captain the images I had snapped, he told me that Trigger Fish bite. "I hope you didn't get too close," he said. Whoops.
Other days we would snorkel off one of the hundreds of sandbanks that come and go. That was always my favourite thing to do. These tiny pieces of paradise just sit there adrift in the ocean, looking white and beautiful, surrounded by pale green lagoons. The crew would go ahead and set up chairs, umbrellas and an esky (cooler) filled with ice and cold drinks. Then we would swim, snorkel, read, nap in the shade of the umbrellas, and sing to hermit crabs to draw them out of their shells. Whenever we found a fast moving current we would walk up the beach and jump in, floating back down the lagoon looking up at the bluest of skies, or the coral underneath.
On the crew’s rest day it was common practice to meet up with the crew of another boat for a game of beach volleyball. This time, at the captain's invitation, Maribeth and I went along with them, standing on the sideline in the pouring rain, waving pom-poms we had made from leaves. I am not sure if we cheered them on to victory, or if were more of a distraction, but when the net was folded and put away for another week, our boys grinned at us, saying we definitely helped the other team to lose.
One evening the boys were excited to take us out on the dhoni night fishing. We caught a big leopard shark, a moray eel, and an ugly poisonous fish – all went straight back in - no tasty fish dinner for us. It amazed me how the crew navigated the reefs in pitch-blackness with no lights - but we did it a few times - on the night when the captain decided to take everyone night snorkelling with flashlights, for instance.
He said some creatures only come out in the dark.
Well that was enough reason for me to chicken out, watching the moving circle of lights under the water from the safety of the dhoni. From above it was like witnessing an elegant underwater ballet ... one that I was happy enough not to be taking part in.
In my mind the highlight of our week on board, however, came on the evening of Özgür's 27th birthday. Early that afternoon the boat anchored near an uninhabited island. We spent our time lounging around, swinging in hammocks, listening to music, talking, and taking a little swim ... that was until someone saw a reef shark circling, and that put an end to that. A few of the crew came with us and spent the afternoon digging a hole. Every now and then they would become distracted and kick a soccer ball around for a while - then they would go back to digging the hole. It was all very mysterious, and watching them kept us occupied for hours. Which, as it turned out, was the whole point.
Eventually we were ferried back to the boat, dressing up for dinner because we suspected they might host a nice meal on board for Özgür's birthday. We were wrong. Once it got dark we all piled into the dinghy and wove through the coral in the darkness - the island a black shadow coming closer. There was a beautiful silver moon above, and stars had been flung across the velvet sky. As we pulled up and jumped out into the water, we saw that a giant heart had been created on the beach from tiny flower shaped lights. Oz was led into the centre of the heart, then one by one a crew member took each of us by the hand to join her in the circle of light and wish her a happy birthday - it was kind of whacky, but fun and sweet.
The boys then led us up a darkened path lined with the same little coloured lights. An illuminated traditional white sail stood at the entrance to an open sided hut where tables had been set with white linen and beautifully decorated with greenery. Happy B'Day had been spelled out in shells. The whole thing would have taken those young men hours and many trips in the small dinghy to ferry everything over and set it up - all without us suspecting a thing. It was such a special moment, and they shone with pride.
The chef cooked a beautiful beach barbecue of grilled pineapple, freshly caught fish and corn on the cob. After dinner we trekked back down to the beach where a table had now been set up with a beautiful birthday cake. Along with the captain, we each put a hand on the knife as Özgür made the first cut - sealing our friendship forever.
Afterwards the dive master put his DJ hat on and we all danced wildly on the sand for the next three hours. If you’ve ever danced in deep sand you will know it is exhausting and exhilarating all at once. When Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" blasted out, the crew joined us, their broad white smiles lighting up the night as we all did the zombie dance. We laughed until our sides hurt. I found myself wondering what anyone looking down would think about us singing and dancing like zombies in the moonlight, on a tiny uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean. The thought made me smile and brought home to me once again what a small world we live in and how, in the end, we are all the same.
Before our week in paradise came to an end, the crew performed some traditional Maldivian songs and dances. They were so beautiful. Each of us was given the chance to sit on the ground with them and play the drums. I went first, which is most unlike me. It was an extraordinary experience and the fact that I had never played a drum in my life seemed irrelevant. The endless rhythm connected me to everything – the crew, the ocean, my new friends, and the history of a beautiful and gentle people.
Then we danced all night - and in that moment became legends.
I would love to tell you that you too can join the crew of the Atoll Explorer in sailing the beautiful Maldives, but sadly that turned out to be one of her last voyages. Another company bought our beloved boat. Her crew was disbanded and she was tethered to a resort island never to sail again.
She exists now only in the hearts and memories of those who sailed on her.