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I had been rather ill after having been treated for bilharzias, a bug picked up in the waters of Africa and it attacks the liver. It can also attack other organs and is sometimes deadly if not treated. I had spent so much time fishing and swimming in rivers and lakes it wasn’t a surprise. Unfortunately I had a very bad reaction to the treatment and to cut a long story short my body was in desperate need of some rest and recuperation. I was financially in a position to go where ever I wanted for a break. What could be better than a couple of weeks of snorkelling, eating and relaxing? Not to mention the thoughts of exploring the remarkable menu of cocktails mixed with various alcoholic stimuli! It had to be the Maldives – it was without doubt the ideal destination.
Right where’s the nearest travel agent? I got it all booked and paid for. Tickets? The agent said it would be simple; I could pick them up at the SAA travel desk when I flew from Harare Zimbabwe to Johannesburg South Africa. Then onto the 2 am. flight via Mauritius and on to Male capital of the Maldives.
First rule, nothing is simple. We arrived in the late afternoon went to the designated desk and requested our tickets. Well you would have thought I had asked for the impossible…..no ticket and they couldn’t find us on the computer! Right, lets remain calm and check again. I asked in my kindest, calmest and clear voice. “Sorry but there must be a mistake, we have paid for the tickets and were informed by our agent that the tickets will be ready for us.”
Well I got a discourteous, disrespectful and uncouth reply from the young man on the other side of the desk. Now taking into account I wasn’t well and was tired and could feel the start of a stress related migraine creeping its nasty way into my head, it was imperative I stay calm. “Excuse me but could you possibly be kind enough to call someone to check?” My obstinate now EX friend replied with an insolent “No!” My mood moved from being controlled yet rather irritated to an explosion of utter rage. This youngster infuriated me with his couldn’t careless attitude which provoked me into cacophony of verbal abuse normally only heard on moves or in rap music. It had something to do with climbing over the desk to rearrange his office and his face. By this time my girlfriend thought it best to go and find help, possibly out of fear, embarrassment or self-preservation. Enter a security guard to protect the petrified young man from this crazed tourist. Lucky for all involved the manager arrived in tow with my girlfriend. After a few moments the mood turned from murderous to a relative calm. “I am so sorry sir; your tickets will be handed to you by our agents nearer your flight.” He made apologies for the lack of understanding from his shaken and pale assistant who cowered behind his manager and the security guard.
Right nothing else to do but sit and wait. We sat till midnight and then in waltzed two pretty hostess’s waving tickets. With lightning reflexes my girlfriend shot out of her seat flew across the floor and removed the tickets from the waving hand. She must have said something as they took off in the opposite direction in a flash.
Well the rest of the flight was a blur from a drug induced anti migraine medication. Somewhere along the flight we landed in Mauritius and continued to fly north. I slept rather well and awoke to my first ever views of stunning coral islands all surrounded by white beaches set randomly in an azure sea. One only realizes the magnitude of the archipelago when one flies over miles and miles of these atolls randomly placed in the sapphire seas below. My absorption in natures wonder was interrupted by the intercom conveying the fact we would soon be landing closely followed by the pilot thanking us for flying South African Airlines and updating us on the local time and temperature.
My girlfriend was a very nervous flyer and I gave her the video camera to take video of the islands on the approach, hoping to get her mind away from her fear. It worried until I heard a voice, “umm there’s a boat outside the window!” With that we felt the tires touchdown and the familiar rattling and blast from the engines as we slowed. The airport is a strip in the ocean and one can literally zoom along in a boat through the waters parallel to the runway.
Entering the terminal was a jubilant affair with colored flowers, island music and friendly immigration and customs officials. No delay and then we are gathered of like sheep and given instructions on who goes where to meet the transport to the various atoll hideaways. We were spending our first week on the Ari atoll at the Kuramathi resort, situated on one of the larger islands some 2 hour boat ride away. The transport was a very modern and quick ferry with seating both in and outside. It was amusing to see who sat where as those who were used to heat and direct sunshine sensibly took their seats in the comfortable air-conditioned interior. The English, German and various other European nationalities, all of whom didn’t want to miss a single minute of precious sunshine, removed whatever clothing was allowed and set about immediately working on their tans.
We would later see these poor travelers, glowing a painful red at dinner that evening and as the week progressed they would take on the look of reptiles in various stages of shedding their skin. Ahhhh the results of the young and reckless! We had been cruising for close to an hour through the tranquil seas as we approached our destination. As we got closer the island appeared as if it were a mirage and slowly evolved into the perfect desert island I had always dreamed of, with the exception to the thong of travelers who were part of the dream.
As the ferry approached the landing the depth of the ocean floor came up from the deep to show us the absolute wonders of the coral reef and her menagerie of exquisitely colored marine life. The beauty of all that surrounded us was beyond my wildest dreams, a maritime utopia! This dreamland was temporally interrupted with the staff organizing out walk to the main resort area to register and be shown our island home for the next seven days. The ice cold welcome drink made the mundane more relaxed and within no time we were ushered to our room. By this time the sun had taken its leave and we were ushered into a world of softly lit villa perched above the sea which was lit by underwater lighting. When the porter was giving us the usual run down on the room we may have seemed rude but the ooo’s and ahhhh’s abounded like a child watching its first fireworks display.
The accommodation was nothing short of picture perfect. The king size bed was adorned with flowers in the shape of a heart, a fruit bowl of papaya, bananas, oranges and in the fridge coconut flesh chilled. A separate bar fridge with an impressive array of drinks, three showers and a fabulous veranda which we found in the morning gave us a spectacular view of the sunrise and below a world of underwater splendor.
Before I leap ahead to day two we were tired, hungry and in need of a chilly beverage, preferably with a touch of alcohol! We walked to the main function area through a tropical display of coconut trees and thousands of flowering shrubs. The dining area and bar appeared as if by magic as we rounded a corner.
Rustic luxury gorgeously lit by a million lights, soft romantic music drifted through the humid night and welcomed us to the extravagant world of island splendor. The bar was extended over the water and the under floor lighting displayed huge numbers of tiny fish reeling and whirling their way through a maze of multi colored coral. Our waiter brought a menu of delightful cocktails to peruse. “One strawberry daiquiri and one blue sunset please.” When they arrived they were almost too attractive to drink! But thirst and further probing into the world of cocktail sensations called.
Dinner was a buffet with a display to suit anyone’s pallet and the desert tables, fruit and cheese tables were superb. We slowly made our way through the excellent display and finished with a final nightcap and a stroll back to our bed and a great night’s sleep. There is something special in falling asleep to the sound of waves caressing the reef while one sleeps. As the sun started its systematic rise in the east the room was filled in the amber light by its first rays. Walking out to the balcony the barely credible beauty of where we were surged through me. Our first day in paradise was to begin. From the balcony a stairway led you down to your own platform and ones entry into the world of snorkelling. Adorned in mask and fins I gently lowered myself into the tepid liquid of the Indian Ocean. I was only going to swimming between the villa and the inner reef at this early hour while the rest of the island still remained in bed. I made my way slowly through hordes of small fish which on my approach darted toward the nearest out crop of coral for protection. Angel, butterfly and clownfish danced their marine dance while the occasional Picasso fish went about their never ending gnawing on the coral heads. When I looked up for the first time panic set in! I looked back to see that every villa looked the same and none were numbered from the ocean side! My girlfriend was still in the land of dreams and I had no idea which was our home. I had been drifting through my first underwater exploration with little regard to the gentle thrust of the current as it gave me the sensation of flight. I didn’t realize there were 40 identical villas now waiting for me to make a choice.
I slowly swam from one to the next till I found my towel neatly folded on the landing. Mental note to self; always leave something bright on the railing! Finally back on the landing and a fresh clear water shower before climbing up the stairs and preparing for breakfast and our orientation talk. I was impressed on the emphasis they put on the protection of the reef and the environment as a whole. The guide could not have made it more clear, never step on the coral, don’t break any thing and under no circumstances even attempt to take any souvenir from the natural environment.
Breakfast was an array of fruits, breads and the normal choice of western food. The waiter was helpful and suggested we take extra rolls to feed to the fish off the landing. This turned out to be such fun as the water boiled with countless numbers of small fish all competing for a crumb or two. We thought it was now time for the big adventure through the underwater path to the outside of the surrounding reef. As we left the shallow water and headed through the break in the coral, the world changed. The coral heads were huge and so diverse and the reef gently sloped to the edge as it dropped away into a bottomless world of the deepest blue. The marine life also changed and the fish and surrounds had become equally impressive. Huge schools of Parrot fish a kaleidoscope of amazing color made a cacophony of sound while they gnawed at a huge coral head with the vigor and sound of a chainsaw. Schools of fish were ever present, comfortable in their environment without a thought towards the aliens invading their space. The ocean bed was a forest of colorful corals in numerous forms. The light flickered as the rising sun’s rays were deflected adding to the cabaret of life offered by this miracle of life. We surfaced after what seemed an eternity of underwater pointing and guttural sounds of wonder. “Let’s take a deep breath and dive down the cliff face to see what may be there!” was the excited call from Susan. A few deep breaths and down we went intrepid explorers into the depths, all 7 or 8 feet of it anyway. As we submerged a large shadow past above us and after the initial moment of panic we gazed up to observe the giant manta ray as it glided overhead and disappeared into the deep blue like a ghost. The adrenalin rush from that apparition was soon amplified when moments later we had our first encounter with a reef shark. Forget that the environmental guide said they were harmless! A shark seen close of for the first time is a thing of absolute fear. Have you seen Jaws? I rest my case, regardless of its meager size ones first encounter is one of great trepidation. These encounters became commonplace and by day two we had become nonchalant to their presence.
Our days took on a rather repetitive yet very relaxing and flow of breakfast followed by two hours of aquatic exercise before the sun got too hot and then relaxing around the bar reading and chatting till lunch. After what was always a delicious meal we would retire to the comfort of our villa for a couple of hours sleep before our second sojourn to the underwater world in all its entire splendor. This was followed by showering and getting prepared of the evening cocktail session, dinner and meeting and chatting to other guests. Then a romantic walk the length of the island followed by a well-deserved slumber to the night sounds.
There were other bewildering experiences we were so fortunate to see. At 7 pm every evening the large sting rays appear as if on automatic pilot. We were having a drink at a different part of the island situated above the beach looking down on the ocean. One of the staff arrived with a bucket of fish and on his right hand he wore a glove of metal mesh. As if called by some mysterious call of the deep the dark triangular shapes appeared and started to circle the courageous man. One by one as he took fish out of the bucket they swam up their wings flapping and slapping the water’s surface and gouged the fish. There were 6 or seven of these monstrous creatures circling and taking turns to feed. Then as quickly as they appeared they departed into the deep dark waters as night advanced. The next day we were booked to go on a snorkelling safari. I didn’t think it was worth it as what could be an improvement to our daily swims. How wrong could one be? About twenty guests congregated on the dock waiting for the boat that was taking us on our unique journey. We set off into the middle of what seemed nowhere. Our guide explained we would be deposited into the ocean at the start of an underwater reef that ran for hundreds of yards. He explained that we should just float and not try and swim against the current. At the end of what was to be a exceptional experience the boat would pick us up. To get our attention they strongly suggested we take hold of the many ropes surrounding the boat as if we missed the boat swimming against the tide would be extremely difficult. One at a time we took to the water and as explained we were floating over an underwater world beyond our wildest dreams. The reef was probably 5 to 6 feet below the surface. We soared like eagles over corals and fish of every hue. Turtles dashed by and moray eels danced in the eddies of the current. The encounter was dreamlike, beyond imagination. Then all too soon it was over and we were back on board the boat. Most people were past talking, overcome with the emotion of the magnificent journey above nature’s wonderland. On the way back to the resort we were privileged to see an acrobatic display of leaps and tumbles from a large pod of dolphins displaying their buffoonery. It was if they were saying,” look at us we are just as exciting!” That night we went for a BBQ at the sand bar on the beach for a delicious fish dinner. Rather strange feeling after being their guest in their underwater world.
The week passed by from stunning sunrise to memory making sunsets as we sipped our cocktails enveloped in the glow of the fading orb. Then the morning arrived to move to our next island delight. We boarded the same vessel that brought us to Kuramathi Island and headed back towards the airport. Here we were told that we would need to wait at the airport till the next flight from South Africa as then we would be transported to Full Moon Resort with the next group of intrepid happy holiday makers. I realized that Full Moon was not that far away and the issue of a free trip in 2 hours or a water taxi at my own expense but leaving right away wasn’t debatable. On to the local water taxi cases in hand and off we set just the two of us and our driver. Always ensure you negotiate the price before departure! The trip was exciting as we became the boat rushing along parallel to the runway. As we left the airport in our wake we had a short but wonderful display around the taxi by a pod of half a dozen spirited dolphins. As we approached the island we past small yachts, kayaks, and other local taxi returning from other nearby islands. Then we pulled up to an attractive dock welcoming us to our home for the next 7 days. The walk through the tropical gardens overflowing with colorful flowers thrusting their way through the green foliage was a great start to the mounting excitement. We arrived at a bright and vibrant reception area representing the true sensation of tropical island life. The processing of our check in was quick and efficient, happy smiling faces of the staff made the experience even more relaxing.
We were taken to our over water bungalow totally different in design to our last room on Kuramathi. Very modern open plan design ostensibly decorated in white and cream complimenting the sugar colored sands that circumnavigated the island. The depth of the water was very different to what we had experienced the prior week. The villa was much closer to the sea and as one stepped off the steps into the tepid ocean it was onto soft sand that gently sloped towards the reef. To get out to the outer reef one needed to wind ones way through a maze of stag horn coral that acted as a natural barrier. We could walk waist deep through the forests of the stag horn and watch the hordes of small fish darting in and out of their protective home. The little black and white clown fish would dart out and nibble on the hair on your arms as you got close enough for them to tickle your intruding arm. Small white tipped reef sharks would flash past our legs, trying to find a way to escape the impending threat we seemed to create. We were warned to not just step off the stairs of the villa into the shallow sand bottomed water without checking for stingrays. Only a week before a tourist had het holiday cut short when the barb of a small ray embedded itself into the ladies led and penetrated her shinbone. She was flown out of the islands on the first day of her dream holiday. We swam with numbers of the rays during our stay following them from a safe distance as they mysteriously flew through the water. There were also other rays frequenting the area. The most beautiful of these was the spotted eagle rays dark against the white sand and covered with hundreds of white spots. The eagle rays were normally found in squadron like numbers seemingly in pursuit of a preconceived destination.
On our second day we decided to venture beyond the forest of stag horn coral through to the outer reef. The reef didn’t have the deep sudden drop off we had got used to and gently slopped away deeper into the channel between the two islands. The marine life in the deeper water was minimal but the reef was alive with shoals of fish of every shape and sizes imaginable. Then as we were drifting on the surface we noticed we were in the company of 4 or 5 reef sharks bigger than we had become accustomed to. They kept their distance as they circled us and if we swam towards them they would accelerate away from us. However their sleek 4 foot long projectile shaped circling us was not a comfortable feeling and we decided to return to the more comfortable environment.