Travel: The Maldives’ secret paradise

Catching a ferry on Utheemu. Picture: Tom Chesshyre
Catching a ferry on Utheemu. Picture: Tom Chesshyre
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IN search of the hidden side of the Maldives, Tom Chesshyre headed for Banishment Island, one of the remotest parts of the archipelago

When the ship carrying the French sailor François Pyrard hit a reef in the Maldives in the middle of the night in 1602, the crew believed their game was up.

“We started with the shock, she suddenly struck a third time, and heeled over,” he writes in his account of the terrifying moment. “I leave you to imagine the condition of all on board – what a pitiful spectacle we presented – the cries and lamentations of men who find themselves wrecked at night on a rock in mid-ocean and await a certain death. Some wept and cried with all their might; others took to prayers [or] confessed to each other…”

Thoughts of Pyrard, who obviously lived to tell his tale, were running through my mind as we entered a storm on the way to “Banishment Island”. Members of the crew yanked a blue tarpaulin across the tiny wooden ferry, battened down the hatches and began working the bilge pump. The handful of passengers and I, squeezed between boxes of curry-flavoured instant noodles, chocolate biscuits and packets of spaghetti, were offered sick bags. Soft Arabic music played sweetly and incongruously over the stereo.

We were sailing through some of the most treacherous waters in the north-west of the long, thin archipelago of 1,200 islands that makes up the Maldives, and events had taken a turn for the worse.

Banishment Island – real name Makunudhoo – is one of the most isolated islands in the Maldives, so far removed that it does not even get a passing mention in guidebooks. Over the years it has often been used as a place of banishment, a punishment that is still part of Maldivian law. Rather than clog up jails, criminals are sent to remote island communities to atone for wrongdoings – the former Maldivian president Maumoon Gayoom, who ruled the watery nation for 30 years from 1978, once found himself banished to Makunudhoo by his predecessor in the top job (there’s a great deal of cat-and-mouse, and worse, in local politics).

The water grew rougher still. “The weather is very bad. We go to Goidhoo,” said one of the ferry hands. This, I had discovered, was the thing about travelling off the beaten track in the Maldives: you were never quite sure where you would end up next.

Mainly this was due to unreliable ferries, or cargo ships that took last-minute diversions, depositing passengers in unexpected spots. I was travelling in a giant circle around the Indian Ocean nation by such means, taking advantage of a recent, little-known change in the country’s laws to allow foreigners to visit places that are not among the 100 or so official “tourist resorts”. From the early 1980s to 2009 it was illegal for outsiders independently to visit islands classified as “inhabited” by locals – there was a fear, a hangover from the days of the hippy trail, that decadent western habits would spoil the Islamic way of life.

With that relaxation of rules, however, a whole new country had effectively opened up, offering a new version of 21st-century island-hopping – plus an insight into an intriguing way of life deep in the middle of the ocean. Many people, including tens of thousands of honeymooners, may have visited the Maldives but I was hoping to get beneath the surface of the five-star perfection of its glossy holiday brochures… gatecrashing paradise, if you like.

The island chief and his associates on Goidhoo were smoking Camel cigarettes and chewing on spicy areca nuts (a Maldivian addiction) at the island’s sole café. I was taken to them and they said they had never had a tourist before. The chief told me that the island was mainly agricultural, producing chillies, watermelons, cucumbers, cabbages, papayas and bananas (much of this produce is sold to high-end resorts to be consumed by the A-lister likes of David and Victoria Beckham, Hilary Swank and Cristiano Ronaldo). We passed the time of day for a while, sitting in palm frond shade at a hexagonal table, storm clouds yet to burst.

A spare room was offered overnight (for 200 ruffiya, about £10). The weather was expected to be calm in the morning and I explored the neat allotment-like plots with basketball-sized watermelons and old X-ray scans wobbling on the end of poles to scare away birds. Farmers peacefully tended to their crops. The rain, which eventually came overnight in great torrents, was holding off.

As I was wondering whether I had entered some kind of agrarian dreamland – a place of self-sufficiency and contentment away from the troubles of the modern world – I met Mr X. He worked at the local courtroom and was soon informing me that a woman on the island had recently been flogged and given a year’s house arrest for having sex out of marriage: “It was painful. She cried. She was aged 20. She was ashamed. One of the members of the court flogged her.”

Happily the couple were eventually married, two months after the delivery of a baby. The story was a stark reminder of the recent stricter interpretation of Islam in some parts of this famed “honeymoon heaven”.

Mr X (using real names in such small communities is tricky for fear of reprisals, the country’s population is less than 400,000) also told me how there had been a recent case of “football hooliganism” – a fight ignited during a game shown on a satellite channel – and that builders had been stealing sand from the beach for use in construction. As the Maldives is the flattest country on the planet, with 80 per cent of the land just one metre above sea level, with the ocean due to rise as a result of climate change by around 50cm by the end of the century, each island needs as much protection of its shores as possible. There are very real fears that parts of the Maldives will have to be evacuated by as soon as 2050.

And so, via Goidhoo, we eventually reached Banishment Island, threading through a narrow channel between reefs. The island looked as flat as a piece of paper, with a few dusty streets, a mosque and a friend of one of the ferry hands who could put me up in another spare room. On other islands I stayed at a new breed of cheap but stylish guest houses that have sprung up since the 2009 change in the law concerning overseas visitors.

If Goidhoo was remote, Makunudhoo was almost off the map. I went for a swim on a perfect beach, diving down amid a kaleidoscope of colourful fish and coral. Then I went to a party. On Banishment Island a pre-Ramadan bash was soon in full swing, with great hunks of barbecued fish being consumed amid much joviality at a tiny crossroads next to the bright pink offices of a branch of the Progressive Party of the Maldives.

Everybody was in high spirits, telling me one minute about local concerns about lack of 3G coverage (amazingly, it was coming soon) and of the tussle for control of the politics of the country between the PPM and the Maldivian Democratic Party, whose leader had been ousted in suspicious circumstances the year before. Many believed this had been orchestrated to ensure that the money from tourist resorts went to the coffers of cronies from former president Gayoom’s regime.

Music played, fish bones flew and gossip filled the air. It was as far from a Four Seasons as you could get. It was the other side of the Maldives – paradise without the PR spin, but with a good dose of adventure thrown in.

Gatecrashing Paradise: Misadventures in the Real Maldives, published by Nicholas Brealey, is out now, £10.99