The Real Maldives, Life Beyond the Resorts
The Maldives are a dream destination for many. An escape from real life and a week or two of luxurious bliss on a tropical beach. There is however another side to the Maldives that many do not see. An island nation, spread along a chain of Atolls in the Indian Ocean. Many are uninhabited, some are only used as luxury resorts and only the capital of Malé in the north and Addu Atoll in the far south have larger populations.
Addu Atoll is the furthest south of all the Maldivian atolls and is 335miles south of the capital Malé. It just tips over the equator and along with Fuvahmulah is the only Maldivian Atoll in the southern hemisphere. Addu City is the main hub of the atoll and like Malé in the north is developing like any other town or city. Addu Atoll is a natural anchorage and this was used by the British during World War 2. It was a secret base missed by the Japanese throughout most of the war. The island village of Gan is now the airport but was originally built as a Royal Navy base by the British in 1941. It is a strange place with the feel of a military base from the past. All the old barracks and buildings are still there, slowly being converted to residences and shops. There are a number of luxury resorts within Addu Atoll, but we wanted to see the real Maldives around our diving. The resorts could be anywhere on the planet and this unique country deserved exploring. We chose to be based in Maradhoo, south of Addu City on the west side of the atoll. A small town (larger village), the 17th most populated area within the Maldives. Addu Atoll is protected from storms by a heart shaped barrier reef and is the home to a range of unique fish, mammals and birds. The corals here escaped the 1998 bleaching event that destroyed the rest of the coral reefs in the Maldives but has been effected by a more recent event in 2014, but the reef is slowly recovering.
Our plan was to explore Maradhoo. Primarily as our base for diving we were able to explore the village in the evening. This village has 3000 residents who are friendly and as the only tourists in town we were welcomed by everyone we met. The two main roads in the village run along the length of the island and are joined by a number of dusty lanes that link the coast on either side of the main roads. The centre of the village is overlooked by the mosque and the call to prayer fills the village each day.
The harbour is busy and active and well worth exploring. The tuna fishermen return after 5 days at sea with holds full of tuna and the ensuing blood bath as they gut and fillet the fish on the waters edge is worth a look. Just off shore is a tuna processing ship. Regularly visited by smaller boats, this ship is surrounded by sharks and sting rays feeding on the discarded catch.
The beach to the south west of the island is a reminder that this is a tropical island. Each evening collections of younger people meet on the beach as the sun sets. The calm water is edged by the roaring waves of the ocean beyond the protective barrier reef. Large waves can be seen off shore, buffeting the reef constantly. Small crabs run all over the sands and the local cats with their strange gait and corkscrew tails lurk in the shadows. The beach looks perfect from a distance but as with any beach the debris on the high tide mark is not the dream tropical island. Everything from bottles, shoes and tin cans to bags and discarded clothing lies forgotten on the beach.
Wildlife Beyond the Sea
Many people visit Maradhoo for the diving, but there is wildlife all around. The white terns found on the islands are unique to the atoll. The beach has crabs skitting everywhere and land crabs reside in gardens around the village. Large bats fly at dusk from the coconut and banana trees that are everywhere. Flowers are in gardens but also on the road side, bright colours against the sandy streets.
As we were diving we stayed at the Aquaventure Manta Lodge just off the main road in the village. A great base for diving and exploring, but also really good for a few nights for non-divers. Not attached to any chain this small guest house has a lovely atmosphere with friendly staff. Just around the corner is a little supermarket that has everything that you could need and meals are served at the Palm Village Restaurant near the harbour. A bit of a walk but a nice meander after dinner and food from every corner of the planet.
Tips for staying in maradhoo
Visiting Maradhoo isn't like a resort holiday and a few things we learnt will make a stay a little easier.
- Bring a torch - there are street lights but not on the little lanes and it is very dark
- Bring an umbrella - the rain comes with no warning and the puddles form quickly (another reason for a torch!)
- Large denomination US Dollars - the island works with dollars and local rufiyaa inter changably. Shops accept $10 and $20 bills and give change in rufiyaa. There is a fixed exchange rate everywhere so there is no need to haggle or hunt for a better exchange.
- Credit cards are accepted in a lot of places
- Whilst people are very happy with western dress we did find we were more comfortable with longer dresses and covered shoulders. If you are diving then girls need to be covered until the boat has left harbour. The boat crew are fine with changing on deck, but not until away from the harbour
- Wifi is intermittent at best and comes and goes with no warning. Do not rely on any service!
- Power cuts happen on a regular basis. Every day there is no power between 12pm - 2pm and at other times it does go.
- Scooters are everywhere and there are a few cars and vans. Just be aware that everyone drives very very slowly!
- Most people speak a little English and are keen to speak English
Getting to Addu Atoll
Gan has an International Airport that is very new and very empty. There are six flights a day with Maldivian airlines from Malé and rumour has it that there will soon be direct flights from Colombo and Malaysia. The flight takes about 2 hours from Malé and despite having a time at booking these change on the day so always check what the real flight time is, do not rely on your booking to be correct. They are strict on baggage and offer a 20kg allowance with an extra 5kg for diving equipment. Beyond this it is $1 a kg which is paid before you get your boarding card.
We were limited to one short week in Maradhoo and Addu Atoll. We explored the village and dived the seas. I think a return to the Maldives will happen. Maybe sailing and diving through all the atolls to see how they change as the journey heads south. This country is so beautiful it deserves more of my time!