Sunday, February 03, 2008

Uligan, Maldives Journal

January 29 - February 5, 2008
by KT

Uligan Atoll, Maldives: 40 Feet in Sand

Anchorage off the main Motu
Maldives Mantas, 12 feeding just outside the anchorage - Very Playful!!
Some friends had emailed us and told us that four days was more than enough time in Uligan, and that we would see what they meant when we got there.  After one week, we still didn't understand what they meant, we'd been fully entertained in Uligan and had found the mix of relaxation and exploration to be perfect.  Perhaps we are just easily entertained, or maybe it's that we have perfected the art of doing nothing!

At first glance Uligan is the typical tropical atoll.  Turquoise green water, white sand beaches, and palm trees scattered about.  Ashore however, I was struck by the structure of the town.  Instead of grass huts with thatched roofs the buildings were concrete and coral.  But more unique was a tall wall that runs through the entire town.  The wall provided both protection to the houses behind it (from the sand the wind stirred up), as well as privacy.  The wall was clean and neat, forming a wide street in-between.   It was built entirely of coral which was pretty impressive.   There are no cars in Uligan, and at most a handful of bicycles plus a couple of motor scooters, but the road was easily wide enough for opposing car traffic.  The street is not paved and barely even packed, so you are constantly trudging through the white thick beach sand.  It is the contrast between the sandy beach streets and the almost modern houses & walls that makes Uligan so different from the other atolls we've visited (modern being a relative term, What I mean is modern compared to say the open bamboo huts of Kiribati).  We were especially impressed with their hammock chairs.  In other island/atoll countries the typical relaxation-socialization calls for sitting cross-legged on a mat under a tree.  It doesn't take long before your legs fall asleep and your back aches.  In the Maldives they've built a simple hammock chair; woven roped tied into a metal structure.  These chairs are everywhere and superbly comfortable.  Even their meeting "house" has these chairs instead of mats.  Their only flaw is that they are made for the tiny bums of the locals, us large Westerners found that we didn't have a lot of room to spare!  They had also built a set of lounging chairs, a small table, a couple of stools, and a bouncing child's chair into a tree -- it was ingenious.  A photo is the only way to describe it (see below).

Uligan is full of rules -- the introduction to the stricter societies that we would be traveling through from here to the Med.  We were only allowed to anchor at the one atoll, we could not travel to the other atolls without a guide/escort, and we were rarely left to walk alone in Uligan.  We could not have locals on our boat, could not bring alcohol ashore (actually the alcohol ashore is a pretty standard rule in every country), and for the first time in our travels we were actually required by the officials to run an anchor light during the night hours (something we do anyway, but have never been required to by the local government).  The rules aren't that big of deal, we just found it interesting that they were so worried about letting us do anything on our own.  The people themselves are relaxed and friendly, but private and reserved.  They would say hello and occasionally ask how we were, but for the most part had practically no interest in us, and pretty much ignored us (with exception of the group of men who were in charge of managing and monitoring us).

The check-in was fantastic.  Tons of paperwork like always, and they wanted our boat stamp on everything, but they were efficient and quick.  They were also all extremely young.  Later, when we were checking out, I asked a couple of them how old they were; they ranged from 17 to 22.  I had just finished reading an old Western book, and associated their ages with the ages from early America, when one was a fully aged, almost old, adult by 20.

Our time in Uligan was nicely broken up between boat projects, exploration, and relaxation.  At some point we'd cracked the swedge on our shroud.  It was a small crack, but we were glad Chris found it early on.  It took a few trips up the mast to replace it.  We'd also torn the UV cover seam on our Genoa.  We didn't have the time to fix it in Uligan so instead we just put up our smaller Jib.  Both of these fixes turned out to be good choices as our next passage ended up being rougher and more to weather than we'd anticipated.  We'd also had to fix a hole in the dinghy.  It may not sound like a lot, but this was probably the first time that we had so many boat projects after a passage ...  I guess we'd been quite lucky the last few years.

For exploration we strolled the white sand beaches, walked along Uligan's town walls, and visited their wind farm.  They are quite proud of this accomplishment and tout is as "The world's first AC coupled Renewable Energy Micro Grid System.  Initiated under the Renewable Energy Pilot Project".  Chris also checked out a boat the locals were making.  A huge wooden thing that they were building without a spec or plan of any sort -- just straight from the head!

We spent one day on a tour, visiting two of the nearby atolls and snorkeling.  It was a beautiful and interesting day.  We had two guides, and I felt bad for them as they struggled to keep track of our group and to keep us together, moving at the same speed.  They couldn't let any of us out of their sight (see rules above), and I felt a bit like cattle being herded from one spot to the next.  The two atolls were similar to Uligan, with clean wide streets and walls lining them.  We visited a small store and one of the schools.  The snorkeling was good, but not as impressive as we'd expected for the area.

We also enjoyed a local dinner buffet ashore.  The food was outstanding, similar to the Fijian-Indian food we'd had in Fiji, with curries, chili fish (very hot), dahl (a split pea type of curry), and heaps of fresh rotis.  Chris and I love fresh Roti so much that we actually asked if we could order 30 to pick up the next day for our passage, not one to miss out on a profit the guy was quite happy to arrange it.

The highlight of our stay was when one of the other boats spotted some manta rays swimming just next to the anchorage.  We dinghied out, and minutes later were snorkeling amongst ten of the gigantic winged animals.  The water was murky, so we couldn't see them until they were really close, which sometimes made for a shock.  I'd tread water in one spot, doing circles looking for a manta.  Then out of the murkiness, quite close, would appear a set of huge open mouths, sometimes aimed right at me.  The manta would always end up veering off, but sometimes they'd get close enough that I was sure they were going to bump into me!  I noticed that the longer I stayed in the water, the less the manta's cared about me.  First they'd give me wide berth, then after a few minutes it was pretty much as if I wasn't there, and they'd pass close enough that I could've easily reached out and touched them.  Chris, more daring than I, actually swam down and touched a few on the back.  We both swear that one guy was playing with us.  Chris had touched his back once, and on a second pass the manta came really close to Chris, but when Chris swam down to pet him the manta turned over on his back and swam beneath us for almost a minute upside down, before turning right side and coming back towards us.  We've never seen a manta do that before.  We stayed out there a couple of hours, until our backs were sunburned, our hands and feet turned to prunes, and our bodies shivered from the cool water.

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