Monday, January 31, 2011

Cinnamon Island 2011 - Of spirits and surf

Day 1 to 3, Friday through Sunday…

Day One

Male > Colombo

Those butterflies that hum around in your tummy on the first morning of a trip are not things that you leave behind in childhood, believe me. So that when up with the sparrows one Friday in December, hot coffee and chutney sarmies freshly laid out in front of the early morning news, I knew from instinct that this was going to be one of those tours. The ones that you’re slightly nervous of because you’re not sure what to expect; the ones you wish would never end; the ones that leave you reeling at the stark remoteness and unprecedented friendliness of the place and its people. Sri Lanka had it all.

By 11am we’d landed at Bandaranaike International, where an old mate from the Maldives met us with a characteristic Sri Lankan smile and “Hello Machang!” With his surfboard strapped safely to the roof of his Toyota sedan and ours stowed between the seats, we set off into the madness of Colombo. The hustle and bustle is mesmerizing. The roads are packed bumper-to-bumper, while cows and people of every shape and size cram the pavements. And as with many other Asian capitals, everything just clicks.

By midday we’d reached the city centre and the spot where Shiran had to dump us and move off to deal with more pressing business. But not before a provisional surf sesh was penciled in for a few days hence. We were duly loaded into a van and taken on to our home for the night, Casa Colombo. It had been an outside bet due to it being part of a package trip, but turned out to be this ridiculously larny old mansion, recently restored. Double king-sized beds, thick carpets, fluffy white gowns, spiral staircases, the works. Needless to say the night was restful and by morning we were ready to hunt surf and spirituality.

Day Two

Colombo > Rambukkana > Kandy

Smashed up a magnificent breakfast of string hoppers and prawn curry in our suite, before hopping into a tuk tuk for the ride down to Old Fort Station. Pampering over, we were back in the madness alright; short of seats and surrounded by manky dogs, rancid smells and those beaming Sri Lankan smiles.

Within the hour we were off the train at Rambukkana and onto a tuk tuk bound for Pinnewala Elephant sanctuary. Despite having just about grown-up amongst the elephants of the Eastern Cape, the sight of these incredible animals, even in a semi-wild state, always makes one feel miniscule. The age, strength and understanding of an elephant is mesmerizing and for hours we sat quietly watching them bathe in the waters of the (Pinnewala); wise, old eyes alert as they splashed and sprayed water over themselves and the rest of the herd.

By mid-afternoon it had started to drizzle, prompting us into action as far as buses and the next leg of our trip were concerned. Once more we were back amongst the madness of a sub-continent afternoon as we stood clutching our backpacks as our bus bobbed and weaved past vehicles both in our lane and on-coming. We were just about still alive when two-and-a-half hours later we arrived in Kandy, last capital of the old kingdom. Off to the tried and tested Ye Olde Empire Inn we went, holding out for a hot shower and a place to watching the Boks play rugby against Wales later on in the evening – neither of which happened unfortunately.

Day Three

Kandy > Nuwara Eliya

Up early doors once more for a spiritual stroll around the sacred ‘Temple of the Tooth’, built alongside Kandy Lake. We offer bushes of Jasmine and lit candles to the Buddha as vervet monkeys prance along ancient fig tree branches chattering incessantly at the first rays of sun as they sneak across the bowl of mountains protecting the city. Again, there is something timeless about this part of the world; the quiet solitude of a temple garden and the low hum of monks at prayer. Suddenly the crazy rush for material wealth that dominates present day societies globally seems a long, long way away.

Revitalized and ready to take on the new day, we head for a little bakery called, funnily enough, ‘The Bake House’ for fresh croissant and top-notch cappucinos. From there it’s on to the chaos of the main bus stop (our first of the trip) to see if we can flag down anything headed in the direction of the mountains of Nuwara Eliya. Dubbed ‘Little England’ for its rolling, green hills and chilly temperatures, the sleepy hollow is a good place to catch a tea tasting and to generally just unwind in fresh mountain air. The bus trip is idyllic and comfortable and within no time we’re docked in Little England and furiously hunting down the King Fern Guest House. Eventually we round a bend and there she lies, nestled away among a forest of ferns (believe it or not) on the hillside. It’s bloody chilly out, something we didn’t really expect despite everybody saying as much, and we hit a long, hot shower and wrap up in longs and a jersey before we’re ready to do anything again. The afternoon session kicked off with lunch in the village followed by a very short walk around the fabled Nuwara Eliya market and off up the rise to St Andrews Hotel for a few quick rounds of S#*THEAD. Soaking up Britain’s imperial majesty of old and a few G&T’s as the sun dipped beyond the tea plantations was lekker. Not quite a heavy right-hander on Sri Lanka’s tropical south coast, but a very close second.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Keep it 'Kuda' - local island style

A popular misconception about the Maldives in general is that it is ridiculously expensive and near impossible to go anywhere except to resorts or to islands run by resorts. Reasons (or excuses) for this are most often given as a lack of reliable public ferry services and the availability of speed launches. This is simply not true, as the documenting of the island escape below will clearly point out. Surfing, fishing, diving or just craving the chance to get away and relax, the less costly Maldivian holiday is on the up-and-up.

Kudahuvadhoo, Dhaal Atoll - July 2009

A month into my Maldivian experience and I’d been handed the opportunity of a long weekend escape to Dhaal Atoll, South-East of Kaafu Atoll and a good 3 hour trip by speedboat launch. The one thing about living and working in the capital (Male) of an archipelago is that the old phrase ‘outta sight, outta mind’ really rings true, in that once you’ve settled it feels as if your island is the only one for miles and run the risk of never seeing anything else. So it was that an extremely excited group of mates and a surf guide from SIM (Surf in Maldives) that headed south into the islands proper on an easily arranged, affordable launch.

For that first hour, the majority of which was in darkness, we chatted away about the possibilities of what might await us. Our guide knew a little more than us for obvious reasons and let us in on the secrets of a very seldom visited, unnamed surf break that worked beautifully when the swell was big. He also mentioned the amazing fishing in Dhaal and the stark beauty of some of the uninhabited islands in and around Kudahuvadhoo (“Kuda”), the Atoll capital. But pretty soon that sun was up and the tropical heat blazed down on us from a cloudless, blue sky as our launch carried us amongst reefs (Faru), sandbanks (Fingahlu)and palm tree covered islands and on towards our destination.

A fair amount of fanfare greeted our jam packed speedboat when we docked 8ish. Our guide had arranged that family friends of his were waiting to greet us and after all the pleasantries our bags, boards and rods were whisked away to a local Guest House. Meanwhile we found ourselves being led down a sandy beach track, into the back of a beautiful, double storey house and sat down at a kitchen table teaming with local cuisine. Coconuts (Kurumba) with little straws in the top, Mas huni roshi (a popular breakfast dish of tuna, coconut and chillies that you roll up into a type of thin bread) and an bottomless pan of sausage, eggs and tomato lay spread before us. The timing was impeccable and we gratefully wolfed down whatever was laid out. Forcing another Kurumba down, we made our way out of the sanctuary of the homely kitchen to the shrieks of our guide’s younger cousins, who were super excited to give us a tour of the island. We spent the best part of an hour strolling along blindingly white sand and along palm- fringed pathways, coconut husks and smiling kids around each bend. With the island completely surrounded by a beautiful reef and a gentle ocean breeze just stirring, we might as well have docked, officially, in paradise. Unfortunately litter remains a massive problem wherever you go in the Maldives, and the only slight blemish on an otherwise perfect picture portrait, was the amount of plastic lining the shoreline. The rest of the day was spent relaxing in the Jolly Fatties (a kind of hammock chair ubiquitous on local inhabited islands), reading, chatting and planning the evening’s events.

It was unanimously decided that we weren’t going to wait around for the weather report and would just go ahead and arrange fishing gear for the evening. Fishing gloves, strong line and round, plastic contraptions to tie our lines onto were procured; along with a fishing dhoni (wooden boats), food for the evening and the inevitable bucket load of bait that we’d be needing. With our dhoni stocked and enough fishing tackle and bait to see us through to the next millennium, we headed off into the late afternoon.

In no time at all the makeshift rods had been baited and lines were being wet. Another magic sunset triggered off probably the most memorable night’s fishing of my short career so far as Barracuda and massive Red Snappers were hauled aboard almost at will. There is something special about being out on the ocean at night, the quiet lapping of waves against the boat, the timeless brilliance of a billion stars overhead and then the sudden jerk of a hungry reef fish on the end of your line, as the silence and solitude is broken by shrieks of excitement and the scurrying of feet to lend a hand. Our brilliant guide again got the timing just perfect and as we were bordering on losing interest in all these fish, he had us suit up for a bit of night snorkelling, underwater torches and all. Well, as amazing as the fishing was, it pales in comparison to a nighttime snorkel on a coral reef in the tropical Maldives. The sea-life was generally a little sleepy, but the colours and shapes were phenomenal! After an hour or so, the girls started to get a little chilly, so we were hauled back aboard and headed home for a truly delicious Snapper, grilled to perfection on the open, coconut husk coals.

Another sunny day greeted us the following morning, our last of the trip, and just when we thought things surely couldn’t get any better, our secret surf spot appeared on the horizon due West. It was small and a good 100m paddle out, but what a session. Not a breath of wind, coral reef crystal clear below us and 2-3 foot running for a good 10 seconds down the reef. Sun, sea and surf! This was the only way to sign off on an incredible trip on public transport, to a local island in the south.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mantas run (swim) amok!

All week we’d been chatting about finally getting another dive under the belt. Ever since a mate of ours had mentioned his chance experience with Manta rays off one of the resorts, not even an hour’s dhoni ride from Male. Phone calls had been made and boats booked, so it was with teary eyes that we watched the rain bucketing down on Thursday evening.

Nonetheless, we were given the green light early the next day and loaded onto a dive boat along with a few locals, Austrian Joe, Scottish Ewen and a Miss Perry-Bower from somewhere in Suffolk. The trip out to Manta Point (or Lanka Point if you aren’t lucky enough to see them joked one of the instructors) went by in a flash and before we knew it, we had been briefed and suited up for the first dive of the day.

Austrian Joe, this young lass from Suffolk and I were teamed off with Wadhook and away we went. No sooner had we begun our descent than these docile monsters of the ocean began floating past. Even the black-tipped reef sharks circling just off the coral drop-off weren’t enough to distract our gaze from what must be one of the more calming experiences in life. The way these creatures glide along effortlessly on those massive ‘wings’, front mandibles quietly brushing plankton into their mouths, side eyes ever alert! We were pretty much surrounded by Parrots, Orientals, Butterflies, Clowns and Travellies – but not once did my mind wander from the outside chance that we might just see a few more Manta. And they didn’t disappoint. No fewer than 5 huge rays visited our ‘lookout’ around the feeding station, the most of which get so close that they come across as almost tame.

Our tank limits were reached far too quickly and with the tapping of his metal prod, Wadhook signaled for us to ascend. Miss Suffolk 2008 seemed to pay no heed to the 3m stop off though and both myself and our instructor had to grab her feet to keep her from bursting through the surface a good few minutes too early.

Once back on the boat, the heavens opened once more – drenching us, but also putting the cap on some incredible diving and a memorable morning amongst the natural elements.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Guraidhoo chill

Eid Mubarak!

And as good an excuse as any to get off the mother island and away to the south; hunting for surf, a bit of fresh seafood and some chill time somewhere a little less frenetic than Male.

We left school early, jumped in a taxi, collected our gear at the apartment and sped off down Majeedee to Jetty no.1 and the awaiting ferry. Our baggage was stashed away by one of the deckhands just as one of his fellow seaman was throwing off the bowlines and by the time we were safely ensconsed on the roof, our boat was already out of the harbour and into the open ocean. Maldivian timeliness at its absolute peak!

Both pretty stuffed after a hot and tiring week at the coalface, it wasn't long before we were both sprawled out on top deck, hats covering our faces and light sea-breeze bringing welcome respite from the searing midday sun. Needless to say, we didn't see much on our way down, apart from a very decent 2-3 foot of swell breaking off Kandooma, and arrived at Guraidhoo at 4ish. The ferry was packed to the rafters with folk coming away for the Eid break and they poured out onto the island now. It suddenly dawned on us that a spot to sleep for 2 nights might not be that easy to come by. Fortunately we were lucky enough to bump into our old mate Adam at the Surfers Shack and he arranged us a twin room at Riptides, which suited us down to the ground.

Having dropped everything off, we made straight for the jetty area, hunting for a spot to kick our weekend off with a late afternoon snorkel. There were no clear reefs around, so we threw ourselves off the furthest jetty from the main harbour and hoped for the best. Not the greatest underwater session of the year - murky and with lots of sea grass around, but the venture was made all the worthwhile when two massive sting rays drifted past us. Suddenly the immediate vicinity seemed alot more menacing and we made for the sanctuary of terra firma pretty soon afterwards. After a quick shower back at Riptides, we lost ourselves in a couple of Jolly Fatties and watched another cracker sunset settle out over the Western Front. Scant on cash we grabbed a quick Maldivian Noodle soup and a Nasigoreng at The Palm Restaurant on the harbour and headed home for the 'Shithead' Champs and a moveski.

Friday morning started late, and after trying to sneak across the lagoon onto a 4 star resort and being unceremoniously turned away by their hardcore Chinese bicycle patrol, we found ourselves perched once more in a pair of Jolly Fatties shooting the breeze and brushing up on ancient Greek mythology. The call of the wave is strong though and after a few hours with Gaia, Uranus, Zeus and Athena we had a makeshift lunch of pineapple jam sarmies and chocolate biscuits and went in search of some swell. The surf was nothing to write home about, but we had a few good laughs paddling the 300m across the channel and Hannah's debut on a board, so it was memorable. We were completed stuffed just from the paddle once back on Guraidhoo, so hit the Guest House for some kip before venturing out for our final evening on the town. With most of the local folk at friends and family celebrating Eid, the streets were empty and if our restaurant had two people in the whole place it was alot. On our way out of the restaurant we were mobbed by a youngster armed with a loud hailer and flyers for 'the party of the millenium' down at the football stadium down the road. We had to have a quiet chuckle as slotted 51st State into the DVD player later that night and wondered how many POS 51's might have been going down around the local goal posts.

The rest of the evening past uneventfully and by 7am we were back on the Male bound ferry boat, relaxed and recovered and into the final stretch of 2010.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Stone cold chillin'

The Players: Aussies, Kiwis, Saffers, Yanks, Russians and English.

The Venue: Central Atolls (South Male/Meemu)

The Drink: Katemba (Red Wine & Coke)

The Dream: Five days of 'Good, clean living'

It all kicked off on a breezy, sundrenched Male morning with the loading of boards and the collection of our last guest from the airport. Within minutes of his arrival we had all been ferried out to the awaiting Safari boat, handed a cold beverage and and made our way onto the top deck. Surf in Maldives and their entourage were underway with a decent sized south-east swell due to arrive tomorrow and fill out by Wednesday...

Day 1: Male Airport - Kandooma/Guraidhoo (South Male)
Well, the swell certainly hadn't struck by the time we reached Guraidhoo (Natives), but we live in hope and five of us paddled out into 1ft surf off Kandooma Resort for an aperitif. The break didn't get any bigger, but we all had an absolute jol riding party waves and just generally stuffing around getting used to the boards. By 6pm the surfers were back aboard the safari boat and a cheeky tropical sunset set the tone for the rest of the night.

Day 2: Guraidhoo - Muli (Meemu)
A blustery wind greeted fuzzy heads early the next morning as the combination aroma of a continental breakfast and diesel fumes nudged us all towards top deck. The channel crossing saw us all over the boat trying to save chairs, drinks and bottles of suncream as the unpredictable swell tossed our noble vessel from crest to crest. Once across and amongst the islands of Vaavu Atoll we decided to anchor off a random sandbank, surrounded by hidden coral and a turqoise blue ocean. Needless to say, the batters struggled, while the bowlers and slip cordon thrived in windy and choppy conditions. From Calypso cricket on desolate stretches of Indian Ocean sandbank, we sailed out again in search of the epic swelled promised by the weather gurus and local surfers. And they weren't to disappoint. As we cruised into Meemu and on towards Muli Point, the seas beneath us began to swell so that by the time we'd arrived at a break called Mushrooms, medium-sized, A-frame peaks were bearing down on our small board carrier dinghy. With only two other surfers in the waves, we had the makings of a great session on our hands. Over the next hour, regular peaks of 4 or 5 foot rose behind us, although we weren't able to bag as many faces as we would have liked. All too soon the light had faded and we were being collected, but not before two massive manta rays floated past us in the surf. Surreal. This evening saw Cazbo, Bombski and Bax host a hotly contested Quiz night finally won (controversially I might add), by the Pork swords.

Day 3: Muli - Formula One break - Rabban Dhihuraa

Up at 'Sparrow Fart' for an unsuccessful snorkelling expedition, breakfast and into the surf at Formula Ones by 9am. Awesome. 4 to 6 ft barrels running down the length of Muli island and out into the channel. Once caught inside it got hairy, but if you found yourself on a face and hitting the lip, this was it bru. We spent the best part of the next three hours ripping waves that only a few have ever seen, let alone ridden and it was with classic jelly arms that we crawled into our pick up dinghy. Dolphins joined us on the ride out and we decided to name a break that had appeared out of nowhere once back on the boat. There now exists another Meemu Atoll break called 'Rautis' after Jacobus Wessel Rautenbach - surfer, mechanic and pioneer.

Most of the afternoon was spent cruising across to the other side of the atoll where we 'moored' (anchored) just off another uninhabited island. The snorkellers amongst us hadn't seen much action yet and were gone before we even had the anchor down. The reef turned out exceptional and untouched, and teaming with fish. This session was followed by another quick game of skim cricket, a few cold ones and a serious hand injury to our mid wicket fielder after another searing pull shot from Bombski. The late evening was spent around a freshly prepared fish braai (barbeque), laid out amongst home-made candles and palm frond cushions, and put to bed with night fishing and a full round of cigars.

Day 4: Rabban Dhihuraa - Kandooma - Riheveli

Another early morning rise and breakfast saw us back on the water, unfortunately for the return leg of the trip. The morning and early afternoon session passed by uneventfully, with most of the party lazing around on deck, chilling, reading and panic tanning. By mid-afternoon we were back off Guraidhoo and suiting up for a crack at a pretty shallow reef break to the right of 'Natives' (Guraidhoo). Perfect for the body boarders amongst us and is closed out consistently, it had the surfers shitting themselves in stages and we tended to hang off the shoulder waiting for the more mellow stuff. After an hour and a bit of 'coral reef roulette' we hit the sundowners hard (with Katemba prominent) and suited up for the Riheveli white party. Dominated by beautiful women, superlative Ken Forrester wines and heavy handed dark rum, the train was quite solidly derailed by midnight and it was a group of wounded, slurring soldiers that made their way back to the sanctaury of the safari boat.

Day 5: Riheveli - Male - Dhonveli

And so it happened that the most epic surf conditions of my two years in the Maldives were to happen on our last morning at Kandooma Point. The waves mellow and nobody else in the surf; Amber, Andy, Wardy and myself paddled out to meet the advancing train of picture perfect wave trains. Despite being a fairly heavy break onto a shallow reef, they averaged 3-4 foot and broke beautifully from right to left. Without a breath of wind and not a cross current in sight, we sat and chewed the proverbial cud for close on 3 hours before finally calling it a day on a cracking surf trip into the central atolls. The rest of the day would pan out pretty chilled in comparison despite a stopover at Chaaya Dhonveli.Until the next time...

Good clean livin'!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Two days in Thulusdhoo

Day 1: Cruised out of Male mid-afternoon with Chris, Amber, Anastasia and a light westerly wind in tow. The conditions had been average over the last few weeks and we were all super keen to get stuck into a few lekker waves. Just under two hours later our public ferry docked at the inhabited island of Thulusdhoo, North Male Atoll - we dumped our bags and headed for Cokes, the local break. The elements came together perfectly and within the hour we were riding mellow 3-4ft reef trains slap-bang into a tropical sunset. The Imam sounded his call to prayer, we caught some whitewash onto the rocks and day one's first session had drawn to a close. Not having had any tucker since lunch, the crew were ravenous and after a quick shower made our way across to a corner cafe for coffee, tuna & rice. Once stuffed, we hit the moonlit beach for a few hours chat before rolling into bed for a solid night's rest.

Day 2: Fully intending to hit the dawn session, my eyes only opened 7ish, Amber's two hours later (it must really have been a tough week); and only Chris found himself in the water at daybreak. It turned into a great little wave and with only a boatful of crazy Spaniards to lineup alongside, there were rides aplenty. I took a breather for tuna sarmies and Pepsi at around 11ish and spent the afternoon chilling at the house fiddling with the the new underwater camera. In nexto no time, the light afternoon breeze was hushed and the sound of an operating reef break once more filled the senses. We hit the waves just before 5 and paddled and chatted and rode epic waves pretty much non-stop for the next two hours. Another magic sunset brought a crackin' session to an end and fish curry, short eats and a Leo Di Caprio movie on the 'big screen' eventually brought the final curtain down on a truly lekker weekend.

Until next time...

Friday, July 30, 2010

SURF CONDITIONS, July 30th, 2010

The wildness of the Indian Ocean has calmed down, the wind and rain seem to have subsided for the time being and everything is back to normal on Male, the island capital of the Maldives.

Got a call from James mid-morning and snuck down to Male Point (‘Towns’) to have a look at conditions. With the sun out, a light westerly blowing and 2-3ft swell it was a great opportunity to get into the waves after the massive conditions of the last week. I spent perhaps an hour catching cheeky lefts with a young Brazilian girl called Mariana and then went off to meet my girlfriend for lunch. Life is good in the archipelago.

“Boat-trips (Surf In Maldives Pvt Ltd.) and the occasional surf camp are the only ways to surf this unique group of 1,200 coral islands based around 26 atolls. Typically the reefs passes are deeper than in Indonesia and the South Pacific with classic set-ups abounding. Swells travelling south-west across to Indonesia bestow part of their energy on this chain before continuing their journey. Separated into the North Atolls and South Atolls (the south has the most spots) the region boasts year-round swell with high period being March to April. Two monsoon seasons, the north-east monsoon from December to April and the south west monsoon, from May to October breaks up the surfing season shifting the focus from north to south accordingly. Predominantly reef-passes, waves like Sultans and Tiger Stripes have developed deserved reputations for epic barrels and raw Indian Ocean power. Sea temperatures remain steady at about 27ºC or 81ºF.” Magic Seaweed