Magical Maldives

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My friend Mollie has been vacationing in this Indian Ocean paradise of islands almost every year for the past 26 years.  She swoons when talking about her perfect holidays:  sensational snorkeling, gorgeous accommodations, fabulous food, pristine beaches.  What more could one want?

We had booked a trip to Sri Lanka last February (see previous posts, “Wonders of Sri Lanka” and “Sri Lanka: Wondrous Wildlife”).  The Maldives were in the neighborhood, about an hour and 15 minutes flight time from Colombo.  We had to see this paradise for ourselves, so we added a week of Maldives R&R to our trip.

No doubt — the Maldives are magical.  Postcards cannot capture the beauty of beaches surrounded by shimmering sapphire waters.   Our resort was luxurious.  We had our own bungalow, our own piece of beach.  The food and resort staff all rate five stars.

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No crowds on Maldive beaches

Yet, we were not overwhelmed.  Unfortunately we did not have the best weather.  Too many cloudy, overcast days and rain.  When it rains in the Maldives, it teems. I had been eager to experience what is considered some of the best snorkeling in the world. I was disappointed.  I did see colorful, exotic fish and other creatures, but not the extravagant underwater wildlife I had expected. Mollie said we should have chosen a smaller island and resort, and I should have taken boat excursions to other places for better snorkeling…

The Maldives consist of more than 1,190 islands on a coral-formed archipelago.  Only about 190 of those islands are occupied by the country’s some 341,000 inhabitants.  The rest are virgin islands, or, like our Island, Horubadhoo, Baa Atoll, private islands developed for individual resorts – one resort per island.

Hasan Ibrahim, reservations manager at Royal Island Resort and Spa where we stayed, told me there are 114 of these private island resorts in the Maldives, with another 14 under construction.  On the main island, Malé, and on some of the other larger islands, there are guest houses offering far more reasonable accommodations than the pricey, private resorts.mblog.13a

Royal Island Resort and Spa has a capacity for about 300 guests, and a staff of 350 coming from at least 10 different countries, he said.  Most of the guests are Europeans.

“Since the tsunami (2004) everything has changed,” assistant manager Sharif said. “The winds, the waves, you can’t predict.  The rains are heavier now.’’ The inclement weather we experienced in March was abnormal. “This is supposed to be the dry season.”

He explained that El Nino in 2016 killed the coral, turning it brown.  “It will take eight years to come back.”  Although Royal Island did not suffer extensive damage from the tsunami, a rock wall, mainly underwater, was built around the island in 2008 to protect it from big waves and erosion.  I did venture outside the wall when snorkeling several times and spied different fish, but the sea was a bit rough and I feared venturing too far.  There were no other swimmers in sight. mblog.17a

I did fulfill one wish – to scuba dive again. I am certified, but have very few dives on my dive card.  I just wanted to prove that I could still dive, and thanks to a very patient and understanding diving instructor, Anne from Russia, I succeeded.

Bungalows at Royal Island are spread throughout a tropical forest, but all facing the beach.  The only sounds are the gentle slapping of waves on the white sands and bizarre shrieks from all manner of jungle fowl.  mblog.14a

In addition to diving and snorkeling, tennis, big game fishing, sailing, and canoeing are offered.  A posh spa offers a variety of treatments, massages etc.  We took beach walks around the island (800 meters in length and 220 meters wide), and rarely encountered another soul.

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We left the island paradise to visit an island where Maldivians live and work. These friendly women were happy to pose for photos in their shop.

If you seek solitude and tranquility, the Maldives is the place. We like both, but mixed with exploring and mingling with locals. We had our chance for the latter on a boat trip to a larger island where we followed our guide through a tiny fishing village — and shopped.  There were just a few souvenir shops, but each offered bargains and friendly, delightful shopkeepers who, not only gladly posed for pictures, but showered us with small presents after we made our purchases.

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Fun feeding session on outing to a nearby island

A bit of adventure awaited on the shark and ray feeding outing. The marine mammals are obviously accustomed to visitors and snatch food from your hands if you are brave enough to offer. I was intrigued.

The majority of Maldivians, Sunni Muslims, live in the capital city on the island of Malé where the main international airport is located.  Their religion prohibits drinking alcohol and eating pork, but the resorts are an exception to this ban.

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Village women were at work cracking almonds.

Ibrahim said managing Royal Island is“like running a cruise ship. We have to do everything ourselves… We produce our own water. All the food is imported.”  All the staff live on the island, he said.  “We are like a family.  We live and work like a family.”

The Royal Island family treated us and all the guests royally. We were amazed with the variety of tasty food.  The surroundings, both the beach and the jungle-like interior, are enchanting.  All is magical, but perhaps not the kind of magic that will lure us back for a repeat visit.

More photos follow.

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Chefs at resort prepared different ethnic specials every night.
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A beach brigade cleans and sweeps the sand very early every morning.
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The men fish.  The village women have other chores.
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Not camera shy, these Maldivians.
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Cats wait for leftovers from shark and ray feeding.  I made sure they got plenty.

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Adventure Africa: The Animals

animal.1The Big Five – almost. The leopard, the most secretive and elusive of cats, escaped us, however we were hot on a leopard trail more than once. Sightings of lions, elephants and Cape buffalo were plentiful. We even saw one rhino. Impala, giraffes, zebra, various antelopes, crocodiles, warthogs, hyenas and lots of birds were also captured on our cameras.

Birds eat blood-sucking parasites found on may animals.
Birds eat blood-sucking parasites found on may animals.

(A previous post was devoted to gorillas in Rwanda, “Gorillas in our Midst,” truly the most outstanding animal experience during our African adventures.) Subsequent visits to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe were nonetheless rich, rewarding, often exciting, and always educational. Following are highlights of our animal encounters.

For more, see previous post, "Gorillas in our Midst."
For more, see previous post, “Gorillas in our Midst.”

ELEPHANTS: These massive creatures are a source of wonder. We spotted them in all three countries, and learned much about them. Botswana, specifically Chobe National Park, is home to 65,000 elephants. They eat 18 hours per day, as much as 150 kilos of food per day. In Chobe, most all the trees are bare, stripped clean by hungry elephants. During a Learning and Discovery session, we were told that one elephant requires about one square kilometer of space.

Elephants strip the trees bare.
Elephants strip the trees bare.

Chobe encompasses 11,000 square kilometers – clearly not enough for such a large elephant population. It is a dilemma. Sterilization or translocation is too expensive for the country. Furthermore, translocation does not usually work as elephants, no matter how far from their original home, will head back. Culling has been considered but would generate negative publicity that would surely cut down on tourism. “What can we do?” our lecturer asked. Anyone have any ideas?

Super large elephants with gigantic tusks are rare. Most have been taken out by poachers and/or hunters. In Botswana, guards “shoot to kill” poachers. The country has fewer poaching problems than many other countries, and has banned safari hunting.animal.17We marveled at solitary elephants munching on trees, large groups marching to rivers and mothers with babies in tow. Elephants can communicate for great distances with a rumbling sound, and other sounds not audible to humans. They can run at speeds up to 25 mph. If you happen to be charged by an elephant, do not run. “Stop and clap and shout.”

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The lion is not the King of Beasts as he is easily killed by elephants, Cape Buffalo, even Honey Badgers.

LIONS: None of our safari group was charged by an elephant , but one angry lion did charge an open safari vehicle. The driver saved the day and raced away at great speed. We had numerous lion sightings – magnificent, astonishing, brutal, gruesome. More than once we witnessed lion sex . No wonder. They are champion copulators, we learned, — up to 100 times in 24 hours. A male and female can be at it more or less nonstop for three to five days – without Viagra.

Lions have no need of Viagra.
Lions have no need of Viagra.

“This is National Geographic stuff,” our guide Abiot commented after we had watched a mating couple. Later that day, more National Geographic – too much for some. The Kill. Along the side of a road, a group of eight female lions was in the process of attacking and eating a live Cape Buffalo. It was bloody. It was fascinating. It was agonizing.

The poor beast struggled to stand up, only to fall down and groan in pain. The killer team took turns. A few would lunge and bite, while others rested and observed. We watched and photographed for at least 20 minutes, but had to move on to our next camp. We later learned from the bus driver who passed the scene many times that the buffalo’s suffering went on for three hours before he succumbed.animal.7“This is a training session,” Abiot said. “These lionesses are young. They are not skilled at killing.”

I had naively assumed that when killing lions went for the jugular to put the prey out of its misery. That is far too dangerous with Cape Buffalo due to the horns. For this reason, Cape Buffalo, considered the most dangerous of African animals, are rarely attacked by lions.

He looks sweet, but the Cape Buffalo is the most dangerous of African animals.
He looks sweet, but the Cape Buffalo is the most dangerous of African animals.

Elephants are also not normally targets for lions. “Most lions are afraid of elephants,” a guide said. Even lions have enemies. Honey badgers – small but fierce – can kill a mighty lion. “They are very clever. They go for the private parts. If you ever encounter one, back off,” we were warned. We did see one along a safari track. The driver floored for a close-up view. The petite creature stopped and bared his teeth at us, as if daring us to get any closer.animal.18A group of baboons can also kill a lion. They have very sharp teeth. They are also mischievous. Several broke into the tent of a couple in our group. No real damage was done, but all their belongings were helter skelter.

Hippos can stay submerged for six minutes.
Hippos can stay submerged for six minutes.

HIPPOS: It is rare to see more than the heads of these giants which spend most of their days submerged. They do emerge from the water at night in search of food, eating up to 45 kilos per night. During the day they must stay under water because the sun cracks their skin, and they have no sweat glands. They are fast and can run at speeds up to 34 mph.   Because of the weight of the male, hippos mate under water. Babies are born in shallow water and stay with their mother for up to eight years.   A canoe guide in Zambia where we spotted hippos on a game viewing boat excursion complained that business was down due to an erroneous report on Facebook that hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa. Not true — the Cape Buffalo as mentioned above.

RHINOS: It was at a private game reserve in Zimbabwe where we saw one rhino. Three rhinos were introduced to the reserve in 2000 and six more animal.11have been born since. The reserve has an anti-poaching team who live on the grounds.   Rhinos are dehorned every two to three years to discourage poachers, but they are often killed nonetheless. Poachers don’t want to waste time tracking a rhino only to learn it has no horns, so they eliminate all. Horns do grow back.animal.5

Horns are sold to powerful criminal syndicates who ship them to Asian countries, including Vietnam and China where their weight is valued at more than gold due to the erroneous belief that Rhino horn can cure everything from cancer to hangovers.

It’s a thrill viewing these creatures up close and leaning so much about them. As fascinating and wonderful as the animals are the people. Coming soon:  Adventure Africa: The People.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.

Our 16-day safari was organized by Overseas Adventure Travel, www.oattravel.com We paid $4,495 each for the all-inclusive package (lodging, all meals, most tips, land and air transport within Africa).animal.25Like my blog? Tell your friends.  Please leave a comment – if you can’t see the Recent Comments list below, use the link on the right-hand menu (below “Recipes”). Feedback is welcome. I love to know what my readers think about my posts.

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Adventure Africa: A day on safari

safari.23Three countries. Lots of animals. Fantastic people. Delicious food. “Ultimate Africa,” our 16-day safari to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, surpassed our expectations. We shared this fun and enriching adventure with 12 other travelers from the US.safari.24

After the sensational gorilla experience in Rwanda (see previous posts: Gorillas in our Midst and Remarkable Rwanda) we flew to Johannesburg to begin this journey which proved to be much more than African animals. Of course, they were the focus and we were lucky enough to witness some incredible happenings, including a grisly lion kill in action, lions mating, giraffes courting, elephants on the march and more. My next post will be devoted to animals.

Safari "tent"
Safari “tent”

During our travels we stayed in comfortable safari camps, most located in vast national parks. Each couple or single traveler had a tented room with shower safari.9and toilet. Days began with a 5 a.m. wake up call. In Botswana, it was the sounds of a drum beating outside our door.  Animals are best sighted early in the morning or late in the day.   They and we need to escape the blazing afternoon sun and intense temperatures.

After breakfast (usually fruit, toast and/or homemade muffins, porridge and sometimes eggs) we climbed into two safari vehicles, seven passengers, a guide and a driver each. Off we’d go into the bush, bouncing over rutted dirt tracks. Often we’d be deep in the wilderness in the midst of jungle growth. “Branches” called out the driver, so each passenger behind could lean in and escape bodily harm. Lee, a retired diplomat from Colorado, was named trip “Branch Manger.” He had a very distinct and aristocratic manner, like a Brit educated at Oxford, to warn those behind of “branches.”

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“It’s time to read my morning paper,” a guide announced as we rolled out of one camp. He carefully surveyed the ground, his “newspaper,” looking for tracks to determine which beasts may be in the area. Our camps were not in fenced-in enclosures, but in the open where animals, big and small, were free to roam. At night when it was time to go back to our individual tents, we were accompanied by a guide with flash light and usually a gun. At our tent home in the Lufupa Camp in Zambia’s Kafue National Park, monkeys chased one another on the roof, Bushbuck munched on grass in the back yard and hippos splashed and snorted in the river which flowed right outside our front door. Fortunately we never saw lions lurking nearby.

Travel in the bush
Travel over a bush bridge

During the morning game drive, we’d stop for a coffee break at a place deemed safe by the guides. They’d clap and scout out an area for those in need “to mark their territory.”

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Brunch, back at camp at about 11 a.m. served buffet style, was an array of tasty casseroles, salads and fruit – a copious feast. Then rest time. November, when we traveled, was supposedly the beginning of the rainy season. Instead of rain, we encountered scorching heat, often temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Our tents had ceiling fans, but lying down for an afternoon nap was like lying on a heating pad. Several camps had plunge pools for a welcome relief.

The British influence in food and lifestyle was evident in all our camps. Before gaining independence in the 1960s, Botswana and Zambia were British protectorates. Zimbabwe was formerly a British colony known as Southern Rhodesia. Thus, high tea was de rigueur, and almost yet another meal with something sweet, often cake, and something savory, such as mini pizzas or wraps. Learning and Discovery, lectures and discussions by locals, followed tea. The session on polygamy (widely practiced in Africa) was the overall favorite and mind boggling. It deserves its own post, or at least a good part of one. Stay tuned.

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We loved those sundowners.

At about 5 p.m. we headed out for the afternoon game drive. A regular and delightful part of these excursions was the “sundowner”  when we stopped to watch the sunset and enjoy liquid refreshment and snacks.   “I’ve been on many safaris, but I have never had a day like this,” commented Lee, who had served at posts in many different African countries during his career, as we marveled at a parade of elephants coming to drink at the banks of a river with the setting sun in the background. Heads of hippos popped up from the water to complete this National Geographic scene.   That morning we had seen lions mating, a group of hyenas, and a pride of lionesses attacking and eating a live Cape Buffalo

Elephants and hippos at sunset
Elephants and hippos at sunset

This was indeed our lucky day. There are no guarantees of animal sightings on a safari. There were several days when we did not find any exciting wildlife, but the game drives were nonetheless fascinating. Guides shared their wealth of

No need to go thirsty in the bush
No need to go thirsty in the bush

knowledge on the terrain, climate, vegetation and more. We learned about safari survival. Many plants are edible. Certain branches if cut yield a liquid to quench thirst. Others can be fashioned into rope. Tree roots can be used to brush teeth. The leaves of one tree act as mosquito repellent. Those of another act as a laxative for elephants.

The most exciting discovery one afternoon for guide Victor was elephant excrement, obviously from an elephant in desperate need of those leaves. “I’ve never seen elephant poop like this,” he said. He asked the driver to stop at a tall brown mound for a closer look.   “He must have been constipated for a very long time,” he said. It was such a sensation, Victor insisted on returning to measure the “poop.”

TJ helps Victor measure the "most amazing elephant poop."
TJ helps Victor measure the “most amazing elephant poop.”

Between countries and camps, we flew on small aircraft (a max of about eight passengers each). For half of those flights, a woman was the pilot.

We had been issued obligatory duffle bags for the trip.
No big suitcases, but obligatory duffel bags for the trip.

The majority of our travel companions were older and retired – like us. Three exceptions: Darcie, a nurse traveling with her aunt Raedeen, a Red Cross worker who had lived all over the world; Maia, a psychologist traveling with her dad, Charles, a retired veterinarian who celebrated his 79th birthday during the trip,

Bob and Charles celebrating Charles' b'day.
Bob and Charles celebrating Charles’ b’day.

and TJ, an IT specialist also traveling with his father, Ted, a retired professor. Two Southern belles, Tootsie, 84 and Marlene, 82, were an inspiration. Lois, a retired teacher, was on her 9th trip with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), our tour operator.  Retired US Post Office employees Helen and Bob were close behind – their 8th OAT trip. Like us, Lee was on his first trip with this tour operator. The repeat business is no surprise. Every aspect of the trip rated A+.

In the background, Lee and Maia. Foreground, Tootsie and Marlene
In the background, Lee and Maia. Foreground, Tootsie and Marlene

Abiot, our leader from Zimbabwe who accompanied us throughout the journey, deserves A+++. He was thoughtful, caring, knowledgeable, and many times went beyond the call of duty. Abiot comes from a large family in the hinterlands of his country. Between assignments, he drives 20 hours to reach his village which has no electricity. Yet, all have cell phones, he said. While at home he works the land, farming corn. Education in Zimbabwe is no longer free – about $20 per semester. He pays for four of his young cousins to attend school — and feeds 15 family members.

Abiot, our hero, who definitely deserves "tour leader of the year" award.
Abiot, our hero, who definitely deserves “tour leader of the year” award.

Prior to working for OAT, Abiot told us he worked for a luxury safari company which charged about $1,000 per day per person. He quit. “That was not Africa,” he said. “It was too much like America.” He much prefers OAT which he feels offers a genuine African experience.

Safari lounge
Safari lodge lounge

We, and all in our group, felt we had indeed experienced — and leaned so much — about “ultimate Africa.”

Refreshing moist washcloths awaited as we returned from hot game drives.
Refreshing moist towelettes awaited as we returned from hot game drives.

For more on Overseas Adventure Travel: www.oattravel.com We paid $4,495 each for our all-inclusive 16-day safari (lodging, all meals, most tips, land and air transport within Africa)

Much More Adventure Africa to come in future posts: Animals, People, Learning and Discovery… If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.safari.6

Recipes — no new recipe this time but check out the column at right for many tasty concoctions.  I recently had an African dinner party and served Spicy Peanut Dip with raw veggies for an “apero” snack.  It was a hit.  Christine asked for the recipe.  It’s up there, under Appetizers.

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In the stiffeling heat, the plunge pool was perfect for cooling off.
The plunge pool was perfect for cooling off.

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More on this in next post… not a happy ending. Don’t miss it. Sign up above and follow talesandtravel.