By Daniel Bosley
It can be argued that it is the Maldives’ long isolation which has made it so enticing to visitors. A million years of coral culture, topped with a two thousand year blend of sea-going civilisations, marinated in lukewarm turquoise and served to the world with a fresh coconut (and a little straw).
Following this train of thought (or dhoni of debate), the Maldives’ capital of curiosity is surely still Fuvahmulah - the single-island atoll, lying alone amid the pounding waves of the Equatorial Channel.
Long after tourists had descended on Male’ and the surrounding atolls, Fuvahmulah remained a place that wasn’t easy to get to. Denied the luxury of a lagoon-side harbour, as enjoyed by every other island in the country, access was still notoriously treacherous up until the careful completion of the modern harbour earlier this century.
Even today, boat captains must be particularly skilled to make it safely behind the besieged harbour walls, and speed-launches from Seenu Feydhoo frequently unload passengers almost as green as the island itself; that's if they haven’t been forced to turn back halfway. The addition of an airport in 2011 has completed the atoll’s accessibility (but seaplanes from Gan will have to land on the kilhi).
Fuvahmulah’s unique geography means that deep ocean surrounds it on all sides; great for catching kattelhi fish, but not for bringing them home. While the modern harbour lies on the south-eastern tip of the island, prospective visitors would in the past have had to brave the sharp reef in blunt bokkuraa, alternating between eastern & western approaches - depending on the season. Older residents still vividly recall long voyages home, concluding with near-death experiences just a few tantalising yards from sanctuary.
Hard to Resist
But, the cultural treasures of this most mysterious part of the Maldives have attracted more explorers than perhaps anywhere else; though it seems one of the most famous early visitors, Ibn Battuta, probably didn’t get that far in the 13th century. (Many argue he actually visited the easier-to-get-to ‘Mulaku’/Meemu and not ‘Fuah Mulaku’)
Two early Fuvahmulah travelogues were left by 16th century Dutch and French sailors, though they seem to have been too engrossed in the island’s many fine ‘temples’ and its people to comment on how they’d made landfall.
A few decades later, Francois Pyrard would make only passing reference (in his memorable phonetic style) to ‘Poua Molucque’, describing a small island which had recently been lumped together with Addu as the archipelago’s 13th district. (Head south past ‘Souadou’, if you get to ‘Addou’ you’ve gone too far...doesn’t seem that Pyrard made the journey either).
Three hundred years later, HCP Bell arrived on the hunt for Buddhists, noting that the HMS Comus was able to get to within 500 yards of the nearest palm tree before he alighted onto a smaller craft. Relatively soon after Bell came more researchers and writers, drawn by the well preserved culture of the mysterious isle; this list includes Nils Finn Munch-Petersen, Xavier Romero-Frias, Thor Heyerdahl and Sonja Fritz-Gippert, who all found their way safely onto (and off) the island.
While Heyerdahl narrowly escaped an encounter with the island’s rough waves in 1982, two of his colleagues were so badly shaken by a near-drowning incident that they ended their trip prematurely. Four local women drowned in similar circumstances just a few years later.
What's more, when the Norwegian explorer came to see the island’s ruins for a second time, he was told of a Japanese film crew on a similar project who’d recently been capsized on their way past the reef, losing all the footage they'd hoped to take home.
Luckily today, people can easily go and see Fuvahmulah for themselves. All who visit agree that the island is probably the most beautiful in the Maldives, and its residents are certainly said to be the most hospitable. Could this fine treatment be because visitors have traditionally been such a rarity, or because anyone who made their way safely onto the island must surely have earned it?
Either way, visiting the shores of Fuvahmulah may no longer be difficult, but leaving them is still hard to do.
Editor’s Note: “Two Thousand Isles” is a collaboration between Maldivian photographer Aishath Naj and her husband, British writer Daniel Bosley in partnership with Mihaaru to document the untold stories of the Maldive islands.