The Edition visits isles across the Maldives on a bi-monthly schedule, discovering the intricacies of island life and amazing islanders residing in different atolls, taking our readers through a 'virtual' tour of the country.
The day of my first visit to Hulhumeedhoo dawned bright with a smattering of clouds; a good omen heralding the lovely, adventurous three days ahead. Speaking of firsts, it was my first trip to Addu as well, the beautiful heart-shaped atoll that marks the southernmost borders of the Maldivian archipelago. Bucket list? Tick.
I arrived in Addu the day before, on a 90-minute Maldivian flight with a breathtaking view of the sunset, that bore my small group of friends from Velana International Airport to Gan. From there, it was a 10-minute speedboat transit to Canareef Resort Maldives in Herathera island; our lovely lodging for this long weekend.
However, this iteration of Isle Be Visiting begins at what the locals call “the channel”, a narrow strait of ever-flowing azure waters, separating Herathera and the island of Hulhumeedhoo. The two are linked by a sturdy wooden bridge, which we eagerly crossed that warm morning, equipped with our backpacks and excitement fuelled by a shared sense of wanderlust.
We were met on the other side by our guide, a cheerful man named Shabeer, who whisked us away in a ranger jeep on our new island adventure.
For the unenlightened visitor, Hulhumeedhoo is an amalgam of two administrative constituencies, Hulhudhoo and Meedhoo, established respectively on the southern and northern halves of the island. The channel connects to Hulhudhoo, and from there it was past colourful, low-lying houses with glimpses of homely gardens, to our first stop - the wetlands of Mathikilhi.
The distinct uniqueness of every mangrove swamp and lake across the Maldives makes each a worthwhile visit, but for a first-timer, especially if the idea of mud squelching between your toes makes you squeamish, it can take a little getting used to. But trust me, the beauty that awaits you every time - worth it. Thankfully, I’m no longer an amateur to this aspect of island exploration and it was easier to shed my slippers when the sandy roads beneath us morphed into, literally, ‘wet land’. The footpath, lined on both sides with taro fields and lush vegetation, gave way to a panoramic vista of watergrass.
From there, the sheer beauty of the scenery distracted enough from the chore of dragging my bare feet through ankle-deep watery mud, along a path cleared through the watergrass to a wooden walkway network erected towards the centre of Mathikilhi. Feet finally clear of the mud, we stood entranced by the sight that properly greeted us - walkways leading across the deeper murky waters, where every spare bit of area that was not lake was overgrown by shoulder-high watergrass waving lazily in the wind; 52 hectares of muddy, green, gorgeous wetlands.
As we left brown footprints along the walkways, surprised by the unexpected discovery of flowering plants blooming among the grass, our guide revealed that we were bearing witness to the efforts of the island community to develop Mathikilhi into an ecogarden.
Exploring Mathikilhi quickly morphed into chasing each other along the walkways and unspoken contests as to who could snap the best picture of the day. While I wouldn’t dare claim the title, especially in the face of one friend who nearly fell into the water - lying with half of her body off the causeway to get that perfect shot; ah, the dedication! - we ended our fun photoshoot atop a picturesque bridge connecting two walkways. It was undoubtedly *the* Instagram spot, where we dangled our feet above the water and felt much like carefree Hobbits in the Shire.
Then it was back into the mud - no complaints here, though, it made up half the adventure - and off to hose down our legs and sate our growling bellies.
Rattling in the back of the jeep as we drove along sandy, unpaved roads, I kept my eyes peeled for one of the most captivating sights one comes across in the South: the prevalent ‘dhondheeni’ or White Tern, the symbol of Addu. Although found across the world, in the Maldives the dhondheeni is endemic to Addu, with a few breeding sites in nearby Huvadhoo Atoll, such as the island of Odegalla. While undoubtedly a humdrum site for the jaded Adduan, the flutter of pristine white wings as they flit from tree to tree, never stagnant for long, would enchant me for the duration of my stay.
We grabbed some lunch and freshened up at Charming Holiday Lodge, an aptly named guesthouse where the hosts graciously offered us a short day stay. Rejuvenated and satisfyingly full, we opted to while away the afternoon with a Hulhumeedhoo tour.
Not unlike many other islands, Hulhumeedhoo is a fusion of the old world and the new. Scattered throughout, sometimes nestled between contemporary houses aglow with colour, are the ruins of old coral stone homesteads. A picture-perfect opportunity for most - us included, it must be admitted - there is nonetheless an inexplicable charm and nostalgia that cling to unsymmetrical stones held together by long forgotten masonry; a haunting atmosphere that hangs over crumbled roofs and missing walls, the yards unkempt and overgrown over long years of abandonment.
However, they are an afterthought in an island teeming with life, and we ran into a few interesting characters along the way. From the elderly gentleman sprawled in a beachside hammock that eagerly hailed us, to the more taciturn specimen fishing at the quay by Addu Fisheries Complex, who welcomed us with a smile if not conversation as we approached to observe his catch, they left me quietly wondering at the many stories and tales they have to tell.
We kicked off our second day a little differently. Hulhumeedhoo is an island with deep roots in the history of Maldives, and we immersed ourselves in a lesson not commonly found in our school texts, with a visit to Koagannu Gaburusthan (cemetery).
I’m certain that visiting graveyards is hardly high or perhaps not even on a typical vacation itinerary. There are ones you make an exception for though, and the oldest cemetery in the country, at 900-years-old and said to be the first graveyard made to bury Muslims after the Maldives’ conversion to Islam in the 12th century, is definitely one of them!
I found the cemetery as beguiling as it was unnerving. Patches of weed sprouted from the uneven sandy ground, tickling our ankles and the bases of tombstones that barely reached our knees, to those that towered over us like grim reminders. I was immersed in the sense of lost artistry in the intricate inscriptions on the stones, weathered black by the lost centuries and barely legible to the untrained eye.
Brightening up our visit, we were met at Koagannu by the historian Abdulla Hani, who once served as the island chief and aide to the atoll chief. In his awe-inspiring presence, my friends and I became school children again, entranced as he regaled us with the rich history of the cemetery. We were lucky to meet him as it were, for without his guidance, we would never have known the burial site of Yoosuf al-Naibu, who is said to have introduced Islam to the south of Maldives long before it was embraced by the rest of the country, nor discern the nuances between tombstones to differentiate the graves of judges and learned men of old.
With a wry quirk of his lips, Hani further indicated the inscriptions on the graves, carved into unyielding stone in Arabic and the archaic local alphabets, ‘Eveyla Akuru’ and ‘Dhives Akuru’.
“For those who know how to read them, these inscriptions tell us the entire history of those buried here”.
We ended our visit with a drink from the freshest well on site - surprisingly delicious and immediately demanding a second taste (a couple of us may or may not have fought for the ‘dhaani’ to pull up the well water) - and heads whirling with information and new appreciation for the history of the South.
Besides Koagaanu Gaburusthan, most of the corporal history of Hulhumeedhoo have been lost to yesteryears, such as the ‘Veyraandu’, an ancient site that housed the largest idols during Buddhist-era Maldives, according to Hani. However, we had another brush with history on our way to lunch, in the form of an underground bunker which was used by the British during the Second World War.
As we climbed down into the ruins, our guide told us how the bunker was disguised under a tree planted over it during times of war. However, standing at the centre under a roof that was no longer there and surrounded by crumbling walls already half gone, it hit me, with a strange sense of loss, how the bunker was yet another dissipating memory, slowly eaten away by the ferocious waves thundering up that stretch of eroded beach.
Lunch was a more cheerful affair. We were hosted by a gracious resident of Hulhumeedhoo, who plied us with chicken curry cooked in ‘Addu Havaadhu’ (the atoll’s trademark blend of spices), potato gravy, steamed white rice and most notably, ‘thelli folhi’ (another Addu specialty, which is a pancake-like fried flatbread). Famished as we were, the meal was absolutely divine, and we washed it down with passionfruit juice and enjoyed a scrumptious ‘haluvidha’, a delicately flavored agar-agar pudding, for dessert.
A lazy break to rest our weary feet, and then we were off to farm-hop and explore the island again. As we flitted from farm to farm, I learned of the Addu Meedhoo Cooperative Society, an initiative whereby the island farmers share resources, establish sustainable farming and, as a result, grow enough produce to not only supply the residents with fresh fruits and vegetables directly from the farms, but Addu City and the atoll’s resorts as well. Suddenly, I was viewing the plantations of cucumber, taro, lemongrass, lettuce, aubergines, pumpkin, and papaya in a whole new light, full of admiration and awe.
The visits to the local farms lasted quite a while, as my friends who are more green-fingered than I am ooh-ed and aah-ed over the alluring harvests, but at length we headed out towards the beach again.
During the leisurely drive, we came across quaint parks, with lovely wooden benches, swings and even hammocks, that dot the perimeter of Hulhumeedhoo. While ‘holhuashi’ (resting areas by the beach) are often seen by the shore in many isles, I admit this was my first time seeing parks outnumbering them.
We received answers from a genial group of ladies we met by such a park on the beach. They had convened for tea in a little gazebo overlooking a brilliant tropical sunset, and were all too happy to invite new faces to join their generous potluck. As we gratefully sampled a delicious array of Southern Maldivian short-eats, featuring the taro version of ‘boakibaa’, ‘kudhi gulha’, ‘bendi’ and jasmine water-infused butter cakes with steaming hot tea, we discovered that the ladies were members of Koagannu, an unofficial women’s association working on several civic projects, from island clean-ups to coastal protection.
During our cheerful chat, I couldn’t help asking about the parks. The women, grinning with well-earned pride, shared that they had been developed by the island community themselves, with hardly any government help. A spark ignited by one association ‘Nalafehi’ had spurred the residents to rise to the challenge, developing the charming resting spots in a friendly competition to outdo one another. I listened, with growing reverence and delight, as the ladies told us about the parks and general cleanliness of the island which are but a few examples of a commendable civic society, where residents spread awareness and take matters into their own hands.
The sun rose on the final day of our Hulhumeedhoo trip with brightness enough to match my excitement. The southern seas boast some of the best diving spots in Maldives, and although I regretfully was not a certified diver at the time of our visit, I jumped at the chance for a DSD (Discover Scuba Diving) with a local dive centre.
With a friend tagging along, I was soon on a boat heading out to the Banana Thila, a popular dive site that begets its name from the vague crescent-like shape of the reef. I’d done a DSD before, and couldn’t wait to experience it again; a single taste is enough to develop an addiction to the entirely new world that awaits below Maldivian waters.
Forty-five minutes later, I was living an experience even better than my first DSD, for it must be admitted that Banana Thila was far more vibrant than where I had my first dive. There was hardly any bleaching to be found despite the shallower waters compared to an open water dive, and it was teeming with colour and life.
Gently guided by my assigned Dive Master, I took in the underwater garden and its plethora of fish, from mesmerising schools to standoffish individuals. While my hopes for an exciting run-in with a reef shark or serene turtle were not met, the experience was no less enchanting the deeper we dived. What stood out most for me were the fire corals that bejeweled the reef, standing out from the rest like gleaming growths of gold. The highlight, though, was pausing by a lone gigantic brain coral, to say hello up-close to the two Maldivian anemonefish that darted shyly in an out of the waving anemone that had made its own home on the coral.
As we returned to Hulhumeedhoo later, flushed with elation at ending an adventurous trip with another adventure, our Dive Master enthusiastically described other diving hot spots in Addu, from the famed Manta Point and British Loyalty shipwreck, to Bodu Hohalha and Meedhoo Beyru. As I listened with fascination to what made each site unique, I mused that an Open Water certificate and a few more trips to Addu are definitely warranted in the future.
For there is still so much to discover of Hulhumeedhoo, of its beauty below and above water, and the rich culture and history of Addu. Not to mention the fathomless hospitality of its enthusiastic people, which left me spoilt for not only the lovely company but the delectable trademark cuisines of the South. Should there be even the slightest chance for a second adventure, I, for one, would not miss out!