Monthly Archives: January 2014

THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE IS EVERYWHERE

ImageI’m not a natural sailor (although, I curse like one). And I’m not a born seaman (although, I was born of one… Sea-men… hoyi). My father was in the navy which might explain my love for the water. And being born an Aquarius has probably contributed. But 13 days on a boat without seeing another vessel was starting to get to me.

So after crossing 1006 nautical miles south of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean (a prediction of an 8-day sail trip as accurate as a weatherman’s), it was a beautiful sight to behold the coconut-palmed islands of the Chagos archipelago, one of the most remote locations on our blue planet.

P1070477Located about 500 nautical miles south of the Maldives, Chagos is a British sovereignty since 1965. It’s sanctioned by the Royal British Navy under the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) which leased the largest island, Diego Garcia, to the US who built a military base on it (because what kind of world would we be living in if the Americans didn’t have a military presence in every corner of the globe?).

In order to maintain security, every inhabitant of the island chain – known as Chagosians (not a people from ‘Game of Thrones’) – were kicked out and a ban enforced on all non-civilian approaches to the islands.

The Chagosians sought refuge in Mauritius where, to this day, they are a displaced people with no rights. Over the years they took the Britons to the international courts and in the year 2000 won the right to return to the islands. But since the historic ruling, Mauritius has demanded that the British hand over sovereignty of Chagos. Meanwhile, as the bureaucratic nightmare continues to be battled out in the international courts, the Chagosians remain homeless while the US kick back and enjoy the island paradise.

P1070435Some good has come from the lack of human presence in the archipelago. Over the years, Chagos has been sanctioned as a marine sanctuary – the largest in the world spanning over 640,000 square kilometres (in comparison, the Great Barrier Reef on Australia’s eastern shores is ‘only’ 2,000 km long). All form of commercial fishing, the taking of crabs, flora and fauna has been banned.

Passage has been allowed for private cruising yachts in recent years but as far as I know (which isn’t very far) only two atolls are permitted visitation: The Salomon Islands and the Peros Banhos Atoll.

When we arrived we contributed to the human population raising it from 0 to 3 for the five days we spent there.P1070864

Chagos is straight out of an island getaway magazine; the white sandy beaches are littered with fallen coconuts from the leaning coconut trees, overhanging above turquoise crystal clear waters, surrounded by curious sand crabs, terrified hermit crabs and impenetrable jungles housing monstrous coconut crabs (the size of which could crush small cars). The few remaining ruins from the days of settlement, where you can find fresh water wells (the water good for washing and nothing more), are overgrown with Banyan trees.

There are large colonies of sea birds (with wingspans as wide as a Cessna) including Tame Brown Noddy’s, Frigatebird (AKA Pirate bird, AKA Man-of-War Bird), Tropicbird and Boobies. The only drawback I encountered were the black-and-white striped mosquitoes showing no mercy when we tried to penetrate the impenetrable jungle.

P1070655With our food supply running low we resorted to spear-gunning Parrot fish that, when encountering a school of them, you can hear their beak-like jaws munching on the coral. It was my first time spear-fishing and with my first shot I snagged a large one five meters below the surface. It was promptly introduced to the on-board barbecue.

As we snorkeled on the hunt in the inner reef of the Salomon Atoll, I saw Manu (after bagging a Parrot fish) suddenly whip around to find himself face-to-snout with a 3-foot black-tip reef shark. Although, it wasn’t large there’s still something intimidating about a torpedo-shaped mini version of a Great White circling us.P1070707

“I like to see my predator,” Manu later said when I mentioned the moment.

It rained non-stop the day after the New Year rolled in which we celebrated with a dinner of lentil curry and green beans with a fried egg washed down with Anchor (Sri Lanka) beer.

Five days later of snorkeling (including one exploration of the outer reefs), after we almost emptied the islands of coconuts, we set sail for the African island nation of Madagascar, some 1,700 nautical miles south-west of us, the human population of Chagos calmly returning to zero.

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Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, BIOT, Conservation, Sailing, The Indian Ocean | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

THE BOOK CLUB

IMG_3412When crossing 3,000 miles of ocean there’s plenty of time to catch up on some reading (if the boat you happen to be sailing on is stocked up on books). Between Thailand and Madagascar I read 22 books (4 on the iPhone). They are listed in no particular order:

‘Travel medicine’ – Dr Eric Weiss

Gives the basics of how to save a life in the wild from all sorts of injuries (burns, animal attacks, constipation). Easy-to-follow illustrations accompanied by simple explanations (no illustrations of constipation).

‘A Short Walk Thru the Hindu Kush’ – Eric Newby

Regarded as the travel book that changed travel writing. Two Englishmen – the author (who was a successful fashion designer) and his friend (an attaché in the British embassy in Kabul), attempt to climb a mountain in Afghanistan of 1958 without any climbing experience (and both men well past their 40s). Conveyed via humour in the first person.

‘Sailing for Beginners’ – Jeff Toghill

A short, easy-to-follow on the basics of sailing. You won’t win the America’s Cup right after you read it but you’ll gain basic knowledge and terminology (so that’s what ‘tacking’ means).

‘The God of Small Things’ – Arundhati Roy

Won the Booker prize. The story of an Indian family from the 50s, its place in society and the tragic events that takes place over the course of a generation. Drawn out long and seems to go nowhere.

The ending is an abrupt stop.

‘Cloud Atlas’ – David Mitchell

An epic sci-fi saga told through five different timelines that, I’m guessing, are supposed to connect at the end but either I missed it or it just wasn’t there.

‘Moonlight Mile’ – Dennis Lehane

A private I searches for a missing girl. He found her once when she was a toddler and now in her teens, she’s disappeared again. Quite funny and not as heavy as the author’s previous work, ‘Mystic River’, another great read (movie ain’t bad either).

‘Hells Bay’ – James W. Hall

It’s literally Cape Fear (the original) meets Swamp Men. Set in the Florida Everglades it’s about a reclusive guy who discovers he’s become a billionaire through a family he had no idea he was related too. Thrilling, funny and a few edge-of-your-seat moments.

‘The Glass Rainbow’ – James Lee Burke

Set in Louisiana, it’s supposed to be a crime thriller. Plenty of crime but no thrills. You know what’s going to happen and the attempt at building suspense is like playing Janga – it just collapses.

‘Voodoo River’ – Robert Crais

Another PI book. Outright hilarious. Also set in Louisiana, our hero is hired by a TV starlet to find out her family’s medical history. He finds a little more than he bargained for.

‘Timeline’ – Michael Critchon

A pretty gory, no holds bar time-travel story. Fast-paced (except for the explanation of quantum mechanics) but every page is great. A group of grad students of archeology and history are sent back to the Middle Ages to rescue their professor.

’11/22/63′ – Stephen King

Another time-travel adventure. Perhaps the mother of all time-travel stories (besides Back to the Future). Thoroughly researched (the title is the date of JFK’s assassination – 22/11/1963) it’s 848 pages of a page-turning suspense with laugh-out-loud moments. I read it in two days as I simply could not put it down.

‘Under the Dome’ – Stephen King

I haven’t seen the TV show that was recently produced based on this 871 paged thriller. Great narrative and keeps you wondering what next and you feel bad when a character is killed (there are about 50 characters). The descriptions of death and injury aren’t held back. The ending is disappointing.

‘A Cook’s Tour’ – Anthony Bourdain

Chef Bourdain goes around the world eating some weird stuff that I would never have dreamed of putting in my mouth (the still-beating heart of a snake, penis and testicles of a wild pig. I mean, who looks at that part of an animal and says, “Mm-hmm! Bitta rice, bitta soy sauce. Yummo!”?). Funny, witty and it’ll still make you hungry.

Not recommended for vegetarians\vegans.

‘The Lovely Bones’ – Alice Sebold

A terrifically written story about the murder of a 14-year-old girl in a small community and how the afflicted family deals with it. It’s told from the perspective of the victim watching from a non-cliched heaven.

‘A Widow for One Year’ – John Irving

The story is about writers and the broken homes they come from spanning from a 60s childhood to the present. One of those sit-by-the-fireplace books.

‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ – Alexander Dumas 

Epic. The movie was great but the book is always better. Although written in the 19th century, once you get past the ol’ school English it’s translated to it’s a great adventure story. Makes you want to come across millions and take revenge on everyone that ever wronged you (even your first grade teacher).

‘Fistful of Reefer’ – David Mark Brown

A western adventure based in the early 1900s with a car and motorbike involved. Few funny moments it’s about a Mexican trying to sell his marijuana crop with a little more to him than meets the eye. The ending is abrupt and leaves you wanting to strangle the writer.

‘Rose of Fire’ – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A short story from the writer of the fantastic ‘The Shadow of the Wind’. Like his previous work, this story is also based in Catalonia. It’s about a book being hunted by a bookstore employee. Pretty enjoyable.

‘Killer Instinct’ – Joseph Finder

A bromance Fatal Attraction story about a salesman in a large corporation that hires an ex-special forces guy without doing a background check that helps him, without his asking, fast-track his way to the CEO position. Fast paced, funny airport fiction.

‘The Grass is Singing’ – Doris Lessing

She won the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature. Based in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) of the early 20th century, a white woman is murdered by her black servant. There is no real mystery as the story is about how the victim deals with the hardship of farming life up until her death.

Quite a depressing read, really. Almost made me want to jump ship into the water.

‘SAS Survival Guide’ – John Wiseman

Not that I plan to come across a Man-versus-Wild scenario anytime soon but it is informative and has colourful illustrations of plants that can or can’t be eaten, how to draw water from them, build shelter and other essential survival skills.

‘The Works of Edgar Allen Poe’ – Edgar Allen Poe:

The author of one the most famous poems, ‘The Raven’, lived in poverty trying to live off writing. He died in 1850. His accomplished works of essays, short-stories and rhyming prose have inspired writers world-wide (including my summary of 2013).

Conclusion:

A lot of fictional characters are writers, about to become writers or want to be writers. Almost 90% of fictional characters have one or both parents dead either killed in a car accident or a plane crash. Stephen King likes to write epically but ends Hollywoodly. Other than that, some good books out there.

Go read.

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A STOPOVER

P107072435 coconuts.

That was what we added to our diminishing food supplies from Chagos.

We had coconut and rice for lunch, coconut and pasta for dinner (we did mix it up with coconut and lentils on occasion). Breakfast was boiled rice with coconut milk (sweetened with vanilla and sugar), beefed up with grated coconut. We baked coconut bread, coconut pizza (and on two occasions, coconut muffins). We made dessert with coconut milk and added sun-dried coconut to our breakfast cereal.

If coconut was heroin, we were the junkies.

The winds were not in our favour. Needing north-easterlies we were instead served with south-westerlies (and coconuts), the very direction we were sailing in (nothing like sailing into the wind to turn a week-long passage into two weeks).

Things were starting to look up when we caught our first fish since leaving Thailand 41 days ago. It was a blue tuna that fed us for lunch and dinner. The next day we caught a larger one, lasting for 3 days. As Manu cleaned the fish, Francois and I reeled in the fishing lines (we had a total of 3 trolling) as we didn’t P1070920need to catch any more.

As I pulled mine in, a tuna went for the lure and snagged itself on the hook.

When it rains it pours. But our fridge space was limited so we threw it back in.

With 12 days of sailing behind us, Francois decided we’ll stop in Agalelga, two islands – north and south – that are part of Mauritius.

With both Manu and Francois being of French origin and Mauritius being a former French colony, they enjoyed conversing with the French-speaking locals. Not one to be left out, English was also spoken (the native tongue is Creole).

 

The coast guard\police officers who were on rotation of 4 months (with the option to expand) were more than accommodating. These guys were the meaning of hospitality if you looked it up in a dictionary. With fears of encountering hurricane force-winds for the passage, our dinghy was deflated so we were provided with transportation from the sky-blue waters to the white sandy beach. Then they drove us the 7 K’s to the larger of the only two villages on the island that had the only supply store.

There are no banks or ATM facilities on either island so I was surprised that the one post office was able to convert 50 Euros to Mauritian Rupees so we could buy basic supplies of rice, pasta, flour, some canned goods and beer. We were surprised that fresh produce was not in abundance, besides the papaya and coconuts that the villagers simply gave us and eggs.

The village, Vingt Cinq, has been around since the days of slavery. The French name actually translates to the number 25, the amount of lashes the slaves would receive by their masters back in the 1800s. The name stuck and is served as a reminder of how sweet freedom is.

The population of the village, and indeed the entire south island, is 200. The north is another hundred (mosquito population is over a gazillion).

From the village store the coast guards took us to the meteorology station so we could get a weather report for our Madagascar passage. Back at their station house they cooked and fed us lunch, noodles with spam chicken in a tomato sauce and rice. Not one to pass up an opportunity to eat in abundance when supplies are consistent, Manu and I had two mountainous servings each.

I suggested to Manu that in return we should cook dinner for these guys. He gave me a French look that said, ‘Way ahead of ya’ (it could have also meant, ‘I will slap the stupid out of you’. My French isn’t fluent). At 18:00 we kicked off what was soon to become a feast fit for royalty.

I grated two coconuts, some fresh turmeric, added dry chilli flakes, crushed black pepper and a spoonful of garlic-ginger paste, mixing it together. Setting it aside to absorb the flavours I then grated three green papayas while Manu prepped a Parrot fish the size of San Miguel that the officers had caught.

“Wow,” I said. “I didn’t know Parrot fish could get that big.”

“That’s not big,” grinned the commanding officer.

I whistled through my teeth as I prepared the green papaya salad under Manu’s instructions. Throwing in crushed black pepper, fresh and dry chilli, sugar and adding vinegar and fresh, thinly diced garlic, I set it aside, the mixing to be done later.

Manu cooked up a soup of lentils while Patrick, the eldest of the guards (47 looking 37) steamed up some rice.

As is the norm while cooking (and should be standard practice in every kitchen) we drank ice-chilled Phoenix beer, munched on pan-fried Parrot fish (which had my taste buds in a hurricane of delight) and bread to settle our starvation.

Then some home-brewed beverages made an appearance. It was yellow due to the pineapple juice infused with sugar and rum. We went through four 1-litre bottles. Manu brought out the Royal Club whiskey we had bought at the store as a ‘thank you’ gift for the guards and a bottle of Mauritius rose wine topped it all off.

By midnight, with rain coming down as though someone had left a high-pressure shower on, we were drunk enough to dance to music videos being played on the plasma TV. It had me wondering why people of small island nations love the musical-styles (and I use the word ‘musical’ very, very loosely) of J-Lo, Pitbull, Lady Gaga and other factory-manufactured ‘things’ (I’m not up-to-date in the world of MTV).

“How long are we staying here for?” I turned to Francois, hoping the answer would be ‘Forever.’

“Tomorrow morning.”

Well, that’s disappointing.

We had returned to San Miguel on a skiff provided (and piloted by) the guards. Thanking them in English (Manu in French), I towel-dried and laid in bed, stomach full, smile stretched thinking about how the best things that happen are the unplanned ones.

Then I began to think of our next destination, Madagascar. It wasn’t the length of passage that had me concerned now that we were stocked up on supplies. It was what the resident manager (AKA governor) of Agalega had informed us about the African island nation when we were taken to the administrative building that afternoon.

He wanted to greet us and was delighted to meet, “Adventurers sailing around the world.”

He looked at us in surprise when we told him that our next destination is Madagascar.

“There is great unrest in Madagascar,” he informed us. “The political situation is unstable. They’ve just elected a new president, tourists have been robbed, some slaughtered. Even the French embassy has warned its citizens not to visit.”

I hadn’t seen any news on any topic for 28 days but you know the situation is bad when the word ‘slaughter’ is applied.

“But you are adventurers,” the governor smiled. “I’m sure you will manage.”

Sure we will. Manage to avoid Madagascar. The recent rumour that the Plague had broken out on the island didn’t add any favourable light.

“The country is full of pests,” said the governor when we asked him if he knew anything about it. “Rats everywhere.” The main cause of Plague, if I remembered my history classes (which I probably don’t).

“Is there somewhere we can access the internet to get the news?” I asked.

The governor smiled. “We don’t have Internet here.”

Nothing like sailing into a storm – political and natural.

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WHEN NORTH METS SOUTH

“What is that noise?” I asked aloud as the sound of a cascading waterfall grew stronger.

It was the day after my sacrificial jump to appease the sea Gods. I guess they don’t like hairy virgins cause the wind had died (it was as though Neptune had flipped the switch to ‘off’ on the fan). So we were basically a floating bucket out in the world’s largest bath tub, 4,000 meters deep.

Of course, out in the middle of the Indian Ocean (or any sea-sized body of water) there are no waterfalls so unless we were taking in water, what was the other explanation?

“It’s the current,” Manu said and pointed out to port-side. I looked over and saw a confluence of water colliding and moving across the surface, carrying man-made garbage from the shipping lanes further north.

The water was filthy, strewn with plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic containers – just plastic everywhere. How the fuck can people just throw out their shit into this (or for that matter, any) habitat other than a fucking rubbish tip\recycling plant?

As I stood watching the north greet the southern current as though it were the Mason-Dixie line, something raised its head among the rubbish, breaching the water and stared at us. We stared back for a second.

“It’s a sea turtle!” I called out excitedly.

P1060956It was a Hawksbill, just like the one that had watched me surf in Sri Lanka and just like the stoned character in Finding Nemo (where I get all my marine knowledge from). I now understood why it was given the stoner typecast. It looked blitzed. Wide, droopy eyes, a sunny disposition and I swear it had a loopy, “Hey… man,” look on its face.

We scrambled for our snorkel gear.

 

 

Until now, including the passage from Thailand to Sri Lanka, not only had we not caught any fish on the two lines we trolled daily, we hadn’t even seen any besides the blue-striped, yellow –tailed fish that swam under the boat, using the San Miguel as an adoptive parent.

When I dived in my jaw dropped in awe. I remembered to immediately close it as we were swimming in rubbish.

It was just like in Finding Nemo when the clown fish and Dorie come across the EAC – the Eastern Australian Current – the super underwater expressway that marine animals use to cross the ocean without having to burn fuel (like I said, it’s where I get all my marine knowledge from).

There were Dorados (AKA Dolphinfish, AKA Corrafin) the size of primary school kids, a couple of Barracudas at least 6-feet long, schools of small fish, a satellite-sized sea turtle surrounded by pilot fish and remoras and then I saw what should have made me fly out of the water like the flying fish I had seen in every open water crossing.

It was undeniable. There ain’t a creature out there that has more distinguishing features than this one. Its torpedo body, built for speed, swam side-to-side, keeping a steady pace with the boat at what appeared to be a leisurely stroll. It was grey-brown on top with black stains on the tips of its fins. As it turned upwards to see who was staring at it, its belly flashed white along with its teeth in that ever-smiling mouth that all sharks have. It was like driving on the highway and a Ferrari comes up behind you, lingers a bit, the driver winks and takes off as it leaves you a cloud of dust to stall your carburetor.

We were on the Autobahn of the Indian Ocean. And it was amazing. I was so taken by all the sudden forms of life overtaking us that it took me awhile to realise that the stinging sensation on the top of my left ear was rising to unbearable on the pain scale. I knew it was a jellyfish sting. I looked around and saw a Purple Jellyfish but their sting is only annoying rather than the feeling of a kickboxer’s roundhouse kick to the head I was now enduring.

I climbed out and hit the galley, fishing for vinegar. I dabbed the stung area and the pain immediately receded. I returned to the water, watching the traffic swim by.

The water was turning misty, like a desert highway when the steam rises off the asphalt. Oil and petrol and other pollutants being the suspects, no doubt. As though to urge me to quicken my pace and get out, two more stings clipped me on my left ribcage and left Achilles’ tendon.

Slightly dazed, I clambered out. As I sat clutching my left side I watched a Portuguese Man-O-War float by. It’s made-up of individual hydrozoan animals clustered together giving it the impression that it’s a single organism. Basically, it’s a floating colony.

All of a sudden my lymph gland in my left groin area started to raise the alarm. ‘We’re under attack,’ it seemed to announce as pain I had never in my life felt experienced started to pulsate from it. I made my way slowly down to the galley for more vinegar.

‘We are at DEFCON-4, Code Orange,’ my lymph announced as the bombing started. Manu was in the galley, staring at me.

“Jellyfish,” I winced, dabbing the vinegar on the attacked sites.

“Yeah?” he said in surprise. “Francois too. He is in super pain.”

Great. Death at the hands (or tentacles, I should say) of a fist-sized blob of jelly named after a conquering nation. Sometimes, when you play in a minefield, you forget that explosions can occur.

The overwhelming pain was growing but not spreading, which I hoped was a good sign. It was like being kicked in the balls by an African elephant.

I lay down on my bed. I could see the headline (or more-so, the little one -liner somewhere on page 19, after the sports and business section) announcing:

“NOMADIC ADVENTURER DIES AT SEA, STUNG BY JELLYFISH.”

Won’t that make mother proud?

I can’t remember passing out. I only remember regaining consciousness an hour later, the pain gone as though it never happened. The only reminisce of an assault was a lingering stinging sensation on my Achilles’ tendon.

I dabbed some more vinegar and climbed up to the cockpit, sharing war stories with Francois.

“All along my lower back. I couldn’t move,” he said. “Fuck, I never felt pain like that in my life.”

Me either.

As we floated into an oil slick, he fired up the engine and took us out into the carpool lane of the Autobahn.

As the old saying goes, what doesn’t kill ya, let’s ya live another day.

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POSEIDON AND NEPTUNE WALK INTO A BAR…

P1060606“Have you crossed the equator on a boat before?” Francois asked me.

It was just on 17:00, the wind keeping us at a steady pace since departing the port of Galle, Sri Lanka, three days before.

“I was on the ferry in Indonesia when I first crossed into the north,” I said.

I don’t really count it as a proper crossing as there are some traditions to uphold when sailing boats cross the invisible line that divides the planet from toilets that flush clockwise and anti-clockwise.

On some boats the captain will dress up as the sea God (Neptune if you’re of the Roman faith or Poseidon if you’re a Greekist), drinks will be served and if there’s a virgin equator-crosser (call it an ‘equator-gin’) then according to tradition – at least by Francois’ traditions – “The virgin is thrown or jumps overboard as an offering to the sea God.” He looked at me. “If he likes you, he’ll keep you and gives us good weather. If not, he’ll spit you right back out.”

“Sweet,” I grinned. “When are we scheduled to cross the line?”

“20:00 tonight.”

Oh. “Oh.” I sat back.

I had overcome my fear of swimming in bottomless waters, even looking forward to jumping in the wet that reached 4,700 meters below me in the kind of blue shade that man could never replicate. But swimming out in the middle of the ocean at night was a whole different kettle of shrimp.

Things wake up in the night. Nocturnal things with teeth bigger than their bodies (I gotta stop watching those documentaries). Before I could pass on the offer someone said, “Well, lemme know when it’s time,” and I realised, a little too late, that it was me.

20:00

Francois served up a cocktail of vodka-orange for the entire crew consisting of himself, Emmanuel (AKA Manu, an experienced sailor, an amazing chef and all round good guy) and myself. Up on the deck, under the canopy of stars, as the early moon began its slow crawl over the horizon, glowing a Mars-red, Francois began his speech:

“Neptune!” he called on the sea God (I sure hope we weren’t rumbling him from a deep-sea slumber), “this is San Miguel – sailing boat. It is our third crossing of the equator and, as usual, we are asking you to protect us and provide for us fair winds, calm seas and distant storms.”

“I’m terrified!” I mouthed to Manu who was grinning.

Jumping into the middle of the ocean off a perfectly good sailing boat at night? The fuck am I thinking?

“We have with us a virgin crossing the line which we will sacrifice to you,” Francois continued as we held up our cups. I hoped he didn’t notice my shuddering disposition in the velvety darkness. “We request that you choose to do with him as you wish and give us a good passage to Chagos, Madagascar and South Africa.” He then poured a little of his drink into the sea. I did the same, not wanting to upset a Roman/Greek God that controlled the H2O we were in. We cheered in the French, ‘Sonté’ and took a sip.

Francois then grabbed a buoy and as he tied it to the safety line and threw it out the back to trail the boat he said, “Alright, make your way forward and jump off to the side.”

I slowly rose. Manu grinned as did I, just to mask the immense fear that had decided to use me as a parking space. I crossed the deck of the 47-foot sloop to its bow. Using the Genoa pole for support, I climbed over the barrier. I looked up at the Milky Way, the stars surrounded by the same blackness that the water had turned to since the sun had disappeared.

“OK, jump!” Francois’ voice pierced my thoughts of regret and with a hefty, “Au revoir!” I jumped into blackness from the starboard side.

I hit the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and quickly kicked my way to the surface. No need to linger. I tread water and watched San Miguel sail by. As her stern came up I swam behind her and grabbed the trailing rope.

I ducked under and opened my eyes.

Blackness.

Nothing but blackness (what was I expecting to see? Vegas lights?). My heart was pounding. Thinking that the sound might attract some unwanted curious visitors with teeth, I practically flew out of the water, sitting on the steps of the stern when something suddenly loomed up beside me. I yelped as Manu laughed, pulling himself up.

“I decided to have a shower,” he grinned.

Great, my heart thumped. I managed a smile and fell into the cockpit, grabbed my vodka-orange and sipped on it, calming my nerves.

“So,” Francois said, “we are now in the Southern Hemisphere.” I looked around. “Do you feel any different?” he asked.

“Nope,” I smiled, “but I hear the toilets flush the other way down here.”

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SRI LANKA, PARTY CENTRAL

IMG_3326“I am Sanju,” Sanju introduced himself.

I shook hands with the young Sri Lankan as we sat on the old Dutch Fort in the port city of Galle. Once a main trading port for spices and tea between South East Asia and the Mediterranean, Galle is located on the south-west coast of the island nation.

I was strolling along the 300-year-old fort walls, my calf muscles still pissed off with my ascent of Adam’s Peak three days prior, when I sat beside Sanju and struck up a conversation.

“Do you want to go see the Redbull event?” he asked.

 

Not really knowing what was happening where I said, “Sure,” and followed him along the wall to the entrance tunnel of the fort. It had been blocked of by temporary event walls erected around two F1 Redbull racing cars sitting on stands.IMG_3333

“The newly recruited driver is about to arrive and rev the engines, then do some donuts,” informed the Redbull girl from the capital city, Colombo, handing out free cans of the infamous energy drink with a bright smile and twinkling eyes.

The crowd that had gathered curiously watched the set up as a DJ stall was blasting out electronic music from the grassy area across the road.

“Good music,” I noted.

Sanju nodded. “There is a great party tonight in Unawatuna,” he said. “You should come.”

Unawatuna is the Kuta, Bali of the south west coast of Sri Lanka. It is catered to tourists with backpackers, hotels, restaurants, motorbike hire, beach parties, souvenir and trinket shops (where shop keepers stand in their doorways with calls of, “Yes sir, hello, sir, come inside, sir.”), wi-fi, Internet cafes and one surf shop with boards for hire.

It being the off-season, I could only imagine the hustle and bustle of this one-lane street during peak season that kicks off from mid-December until April.

IMG_3335I exchanged numbers with Sanju as the engines of the F1 cars fired up, deafening everything within hearing range. Not really excited by F1 cars, I parted ways with my new friend and walked back towards Galle Harbour. San Miguel was anchored amongst industrial barges and oceanic exploration boats, surrounded by the kind of industrial water that could disintegrate titanium steel.

I bumped into Manu by the beach-side fish market. He had just returned from the centrally located city of Kandy during his 2-day bike trip on his rented motorbike.

“For sure we go to the party,” he said.

That night we walked the 4 K’s to Unawatuna, stopping at the bottle shop to meet Sanju and buy cheaper beers (180 Rupees for a 500ml bottle instead of 400 at the bar). After a few bottles we headed over to the beach party.

The sign read, ‘Entry 2,000 Rupee, Ladies Free, White Dress Code. Free Entry until 21:00’.

The time on Sanju’s phone read 21:03. The gatekeepers refused to let us in unless we paid the exaggerated amount. Manu took charge and lead us around the back, finding a strategically located tree next to the flimsy tin fence that sealed the party from outsiders.

We climbed over and found ourselves behind the DJ’s stage. We danced onto the beach, mixing amongst the predominantly tourist revellers that were in attendance. At about 03:00 we retired back to San Miguel to rest up for the next night’s party.

We caught up with Sanju again, repeating the pre-drinks routine before hitting the Happy Banana Disco in Unwatuna where Manu and I had partied the previous weekend. It was the kind of place that catered for the western crowd, mostly Russians. I can barely recall that previous weekend. I remember dancing to the same three songs played in various mixes.

I remember that by the end of the night, somewhere in the vicinity of 3 AM, the party had ended and Manu and I had made friends with a group of British girls, a 7-foot German and a few other westerners who had suggested we all go down to Chilli’s, a beach bar that would still be open.

I remember talking to a Sri Lankan who was the manager of the disco.

Who offered me acid.

I usually allow myself to divulge in hallucinogenic drugs once a year at the Rainbow Serpent Festival in Victoria (held over the Australia Day weekend. Highly recommended). I also try to avoid mixing alcohol with chemically enhanced party favourites.

Except when I’m already Aussie-drunk and don’t even think about Nancy Regan’s world famous slogan of saying ‘no’ to drugs (when do I ever?).

The events of that night were relayed to me by Manu the next day (it felt as though a week had passed). He had chaperoned my blitzed condition since leaving Chilli’s.

Deep breath, and:

We had fallen asleep on some rocks on a beach after we had eaten at a beach-side restaurant from where we took a daredevil bus ride back to the harbour where I refused to co-operate in paddling the dinghy back to San Miguel (and if that wasn’t enough, I forgot to tie it up and it floated between two docked barges) and that I eventually fell asleep in the harbour canteen (which had the tastiest, cheapest and largest serving of rice curry in the whole of Sri Lanka) before I managed to hitch a ride on a dinghy belonging to a newly-arrived catamaran that anchored next to us so I could get back to the boat where I promptly went to bed (some might say rendered myself unconscious) until waking up at midnight.

Whew.

Manu thought I was drunk at the time. I confessed that I was tripping beyond hyper-space on some see-you-on-Mars shit (I remember thinking that I had created the planet and all life on it as an arts project in a Dimension X world).

“Manu, don’t let me take any acid tonight,” I said as we hit the empty dance floor at the Happy Banana. “I wanna remember our last weekend in Sri Lanka.”

It was our last night in the island nation before we set sail for the Chagos Islands, Madagascar (where Manu will leave to head to Reunion Island) and eventually South Africa, my last stop with San Miguel.

We partied until 01:00 and then headed over to a beach party at the end of the tourist area of Unawatuna. I’ve seen cemeteries with more living bodies yet, the DJ’s played more than three songs (even mixing it up with different tracks) so we stuck around, dancing until about 02:30 before we decided to head back to the boat.

We were walking along the beach when we came across a crowd that was large enough to block out the bar they were crowding around.

Manu and I looked at each other with a knowing grin. Together with Sanju, we headed in and mixed in among the mainly tourist crowd, arguing with a Kiwi chef about making the best pizzas.

“Try making it at a 45 degree angle”, Manu challenged him. And then asking a Russian surf instructor about surf spots (I know, right? A Russian surf instructor?).

When the DJs packed up and left us without music I spontaneously started to beatbox (which, really, was more like exasperatedly spitting) while a dreadlocked Aussie (arrived just that morning into the country) began to rap as the Kiwi chef clapped a beat and the Russian surf instructor videoed the whole thing.

“Did that just happen?” Kiwi asked about seven minutes later, astounded that in fact,

“It did, mate. It did,” I cheerfully clapped him on the back. “And you gave us the rhythm.”

It was just on 04:30 when we called it a night. Manu and I had a few hours to sleep before we had to ride to Hikkaduwa on the east coast to return his hired motorbike (about 20 minutes north-west of Galle), shop for supplies at the supermarket and fresh produce market, going through the bureaucratic joys of clearing our visas and passports before prepping the boat for our 1090 mile trip south to the British governed Chagos Islands.

Sri Lanka was country number 6 and so far my favourite. The people are super nice (especially to Aussies because of the aid the country provided after the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami), the food is super cheap (with servings so big that a sumo wrestler would be satisfied) and tasty (I recommend the diced vegetable roti with fried rice and egg called Kuti), the weed is stoner-tastic and the acid… Well, that’s a trip all on its own.

If only I could remember it.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Asia, Conservation, Sailing, Sri Lanka, The Indian Ocean | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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