I’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.
Located 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.
Some 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.
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.
With 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.
“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.