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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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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