Ever thought you could see 80 islands in three days? And purely by hiking?
This unusual venture – a first in the Maldives – was completed by more than 100 people in the WalkMaldives event over the Eid holidays in late November.
GaafuDhaalu (Gdh) Atoll, one of the world’s biggest natural atolls, makes this possible as many of its islands are all situated in the same lagoon.
“We came up with the idea when we were discussing what sort of things people can do in the Maldives, apart from fishing, picnics and activities like that,” says Ali Shareef, from the architectural firm Tekton Design.
Tekton organised the event in conjunction with Green Tech, a local company selling environment friendly products like solar panels. The two companies often work together on sites across the Maldives. While working on working on a resort island in Thaa atoll, Mohamed Latheef of Green Tech suggested “We could hike and visit islands in my home atoll, Gdh.”
The idea took off, and the pair decided to give the public a chance to participate in the event.
Trail of Discovery
The response was overwhelming. But the group was limited to 150 people, chosen on a first come basis, “because we wanted to have a manageable group,” says Shareef.
The organisers invited islanders from the atoll and the initial group that started the hike numbered 180. Hikers were divided into 12 groups, with each group given the chance to choose their own leader and each including islanders from the area.
The cost was only Mrf 600 per person, reasonable for such an adventure, while those who flew from Male paid for their seaplane ticket to Kaadedhoo and boat to the starting island of Madaveli.
NGOs did the ground work, arranging meals at Madaveli, Hodedhoo, Nadella, Rathafandhoo and Fiyoree where the participants finally arrived at noon on the last day.
“It was amazing to see such natural beauty. It’s a sight that even most Maldivians don’t get to see,” says Zoona Naseem, a diver. Her group consisted mostly of fellow divers and water sports instructors, who were so enthusiastic they stayed on after the walk and have now visited 103 islands. While the sights were spectacular, “unfortunately we noticed a lot of erosion also,” she says.
Azim Musthag joined the walk partly to see the Gdh area, and partly for the challenge of completing the 35 kilometre hike. “It’s a very unique atoll, with all these islands in one lagoon. Sometimes it’s only five minutes’ walk between two islands.”
He says the most difficult thing was trying to avoid stepping on live coral.
“The corals are so colourful and alive, so the locals must have routes that they take. But since we were new in the area sometimes we had to swim to avoid stepping on any coral,” he says.
“Gdh is the most beautiful part of Maldives I have yet seen,” describes Aiminath Shauna. After spending the night at Keramitha and Kanandhoo, two uninhabited islands, she says “the sunrise and sunsets there put to shame the ones we see in Male.”
The ancient coral mosques and the warm welcome extended by the islanders made the trip especially memorable for Shauna. “And we had 100% visibility – it’s so amazing to see the beautiful islands and coral, and it was never tiring because of the rush of adrenalin hiking through such beauty.”
Exploring with awareness
Many of participants say they hope walks like this will motivate more Maldivians to take an interest in preserving nature.
“The organisers were very good, they asked people not to step on live coral or throw things in the sea,” says Zoona.
However Musthag says a lack of knowledge meant some Maldivians were not able to differentiate between live and dead coral, “so we held a briefing on the second day with the organisers on how to identify live ones.”
Shauna says most of the group had never seen such natural beauty, even growing up so close to it.
“It’s important that research is done, and it would be good if the hiking trail informed people where they should snorkel and even canoe.”
An identifiable walking trail was suggested by many participants as the best way to have a minimal impact on the environment.
“This small ecosystem of our country protects us, is a breeding ground for fish and attracts tourists, so we should take care of it,” Shauna says.
With the resounding success of the first walk, Shareef looks forward to continuing it.
“We will do it in smaller groups so it will be easier to manage,” he says.
Protecting the environment was also one of his concerns, so the forms signed by participants had a clause to that effect.
The organisers also plan to train guides in partnership with island NGOs: “We really appreciate the help and support they gave us, and we want this to benefit the atoll as well.”
Shareef says visiting the atoll felt like stepping back in time 10 years, as it had not been developed to the extent it could have been.
It’s a wish shared by Abbas Ali, the island councillor of Nadella: “WalkMaldives is a very good initiative; we are ready to support in any way we can,” he says.
He believes the events will generate publicity for the atoll as well as enable further development, and eventually “we’d like to see tourists come here as well.”
Eighty islands, 35 kilometers and one lagoon in three days is WalkMaldives in a nutshell: perfect for those looking for adventure or simply to immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the Maldives.
To contact the WalkMaldives team, visit the website www.walkmaldives.com.mv