Kuramathi, June 2005

The original plan had been to fly out with Qatar Airways, but they refused to change a name on one of the tickets and charged me £50 for the privilege of cancelling, which is probably the only thing they'll ever make out of me. So we ended up going out on Sri Lankan instead. The check-in staff didn't bat an eyelid at baggage 8 kgs over the 20 kgs limit and it left at 21.45 on a Friday, so plenty of time to do a day's work before setting off for the airport.

The plane was new and the entertainment system was good, with several channels of TV and games. The service was less good. I've seen glaciers move faster than the drinks trolley and both meals were only tepid rather than hot. The flight was direct to Male and then onto Colombo. Only about 10 of us got off in Male, so there was no queue for the immigration, the baggage was very quick and we were soon outside enjoying a $3 Coke in a café in the sun, waiting for our boat transfer.

Beach scene
Kuramathi beach
Kuramathi is in the smaller Rasdhoo atoll, which is north of Ari atoll. The boat took about 1 hour 45 minutes to get there and it was a bit rough. I did what I always do on boats, laid down and tried to doze. The island is one of the larger resort islands in the Maldives, at about 1km in length. There are three resorts on the island, the Village, the Cottage Club and the Blue Lagoon. Although they're run as separate resorts, they're all owned by the same company, Universal, and you can use the facilities of all of them. We were booked on an all inclusive package in the Village.

About two weeks before our departure, I received a letter from Kuoni explaining that the main restaurant was being rebuilt but that rooms next to it would not be used and meals would be served in the coffee shop. The building works were more extensive than had been described, but our rooms were a long way from the site and there was no noise audible at all. I think we actually benefited because normally half of the meals are from a fixed menu, but because the restaurant was closed, we had a buffet every lunch and every night. It was a bit dark where we were sitting, so you couldn't really see what you were eating that well, but it was close enough to the beach to be breezy.

Meals were good. There was usually a theme to the buffet, so we had Maldivian, Italian, American and Asian nights. There was also a grill doing fresh meat and fish. There was enough choice for even the fussiest of eaters. Breakfast was pretty much the same every day. There was the obligatory chef cooking omelettes and eggs to order, sausages, pastries and fish curry, which I never saw anyone eat. The only thing I did miss was bacon. They never served any and it can't have been for religious reasons as we had pork for lunch and dinner quite regularly.

We were told on arrival that the bar stayed open until the last person left. This was untrue as they started packing the bottles away at 4.30am. Normally the all-inclusive packages in the Maldives are quite restrictive. Kuramathi is the exception. We were allowed practically anything except bourbon, 12 year old Scotch, VSOP brandy, champagne and grappa. Everything else was inclusive, including a long cocktail list plus any cocktail you fancied making up from a wide range of liqueurs. The beer glasses also seemed to have magical properties. You'd turn away chatting to someone and when you looked around, it had magically refilled itself. There were even bowls of nibbles on the bar before dinner, though the dried peas were particularly unpopular and everyone used to pick the nuts out and leave them.

There was entertainment on 6 nights a week in the bar. The same entertainment moved between the different resorts, so you could go to either the Cottage Club or Blue Lagoon, but then you had to pay for your drinks in the other bars. There were a couple of bands, a disco a couple of nights a week and karaoke. They didn't do the traditional Maldivian staples of crab racing and Bodu Beru night.

I had the most basic accommodation, the standard room and it was fine. It was a thatched hut, with air con, an internal bathroom with a shower, with plenty of hot water and water pressure. As usual, it was serviced twice a day by the room boy.

Dive boat
Dive boat
Naturally I intended to dive, so went along to the dive school. There are actually two on the island, but they're both owned by the same company, Rasdhoo Atoll Divers. The manager was English, looked at our documentation, showed us around and we booked onto the afternoon dive the following day. There was no mention of a check out dive.

One piece of good news was that nitrox was free. 32% was provided by a membrane filling station. In light of this, I found it a bit strange that a 12l cylinder was $4 extra, but as I could comfortably get an hour out of a 10l, I wasn't personally that bothered. I was less happy about the fact that we had to use A-clamp regulator fittings even though the tank valves were all convertible and could have been used with DIN.

The boat was a revelation. Unlike just about every other island in the Maldives, it wasn't a wooden dhoni. It was fibre glass, went an awful lot faster than your average dhoni, and had a toilet, which really was a first for me there. The guys on the boat would load your kit up on the trolley and take it to the boat for you. On occasion, they also put your kit together for you.

Rasdhoo atoll isn't that big, so there aren't a huge number of sites. Even so, in 15 dives, we didn't do all of them and repeated some of the sites, because they were the best. The sites included:

Rasdhoo

About 5 minutes boat ride from Kuramathi is the inhabited island of Rasdhoo. The dive site is the corner of the channel going into the atoll. In addition to the wall, there are also 3 deep reefs, or thilas with good corals on them. The first time we dived it, the guide found us a ribbon eel, which was a manic thing that reminded me of a Goa'uld symbiot. Perhaps I should get out more.

The second time we did this site, there were bait fish in the water and a huge number of predators. I vividly remember lines and lines of blue fin jacks and spangled emperors coming along in the current. It reminded me of WWII film of bombers flying along in wave upon wave.

Madivaru

Heron on rocks
Heron standing on rocks
This is probably the best site in the area and as luck would have it, it's only 10 minutes away. Again it's the corner of a channel, though this time of a small, uninhabited island. However, there's a slightly unusual reef formation on the corner of the channel where several reefs run out at around 18m into the channel itself. The current flow means that the coral is in good condition.

Madivaru was also the place where we saw the most sharks. On one dive, there were 5 adult white tips circling at one point and a baby one sleeping in the corals. Our guide also found us a leaf fish, which was good to see.

Kuramathi reef

Being over 1km long, there are plenty of dive spots along the reef of Kuramathi. Not all of the coral is that good. In places wave action has reduced some of it to rubble, but there are several named spots which are well worth diving.

Although it's an outer atoll wall, it's not as sheer as many. The wall is more shallow with some interesting clumps of coral in place. There's plenty to see too. I saw turtles, eagle rays, lots of jacks, spangled emperors, a 2m black tip reef shark, a leopard shark and a porcupine stingray. Apparently the porcupine stingrays are quite common there, but I'd never seen one before and it's always nice to see something new.

Veligandu

Veligandu is another resort island in Rasdhoo atoll. There are a couple of wall dives here, which are fairly typical of Maldivian diving. You can easily find quite a lot of honeycomb morays here. I spotted about 5 on a single dive, which is unusual as they're not usually that common.

Another dive in the area is Veligandu thila, a deepish reef in the channel. There were loads of big trigger fish on this dive. I presume they nest in the area. Certainly the titan trigger fish were nesting in spots on some of the other dives.

Hammerhead point

Not far from Madivaru is hammerhead point. They do this dive at 5.30am, so we never got around to doing it. In the fortnight we were there, they had a success rate of finding the sharks of only about 20%. Up until a couple of years ago, it was apparently almost guaranteed but there was an incident when some fishermen illegally caught about 20 of them. They got prison sentences, but of course that didn't do the sharks a lot of good, though they have started to be seen in numbers of up to 50 recently.

The dives were normally guided, but they didn't mind if a buddy pair wanted to go off and do their own thing. The rules were the same as most places in the Maldives, with a 20m limit for OW divers, a 30m one for those more qualified and an hour maximum dive time, though there was no-one standing over you with a stop watch if you were a couple of minutes late. All of the dives we did were suitable for OW divers and I didn't experience any really strong currents, though this being the Maldives, they do occur.

The water temperature around the 29°C mark on all the dives. Even so, I did feel a bit chilly in my 3mm shorty at the end of an hour. All the dive staff wore 5mm full suits. The visibility was usually about 25m, though there were a few days when it was down to 10m because of a plankton bloom.

The hard corals in Rasdhoo atoll were in good shape. There weren't that many soft corals on the sites we visited and there weren't that many overhangs on the reefs, unlike in some of the other atolls. There were plenty of fish, as you'd expect in the Maldives, and we saw plenty of white-tip reef sharks and turtles at many of the sites.

The staff were friendly and the whole setup was pretty relaxed. The only thing I didn't like were the mosquitoes. As it was rainy season, there were plenty about biting both day and night, but they seemed particularly bad around the dive school. Malaria isn't a worry in the Maldives, so DEET based repellent isn't really necessary. I found that an aftersun containing a milder repellent kept them off in the evening.

The mosquitoes were the only sign that we were in what was officially the rainy season. It only rained properly once during the entire trip and that was only for 30 minutes whilst I was in the shower. There were a couple of spots of rain a few times, but it never amounted to anything. I've had wetter trips in the dry season.

Sadly 17 nights went all too quickly and it was soon time to get the boat back to the airport. This time it was flat calm on the way back, which was nice. The flight home was with Emirates with a stop in Dubai just long enough to buy some duty free at ridiculously low prices. Again nothing was said about the weight of my luggage and the flights home were pretty good, with a good level of in flight service. It was certainly far more comfortable than the charter flights I usually get over there.

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