SHANGRI-LA

This article was posted in Boating New Zealand April 2017 issue. To view the printed feature story, click: BoatingNZ Shangri-La.

We are moving at a racy 1.5 knots in 5 knots of breeze. These are the days we are never asked about by those interested in a description of transoceanic passages. We commonly field questions of our endurance through raging storms and titanic waves, but we are never asked about the humdrum doldrums, the flat seas and windless, lackluster days that more accurately define typical sailing conditions. While we do have an engine to give our sloth-like pace a heartbeat, for the majority of this passage we opt for a gentle roll in the sunshine and the pleasure of total quiet in this aquatic oasis. Our northbound crawl feels like a pleasant scull on a quite countryside lake – peaceful, dawdling, rhythmic. I look around me and I feel this incredible sense of disproportion. The flatness of the water that surrounds us makes me feel as if I could wander over to the clouds on the horizon and scoop them up in my palm. I told my son that we should pluck the setting sun out of the sky and put it in our pocket. His response didn’t indicate the impossible distance. “Oh, but mum, you can’t do that,” he said. “It would burn a hole in your pocket.” To him, the feeling of its proximity made it seem possible; it was the burning flame that made the proposition ridiculous.img_9083-800x533

Everything feels the opposite of what it felt like when we sailed towards the atoll: inbound a feat, outbound a breeze. Our passage to Chagos was a complete voyage in itself, a test of competence as we clung onto handrails through 1500 miles of contentious seas and an all-star victory upon completion.

Our departure from Chagos brings us nothing but slack breezes, flat calm seas and half-drunk beers balanced on our reclined bellies. With only 300 miles between Chagos and the Maldives, our destination feels like a jump towards the next box in a game of hopscotch. At one point mid-transit we passed a shallow patch where the depth was 15 meters. The coral below was as easily sighted as if viewed from a magnifying glass; fish darted away from our shadow and a turtle raised its head in greeting. The intimacy of it was surreal. We talked of jumping overboard for a quick snorkel in the calm clear water but decided to continue our slow roll forward – we’d had 33 days in succession of dancing amongst tropical reef fish and we were ready to explore what lay ahead. Of Chagos, we looked forward the promise of isolation. Of the Maldives, we look forward to bustling village life and the company of people.

Chagos lays only two days behind us and the archipelago already feels like a reflection of the illusive Shangri-La: a place discovered but never to be seen again. I am not sure if we will get another chance to walk her shores, but I am sure if we do so it will not be the place it is today. To understand this impending sense of change, one has to understand recent political history. While Chagos was once a place like so many other island nations, inhabited by a small local population and supported by subsistence living, in 1968 Chagossian lives were uprooted by international politics and the local population deported to Mauritius, the Seychelles and other distant territories. A 1966 agreement between the British and American governments stipulated that all inhabitants be removed from the territory for the installment of a US military base on Diego Garcia. The British, then in command of the archipelago, agreed. The forced eviction of 1,500 people from Diego Garcia and the six other atolls that form the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was completed in 1973. Since then, there has been a volley of lawsuits, compensation claims and resettlement petitions that have been won and overturned in the battle between human rights violations and political interests. In 2010 the British government established a marine nature reserve protecting the worlds largest coral area (544,000 square kilometers), creating the largest swathe of protected territory ever established. The establishment of this reserve, however, became embroiled in heated debate when Wikileaks released documents that linked the establishment of the reserve to a tactical move to restrict the return of Chagossians to their native land. Time will tell. The end of 2016 marks the end of the 50-year agreement but the contract will automatically extend 20 years if neither side chooses to terminate it. That said resettlement claims by the Chagossians and reclamation demands by Mauritian Prime Minister complicate matters; the fate of Chagos continues to be played out in the battlefield of international politics. DCIM127MEDIATo view more photos of Chagos, click on the link: Chagos Archipelago

I stand out of the dispute, morally caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between human rights and ecological conservation. Walking amidst the ruins you can’t help but feel for the people who had been expelled. In 2006 previous inhabitants of the Salomon atoll were permitted a short visitation and a cross was erected and dedicated to the memory of ancestors buried on the island. Standing in front of it you can’t help but feel the injustice. I understand the need for humans to belong to a place, and in society ancestral ties play a significant role in defining that culture. The removal of the Chagossians from their native land strips them of this basic ethnic foundation.

I also appreciate the irony of being granted permission to visit a land that the indigenous population is banned from reentering. While visitors are not permitted to enter any of the British Indian Ocean Territories, a private yacht sailing across the Indian Ocean may apply for a permit to enter two of the seven atolls that makes up the Chagos archipelago. Only a handful of these applications are approved each year – if you can’t get there yourself, you can’t get there at all. If you do get permission to visit, there are only four approved anchorages within the sixty tropical islands. It was this permit that granted us a one-month stay in Chagos, apparently one of just eleven issued this year.

Yet, despite the injustice of the islanders exclusion, I am awed by the experience of witnessing the Eden of an ecosystem void of human interference. Reading the narrations of seamen from the antiquities, I have often wondered what it would be like to see the oceans teaming with life as reported in the journals of travelers from the day. Today, the ocean offers seafarers little more than a barren desert. Chagos has given me a looking glass into a world we have denied ourselves.

One month in Chagos and I realize what a modern day Shangri-La it truly is. Not only for what it is today, but also for what it might not be tomorrow. I’ve just seen my first – and probably my only – sight of the long-forgotten world I’ve dreamed of experiencing and it is truly a blessed parallel universe. Other than the fallen ruins of long ago, Chagos is untouched by human development and offers a sanctuary like no other on earth for the myriad of creatures who inhabit her shores. It is a place where the seas hold a healthy balance of marine life, and a place where a visitor can cavort with a wide diversity and healthy population of marine animals. Here, the wildlife does not seem so wild after all. They seem curious, trusting, innocent, friendly. For me, life in Chagos was akin to playing the part of an enthusiastic naturalist. Our days were surprisingly filled with adventure, unlike anything I could have dreamed of in this remote, abandoned archipelago. It was impossible to spend a day without experiencing a collection of amazing wildlife experience, and as a result watching wildlife became a central part of our daily activity. img_8156-800x533-copy-800x533To view more photos of wildlifeChagos and Friends

It is hard to describe the constant assault of wildlife experience in words. To try and capture it feels much like riding horseback at full gallop and trying to describe the feeling of each pounding hoof on the dirt track, the feel of each strand of coarse hair that tickles your cheek, the scent of each blade of broken grass, sight of each horsefly and ant and ladybug that is trampled under the pounding legs of the pack in front of you. What do you choose to relay of the experience to a bystander? What collection of moments out of the myriad of events is adequate to portray the whole picture? It is my attempt to do this in the collection of excerpts that follow and I hope I can pass on a glimmer of the beauty that is Chagos.

Black tip reef sharks shadow me. Streamlined and sleek, a subtle yet sinister threat implied in their surveillance of me and the kids who frolic in the water only yards away. Initially I was wary, but we soon become accustomed to their continual presence. They follow us like puppies; curious, eager, attentive. Our fear of them has dissipated and I welcome them as one would a familiar friend. I swing in my hammock and watch them patiently circle around our hull. We drive our dingy and look back, a trail of black tips breaking the surface behind us. We jump into the water, mask and fin, side by side, matched in our acceptance of one another. We play in the shallows as they circle around us, the occasional feel of sandpaper brushes past flesh. Acceptance. Beauty. Bliss.  

We’ve come ashore to a nearby islet to enjoy coffee and the rising sun, and as I lean back I see that my hand rests in the rivet of a turtle track. The fresh tracks lead me to five nests in the sand, and we realize that whilst looking for a beach facing the sunrise we’ve found turtle hatching grounds. Looking up, the Terns squawk as we disturb their silent congregation, and ahead Frigate birds swoop to water for a meal – caught! A single fish wriggles in a steel-vice clamp, fighting for release. Upward the bird soars, spiraling. And just as my shutter clicks, release and free-fall. I’ve caught my own fish, on film, in an unexpected moment of freedom.

Spotted eagle ray and giant stingray bask in the warmth of the shallow water. I slide my feet, inching toward them, trying not to stumble into the large ditches they’ve carved into the sand. With a flick of wing, they could disappear in the blink of an eye, but warily they let me approach. They are large pale dishes, two-meters long, wings fluttering and shifting a circle of sand that pockmarks the flat seabed. I inch, they flutter. I inch, but this time too close. A flick of wing and they are gone. Or buried beneath the sand. Either way, their barb demands caution and I back away.

Sea snakes hunt in the shallow crevices, crammed into tight nooks in the rock, I stand close to a half dozen crabs who scurrying about on wet rocks at the edge of the reef. Quick as a flash, a foots-length away, a sea snake rips the arm off its victim and darts inches past my toe. At least it wasn’t my limb under attack. I back away, pulse racing. I stumble into a small tidal pool behind me, and look down. Around my feet dart a half dozen pint-sized black tip. I freeze. It isn’t the sharks that have caught my attention, but a granddaddy sea snake sunning himself in the afternoon heat. Big, muscular. We register each other; he moves first. At breakneck speed he slithers on dry rock towards his escape and my heart stops – I know he is all muscle, but even so – the speed with which he moves is simply astounding.

Bird nests crown the trees, baby hatchlings tucked in their wooden cradles. We tread quietly through a booby-bird sanctuary. I have an audience. Thirty beaks, yellow eyes curious, turn toward me as I wandered under the branches. A brave few fly overhead to get a better look. They squawk, rotate, watch me. I watch them. I slip into shallow water, trying to get a better look. A shadow catches my attention and I turn to see a shark lazily swim past. As I wade out further to rub foot to fin, I sidestep a giant ray and, in doing so, a passing turtle bumps into my shin.

Back on Ātea, the wildlife comes to us. Terns rest on Atea’s bowsprit, their delicate feathered features casual and unperturbed by my approach. Reef fish school under our hull, attracted to our protection and the shade, and ever hopeful for the occasional meal that this visitor provides. Sharks continue their endless loop around our hull. Turtles idle past in slow investigation. The shadow of a ray lays its dark path below. Ping. Ping. Ping. Like dominos, gilled and feathered inhabitants of Chagos drop past us in quick succession.

Perhaps this is the crux of it. It is not one unique encounter, but encounter on top of encounter on top of encounter like the line up and drop of dominos that makes the experiences in Chagos so unique.

Other than sitting around all day with our mouths agape and our eyes open wide, catching the myriad of wildlife activity around us, one could ask, “What did you do all day?” A typical day might start with coffee and scones on the beach under the shade of the palm trees, the kids playing in the shallows. Braca, who six months ago would not put his head in the water of the hotel swimming pool, is now jumping and frolicking in the water, twisting and turning like a fish, snorkelling without a lifejacket and asking to be pushed down to the reef for a closer look. Perhaps he is inspired by the life around us. Ayla has similarly progressed, and whilst less proficient than her brother, she is fearless and will happily paddle off into the blue water calling out “I’m fine!” as the black tips circle curiously around us. Our afternoons would contain some degree of boat jobs and schoolwork, but otherwise we sought to break established routines and maximise our time together. We made bonfires on the beach, fished for our dinner, ate on deck watching the bloom of stars overhead. We had disco nights and games nights, dinner parties and birthday parties. Chagos offered time as a family unfiltered and uncomplicated by outside influence. We had no access to news of the outside world and no other distractions from a distance. Without Internet, television or phones, it was family life stripped bare. We live each day with just three other people to consider. How often does life offer such purity?img_8360-800x465  To view more photos of personal momentsChagos and Family

Of course on a more practical level there were a few things we are desperate for. The last egg was used in Braca’s birthday cake two weeks ago, green salads are a distant memory, and even a humble cabbage would be a treat. How would we best enjoy such a treasure if we held one in our hands? That said, our food has lasted well considering it has been six months since we left the plentiful stores of Malaysia, three months since the fantastic fresh markets of Sumatra, and six weeks since the paltry offerings of Cocos Keeling. In addition, our other pressing need is to rid ourselves of rubbish; try to imagine keeping two and a half months of household waste on your front doorstep. Our last bag of garbage left the boat in early August, and since then we have been on a regime that allows us to dispose of green-waste overboard and degradable materials in the deep ocean. Every single scrap of plastic and other non-degradables, however, have been manually compacted and stored on deck in the heat. A fellow cruiser once mentioned that his boat was like the municipal dump – we now know how that feels and are looking forward to being able to clear our own retained waste as soon as possible. Most people would look forward to a visit to the Maldives as a holiday of a lifetime destination, but for us the two foremost questions on getting ashore will be “Do you have any cabbage?” and “Where can I put the rubbish?”

Our days in Chagos were so wrapped up in the “here and now” that it is only after departure that I can sit down to think about what the experience means to us. We heralded Chagos as the epitome of a cruisers ideal destination: Remote, pristine, beautiful. That we were able to experience it without any other cruisers only amplified these traits and made the isolation absolute. Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas.” Melville must have had Chagos in mind when he wrote these words, for no words speak of a lust for a place so accurately.

Tonight we sail onward, leaving Chagos behind us in what will always remain a favourite destination. I know it will be Ile de Salomon that I reflect on if I am ever at a dinner party playing Table Talk and pull the card that queries “If you could be anywhere in the world, where would it be?” Our time in Chagos is almost indescribable, other than to say it far exceeded our highest expectations. It is hard to measure the experience in one country against the experience in another, particularly when the environment is a very different one. While I have loved time in so many different countries for so many different reasons, the Chagos archipelago is just one of those places that will forever stand in a league of its own.