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A TRAVELERS' CENTURY CLUB YACHT EXPEDITION
TO REMOTE BRITISH INDIAN OCEAN TERRITORY
by Ted Cookson
Published in January 2003
Membership in the Travelers Century Club (TCC), organized in Los Angeles in 1954 by a group of the worlds most widely traveled people, is limited to those who have visited 100 or more of the 317 destinations on the clubs list.
One of the most remote of those destinations is British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Formerly called the Oil Islands (oil refers to copra, or coconut oil, rather than to petroleum), BIOT consists of the Chagos Archipelago. Lying south of the Republic of the Maldives, BIOT consists of a number of atolls, the most southerly and the best known of which is Diego Garcia, where some of the U. S. aircraft employed in Afghanistan were based. In the northern reaches of BIOT are the Salomon Islands, which I visited by yacht 21-22 July 2002.
Our yacht charter was organized by club member Charles Veley who was attempting to visit the entire TCC list within a period of 15 months. Charles, in his mid-30's, also planned to be the youngest person to visit every destination on the TCC list. Charles had already found two others to share the steep yacht charter expenses, Jeff Shea and Ben Fogle. Jeff is another TCC member who is also an accomplished mountain climber. Ben Fogle, while not a TCC member, is a BBC travel show presenter who is writing a book on far-flung British overseas territories. (There may also eventually be a parallel BBC television program.)
On 17 July I flew Emirates from Cairo to the Maldives via Dubai. Upon arrival on the morning of 18 July I hopped a motorized ferry from the airport island across to Male, the capital, which is situated on a nearby island. Then early on the morning of 19 July we flew to Gan in a 15-passenger twin engine plane.
Upon arrival at Gan the four of us were met by two sedan cars which carried us a short distance to a spot where we could board a small motorboat to go out to our 94-foot sailing yacht, the Dream Voyager. Due to the peculiar geography of the Maldives, which consists of many small atolls, cars are rather uncommon. But during the British presence at Gan between 1957 and 1976 some 10 miles of road had been built at Addu Atoll by joining together several adjacent islands with causeways.
After customs clearance we finally set sail on the evening of 19 July in Dream Voyager south from Addu Atoll en route to the Salomon Islands in BIOT. We were sailing against a strong southeasterly wind, and the water was choppy. Although I was wearing an ear patch, I didn't feel like eating much for dinner. But I definitely felt better after losing lunch later that evening.
Our accommodations on the air-conditioned Dream Voyager were excellent. Each of us had his own bedroom with private sink, shower and toilet. The yacht carried a crew of eight, including an international captain. Due to Maldives maritime regulations, one captain had been required for the domestic journey from Male, from where the yacht had originally sailed with crew only; and we required a second captain for our international journey which began at Gan.
We sailed south all day on 20 July. Then on the morning of 21 July land was sighted. We could see the low-lying Salomon Islands atoll on the horizon. All of the islands are covered with a dense forest of coconut palms. About two hours later we sailed into the horseshoe-shaped atoll which opens to the north. We then turned right and dropped anchor off Boddam Island, one of ten islands in the atoll. The crossing had taken us about 40 hours.
The atolls of what is now BIOT used to fall under the political control of Mauritius. Then in the early 1970's the various islands were sterilized. The people living on Boddam Island and on other atolls in the Chagos Archipelago - about 2,000 in total - were "compensated" and shipped off to Mauritius. I heard that the dogs living on one of the islands were all gassed. BIOT was declared to be an independent political entity in 1972. The sterilization procedures apparently fulfilled the terms of an agreement under which the U. S. in 1972 took over Diego Garcia from the U. K. on a long-term lease. The British coast guard still patrols the waters of BIOT, and U. S. military personnel occupy only the large atoll of Diego Garcia with its air base in the far south.
The "Ilois," people who had been removed from the Chagos Archipelago, recently won a court case against the U. K. This court decision will allow them to return to their former homes on Boddam Island and elsewhere in BIOT. We heard that a boat carrying a few of these islanders would soon be arriving in the Salomon Islands in order to check out the current situation there.
We landed on a pristine sandy beach on the northeast side of the still uninhabited Boddam Island on the morning of 21 July. Before I left Cairo I had commissioned the painting of a cloth banner which read, "Travelers' Century Club - BIOT 2002." After taking photos of ourselves holding that banner, we began to explore, traversing the width of the island on a well-marked path. The western side of Boddam - without the protection of the atoll - offered rougher water and a much narrower beach with both sand and rocks.
Boddam Island contains the remains of a copra plantation. The old warehouse is connected to the dock bynarrow gauge railway tracks. The cement and coral walls of the buildings remain but some of the roofs have decayed. One of the old building stones bore the inscription, "Cowen - England." There is also a graveyard where headstones bear inscriptions dating back to the 1800s.
There are a church and a number of residential buildings. The latter, made of corrugated metal, still stand with their roofs intact. The interiors of some of the buildings have been spray painted with the names of yachts and yachters who have visited in recent years. One such yachter graffito, for instance, reads, "Against all odds - Andy & Margaux, Australia 2001 - Love to live, live to love."
We overnighted off Boddam Island along with a dozen or so other yachts which were anchored in the Salomons. This atoll serves as a way station for yachts crossing the Indian Ocean. For a $70 fee yachts are allowed to anchor for several months. Having chatted with a few of the yachters on Boddam, we learned that some yachters sail to BIOT, stay up to six months, and then simply return again after resupplying in Malaysia or Thailand. With E-mail available nowadays via short wave, yachters can easily stay in touch with the outside world even from somewhere as remote as BIOT.
Yachters sometimes congregate on Boddam Island in the evening in order to barbecue and socialize, and perhaps once a month the British coast guard sponsors a barbecue for all yachters present. There is a volleyball court, a swing made from rope and a half of a coconut shell and even a picnic table.
Although fishing is allowed in BIOT, diving is not. Regulations are enforced by and yacht fees are collected by the British coast guard which calls in at the Salomon Islands from time to time. We felt fortunate that Andy, a coast guard official, called on us the morning of 22 July because he stamped our passports!
Andy clearly was not looking for trouble when he boarded our yacht. He commented that, if we had any dive tanks on board, he didn't want to see them. I believe that anyone who had dived in the Salomon Islands would have said that it was the most fantastic dive he had ever taken since the water was so very clear.
After disembarking from our yacht, Andy returned to his coast guard vessel and sailed out of the Salomon Islands atoll in search of commercial vessels fishing in BIOT waters. He was also charged with inspecting these vessels.
On the afternoon of 22 July we rode our yacht's small motorboat from our anchorage near Boddam Island around the rest of the atoll. After landing on Takamaka Island we saw a ray swimming in the crystal clear water. Before returning to our own yacht across the lagoon, we halted to swim and snorkel at the site where another yacht had recently sunk. The sunken yacht's two white masts rose at an awkward angle out of the blue green waters of the Salomon Islands lagoon. We could see that a PC and other personal belongings were still aboard the sunken yacht, which bore a hole in its fiberglass hull.
Arriving back on the Dream Voyager, we found a Frenchman and his daughter from another yacht on board our own yacht sipping tea with our crew. They related to us the story of the sinking of the yacht in the lagoon two weeks previously. The family which owned it was then still in the lagoon, living aboard another boat with some friends.
The prevailing southeasterly wind assisted us on our northbound journey from the Salomon Islands in BIOT to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, so the return sailing took only about 38 hours. Upon arrival at Gan on the morning of 24 July, Maldives immigration officers boarded the Dream Voyager in order to clear us. Then we took a short driving tour of Gan before flying back to Male on a 50-seater jet aircraft.
Charles and Jeff flew back to the U. S. that same evening while Ben and I spent the night in Male. I departed Male on Emirates to Dubai early on the morning of 26 July and arrived back home in Cairo that same afternoon one very remote destination richer!
For more information about the TCC and about my extreme travel hobby, please visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club. The web site features a TCC destination counter, and you can see where you rank compared to others who have registered their destinations on my site.
ABOUT TED COOKSON: Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world! He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club). A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi. Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at: Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301. Fax 2359-1199. E-mail: email@example.com. Web site: www.eptours.com.
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