The Maldives - 500 miles' worth of remarkably low-lying Indian Ocean islands - have featured in these pages before, in the context of World Cup football matches against Iran and China. These were curious events due to the disparity in national highpoints: Iran reaches 5604m, China is 8848m, while the Maldives soar to 2.5m or maybe 3m on a good day with the wind in the right direction. Which brings us to Ginge Fullen, who for years has been busily bagging national high points the world over. Here's what happened when he turned to the lowest of the low...
Highest point, Wilingili Island, Addu Atoll. Unnamed. 2.5 metres above sea level.
Why bother? Well, the Maldives highpoint is the lowest highpoint of all the countries in the world - so that makes it interesting enough. Who can ever have set out specially to climb the highest "mountain" in the Maldives? So the answer was easily apparent: I was bothering "because it's there". But I must be bloody mad.
I hadn't really researched the highpoint here as I expected it to be a breeze. From the internet, though, I learned that the 1190 islands of the Maldives span 822km from north to south, with only 200 of the islands inhabited. Addu Atoll is the furthest south of all the Maldivian atolls and is itself made up of over 30 islands. I still didn't know where Wilingili Island was, but from tourist leaflets gathered from the airport in Male, the country's capital, it seemed you were prohibited from visiting uninhabited islands unless you first sought permission from the government-run Atoll Islands Section. I had chanced my arm and emailed the Maldives tourist board asking if their highest point was marked in any way. The short reply said there were no mountains in the Maldives and signed off with "sun, sea and sand" or some such line. So I was on my own.
The world's lowest mountains, as I'd found in the past, can be some of the most difficult and most entertaining. Africa's lowest national highpoint is in the Gambia, and here I had to home in by GPS as finding a 53m point in an area with acres of ground over 50m is not too easy. I made for the nearest village, where 60 schoolchildren took time out to show me the peak. I'm still not quite sure whether it was really Gambia's highest peak or just some lorry-load of soil dumped to elevate it to the highest place in the country, but it was an afternoon's entertainment for the children - a mad Englishman walking round following a bit of plastic and taking photographs.
I stood at immigration in the Maldives airport, getting a grilling. Normally everybody coming here is a package tourist and independent travellers aren't welcome. Several fellow passengers had already been sent for further interrogation with the head immigration officer. "How long you here for?" the official asked sternly. "Four days," I replied just as sternly. "Accommodation booked?" "Yes," I lied. "Return air ticket?" "Yes." And then the critical question: "Why you here?" He wouldn't believe I was here to climb the Maldives highpoint - and his hand with the entry stamp was hovering over my passport - so I lied again and said "Tourist". I smiled. His hand came down.
I found the section in Lonely Planet for cheap accommodation and, as it was late, headed to Male straight away. The guesthouse was cheap for the Maldives: $20 for a room. Again I wondered if it was all worth it. Here I was on the third bloody floor of a guesthouse over three times the height of the highpoint. I wanted a beer but the Maldives are 100% Muslim and only the package-tourist resorts have alcohol. I sighed and went to bed.
I organised the flight south to Gan, the runway island of Addu Atoll, easily enough next morning. I was forced to take a two-day package as the atoll has only one source of accommodation for foreigners: the resort hotel. You're prohibited from staying anywhere else. So one of the much-hated package trips it was, an $80-a-night all-inclusive on top of the $240 return flight from Male. The Maldives "mountain" was proving expensive.
The flight to Gan left at midday and took a little over an hour. Looking out of the window of the small plane was truly picture-postcard stuff. I had no doubts now why I was here, and a two-day holiday at a luxurious resort with copious amounts of alcohol wouldn't go amiss either. Heading towards Addu Atoll we crossed the equator.
That morning I'd found out that Wilingili was an uninhabited island right next to Gan - quite easy to reach I thought, if I was allowed to. I gave Wilingili the once-over on coming into land. Quite a big island, at least in Maldives terms, and only 400 metres at most from Gan. Some sources gave the highest point as 25 metres, but now quite clearly this was a misprint with the decimal point missing. From my experiences in Africa and Europe, however - discovering new mountains and correct highest points, learning names for unnamed mountains, finding mountains not even in the country they're supposed to be in - I knew that surprises can come at any time.
I was strolling up Senegal's highest summit, 581 metres, late in the day thinking more of my evening meal than anything else. There was nothing of particular interest, just a few baboons that I could hear in the distance. A quick photo and I could rush down before dark and see if that nice receptionist was still there back at the hotel. The whole hill was trees and shrubs and near the top I had to grab the machete from one of the two guides and hack my way for the last few metres. Then came the surprise. Sat right on the top of the Senegalese highpoint was a six-metre-high boulder, almost perfectly square with smooth, polished sides all around. The guides happily said "Right, that's it, got to the top," and were all set to head down. Meanwhile, I was stomping around swearing my head off. It was getting dark, the baboons were closing in to reclaim their peak and the receptionist would surely have knocked off by the time I got back now. Eventually, with the aid of the two bewildered and amused locals and a big tree branch, I did scramble in rather ungainly fashion right to the top of the boulder and so right to the top of Senegal.
I was met on landing in Gan by the manager of the resort. Since it was out of season and he only had five guests, he must have been bored. Once settled in, drink in hand, I enquired about facilities. There was to be a snorkelling trip in the boat at 10am next day. I signed up immediately.
Morning came and I was the only customer. Rucksack packed, I went down to the beach while the boat driver waded out to the mooring to get the boat. I sat on a deckchair and waited, the island of Wilingili in plain sight not far away. Twenty minutes later I was still waiting as the boatman couldn't get the engine started. There was no way I was going to be denied my Maldives mountain - and, besides, I'd spent too long in the navy in small boats to let something as simple as a dodgy outboard stop me. I waded out and probably to the boatman's dismay got the engine started. He would have to take his passenger after all. We picked up another local as boat handler and set off in the opposite direction to Wilingili. I pointed back the way. "No, no. Snorkelling good over here," the boatman said. "No, no," I replied. "Wilingili." We turned back. Wilingili it was.
About 400 metres out in the crystal-clear blue water the boatmen started getting the anchor ready. "Further in," I said. We went a little further and again they prepared to anchor just offshore. Now I wasn't here for the snorkelling. In fact I had no snorkelling gear at all. My day-sack contained just my camera, GPS, towel and water. I gestured for boat to be beached, made sure my watertight canoe bag was done up, and got ready to swim for it if necessary. There was no need though, as we beached the boat in the fine powdery sand of Wilingili and tied up to a felled coconut tree.
"Just going for a walk," I told the boatmen, who didn't speak much English - then added "I may be gone some time" for effect. The young boatman named Soldier joined me, so we set off north on Wilingili searching for the Maldives' highest point, walking along quite good tracks and passing a makeshift camp. Some workers were collecting coconuts and others were building what Soldier said were staff quarters. Beside ruins dating from when the British military were here in the 1960s and 70s, Wilingili was beautifully deserted.
And damned flat. But I did find a surprise on Wilingili: just how remote this island is. This being the southernmost atoll in all the Maldives, there is nothing further south until you hit Antarctica thousands of miles away.
A diplomatic incident could easily have ensued while I was "climbing" the Vatican City summit, a 76m point on the helipad. I'd made contact with a British padre studying at the Vatican, and he had signed me up for an official tour of historic sites within the Vatican gardens which were off-limits to ordinary tourists. I thus joined a two-hour tour with a group of experts in religious history, most of whom were in their 60s and 70s. We were driven around the state's sights of interest in a small bus, but as we headed toward the helipad - at the far side of the Vatican compound - to my horror we drove right past it, 300 metres further on to the next work of art. Well, what to do? The plan was simple. I had to lose the group and avoid the many security cameras. With a combination of military stealth gained from recent commando training, and the look of a lost tourist, I made it to the helipad, grabbed a gardener, thrust my camera in his hand to take my photo and returned hugging the building walls below the security cameras before rejoining - unnoticed - the group of history buffs.
I climbed two, four, six, seven metres high, enough to scare myself - and stopped climbing before I reached the top of the coconut tree. I'd just done it for a photo opportunity, and now wished I hadn't. I'm not averse to a bit of climbing, but that's with good protection, friends, bolts or ice screws. Here the sticks tied across and up the tree were precarious in the extreme and climbing in sandals didn't make it very much easier. Back on terra firma we continued our stroll around Wilingili.
As the whole island is covered in coconut trees, getting GPS coordinates wasn't possible until we first reached the northern end. But when we came out on to the tiniest of beaches the GPS didn't know what to make of the situation: 300ft, 500ft, 50ft? After two years on mostly high, identifiable, big-name mountains, it seemed to be saying: "Now you must be taking the piss, Ginge Fullen." I put it away and wrote "no reliable reading" in my diary.
We walked back south along every possible path on Wilingili in the two hours or so we were there. Near the centre we came across a small lake of mostly fresh water from the heavy rains they'd had recently. At one point we crossed the island near the middle at its widest point, maybe 300 metres or so. The highest ground was here and right in the middle stood a massive coconut tree - well, its diameter was massive but even the trees here don't top 10 metres. Soldier said the tree was over 200 years old and given its size I could easily believe that. Anyway, here, where the biggest tree stood, was the Maldives highpoint. As to the given height of 2.5 metres, I disagree with that. I'd guesstimate three metres, maybe as high as a giddy 3.5m.
Was this point really the highest? I was now wondering who had surveyed all 1190 islands in the Maldives and come up with an unnamed point on Wilingili. But, as Sherlock Holmes said, "some mysteries are best left unsolved". (Well, I'm not quite sure he said that, but it adds a little more impact than me saying it.)
I retired to the bar, mission complete and my 103rd country climbed. There was a need to celebrate and an even bigger need to make a dent in the all-inclusive bar bill. As I left Addu Atoll the next day the plane flew out right over Wilingili and the Maldives' highest point...
The next luxurious hotel resort in the Maldives is due to be built next year. The place? The remote, idyllic, and relatively untouched Wilingili. So soon you will be able to sit by the swimming pool, sipping piņa coladas on the Maldives' highest mountain. The adventure in life, as is more and more the case, is getting less and less.
TAC 62 Index