Road trips and train trips are something to get excited about, but plane travel is not something I usually look forward to. It’s a means to an end that I endure, not enjoy.
Travelling by seaplane is an altogether different experience. And a total surprise. As a claustrophobe, I absolutely hate the thought of tiny, crammed planes. Years ago, on a flight from Port Vila to Tanna Island in Vanuatu I nearly hyperventilated sitting in front of a row of cargo that included a live chicken. More recently, on a skydiving trip I demanded to sit next to the door of the Cessna that took us up. I hated every minute of it. Who could have known that they’d leave the door open during our short flight up and above my home base of Mission Beach?
So when I learned that I’d be taking a seaplane to Baa atoll north of Male, I wasn’t totally thrilled. That is, until we are taken from the main terminal of the international airport by private car along a road that hugs the turquoise shoreline of the lagoon at the back of the airport. It had been pitch black when I’d arrived in the Maldives 6 months before and I hadn’t totally realised how unique this airport really is. The landing strip of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport is a narrow tongue – more like a long sandbank – in the ocean.
We are taken to a private lounge – every resort has its own lounge – and handed lemongrass scented hand towels, followed by a welcome drink of freshly squeezed watermelon and pineapple juice. From start to finish, this is one of those I-need-to-pinch-myself-to-believe-it experiences.
And there they are, planes on emerald water and a pilot without shoes, casually leaning against his plane on a floating platform. Like a movie star he poses for our cameras, clearly enjoying himself on the job. “Howdy folks,” he hollers as we take turns to have our picture taken. Zsofi, my 17 year old niece is ready to jump out of her skin with excitement.
There are no assigned seats, it’s first come first serve. We happen to be the first to board and are offered the ‘business class seats’ up front, right behind the pilot. It’s totally against my hyperventilation strategy of sitting at the back of a small plane to get at least an illusion of space. I take a deep breath, then another. I am determined to enjoy this ride!
“You are very lucky,” says our pilot as he takes command of the seaplane that will take us to Baa atoll, 30 minutes from Male. “We haven’t had such a picture perfect day in a week.” He’s as excited as we are. The concrete jungle of Male quickly disappears and the Laccadive Sea unfolds below us like a photoshopped map in hues of deep blue and turquoise, blinding white sand banks and lush green coconut groves. From the air the uniqueness of the Maldives’ topography comes into focus. A submerged mountain ridge, the country spreads over 90,000 square kilometers, 90% of which is water.
It’s too loud for conversation, but there’s no need to speak. Everybody aboard is engrossed in their own Wow moment, except for the Chinese who are fast asleep soon after take off. Everybody else snaps away frantically, click click, including the pilot. We get a bird’s eye view of resort islands and inhabited local islands. The resorts are tiny spots of green, many with add-on clusters of overwater bungalows that look like miniature satellite suburbs on stilts. The layout of the occasional inhabited islands with their grid-like streets and mosques and rectangular harbours, are a sharp contrast. I can almost make out the coral of the reefs that surround each island like a tight collar teaming with tropical fish.
It’s so exciting, I’ve forgotten to hyperventilate. Suddenly everybody is awake, all cameras are poised for the grand finale of our short ride. I brace myself for the moment when the plane touches the water, but it’s incredibly smooth. Welcome to Soneva Fushi International Airport someone says pointing to a drift wood sign on the small pontoon. We say good bye to our pilot with one last photo and swap sea plane for speedboat. We’ve landed in the waters of the Unesco listed biosphere of Baa atoll and I am magically cured of my phobia of small planes!
What’s your favourite I-need-to-pinch-myself-to-believe-it experience?
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