World Travel...The Passport To Peace Through Understanding
Sailing to the Most Restricted Place on Earth
The Centurian, Traveler's Century Club (CA)
Date: December 2002
Author: GIG GWIN
A Voyage with a Ship of Fools
Of all the countries and territories on earth, Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, is the most difficult place to visit. Over the past thirty years I have relentlessly traveled the four corners of the globe marking off one country after another, which appear on the Travelers Century Club official list of countries. In the fall of 1999, I completed 313 countries, declaring I had been to them all...less one. The Chagos Islands located deep in the Indian Ocean is not really a country, is it? It's a military garrison, a dot in the ocean, with a US naval base and the launching airfield for US bombers engaged in the Afghan war. I never really considered it but a mistake of the list. In any case, unless you are on official military orders, you simply can't get to Diego. Top secret and off limit, US and British authorities allow no one to enter the Islands with one small caveat. If one is plying the Indian Ocean in a sailing yacht they are allowed safe haven, but only in the north atolls of the territory.
I had stored the Chagos Islands away deep in my mind, almost a forgotten dream. Then I received a call from a fellow club member. He had secured, with great effort, a small dive boat in the Seychelles with a capacity of fourteen passengers, which could make the two week round-trip voyage to the northern Chagos Islands. He suggested that the most traveled members of the club, most of which had 250 countries, charter the boat and attempt a landing. What a deal...two boring weeks at sea in a small boat, $4,500 up-front and no guarantee of a landing. I said yes, in a New York minute!
Landing in the Seychelles in February, I recovered from jet-lag by enjoying the comforts of Le Meridian Resort. Island and French cuisine was combined with sedentary moments at the pool or beach side, watching European women wearing, well, not much. Two days later, fourteen sturdy travelers gathered dockside and joked at the silliness of our upcoming adventure. We duly nicknamed our trip "the Ship of Fools" which seemed most appropriate when we first saw our boat lying at anchor. One of our group noted that the harbor tug boats appeared much larger than our own vessel. The Indian Ocean Explorer dive boat compared favorably with the SS Minnow of Gilligan's Island fame.
On board, the captain gave a sobering speech. Informing us of a cyclone that may develop rough seas and possibly delaying our return by a week, or preventing any landing at all on the Chagos. Within two hours, two members of our group checked out, leaving twelve nervous adventurers sailing out of the protected harbor and into the Indian Ocean.
On board, sparse accommodations included upper and lower bunks allowing but one person in the room at a time. Most of us had cruised countless times, yet no one was able to locate the lido deck. The boat, with a low slung hull, allowed large waves to splash dangerously over the deck. The small salon provided good meals and doubled as a reading room.
Boredom was our enemy! No ports of call or land for six days. A routine was soon established... breakfast, lunch and dinner highlighted by periodic naps. No newspapers or TV to break the doldrums. On the shortwave, BBC did provide a thumbnail sketch of the world events which paled in comparison with any good newspaper. Familiarity does breed contempt, yes it does. Cooped up in a little boat, our well-trained travelers eventually found neutral ground avoiding squabbles or possible keel hulling. As for activities, the first few days gazing at flying fish darting away from the hull provided entertainment. Yet surprisingly, after thousands of sightings, this lost its intrinsic appeal. After what seemed endless days, the boat laboriously entered the northern channel of the Chagos Islands.
Eons of time had elapsed. During those six days, my life passed before me and I feared my three boys back home, must have married and raised their own families. Terrie, my wife of 26 years, I feared had pined away to nothing. Or worse, sold the travel agency and moved to some glitzy town in Northern California.
A wave of enthusiasm swept the boat when landfall was sighted. Finally, the northern atolls sparkled with white sand beaches and mature palm trees laden with coconuts. We noticed a handful of sailing yachts were moored in the protection of the bay of Peros Banhos Islands. Our captain soon launched the tender as we eagerly lined up on each side of the rubber zodiac. Most of our group was not spring chickens, but with a little help we all waded ashore. Bill Alltaffer, a new found friend, decided we would all step on shore together. Bill is a part-time travel agent, ski instructor and full-time neat guy. Both of us at 58 years were considered the young Turks of the group. We assisted Betty Cartwright, 82 years young, through the knee deep sharp coral and onto the much awaited shore.
Eureka! We made it; the thrill of victory and the agony of our feet! The group gathered for picture taking, as our organizer Tim Carlson unrolled a handsome canvas sign proclaiming members of the Travelers Century Club, had captured the ultimate travel prize. Past Travel Century Club president, Ken Ziegler pulled a bottle of champagne from his backpack; this was also his final country after decades of endless travel.
A short walk through the thick undergrowth brought us to an abandoned plantation house, with a rusting archway and ascending staircase. Huge banyan trees with their python-like branches had engulfed much of the stone framework. Other ruins were visible, including the outline of a church. The tropical plants had taken back the once active copra (coconut) plantation, and only shy robber crabs remained as house guests.
The history of the islands comes with some controversy. These little dots of islands are under the British flag and without indigenous people. In the sixties, the US leased the southern island of Diego Garcia for a naval base. The horseshoe shaped atoll has a fine deep water harbor and is well-protected from outside interlopers. The BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory) authorities resettled the locals, who had been brought in to work the copra in the last century. These people known as Iloise, about 3,000 in number were relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Some now want to return, but surely they will not be allowed to return to Diego Garcia Island. We sailed to a second island, Boddam, entering on our zodiac at full speed, jumping over the reef waves into a dreamlike cove. Playful dolphins escorted us into the lagoon. After six days of boat isolation, the warm pristine beach seemed like Gods greatest creation. Relaxing and swimming in the gentle turquoise waters, none of us wanted to leave this island paradise.
We returned to the Indian Ocean Explorer boat for our return voyage and a large red ship appeared on the horizon as we prepared to pull anchor. I was on the bridge when a radio call came in to our captain. The voice on the other end announced, "Hold fast, the BIOT authorities want to board your boat". The ample red government ship was three times our size and was steaming rapidly in our direction. After their boarding we were informed the British Authority would search our boat for any illegal fishing or scuba equipment. They sternly reminded us, only sailing yachts are allowed in the northern atolls and only for safe haven. No fishing, no scuba, no tourism and absolutely no commercial ventures. They then announced that a helicopter had been dispatched from Diego Garcia with Royal Marines on board. In 45 minutes they would arrive and repel into the water, boarding our boat for possible arrest. The BIOT officer, who I learned was a Brit named Glen, made a thorough inspection and found nothing. We explained, although technically we were on a tourist venture, we were only interested in touching land to add to our list of countries. I showed him the list of countries and joked that we had dubbed our trip "the Ship of Fools", he concurred.
Officer Glen gave a strong warning informing us, if ever we returned, we would be arrested and fined and the ship would be impounded. By this time, the chopper had been radioed not to drop marines, so on arrival it circled three times and sped off. The wait for the helicopter and marines had some saving grace; Officer Glen and I pounded down cold beers and engaged in typical conversation on a variety of subjects. He then released us from our bondage and we sailed out of the Archipelago into the brilliant Indian Ocean sunset. Oh yes, and we were properly escorted by Officer Glen and his big red patrol ship for several hours.
The return trip was very uneventful. In the endless hours, I wondered if future trips would ever be considered to these restricted islands, probably not. Only military personnel, a few weather havened yachts and our Ship of Fools can say we were guests of the remote Indian Ocean Islands.