St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Date: July 28, 2002
Author: GIG GWIN
Photo by Gig Gwin

A St. Louisan and 11 other intrepid travelers in "the Ship of Fools" visit the Chagos Islands and are told never to come back.

Of all the countries and territories on Earth, Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean are the most difficult place to visit. The short explanation is that they simply don't want anyone to drop in.

Over the past 30 years, I have relentlessly traveled around the globe, largely because of a goal I set after joining the Travelers Century Club. The club is made up of people who have visited at least 100 countries.

I made it my aim to visit all 313 of the countries on the club's official list. In 1999, I completed my quest and declared that I had been to them all ... less one. Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands, situated far out in the Indian Ocean, are not really a country, are they? Diego Garcia is a military garrison, a dot in the ocean, with a U.S. naval base and a launching airfield for U.S. bombers engaged in the war in Afghanistan. I never really considered it anything but a mistake on the list.

In any case, unless you are on official military orders, you simply can't get to Diego Garcia. It's top secret and off-limits. U.S. and British authorities allow no one to enter the islands - with one exception. If a person is plying the Indian Ocean in a sailing yacht, he or she is 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 14 passengers, and it could make the two-week round-trip voyage to the northern Chagos Islands.

"What a deal"

He suggested that the most traveled members of the club, most of whom had visited 250 countries or more, 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. Without hesitation, I said yes.

The 14 of us made our way to the Seychelles, and after some brief R&R, we gathered dockside and joked at the silliness of our impending adventure. We nicknamed our trip "the Ship of Fools," which seemed appropriate when we first saw our boat lying at anchor. One of our group noted that the tugboats in the harbor appeared much larger than our own vessel. Our dive boat, the Indian Ocean Explorer, compared favorably with the SS Minnow of "Gilligan's Island" fame.

The captain gave a sobering speech, informing us of the potential for a storm that could produce rough seas and delay our return by a week, or prevent any landing at all on the Chagos. Within two hours, two members of our group checked out, leaving 12 nervous adventurers rolling out of the protected harbor and into the Indian Ocean.

On board, sparse accommodations included upper and lower bunks allowing but one person to stand in the room at a time. 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.

With no ports of call or land for six days, boredom was our enemy. A routine was soon established - breakfast, lunch and dinner highlighted by periodic naps. We had no newspapers or TV to break the monotony. On the short-wave radio, the BBC did provide a thumbnail sketch of world events, but it was nothing like having a good newspaper.

Endless days at sea

Familiarity does breed contempt. Cooped up in a little boat, our well-trained travelers eventually found neutral ground, avoiding squabbles or possible mutiny. For the first few days, we entertained ourselves by gazing at flying fish darting away from the hull. But after hundreds of sightings, this lost its appeal. After what seemed like endless days, the boat laboriously entered the northern channel of the Chagos Islands.

A wave of enthusiasm swept the boat when land was sighted. Finally, the northern atolls sparkled with white-sand beaches and mature palm trees laden with coconuts. We noticed that a handful of sailing yachts were moored in the protection of the bay at Peros Bathos Islands. Our captain soon launched the tender as we eagerly lined up on either side of the rubber Zodiac. Most of our group were no spring chickens, but with a little help we all waded toward the shore. Bill Alltaffer decided we would all step on shore together. Alltaffer is a part-time travel agent, ski instructor and full-time neat guy. Both of us, at age 58, were considered the youngsters of the group. We assisted Betty Cartwright, 82 years young, through the sharp, knee-deep coral and onto the long-awaited shore.

We had made it! The group gathered for photos while our organizer, Tim Carlson, unrolled a canvas sign proclaiming that members of the Travelers Century Club had captured the ultimate travel prize. Past club president Ken Ziegler pulled a bottle of champagne from his backpack - this was also his final country after decades of travel.

A short walk through thick herbage brought us to an abandoned plantation house. Huge banyan trees, with their pythonlike branches, had engulfed much of the stone framework. Other ruins were visible, including the outline of a small church. 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 involves some controversy. These little dots of islands are under the British flag and without indigenous people. In the 1960s, the United States 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 returned to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Some now want to return, but they are not likely to be allowed to go back to Diego Garcia.

We sailed in the Zodiac to a second island, Boddam, and its dreamlike cove. Playful dolphins escorted us into the lagoon. Relaxing and swimming in the gentle turquoise waters, none of us wanted to leave this island paradise.

Trouble on the horizonAfter we returned to the Indian Ocean Explorer for our return voyage, 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 said to hold fast because BIOT authorities wanted to board the boat. The red fishing ship was three times our size and steamed very quickly in our direction.

They boarded and informed the captain they would search our boat for illegal fishing or scuba equipment. They sternly reminded us that 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 informed us that a British helicopter had been dispatched from Diego Garcia with Royal Marines on board. In 45 minutes they would arrive and rappel 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 that 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 a list of countries and joked that we had dubbed our trip "the Ship of Fools." He concurred.

Officer Glen gave us a strong warning, informing us that if we ever returned, we would be arrested and fined and the ship would be impounded. By this time, the chopper had been radioed and told not to drop marines, so on arrival it circled low three times and sped off. The wait for the marines had some saving grace. Officer Glen and I consumed three cold beers apiece and had a delightful conversation about a variety of subjects.

Then, released, we sailed out of the Archipelago and into the brilliant Indian Ocean sunset, escorted for several hours by Officer Glen and his patrol ship.

The return trip was uneventful. During the endless hours, I wondered if tourism would ever be allowed in these restricted islands. Probably not. Only military personnel, a few haven-seeking yachts and our "Ship of Fools" could say they were guests of the Chagos Islands.