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Slipping the sandals in the Maldives

Story and photos by Robert S. Grant – first published summer 2000

Maldives Hummingbird Twin Otter

Only de Havilland Twin Otters can handle the demands imposed by constant short trips in Republic of Maldives flying. At least 25 of these solidly built, Canadian-designed turbine twins operate from a crowded seaplane base at the midpoint of Male International Airport’s Runway 18-36.

Ahead, and on both sides, no trace of land could be seen as haze dimmed the horizon. Peering over the sloping nose of the de Havilland Twin Otter, we desperately strained to see some sign of a stretch of sand called Hakuraa Huraa, or “Hak”. Beneath our Wipline 13000 floats nothing but the swells of the Indian Ocean helped us maintain a semblance of VFR.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity but was actually less than 15 minutes, First Officer Coline Morton pointed to a small, barely discernible smudge. Suddenly, a line of water bungalows or cottages on stilts passed underneath, so we banked steeply in the twilight and landed with a cloud of spray and heavy reverse. Moments later, 8Q-HIK was securely snugged to a floating platform and Coline and I boarded a dhoni (boat) for an overnight stop.

Several weeks previously, Hummingbird Island Airways in Male, the Republic of Maldives, 324 miles south of India, indicated that the company needed Twin Otter captains. After a return in December from the savannahs of Sudan and a plunge into subzero Canadian weather, an opportunity to return to a tropical climate proved irresistible. Unfortunately, I hadn’t flown Twin Otters on floats for over 12 years, and even then, very briefly. Nevertheless, chief pilot Ed Williams arranged transportation via Zurich and Dubai, and I stepped from an Aeroflot Airbus onto Male International Airport’s asphalt, softened by a 28°C OAT.

While inbound, passengers had stared steadily at the breathtaking archipelago stretching 444 miles north and south and approximately 81 miles at the widest point. A 26-atoll chain created from a submarine plateau provided foundation for old- and new-growth coral on which 1,190 white-ringed islands had evolved. Many supported towering coconut palms and banyan and bamboo trees, and only 198 islands were inhabited. Thanks to a carefully implemented master plan, Maldives has become an incredible tourist paradise, with certain islands designated for resorts. Almost the entire republic’s Dhivehi-speaking population of 245,000 depends directly or indirectly on revenue from visitors.

After I cleared customs, the nine-day process of converting my Canadian pilot licence to one permitting flight in Hummingbird’s aircraft began. Assistant manager Zambe led me through procedures to obtain a green-covered, 10-sheet document complete with an “intentionally blank” page, nine rubber stamps and nearly as many signatures. Office staff arranged photographs and work permits as I studied local air regulations before writing an exam at the Department of Civil Aviation.

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To view the complete Maldives photo gallery, click on the photo below:

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