Seychelles – scenic splendour

Saturday 13 October 2001

Early start for Cape Town airport for my umpteenth trip into Africa this year.  This time however, things promise to be a bit different.  After the rough and tumble, turmoil tripping through Uganda and Ghana and Madagascar, this time I’m bound for the Seychelles.  Billed as the original tropical paradise, this group of  some 100 islands languishes in the Indian Ocean, east of Africa and north of Madagascar.  Remnants of the ancient super-continent Gondwanaland, the island group consists of an inner group of granitic islands and the so-called outer islands, mostly atolls or coral islets.  It is a land of postcard perfect clichés; a place where red-tailed tropic birds swoop against the majestic backdrop of domed, granite mountains; where technicoloured triggerfish and trumpeters swirl and flutter along endless coral reefs and where rain forests explode in fecund green along steep ridges and peaks.  In this micro-nation of some 1 000 000 people, the island life ethic holds sway.  Creole is the language of choice, but English and French is widely spoken.  A gentle nature and easy, wide smiles are the norm.  

And this is where I am headed, on this project from heaven; fly to the Seychelles, report to the harbour in Victoria where the Walkabout, a luxury charter yacht of the Voyage Group will be berthed.  Get on board with Blackie and Madeleine and tell them where you want to go.  Food, wine and beer is on the house – all you have to pay for is hard tack and cigars (to make you feel even more like a fat cat on a R4.2 million yacht).  Believe me, I’m smiling.

Sunday 14 October 2001

Finding my sea legs.  Or I’m pregnant and suffering from a vague bout of morning sickness.  Breakfast is taken al fresco on the deck (did I mention that this double-hulled baby goes for more than R4 million smackeroos?), and then we harness the winds.  The plan today is to sail around the northern point of Mahe to the Baie Ternay Marine National Park, and Walkabout doesn’t need any coaxing.  We maintain an average of six, maybe five knots, flushing flying fish from the azure wavescapes, flashing away across the water like glittering partridges.  

At Baie Ternay I am introduced to the resident bat fish, huge, flat, square and inquisitive, they waddle up to give me the beady eye as I fin along the continental shelf?  I am irresistibly drawn into this aqua world populated by creatures straight from technicolour daydreams.  Drifting on the wave action, I while away the early part of the afternoon snuggled up against the granite ledge where rainforest spill down to the shoreline.  Dip down beyond the waterline and you are transported into the realms of imagination, where iridescent clown fish, gigantic clams, impossibly thin needle fish and the grimace of moray eels assault the boundaries of your perception.  

Earth and sky is no different, and air traffic in the island skies above Baie Ternay twitters and squeaks and whistles in a hive of activity.  Diminutive fairy terns, tropic birds in elegant flight and skimming flypasts by lesser boobies accompanies me as I paddle the island shore.  I’ve resisted the temptation of a siesta, preferring to explore the granite shoreline on the Walkabout’s sea kayak.  Secluded beached slide into view as I stroke along the clear, blue, aqua mirror, so private that they may be occupied by one towel and the wafting smell of coconut butter only.  Sun worshippers escape the crowds by boat to claim these magical little coves as their own, lazing away their day in true tropical paradise fashion.  

But beyond the pristine beaches lies an unexplored interior.  I drag the sea kayak accross one of the sandy beaches to launch into a mountain creek alive with dark-finned bass, and soon lose myself in a Temple of Doom wilderness abuzz with mosquitoes and surreal noises.  Tangled spiderwebs, dotted with flint-eyed and hairy-bodied arachnids, span the river course, forcing me in places to lie flat on my back in order to pass beneath these sticky nets.  Palm casuarinas and creepers explode upwards in a layer of greenery slugging it out for their share of the sun.  Rotting tree trunks domino down granite ledges where termites chomp away at the wood and, when the river becomes impassable, I attempt to slog through the undergrowth.  eventually humidity, the complete lack of a pathway and a looming sense of arachnophobia get the better of me and navigate my return route to where I stashed the kayak.  When I emerge, covered in dirt and spider webs, onto the little beach, it s under the gaze of a group of German tourists covered in sunscreen.  In a teutonic attempt at humour, I am greeted by a chorus of “Guten Tag, Crocodile Dundee”.  And then I’m back onto the shimmering sea, stroking to where Walkabout is tethered against the slow surge of the swell.

Monday 15 October 2001  

After spending the night riding the swell’s undulating dance off Beau Vallon, we set course for La Digue, an expected four hours of sailing.  We pick up a dolphin party about an hour into the journey, but they’re quite shy and disappear beneath the chop when they sense our approach.  With the wind hovering around 20 knots and the swell banging in from the starboard side, I find the going a bit rough.  In an effort to stave off the vague attacks of seasickness, we rig up the deep sea rod with a neon pink squid which we trawl approximately 50 meters behind the yacht.  For more than an hour nothing happens, and then, just as I slip into an ocean induced reverie, the reel rips into ratchet mode.  But by the time I get the rod out of the holder, things are back to normal at the business end.  The next hit happens about an hour later just opposite the Isle of Mamelle, and this time I’m ready to do battle.  I play the fish (probably a big eye tuna) right to the side of the boat, and thinking that it is all over, tighten the drag.  Big mistake – when a game fish decides to go down, it goes down.  The end result is a resounding victory for the denizens of the deep as it snaps the 30kg breaking strain nylon like a piece of cotton thread.  

We reach La Digue about an hour and a half later, just before 14h00, deciding to have a quick lunch before going land.  I decide to stroll along the quiet island streets, taking photographs of the third oldest Catholic Church in the Seychelles, after meeting the friendly Father Edward who cares for the flocks.  I get to ride the famous La Digue ox cart, wander in the palm tree plantation and generally get a feel for the Seychellois vibe.  

We move on, hugging the curved haunches of La Digue before crossing the channel to our mooring spot just off the beach of Felicite, one of the many privately owned islands in the Seychelles group.  After hours on the boat, I am in desperate need of exercise (also to work off a huge island-style lunch), therefore deciding to launch the sea kayak for an exploratory trip along the granite rocks making up Felicite’s imposing shore.  After an hour of playing on the waves, I head back to where Walkabout is riding the tides.  Behind her a huge orange sun bears down upon Praslin and surreal fruitbats as big as owls silently cruise the amber skies.  An ice-cold Margarita in a chilled glass awaits me upon my return.  What a life…

Tuesday 16 October 2001  

I decide to beat the sun out of bed, slipping away from Walkabout in the kayak at about 06h00.  Its a wishy-washy dawn though, with the sun battling to pierce through a bank of low cloud.  From our mooring at Felicite, I paddle due north to a small rock island crowned by palms and wild hibiscus, beaching the kayak on a minute beach nestling in between massive eroded granite pillars.  After several attempts, I manage to scramble to Coco’s highest point, clambering from rock to rock and jumping over a few gaping chasms.  As I claw my way up past sooty terns nesting areas, the birds go into attack mode, swooping low and squawking in my face.  Quite soon the fairy terns join in the fun, hovering in mid-air and giving me the beady eye.  

By the time I get back to my kayak, Madeleine has snorkelled out to meet me, bringing with her my snorkelling gear.  Minutes later we descend into the big blue, finning along a shallow coral bed in search of sea turtles.  All around needle fish, groupers, spotted angels and a pilot fish swirl like iridescent confetti sprinkled on the tide by a wild child bride.  I miss out on a turtle sighting, but a huge banded moray slithering through the coral like a giant pyjama snake hits my buzz button spot on.  

After a mid-morning breakfast I leave the ocean and head for the low hills of Praslin, the second largest island in the Seychelles group.  Also known as the Green Island, it is home to the primeval Coco de Mer palm, a tree dating back to the forest days of Gondwanaland.  A section of the Praslin National Park, known as the Valle de Mai has been set aside to protect one of only two global habitats in which these ancient plants still occur.  Many legends have been created around the male and female reproductive organs on these prehistoric trees; the female tree produces the world’s largest seed, sometimes weighing in at more than 20kg, and mimicking perfectly a female derriere and mons.  The male tree, in an effort not to be outdone, produces a long sausage-like catkin covered in small flowers, a favourite haunt for green geckos busily licking away at the pollen.  Various hiking trails through this world heritage site have been laid out, allowing the tourists to follow well-marked and clear trails between Coco de Mer trees hundreds of years old.  I followed the full circular route which took approximately two hours, taking time out to watch lack parrots feed while a tenrec scuttled around in the rotting leaves at my feet.  Seychelles skink, green geckos and forest bulbuls also made  the occasional appearance in between the palm other indigenous trees, including the jackfruit and Bwa Rouge.  

And still the day keeps getting better.  We decide to fit in another under water snorkel session at St Pierre, apparently the most photographed island in the world.  A minute island with fluted granite shore banks and a few swaying palms, it is the ultimate little paradise spot, drawing crowds of tourists from the luxury resorts on the nearby Praslin.  We time our snorkel to beat the crowds and find the water empty of homo sapien activity as we descend into the deep.  Barracuda, bonito, bonefish and white tip sharks keep a baleful eye on us during our circumnavigation, but the encounter I will remember for life is with a Hawksbill turtle.  

Blackie spots it first and points it out where it is feeding on the seabed, snapping off pieces of coral with its razor sharp bill.  With Nikonos in hand I swoop down a good eight metres, finning along in it’s slow wake to get the right shot.  Then my film runs out and it disappears into the blue haze where the coral shelf drops off beyond the ten metre mark.  But upon completing our circumcision, the hawksbill is back and ready to play.  Cruising along just under the surface, it propels itself along with it’s leathery flippers until I’m staring right into its extra-terrestrial little face.  It pops a small air bubble from it’s beak as it takes a soft bite at my camera strap before pushing a staring yellow eye right up against my snorkelling mask.  For what seems like aeons I gaze into it’s ancient and wizened face, stroking it’s flippers, trying to fathom it’s deep-flow turtle thoughts.  When I dive down to photograph it from below, it follows me right down and surfaces with it’s eyes staring right into mine.  Until eventually I have to leave it’s lovely cyan world to return to mine, hoping that future encounters with humans will be of the compassionate kind.  

A slow sail into the sunset takes us to a stunning mooring anchorage at Anse Lasio where I rig up the bosun’s chair to shimmy up Walkabout’s mast.  Sixty four feet up I cling like a koala to the aluminium spire, snapping one-handed, wide-angle photos of the yacht, drifting below my view like a miniscule postage stamp.  And the time begins to slow down as I sip on a rum cocktail while barracudas tail walk in pursuit of flying fish.  

Wednesday 17 October 2001  

From Anse Lasio, we navigate the choppy swell to Aride, one of the driest of the central islands.  A veritable ornithological treasure trove, it is a nesting site for one of the world’s largest colonies of sooty terns.  The terns are in excellent company though, with the island and it’s skies all a-twitter with an incredible variety of birds.  Brown and lesser noddies, shearwaters, roseate terns, white- and red tailed tropic birds, crab plovers and soaring frigate birds wing, skim and hover in a constant flurry of aerial activity.  Land birds are well-represented too, with Madagascar fodies, Seychelles and Madagascar sunbirds, blue pigeons, white-eyes and the critically endangered Seychelles robin chat making their appearance.  

We follow a guided route with the extremely knowledgeable Jimmy, who points out local flora and fauna with a mixture of seriousness and comic wit.  Banyan and Casuarina trees, cannibalistic skinks, a slithery wolf snake and sleepy brown geckos – nothing misses his sharp eyes en route.  At the lookout point, you are literally a step away from the abyss.  From the heads of a soaring cliff you stare out across a line of breakers charging in to send metres of spray skywards, while a turquoise ocean stretch away contentedly to touch base with the sky.  And on the air currents below you, the updrafts are alive with aerial acrobatics more impressive than any air show you could wish to attend.  Elegant frigate birds bank and dive in a constant attempt to steal prey from lesser species, while terns and shearwaters and noddies plunge into stooping dives in search of fish.  Turtle silhouettes dot the water below us as piercing shrieks and whoops and whistles echo from the cliffs.  

During the trip to Aride we had what can only be described as a huge hit on the trawling rig.  Whatever it was could not be stopped and, like the proverbial steamtrain, stripped 90% of the line before effortlessly snapping the nylon.  Either a wahoc or a nuclear submarine, seems to be the general consesus.  So we try again on the return journey to Anse Lasio, this time hooking a bonito which puts up a nice fight for a smallish game fish.  We haul ten pounds of steelgrey and slippery muscle on board but the fish has the last say when it slithers through Blackie’s hands during the photo opportunity, plunging happily into the heavenly blue.  

We slip underwater in search of sting rays along the rocky point at Anse Lasio after a Sey Brew, feeling the rays of the late afternoon sun basking on the water.  Bang on time a spotted eagle ray flaps lazily past, casting a wary eye in my direction as I dive down for a photograph.  The moment seems suspended in eternity as I follow lazily behind it, framing it in the viewfinder, forgetting to breathe for one long and timeless minute.  And then back up to the surface to re-charge on oxygen before descending once again into the marine wonderland.  A young moray pops into view from it’s coral lair, grimacing a skully smile into the lens.  Then a frilly and surreal creature drifts into view; it is a venomous lion fish abristle with tendrils and fins and spikes like a puppet out of Chinese New Year celebrations.  I recall that it is a dangerous species but it is only later on back on the boat that I read how extreme the venom is.  Nonetheless, the close-up photos are in the bag and I live to tell the tale.  

While I’m busy sharing deep and meaningful thoughts with a giant sting ray, Blackie hollers me over to a set of shallow rocks.  Another turtle, but this time a huge and ancient specimen.  With a craggy be-barnacled carapace, it is old and wise not to pay much attention to foolish humans with cameras.  As I hang around on the tide I watch as he methodically feeds his way through a patch of sea grass while hangers on flit around his beak in search of leftovers.  A small cleaner fish  methodically scours the turtle carapace, vaccuuming in between the moss and small shells in search of small edible morsels.  When I eventually leave, the hawkesbill has

discovered a new patch of seaweed in a crevasse and disappears headfirst, leaving two gnarled rear flippers to wave a disinterested farewell as I snorkel on my way.  

Thursday 18 October 2001  

I hook into a barracuda before breakfast today, watching as it’s sleek turbocharged body explodes from the surface.  It’s power judders through the small spinning rod and close to the boat it frees itself with a final vehement shake of it’s menacing jaws.  Perfect – I’ve had my morning kick start and breakfast is ready anyway.  On the programme today is Curieuse Island, approximately 25km offshore from Praslin, where a leper colony was established in previous years until as recently as 1965.  Once a haunt for gargantuan crocodiles up to 6 metres in length, the reptile population is now headed up by equally colossal sand land tortoises.  

About 20 of these prehistoric creatures wander about near to the Curieuse Information Centre, nibbling at just about everything in sight.  They are slow and deliberate creatures, lacking the elegance buoyancy affords their marine cousins.  I encounter a few more wandering in the mangrove swamps along the walking trail, where they share the island wilderness with burly land crabs, plovers and skinks.  It is a stinking hot day out, with the tropical sun searing down and the humidity hovering around a hundred percent, so I’m glad to finish off the sightseeing tour at the former leprosy centre and return to Walkabout.  

After five days of constant visual and experiential input, I feel that I am getting close to overload mode.  Maybe some windsurfing and a long lunch is called for, so we opt for a stop at Gedore, anchoring off the Paradise Sun resort.  Very choppy though with both the wind and swell battering away at us, so we decide to move on to the harbour at Baie St Anne for the night.  

Friday 19 October 2001  

Back to the main island of Mahe, so I arrange a 06h30 taxi to the airport with Neville Atelky, a self-confessed “son of Praslin”.  “If I live to be a thousand years it will be only a short time on this beautiful island.” are his words as we navigate a winding road through the Vallee de Mai Forest.  

First real disappointment of the Seychelles trip comes when my guide for Morne Seychellois fails to turn up.  This forces me to re-strategise, luckily with some input from Jean Benoiton of STMA, the local tourism and marketing agency for the island group.  Instead of the Seychelles highest peak, I start off with a gentle ramble past the old mission.  Originally built by the Anglicans? to house the children of freed slaves, all that remains are moss-covered stone ruins and a magnificent avenue of sandragon trees.  Follow these gnarled and ancient giants and you will reach a viewpoint  offering a breath-taking view across the Indian Ocean stretching away from Anse Petit.

I tear myself away from this visual feast, continuing west to where tea plantations cover the slopes in blankets of shiny green.  In between rows of ceylon and citronella, I find another incredible island panorama, and right there I discover a whole tangle of pitcher plants.  While I’m in the process of taking photographs, a cheeky lizard stages a raid on one of the pitchers, forcing itself halfway into the bowl to snatch one of the insects.  It flashes away into the undergrowth when it spots me, with mangled insect legs stabbing from it’s maw.  

I locate the trailhead where a steep walkway heads into the forested slopes of Morne Blanc, the walk I eventually decided on.  The higher I climb, the more unbearable the humidity becomes (and the thicker the vegetation grows).  Tree ferns and palms shoot skywards, bearded moss and lianas trail from low branches; orchids and epiphytes cling to giant trees which shield the undergrowth from the sun with wide-reaching branches.  Forest bulbuls and sunbirds shuttle from limb to limb and whistles and raucous cries echo amongst the jade shadows, where only the most persistent sunbeam manages to splash onto the dappled forest floor.  It is a short, sharp and calf-numbing climb along the stepped and well maintained trail, and the view is beyond beautiful.  Mist rainforest and a mix of padanans and palms give way to the gigantic flat-topped crowns of towering balsams crouching down to the island’s beach necklace.  Where land gives way to water, the ocean colours blend from a jade to turquoise before finally succumbing to the sparkling indigo of the deep.  Black-brown granite cliffs rear and stagger their way inland through the green melee of tropical vegetation, scrabbling to reach up to the peak of Morne Seychellois, the island’s highest peak at 933metres?  Where I stand on the cliff at Morne Blanc with the mountain behind me, an ocean dotted with tropical islands stretching to the horizon in front of me, and white-tailed tropic birds whirling into the heavens like swirling Oriental kites, I feel like I am the first human in this legendary land of Lemuria.  Or at least one of those lucky enough to experience a little piece of a land of paradise.  

(Crown upon spreading crown where upwardly mobile balsam trees strain towards the skies looking for all the world like patches of moss, each one at least 30 metres of billowing leafy branches across).  

I descend along a thousand steps until I reach the Island’s main east-west route, deciding to keep walking.  Ignoring offer of lifts, I plod until I’m looking out across Victoria nestling above the powder-blue harbour, probably one of the most picturesque capitals you will ever find.  After nearly three hours of tramping, I succumb to the temptation and complete the last few kms in one of the ramshackle Seychellois busses.  I sit in a seat next to a young woman, breathing in the smell of coco-butter and dream for a while of perpetual holidays.  

A quick visit to the Victoria Market follows, where I buy island wraps and chat to some of the locals.  Then on to the botanical gardens where I discover a roosting colony of fruit bats.  The snarling shrieks of flying foxes fill the air as they wheel and manoeuvre giddily in a frenzy of staggered bat wing flight.

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