Seychelles revisited

26 November 2004

Woke up with the aging air con unit losing the battle against the onslaught of the tropics. Humidity and high temperature are in the early throes of a two pronged attack, cloying at the windows, steaming in the fecund vegetation outside my bungalow door, sending rivulets of sweat snaking along the small of my back.

When I open my eyes, I feel the hangover trying to assert itself, but manage to subconsciously blame it on the after-effects of jet lag. Clock says 08h30, so too late to grab a swim in the inviting pool at Le Meridien Barbarons. Quick breakfast and then its onto the bus with the rest of the journo’s to Port Victoria for the start of the Raid Turquoise.

A few announcements, some introductions and a frisson of excitement and we’re on our way. I’m on board one of the press inflatables and we bomb along Mahe’s rocky shoreline en route to Beau Vallon where we land and sip on iced Citronelle tea and meet some of the teams. The competitors are mostly from France, but Belgian and Flemish accents as well as entrants from Holland and Canada add to the international mix. We lunch on delectable island faire at Fisherman’s Cove, building up our reserves for the bump and grind along the test leg of the day (towards Silhouette Island). Turns out to be a bit of a damp squib in the end, with my only excitement of the afternoon coming during the boarding of an inflatable taking us to the Le Meridien Pearl. I have to wade out in neck-deep water with waves pummelling my face, all the while holding my camera bag above my head to keep it from getting wet. I’m eventually rescued with only my wrists and the bag above water while trying to breathe like a fish through my ears (much to the delight of the French contingent I might add).

From the inflatable, we transfer to a luxury catamaran to cruise the clear waters off Mahe towards Port Launey, a beautiful/idyllic bay where we are to rendezvous with the Le Meriedien Pearl. This luxury craft truly deserves to be called the “Pearl of the Seychelles”, glistening like a giant swan against the sunset silhouette below Morne Blanc. The rest of the night would have been great, but my lack of Gallic language skills sort of kills the amusing stories with which I could have amused the media contingent.

27 November 2004

Eventually to sleep around 12 o’clock after a dark-star beach landing at Port Launey. Grabbed a quick breakfast and then it is back to this beautiful little bay to capture the official start of the Raid Turquoise. For the first time I also manage to escape from the overly organised media group, slipping away into the coastal forest to scramble to the top of a granitic promontory overlooking the entrance to the secluded bay of Port Launey. I ascend along an overgrown track, ducking below gigantic spider webs to eventually climb the final 12 metres straight up a granitic cliff face. Scratched and pouring with sweat, I haul myself up the final crevasse with a paradysical view stretching away below me. Sheer slopes dense with balsawood and evergreen giants, tumble to a Gaudi-sculpted shore where mangroves crowd the beaches. Beyond the shimmering sand, cyan waters extend to plunging reefs, rich with coral and a magnificent array of fish and other marine creatures. Not far away, less than 30 metres, a huge hawksbill turtle surfaces to drift lazily, only sounding once the rubber ducks roar to life.

And then it is off to duel with the Big Blue as they Banshee howl away on streaking tongues of foam. With the chopper dipping and swerving like a mechanical clockwork dragonfly in their wakes, they sweep out of the bay pas Pointe L’Escalier while I focus on getting my ass safely down from that granite promontory.

Decided to extend my leave of absence from the media pack, shouldering my backpack and hitting the road out towards Port Gauld. A hell of a tramp in the end; probably a good 8km or so winding up and down the hills bundled above the shoreline. Just on 2 hours later, I’m back at Port Launey, this time armed with an arsenal of underwater cameras and itching for a shot at the hawksbill turtles I saw earlier this morning. No luck however; not only is there no sign of turtles, the water’s a touch murky and it also seems as if global warring has effected the Seychellois paradise. At least the parrot-, pipe and clownfish are still about so it’s certainly no waste of time. It is just that I remember my previous visit to the Seychelles when I seem to remember being filled with technicolour underwater daydreams. Two minutes into my return walk, I am picked up by two very belle Italians who are so much more friendly than the French…grazi!

28 November 2004

Leisurely wake up call at 07h00 with enough time to sort luggage for our flight to Desroches Island. Mode of transport is a Beech craft Baron, so we’re limited to a maximum of 10kg (so I’m on 9.5kg camera gear and toothbrush and underpants). Uneventful aerial cruise above a turquoise ocean studded with emerald islands with touchdown at tiny Desroches at 11h00.

It is a petite slip of land, barely big enough for the airfield and you really get that castaway feel. We are welcomed with coconut just fresh from the husk before once again transferring to the luxurious Pearl of the Seychelles. Another huge meal, another bloody lazy day in paradise. If I don’t watch out, I’ll be developing a paunch in the very near future.

Perfect afternoon for a bit of action (would have loved a run or snorkel dive at Desroches), but have to crowd into the media boat to photograph the fishing segment of the event. Could have been a lot worse though (for example, working in a bank or deep-level gold mine or some similar type of slave labour) and the school of dolphins we bump into certainly brighten my day. The fact that I end up on the boat with the so-called VIP team heralds a further improvement. And yes, the fact that the VIP team is made up of two delectable French actresses and two seriously sexy sport stars certainly helps. Lots of smiling and saying “tres bien” and “c’est bon!” follows and although the femme fatales manage to hook two fish, that is about as far as things progress.

A stunning sunset just to the west of Desroches Island sets the sea alight as we bomb back to the Pearl of Seychelles and the fish of the Amriantes breathe a collective sigh of relief. And, I must admit, so do I.

29 November 2004

I end up sleeping on the bridge of one of the media catamarans, mainly I think because the dingy pilots were too skunked to find the one with my cabin on it. This is no great disaster as I nest on the trampoline, swaying into slumber as if in a giant hammock powered by the slow swell rebounding off Desroches. All is well until a light shower of rain pitter-patter against my face, but I can see a sky filled with stars and drift back to dreamland. Around 45 minutes later I am awake again, this time jerked from my dreams by a huge fruit bat hovering above my head like a creature from a Bram Stoker (gothic) novel. Sure they are harmless but that’s not what your primal brain screams when you open your eyes and you are face to face with the dog of Dracula. Good thing that I do wake up though; the sky has completely clouded over and a pillar of rain is marching from over Desroches. Escape to under the rear awning is in order, but the downside is that I now have to cope with the grunt like snores of one of Belgian media’s finest.

Fleet-footed maneuvering sees me jumping ship after photographing the race start. A much better option, with just me, Suzy, Mary-Frances and the crew on one of the media catamaran’s bound for the African Bank Islands. We stop off to wander along a faultless Desroches beach where an exclusive lodge is under construction and then set off on the seven-hour plus cruise. Roddy rigs the two rods for game fish and twenty minutes later we hit pay dirt. It must have been a school of fish, because our reels ratchet into life literally seconds apart and then the fight is on. Silva lands his prize first, a beautiful king fish of around a kg. I wrestle my fish until I can see it flashing about a few metres below the boat, an absolute beaut of at least 12kg. From the gaffe into the kitchen they go…sushi is about to be served. The day goes ballistic when I hook into a yellow fin tuna that explodes into 20kg of vehement fury. It takes me a good 15 minutes to land the little bugger, but it is an awesome experience. Sort of similar to a tug of war session with a pit bull terrier.

Around 4pm, the African Banks Islands pop up on the horizon, two thin slivers of sand, one of them crowned in a verdant green. An ocean like an aquamarine oil slick laps at the deserted little beach and I snorkel from the boat in water as clear as the air above it. Nightfall arrives in an amber explosion amongst cumulus storms drifting in from the west and after supper we set sail for Mahé. With approximately 16 hours of cruising ahead of us, we sip on chilled Chablis before I drift off to a world of starry dreams winking through the porthole above my bed.

30 November 2004

“If paradise does actually exist, maybe this must be it”. I have to attribute this to Patrick Milloen, diminutive television producer of Moteurs D’Aventure. And he must be on the money with this – I woke up to the surge and swell of a sea of molten aquamarine stretching beyond the limits of my imagination. Not a ship, not a rock, not a tree, not a sign of human life; just water.

An infinite ocean stretching to the horizon and literally, a 1000 miles beyond. Sail north or east or west or south from Mahé and your nearest landfall will take days of tranquility and solitude to get to

Shearwaters and petrels patrolled our wake and, for a precious five minutes, a school of dolphins torpedoed like pale blue mermaids below our bow. With powerful thrusts of their tails, they pirouette to beam playful smiles to where we hung in suspended animation on the trampoline to gaze with wonder into their liquid world. I catch another bonito as Mahe materialises on the skyline, slowly rising up above the ocean, first a metallic smudge on the horizon, then slowly metamorphing to become a jagged, blue bite mark against the low clouds.

We get to the beautiful Port Launey where our skipper Marty drops anchor to allow us to fit in a snorkel to end off a perfect day. Again the visibility is poor, but the fish are plentiful

and I float above them as they flutter like neon butterflies along the reef. Then it is off to Barbaron once more where Patrick and I feast on Creole fare before hitting the bedrooms.

1 December 2004

A real tropical downpour this morning, with the Seychelles feeling as muggy as a message in a bottle. I’m transferring to the Coral Strand Hotel and, for the day,STMA has arranged for me to do a day excursion to St. Anne Marine National Park. A bit of a cattle trip on a small ferry before we are bundled into a semi-submersible boat to gawk at fish (and they at us). An interesting concept, very similar to what they do on the Great Barrier Reef, where tourists are able to sit below the water line and view the fish through thick safety glass panels.

We pass Cerf, Round, St. Anne and Long Islands, the latter housing the Seychelles” only prison. Here approximately fifty inmates lounge in the lap of relative luxury, working in the prison gardens by day while fishing and playing beach soccer on weekends. I walk around the minute Round Island to take some pics before we sit down to a buffet lunch to build up our reserves for an afternoon of; you’ve guessed it, more leisure.

I spend the rest of the afternoon taking photos on and around L’ile Ronde before we chug back to shore where I’m picked up by Gilli, my driver, who takes me through to the Coral Strand Hotel. Not quite as swanky as the Le Meridien Barbarons, but will do me well as a base on the famous Beau Vallon beach. After my huge dinner, I decide to skip supper, instead settling for a beer or two at the Strands disco where atrocious karaoke is the name of the game.

2 December 2004

Meet Verena, the STMA representative in charge of the SA market to finalise my itinerary before setting off for Port Glaud. Have spotted a hike to a waterfall below Morne Blanc and that will be my morning mission. It turns out to be a rather easy hike of around 2km along a plantation road, and the waterfall itself is stunning. Cascading down approximately 30metres along 5 or 6 sections of steeply sloping granite, it eventually tumbles into a rocky swimming hole surrounded by coconut palm, cinnamon and blood sandragon trees.

My timing is perfect and I have the pool to myself for more than two hours, allowing me to clamber along the slippery chute and cavort butt-naked in the dark water. I decide to move on when the fat oily German with the ponytail and nagging companions spoil my solitude and tramp down to a small bike hire centre I spotted along the Port Glaud road, but they’re out of bikes. No train smash and I instead set off to explore the creek below the waterfall, wading between rocks, mangrove roots and prehistoric looking stonefish. I try the locally owned Sundown Restaurant, part of the Eden Holiday Resort, for lunch and feast on the garlic baby clams, fresh fruit salad and an icy Seybrew lager. Awesome view, excellent service, cannot recommend it highly enough.

Later that afternoon, I organise a canoe from the hotel’s water sport centre and open up shoulders towards a distant Baie Ternay. It is one of the most basic sit on sea kayak designs and handles very similar to how I imagine a Tupperware coffin would, but who cares? It is a perfect day in paradise; the visibility must be close on 20 metres, fish are cruising in neon schools along the Beau Vallon reefs and the late afternoon sun is caressing my back. Would have loved to blade away into the tangerine sunset, but have to return the kayak by 5pm. Instead I strip down on a secluded section of beach and stroke out towards Silhouette Island, swimming leisurely out into the bay, feeling the water swirling away around my body while I dream of mermaids glistening on far-away islands.

3 December 2004

Big day. Managed to arrange a guide from the Morné Seychellois National Park and, although I have not mentioned this to the powers that be, plan to take on the island’s highest peaks. Problem is, Roy the guide refuses to do this without permission. Cool, just means I have to battle it out with bureaucracy, trawling a red tape trail, leading from one office to the other. By insisting every time that another department has given its prior permission, I eventually get authorisation from the big boss himself.

Roy, who initially did not seem too keen on the 905 metre scramble to Mnt. Seychellois, warms to his task as soon as we hit the forest. It soon becomes obvious that he loves the outdoors and he is soon rattling off tree names and ranting about the need for a stricter environmental policy. I’m fit, but Roy cranks up the pace like some kind of Bionic Ranger and I flounder in his wake as we claw our way up a muddy slope dotted with moss-covered rocks as green as peppermint crisps. The lower slopes of the mountain consist mostly of secondary forest, with a lot of alien trees having been planted for harvesting, but as we ascend, more and more indigenous and endemic vegetation state their claim. Cinnamon trees pylon towards the canopy like giant, mottled pythons, their pancake smell pervading the mountain air. Not to be outdone, vanilla creepers clutch at every trunk in sight, bright green and pliable, clasping for their little place in the sun.

Below a huge and looming granite rock face, the trail goes ballistic, rearing up in slippery rocks. Only way to go is not think too much while powering upwards in flying leaps, or in places to physically haul your body up by the scruff of your own neck. Pandanas palm air roots and guava limbs come in handy as I try to keep pace with Roy, but I start cursing the 10kgs of camera equipment I’m shucking up the mountain. Saved by a pitcher plant! A huge, scrambling Nepenthes pervillei snaking like a Medusa creeper to cover what must be at least 50 square metres. The cups of this carnivorous plant do not close to trap insects like other pitcher plants; instead a sticky liquid is secreted in the bottom of the cup. This attracts insects into the receptacles (between 5-10cm in length on average) and effectively “glue” them to the inside walls where enzymes eventually digest their remains in order to supply the plant with the nutrients it requires.

Beyond the 700 metre mark, bearded moss and marriage ferns and bracken (another benevolent alien) begin to make their appearance. Roy displays his bird calling skills and, like some adept avian air traffic controller, lands a Seychelles sunbird right in front of my lens. We also spot Seychelles blue pigeon, Seychelles kestrel and Seychelles bull-bull as we ascend higher up into the mist forest zone. Stands of cinnamon and clove make way for montane woodland.

Huge alien albizias hunkers down from on high, anchoring their gigantic girth and spreading branches with coiling buttress roots snaking in all directions. In between the great crescendo of greenery and the layered scents of a multitude of aromatic plants, it is nigh impossible to focus on sound as well, but an insistent ping, similar to that of a bat, does manage to attract my attention. Roy smiles knowingly and begins to delve into the layer of rotting plant material carpeting the fecund forest floor. He carefully separates rotting, dried out tree fern stems, peering inside until, on the third or fourth attempt, he triumphantly calls me over. There, squatting rather grumpily and blinking eyes as dark as flecks of coal, is a frog that will fit on the nail of my little finger. It is the Sooglossus gardeneri and is at less than 1cm in length, the world’s smallest frog. We put the little fella on a carpet of moss where he poses obligingly for a photograph before hopping off into his damp little world once more.

From around 800 metres up, the trail (if you can indeed call it that) slithers along a legoland of collapsed tree trunks, jagged rocks, air roots and ankle eating caverns. It is a truly Jurassic world where tree ferns loom like jade sky spiders, where complete trees are spun in layers of spidery moss, where air plants and epiphytes and orchids fight it out for their spot in an air space just a few hydrogen molecules short of a full-blown rain storm. I’m sweating buckets; losing all the Seybrew lagers I’ve sipped to the ancient spirits rooted within the Seychelles’ tallest peaks. In our final assault on the zenith we are forced to leopard crawl through an obstacle course of rotting tree trunks, giant spider webs, contorted air roots, vicious bramble growth and palms with stems spiked with hundreds of lethal-looking 5cm spines. I manage to stop myself just in time from grabbing hold of one of these during a moment of panic, escaping with what must be at least 20 spines stuck in my palm. And then, after more than 4 hours of low range tramping, the topography flattens out through a gnarled stand of trees straight from the pages of a Tolkien tale; tortured trunks, contorted branches lunging towards the sky, everything wreathed in veils of moss trailing to the ground. Low mist clouds swirl around us, then opens up to unveil the western slopes of the island dropping away nearly a 1000 metres to the cobalt blue of the Indian Ocean. Indigo reefs fan out beyond the distant beaches, only to once again rise in glorious green above the waves as Conception and Therese Islands.

“You know that all we’re standing on right now is a tangle of roots and decaying plant material?”

Roy deadpans while I gaze out across a million miles of space. Somewhere out there, beyond the lush green of the montane canopy, beyond the white-tailed tropic birds, swirling like liberated kites, beyond the blue haze of the horizon sky lining in the west, lies the continent of Africa, shrugging above an ocean more than a thousand miles wide. That much my brain understands, but as far as my soul is concerned, right now I am standing at the edge of the world.

4 December 2004

Shit, shave, shampoo, and shop. Saying goodbyes. A’bientot, Seychelles!