The perfect trip: The Seychelles
Splendidly isolated in mid-ocean between Africa and India, the Seychelles are perfect island-hopping territory; hop aboard a local ferry to access rainforest walks, gin-clear waters ripe for snorkelling, and some of the world’s oldest animals.
Mahé: Best for walking
Spears of sunlight slice through the forest canopy as Terence Belle tramps into the jungled heart of Mahé, the largest and most mountainous of the hundred-odd islands that make up the Seychelles. He picks his way along the overgrown trail, hacking through ferns and palm fronds, stopping only to squeeze past a granite boulder or step across a brook. Overhead, unseen birds screech and hoot among the treetops, and palm leaves rattle like paper in the breeze.
‘I haven’t walked this trail for six months,’ explains Terence, who runs botanical walks around the island. ‘And in that time the forest has already changed so much. Everything grows so fast that if we don’t walk the trails regularly, before too long we can’t find them again!’ He steps off the path into a thicket of bamboo stalks as thick as drainpipes. ‘This bamboo is only a few years old,’ he says laughing. ‘And look at the size of it! I think if you just stood still and waited, you could almost see it grow.’
A spine of craggy granite peaks runs along the centre of Mahé, crossed by a network of trails tramped by generations of Mahélois. Some are packhorse routes that date back to the days of the early settlers. Others were cut by spice traders during the 17th and 18th centuries, who planted tea, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, long since abandoned and now growing wild on the hillsides.
Mahé’s trails open up the island’s secret corners. While much of the coast has been cleared for agriculture, at higher altitudes large tracts of virgin rainforest survive. Here, geckos and skinks dart through the foliage, and pitcher plants dangle among moss-covered palms. Some of the islands’ most endangered flora and fauna is found here, including the Gardiner’s Seychelles frog, tinier than a human fingernail, and the fabulously rare jellyfish tree, which gets its name from its starfish-like flowers.
‘Most people never explore beyond the beaches,’ says Terence, as the trail emerges onto a plateau overlooking the misty summit of Morne Seychellois, the island’s highest mountain. ‘But it’s in the forest where you find the greatest treasures. You just have to know where to look.’
As he begins the tramp back down the trail, and is soon swallowed up by the jungle, the holler of bulbul birds booms from the treeline, and white clouds spill over Mahé’s jagged peaks.
Ste-Anne Marine Park: Best for island-hopping
A skein of spray arcs over the boat’s prow as it sculls across the waves, heading for a chain of islands framed against the afternoon sky. Beneath the keel, the water flashes through a kaleidoscope of ocean colours: lime-greens, aquamarines, cobalts, china-blues. Sometimes it’s like peering through frosted glass; at others, it’s as pure as crystal. As he nears one of the islands, captain Eric Lafortune cuts the motor and lets the boat drift on the swell, allowing his cargo of snorkellers to slip into the water without the faintest trace of a splash.
Situated just off Mahé’s northeast coast, the Ste-Anne Marine Park encompasses six islands spread across five square miles of the Indian Ocean. In previous centuries these islands were home to just a few scattered residents – as well as a leper colony and a prison – but since 1973 the underwater habitat around them has been protected as a marine reserve.
Each island has its own topography: Ile Cachée and Round Island are little more than specks of scrubby land peeping out above the ocean, while Long Island and Ste-Anne Island are jungled and hilly. They are divided by channels filled with coral banks and meadows of sea-grass, providing the perfect habitat for all kinds of underwater life: spiny sea urchins, striped sergeant majors and shiny parrotfish.