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
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.
Boatman Eric Lafortune grew up on the little island of
Moyenne, and learned the layout of the bay’s channels and sandbanks from his
grandfather, a lifelong fisherman. ‘Much of the bay is very shallow,’ he
explains. ‘In many places it’s only a metre deep, so you have to be careful not
to become beached. But I have a map of the whole bay stored inside my head, so
I’m never worried about that!’
Moyenne itself is now run as a private reserve thanks to the
work of the late Brendon Grimshaw – a Yorkshireman who purchased the island in
1962 and spent the next fifty years restoring its natural environment. His
efforts set an important precedent: Ste-Anne’s precious coral reefs are facing
serious challenges thanks to the effects of increased construction on nearby
Mahé, and the pace of climate change.
‘There’s no doubt the seas are changing,’ Eric says. ‘The
seasons are different and the weather is more unpredictable. To me, the islands
are like members of my family, so of course I notice the change. Everyone in
the Seychelles knows what a special place this is, and we must do all we can to
Praslin: Best for
coco de mer
‘Now that’s what I call a nut!’ laughs Shaun Larue, pointing into the branches
of a coco de mer tree somewhere in the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve. Nine
metres up, a cluster of yellow coconuts clings to the tree-trunk like a bunch
of giant’s grapes, each the size of a rugby ball. Around the tree’s base, the
forest floor is littered with the husks of others which have crashed to earth
and exploded into shards of coconut shrapnel. ‘You wouldn’t want to be
underneath it when it falls, that’s for sure,’ he giggles.
As if to underline the point, a crash and thud rings out
from the trees, like a bowling ball tumbling to the forest floor. ‘See what I
mean?’ he says. He picks up a fallen nut and turns it over in his hands, shaded
by fronds suspended from the overhanging palms. ‘I’ve had some close calls, but
thankfully my head is still in one piece.’ He sets off in search of another
specimen and before too long is lost in the undergrowth, a tiny figure dwarfed
by dinosaur-sized trees.
The gargantuan coco de mer – the world’s largest coconut and
seed of any type – is produced by one of the Seychelles’ most precious endemic
plants. It grows only in a couple of narrow valleys on Praslin, the
archipelago’s second-largest island. Each nut takes six years to reach
maturity, measures up to half a metre in length and weighs between 15 and 30kg
– roughly 10 times the weight of the average coconut.
The plant wasn’t discovered in the wild until the 19th
century, but its nuts had long been known to sailors and explorers, who found
them washed up on beaches all over the Indian Ocean and concluded that they
grew in a magical underwater garden (hence the name, which is French for
‘coconut of the sea’). But it wasn’t the nuts’ size which piqued the men’s
curiosity; it was their shape. Inside each nut is an enormous double-lobed seed
that bears an uncanny resemblance to the female posterior – complete with
intimate anatomical details that would make even the saltiest of sailors blush.
Unsurprisingly given their erotic shape, the nuts have long
been rumoured to have aphrodisiac qualities, and for centuries have been used
as a boost to male potency and fertility. These days, they’re highly prized by
botanical collectors, and their export is strictly controlled by the Seychelles
government. Prime specimens can fetch upwards of £400, but have been known to
sell for much more. The Vallée de Mai itself remained untouched until the
1930s, but the introduction of other tropical tree species in the ’40s and ’50s
damaged its fragile ecosystem, and it was eventually made a national nature
reserve in 1966, and a Unesco World Heritage site in 1983.
‘We’ve worked hard to return the valley to its natural
state,’ explains Shaun, who works here part-time as a forest guide. ‘Thankfully
it’s healthy again now, as you can probably see from the size of the trees.’
He lays a hand on a palm trunk and listens to the soundtrack
of the jungle: the chatter of parrots, the clink of streams and the creak of
coconut boughs. Somewhere amongst the trees, there’s a snap, then a smash, then
a thump – and Shaun breaks into a grin.
‘Sounds like it’s time for us to find another coconut, eh?’
Cousin: Best for
‘This is George,’ announces guide Ryan Morel, scratching the neck of a giant
tortoise which is munching its way slowly through some green leaves. ‘He’s the
old man of Cousin Island. We think he’s definitely over 150, but he could be as
old as 175. I suppose we should call him Grandfather George, really,’ he
laughs, stroking the tortoise’s tessellated carapace as it lumbers off towards
the nearby palms.
Cut off from the rest of Africa by nearly a thousand miles
of ocean, the isolated location of the Seychelles has led to the development of
many natural curiosities on the islands, and they don’t get more curious than
the giant tortoise. These huge reptiles are a distant relative of the world’s
other species of giant tortoise, and are thought to have descended from a
common ancestor that roamed across the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana some
200 million years ago. The endemic Seychelles giant tortoise is thought to have
been hunted to extinction by the 19th century, but its close cousin, the
Aldabra giant tortoise, can still be found in large numbers across much of the
Seychelles – particularly the little island of Cousin, a government-owned
nature reserve that’s famous for the abundance and diversity of its wildlife.
Well over a hundred giant tortoises live on Cousin, some of
which have reached truly enormous sizes, measuring more than a metre long and
weighing in excess of 350kg. The island is also home to over 300,000 nesting
seabirds and the world’s longest millipede, not to mention the highest density
of lizards on Earth. It’s one of the few islands where the endemic Seychelles
magpie robin survives, and between October and April, it’s an important nesting
site for hawksbill sea turtles, which crawl ashore to lay their eggs in the
island’s fringing circlet of sand.
‘Millipedes are one of the tortoises’ favourite snacks,’
Ryan explains, plucking one of the creatures from a hollow beneath a boulder.
‘They nest in the higher areas of the island, and we often find the tortoises
have wandered right up into the hills looking for them.’
He reaches up and picks a fruit from a low-hanging shrub: an
Indian mulberry or noni, a tropical fruit known for its nutritional value and
notoriously rancid smell. ‘For some reason they also seem to like these,’ he
says, grimacing as he sniffs the fruit’s yellow-white flesh. ‘Like most things
which taste awful, they’re supposed to be good for you. Perhaps that explains
why the tortoises live so long!’
He emerges in a forest glade somewhere near the centre of
the island, shaded by a curtain of banyan, ficus and pisonia trees. Around the
grove, a group of giant tortoises roots in the dry earth, their shells banging
together as they jostle for the juiciest leaves. ‘Most of our tortoises
recognise us by sight now,’ Ryan says, tickling one of the animals
affectionately on its hind leg.
‘They might not be the prettiest creatures on Earth, but to
us, they’re like old friends.’
La Digue: Best for
It’s rush hour on the little island of La Digue, but here, the traffic isn’t
nose-to-tail buses and cars – it’s bikes. Islanders in flip-flops, the ladies
in floral dresses, clatter past on their rickety steeds, while shouting
schoolkids whizz along three or four to a bicycle, with extra riders perched on
the seat-stays and handle-bars. The island’s taxi service – otherwise known as
an ox-cart – trundles slowly past, carrying passengers from the afternoon
ferry. In half-an-hour it’s all over, and the coast road falls quiet again.
For many people, La Digue sums up the essence of island life
in the Seychelles. In contrast to the larger islands, development here has been
kept to a minimum, and life meanders along at a sleepy, tropical pace. There’s
just one road, which runs most of the way around the island’s west coast, and a
single village, situated beside the main boat jetty at La Passe; the rest of La
Digue is still mostly cloaked by old-growth forest and fringed by virgin coast.
Riding along the island’s back-roads, the only signs of
human habitation are a few tin-roofed shops and single-storey houses hidden
amid the coconut groves, and the odd wooden shack selling fresh coconuts and
glasses of papaya juice. It’s an island that’s frozen in time, and La Digue’s residents
seem perfectly happy for it to stay that way.
‘We’ve seen how some of the other islands have been changed
by development,’ explains Rhondi Payet, a native La Diguois who knows every
inch of the island’s backcountry. ‘And no-one wants that to happen on La Digue.
Everyone likes the island just the way it is. Quiet!’
La Digue’s relaxed lifestyle makes it an irresistible draw
for those seeking an escape from the outside world. The island’s largest beach,
Anse Source d’Argent, is one of the most famous and frequented in the
Seychelles: a series of golden crescents of sand backed by a chaotic jumble of
gigantic granite blocks. While the west coast may be relatively well-known,
it’s a different story on the island’s southern and eastern sides. Here, the road
gives way to tangled bush and wild forest, and a dusty trail connects a string
of pristine coves – including the spectacular trio of Grande Anse, Petite Anse
and Anse Cocos, where gnarled palms teeter above the turquoise water, and the
sand shimmers white-hot in the haze. Most secluded of all is the tiny inlet of
Anse Marron, a patch of powdery sand tucked away at the island’s southern tip,
which can only be reached by crossing the rocks at low tide.
‘La Digue never really changes that much,’ Rhondi muses, as
he leans against the counter of his roadside stall beside the island’s harbour
at La Passe. ‘Of course there are more buildings now, more people, even a few
more cars. But this is still where you’ll find the real spirit of the
Seychelles. We prefer life to be simple here. Personally, I think the other
islands would do well to follow our example.’
Dusk falls and he shuts up shop, swings a leg over his
battered bicycle and pedals away down the road, as reggae music drifts out from
an open doorway, and a troupe of fruit bats traces lazy circles in the
The article 'The perfect trip: The Seychelles' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.