Seychelles

 

“Hold on, everyone!” announces Captain Jean, as he steers his rickety wooden boat round

towards Cousin Island. “The swell can be strong, so we will have to go in fast!”

He grins mischievously, adjusts his cap and guns the motor, making a direct line towards a patch of white sand on the island’s palm-fringed shore.

The boat picks up speed, skipping and bucking over the swell, fizzing through the breakers as the island looms ever closer. I hold on to the gunwales and hope that Captain Jean knows what he’s doing.

He does, of course. It’s a textbook landing; Jean judges the speed just right, and the boat comes to rest high up the beach, just a few yards from the treeline. The rangers of Cousin Island are there to greet us, helping everyone out of the boat before giving a briefing on the day ahead.

Like my fellow passengers, I’m here on Cousin to see one of the Seychelles’ best-kept secrets. Marooned in the middle of the Indian Ocean, 1,500km east of the African coast, this far-flung archipelago might be best-known as a luxurious getaway for the super-rich and super-famous, but there’s another side to the Seychelles that rarely features in the travel brochures – its wildlife.

Cousin, along with the neighbouring island of Curieuse, is home to one of the world’s most endangered reptiles – the Aldabra giant tortoise. An endemic species of the Seychelles, these gigantic creatures can reach 1.8m in length, weigh in excess of 400kg and live for more than a century. Sadly, its close cousin, the Seychelles giant tortoise, had already been hunted to extinction by the 19th century, making the fight to save the Aldabra all the more important.

Around 500 giant tortoises roam wild across Cousin and Curieuse, which are now part of a nature reserve off the island of Praslin, 48km northeast of the main island of Mahé. “It’s very important that we protect our tortoises,” explains conservation guide Ryan Morel. “They face many threats from poachers, climate change and habitat loss. So the work we do is vital to their survival.”

He stops to allow one of the animals to lumber past, its carapace a chequerboard of geometric patterns. As it reaches the trees, a millipede scuttles out from the undergrowth, and the tortoise snaps it up, munching happily as it plods away into the trees. “They absolutely love millipedes,” Ryan says, laughing. “I suppose they must taste good, but personally I’ve never tried one!”

Tortoises are not the only species that call Cousin Island home. Around 300,000 seabirds nest here every year, including giant frigatebirds, fairy terns, Audubon’s shearwaters, lesser noddies and white-tailed tropicbirds. Between October and April, it’s also an important nesting site for hawksbill turtles.

The palm forests of the nearby island of Praslin, in the UNESCO-listed Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, are the only place on the planet where you’ll find the coco de mer, or sea coconut. This curious palm tree is famous for producing the biggest seed in the natural world – a giant nut, half a metre in length and weighing up to 40kg, which is also infamous for its suggestive shape (early sailors thought it resembled the female posterior, hence its nickname – coco fesse, or bottom nut). As I trudge along the forest paths, I see clusters of coco de mer dangling beneath the palms, and sometimes hear one crashing down onto the forest floor with an ominous thud.

The last word in luxuryFor most people, the Seychelles are associated with luxury travel, and there’s no doubt that the islands have plenty to offer in terms of high-end accommodation. Take Silhouette Island, for example: 20km northwest of Mahé, it’s home to just two hotels, the indulgent Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa, and the boutique La Belle Tortue Lodge, allowing visitors to experience the island’s pristine jungle and deserted beaches in almost complete isolation. Then there’s Bird Island, an eco-resort that’s so isolated you can only arrive by seaplane. Or super-exclusive Frégate, a tiny atoll 56km east of Mahé, where the suites start at a modest US$2,000 a night, catering for movie stars and super-rich holidaymakers looking to live out their Robinson Crusoe fantasies.

However, most visitors spend the majority of their time on the mountainous island of Mahé. It’s the largest and most populated of the hundred-odd islands that make up the archipelago, and is home to the capital city of Victoria, the airport and 90 per cent of the Seychellois population – as well as the majority of its hotels. More than 200,000 tourists arrive here every year, but few stray far beyond the resorts, preferring to sip cocktails poolside or laze around on one of the many stunning beaches, like Beau Vallon, Anse Royale, Anse aux Poules Bleues or Pointe au Sel.

But even on Mahé, the wild side of the Seychelles is never too far away. A spine of granite mountains runs down the centre of the island, cloaked in dense, tangled rainforest, filled with soaring ironwood trees, acid-green palms, thickets of wild vanilla, cinnamon and ginger, and carnivorous pitcher plants clinging to the tree bark. It’s best explored in the company of the island’s hiking guides, as the trails are faint and hard to follow. It’s worth the effort: from Mahé’s highest point, the dome-shaped outcrop of Morne Seychellois, there’s an epic panorama of green forest, bone-white beaches and china-blue sea stretching out to all points of the compass.

The islands that time forgot

There’s plenty of wildlife beneath the waves, too. Just offshore from Mahé lies the Sainte Anne Marine National Park, encompassing six small islands scattered across 14km2 of ocean. It’s renowned for its rich marine life, with coral gardens populated by clouds of clownfish, parrotfish, stripy sergeant-majors and eagle rays, making it a fantastic spot for diving and snorkelling. But like many travellers, it’s on the tiny island of La Digue where I find my own personal patch of paradise. Situated 11km east of Praslin, and home to just under 3,000 people, it’s a place that seems preserved in time, and perfectly happy to stay that way. A single road loops its way round the entire island, but cars are banned here – so the preferred mode of transport of everyone, young and old, is the bicycle.

I spend several blissful days cruising along the sun-dappled back roads, stopping to buy coconuts and mangoes from the tin-topped shacks dotted along the roadside. I feast on spicy octopus curries, freshly trapped lobster and giant grilled prawns. One by one, I tick off the island’s beaches – the golden sweep of Grand Anse and Petite Anse, the little-visited cove of Coco Anse and the famous boulder-strewn beach of Anse Source d’Argent – the most photogenic beach anywhere in the Seychelles, if not the planet.

I swim, I doze, I sunbathe. The days slip by. I think about returning to work, but somehow I can’t summon up the energy to leave. Time moves differently in the Seychelles, the islanders say – and as I pass another evening watching the sun set over a peach-pink ocean, sipping a cold beer and feeling the warm tropical breeze, I know precisely what they mean.

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From Travel Seychelles, Colours October 2018