Seychelles: Serene, green & rarely seen

The exotic isles of the Seychelles may be best known for their pristine stretches of sand, but the unique birdlife, ancient rainforest and giant tortoises are the experiences that linger

By Sarah Barrell
Published 16 Sept 2015, 09:00 BST, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 10:54 BST

I'm island hopping with my eyes. From a sun-bleached cliff top on Aride, the northernmost Seychelles island, I can see right across the inner archipelago.

We name some of these landmasses aloud like an incantation: Curieuse, La Digue, Félicité, Mahé, Praslin, Les Deux Soeurs and (a snigger) Booby. The protruding outline of Mahé, the Seychelles largest island, means a couple of others — Frigate and Round — are hidden from us, but otherwise the view is perfectly treasure map-like, all islands laid out for the taking.

The Seychelles' 40-odd inner islands are all encompassed by a 35-mile radius of ocean. A veritable string of neatly packed stepping stones they may be (the world's only oceanic islands of granitic rock) but most travellers to the region, often trailing a flurry of just-married confetti, have traditionally been content to fly in and flop down on just one. This is perhaps understandable if you've plumped for the outer fringes of the archipelago, where remote coral atolls are given over to just one resort; de facto private islands with private jet access and, often, clientele with a very public persona. But if you're not interested in holidaying like Wills and Kate or the Clooneys, the best bet is to pop on a backpack and aim to discover the Seychelles' inner granitic soul.

Pulling burrs from the matted wings of a terrified fairy tern, I feel pretty far removed from a celebrity sojourn. I'm drenched in sweat — the product of any exertion beyond breathing in the Seychelles' fierce equatorial midday heat — and my hands are sticky from the leaves of the pisonia, the bougainvillea-like tree responsible for gumming up the feathers of the otherwise cotton-white seabird we've discovered on a steep uphill walk to Aride's cliffy heights.

The avian symbol of the Seychelles, this Fairy tern looks anything but ready for a postcard shot, all wide-eyed and ragged plumage, wielding its pinpoint beak like a cutlass. I don't know whose heart is beating faster.

"It's just the way these trees propagate, sending their seeds across to other islands on the wings of birds," says my unflappable guide, Albert Belmont. "Over 70% of Aride is pisonia, so you can imagine how often this happens. We do what we can but otherwise you have to let nature take its course." Despite continuous jabbing at my hands, the bird's beak — as lightweight as eggshells — proves to be harmless and we soon settle into a steady routine of combing, plucking and some desultory pecking until I release it into shaky flight.

Seemingly hostile terrain, at least for these terns, Aride is home to 18 species of native bird, including the largest colony of seabirds in the inner islands — among them frigate birds, white-tailed tropic birds and the endemic blue pigeon. We meet one of the latter lolling in a vast cage of roots skirted under an 80-year-old banyan tree. "The fruit gets them drunk," says Albert. "You sometimes see them staggering around. We give them water and set them on their way."

Inebriated, entangled or otherwise, Aride has been a thriving nature reserve since the 1970s, a refuge for everything from lizards and bats, to birds that nest here in the hundreds. Every gnarled root and tree stump reveals a brood of chicks — comical piles of fluffy pom-poms with beaks, safely nesting on the ground in an environment virtually devoid of predatory mammals.

"People used to paddle over here from the mainland [Mahé and Praslin] to hunt eggs," says Albert, pointing to the remains of a pirogue boat grounded behind the island's tiny hamlet of cheery yellow huts, home to Aride's handful of conservationist residents. "The Breton French taught us how to build these dugouts. That one dates back to 1803. It's made out of local takamaka wood — tough stuff — so it's still in decent shape."

Today, Aride sees few boats, pirogues or otherwise, and none bearing egg hunters. Its animal populace exhibits the sort of bumbling indifference to humans that can only have come from a lack of contact. This is largely thanks to tricky tides along with the high landing fees and strictly limited visitor numbers imposed by the reserve, ruling out the sort of mass tourist arrivals that can blight other Seychelles wildlife hotspots such as Bird Island and Cousin Island.

Locally managed, Aride Island Nature Reserve was founded by Christopher Cadbury — grandson of philanthropist chocolatier, George Cadbury. A keen conservationist, Christopher was drawn to the Seychelles by the plight of such threatened endemic birds as the Seychelles warbler, paradise flycatcher and the magpie robin (the latter now successfully reintroduced to Aride). Albert and I spend a happy few hours padding around in the shady forest, bird-spotting and plant-naming, him barefoot to avoid squashing sun-basking lizards and inch-thick millipedes coiled along the paths like miniature rubber tyres, complete with an intricate tread patterned along their backs.

Sure-footed and dread-locked, Albert couldn't look more at home here, but in fact he hasn't lived permanently in his native islands for almost two decades. Instead, he took up a secondment with the Cadbury Foundation to study environmental politics and marine biology at the Sorbonne, Cambridge, and Newcastle. "I plan to stick around here for a while now," he smiles, leaning down to attract a pair of magpie robins to the ground by exposing a menu of delectable minibeasts under a bed of leaves. The birds land mere inches from us and, mesmerised by this fearless spectacle, we remain motionless; enough of an invitation to call an army of swivel-eyed skinks (lizards) to attention around our feet.

The view from Aride's clifftops is calling. From a rocky precipice of pink granite, I can see right down to the Indian Ocean's sandy depths, around 500ft below; the movements of rays and turtles casting perfect shadows even in waters 65ft deep. I hotfoot it down to sea level, where layers of tone-on-tone turquoise run clear onto a white beach. I'm across the sand and into the surf, shorts and all, in moments. Floating on my back, face to the sky, I wonder if I'll see my little tern making a valedictory turn overhead.

There's an immense stillness to the Seychelles. Outside the cyclone zone, it escapes the seasonal battering suffered by other Indian Ocean islands. And devoid of pretty much any biting, stinging and pestering flora and fauna, bar the odd mosquito, these islands feel wonderfully benign. Ocean currents aside, a languid swim back to our boat, moored a short distance offshore, comes with as few safety concerns as Albert's barefoot walk in the woods. If I'd been Vasco da Gama, stumbling upon these islands in 1609, I suspect I'd have hung up my tricorne hat and gone native. Instead, the Portuguese explorer left these uninhabited idylls to the French and English to fight over for the best part of the next three centuries.

Forest canopy

The boat returns me smoothly to the island of Praslin, a place that, long before the Seychelles were discovered, was sending out nature's equivalent of message in a bottle, alerting other islands to its existence. Only the communiqué was misunderstood. Along with its neighbour, Curieuse, Praslin is the only island in the world where the coco de mer palm grows. Its voluptuous, buttock-shaped nut has been the stuff of legend since it was first found washed up on the shores of Mauritius, where they believed it had floated up from a seabed tree rather than drifting over from some undiscovered isles.

The coco de mer seed — the largest in the plant kingdom, weighing up to 66lb and measuring up to 20 inches in diameter — has since been credited with numerous powers, from aphrodisiac/fertility properties to warding off ocean demons. Such is the abundance of merchandise focused on this now heavily protected palm, it seems to be the butt-shaped totem on which Seychelles' tourism rests. Dominant in its ecosystem, the coco de mer palm has few tree rivals and the place to see them, in vast numbers, is Praslin's Vallée de Mai.

A walk through this hilly nature reserve is a strange, serene experience. Giant umbrellas of coco de mer foilage thatch the forest canopy; this heady, Rousseau-like canvass augmented by the incongruous, popcorn-like scent emitted by the huge catkins of the male palm — nature's priapic riposte to such a rudely rounded female nut. "Everything in this ancient forest, including some 50 endemic plants and trees, is dependent on coco de mer," says my guide, Miss Marianne. "There's a species of gecko that lives nowhere else but around these palms, and a new species of cricket and frog were recently discovered in the trees' leaf litter." With some valiant whistling, Marianne tries to attract the elusive Seychelles black parrot, which also thrives here. We hear its call but I fail to distinguish its sooty little outline amid the oversize leaves, nuts and dangling catkins.

The Vallée de Mai has some well-kept paths for hiking but I want to see more of Praslin than butt-shaped nuts. Small and perfectly formed, this three-mile by six-mile island can be circumnavigated on foot in a couple of half-day walks. After a cooling snorkel, chasing clownfish around the granite boulders of Anse Lazio (Praslin's most photographed beach), I head up onto the jungly tracks behind it, to walk the island's northern tip. With Bernard Lucas, a guide from my hotel, Raffles Praslin, I snake east along red sandy tracks towards the beach of Anse Georgette, passing little houses with green corrugated roofs and immaculate flower-bordered kitchen gardens.

We climb away from the coast, towards the village of Mon Plaisir, where an old chap doing his evening stretches waits for a bus. He exchanges greetings with Bernard, which I fail to catch. "Creole is an easy language to learn," he says. "In fact, traditional Seychellois dances, maloya and moutya, developed their risque moves partly as a way to detract colonists from the even more politically risque lyrics." Picking our way between granite boulders that are turning rosy in the setting sun, we ascend a steep pink sandy track, the beep beep of the day's last bus echoing up the valley. "Transport finishes early here — as early as the fruit bats start flying," says Bernard, gesturing to a low, slow-moving cloud of fat bats. No wonder people eat them here, I think: easy pickings. The bats follow us down to Anse Georgette, doing lazy loops among the palms as an orange-silver sunset settles like mercury over the water.

Tortoises & terrapins

As beach-blessed as the Seychelles is, perhaps nowhere beats the nearby island of La Digue for pristine stretches of sand. A 15-minute ferry ride from Praslin (tailed by dolphins) brings me to La Digue's port, where pink granite boulders outnumber ships and a thatched-roof shack is home to the tourist office. Here, I pick up a hand-drawn map of this four-square-mile island, which is best seen by bike. In fact, it can only really be seen by bike, or on foot; cars are scarce. The official count is six taxis and eight island-touring vehicles but unless they were all tailing me during my stay, I'd say it's a tad more than that.

If La Digue is the Seychelle's 'green' island, that's really down to a lack of development rather than an over-arching eco strategy. It's an off-grid sort of place — but largely because a grid hasn't been built. This is somewhere to stay local, where affordable guesthouses and B&Bs are encouraging a burgeoning backpacker scene, and take-out stands selling sweetly spiced fish curries vastly outnumber restaurants. Here, you'll find rocket-fuel tipples such as baka (fermented sugar cane juice) and calu (palm wine) still made at home. And with bike lights illuminating roads at night rather than street lamps, this makes for interesting after-dark navigation, especially given that the island's population of Aldabra giant tortoises can often be found asleep in the middle of the tarmac.

Around 500 Aldabra giants can be found on nearby Curieuse — an open-zoo of an island, just a hop across the water. Here, you can hand-feed these boulder-like prehistoric reptiles and, in my case, get into a slow-mo chase with one who took a fancy to my shoelaces (more menacing than it sounds). Living up to 160 years and weighing up to 770lb, these are the poster beasts for Seychelles' nature tourism, although it's on the 'mainland' of Mahé that I find less-championed shelled creatures that deserve equal attention.

"Only one in 1,000 hawksbill turtles makes it to adulthood," says Imogen Webster, a resident biologist with Marine Conservation Society Seychelles (MCSS). "There was no wildlife rehabilitation centre anywhere in the Seychelles, so we've set one up. Now, if a turtle, terrapin, or any creature, really, is found harmed it can be brought here to be treated and rehabilitated." Imogen and I are patrolling the widest and arguably most picturesque beach on the island, Anse Intendance, home to the Banyan Tree Seychelles hotel, with which MCSS has partnered in its new venture.

We're surveying the nesting sites of hawksbills that come ashore during December-February to bury their eggs, a fraught process that yields few young. Backed by wetlands, Anse Intendance is also prime breeding ground for terrapins, and up at the newly opened MCSS clinic, I visit a few of these creatures, rescued from neighbouring roads, finning about in a rank of old Jacuzzis from the hotel. "Eventually, we hope to repopulate other islands with turtles and terrapins," says Imogen. "But for the moment, there's so little known about them, we're monitoring, tagging, learning all the time."

It's noon and that fierce equatorial sun is frying my head. I flop down under a palm, turtle nest count done for the day, and resume my favourite beach sport: "Curieuse, La Digue, Praslin, Aride…" I name the islands I've been hopping around out loud, and hope that some day, the creatures rehabilitated here might be able to visit some of them too.


Getting there
There are no direct flights from the UK to the Seychelles. The most frequent routings travel from London airports, via Dubai or Abu Dhabi, with Emirates or Etihad Airways. This July, Air Seychelles began a thrice-weekly service between Mahé and Charles de Gaulle, Paris.
Average flight time: 13h.

Getting around
Frequent ferries connect the main island of Mahé with the outlying islands of La Digue and Praslin. Cat Cocos has a fleet of three catamarans that make the hour's journey between Mahé and Praslin; Inter Island Ferry has two schooners sailing the 15-minute stretch between Praslin and La Digue. 

Air Seychelles has several daily flights between Mahé and Praslin. Most hotels can arrange private boat or plane charters to other islands, such as Curieuse and Aride.

Given the high cost of hotels in the Seychelles, a cruise could be a cost-efficient way of seeing the archipelago. Try:

When to go
With no monsoon or cyclone season, this is a year-round destination with average temperatures around 27C. April-May and October-November are superb, with calm waters for diving and snorkelling. April-October is great for bird-watching and May-September for hiking.

Need to know
Currency: Seychellois rupee (SCR). £1 = 21 SCR.
International dial code: 00 248.
Time: GMT +4.

Where to stay
Praslin: Raffles Praslin. A Bay View Pool Villa, sleeping two, costs from €662 (£476) a night, B&B.
La Digue: Cabane des Anges. Double rooms and apartments from €139 (£100) a night, B&B.
Mahé: Banyan Tree Seychelles. A Hillside Pool Villa, sleeping two people, costs from £550 a night, B&B.
Hanneman Holiday Residence. Apartments sleeping two to four people, from €100 (£72) a night, B&B.

How to do it
Kenwood Travel has seven nights at Raffles Praslin from £2,185 per person, B&B, staying in a Garden Pool Villa, based on two sharing, including return flights with Etihad Airways from Heathrow. Two weeks costs from £4,829 per person, B&B, based on two sharing, including five nights at Raffles Praslin, three at Le Domaine de l'Orangerie, La Digue, and six at Banyan Tree Seychelles, Mahé, plus return flights with Etihad Airways from Heathrow.

Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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