Here was mind-boggling rarity. Just above my head was a tiny nest, made from coconut coir and spiders’ webs. Around it flew an exquisite creature: vocal, fearless, black-plumed and blue-eyed. Its tail-feather was so long that it made loops in the air when the bird flew. Across the planet, there are now only 300 of these wonderful, absurd animals – the Seychelles paradise flycatcher.
But has it really found paradise, or a corner of hell? I’ve often suspected that the difference between the two is a matter of timing. Everything I’d read about the Seychelles seemed to confirm this. Here were a few crumbs of granite, left over from the break-up of a prehistoric supercontinent, Gondwanaland. In the 150m years since, they’ve been lashed and roasted and pummelled by the Indian Ocean. Hundreds of miles from anywhere else, they didn’t get their first human settlers until 1770 – and they brought only slavery and pirates. Wind the clock forward a mere two and a half centuries, however, and the archipelago has become synonymous with luxury and the perfect honeymoon.
But how has the flora and fauna fared? With my wife, Jayne, and our daughter, Lucy, aged six, I set out to explore a wilder side to the islands. We began, as everyone has to, on Mahé. From the air it looked like a gnarly, green iguana, 16 miles long. At ground level, it was even more impressive; a ridge of granite peaks, drenched in jungle and clouds. It’s often assumed that you need to go to the smaller islands to find noddy terns and bronze-eyed geckos but Mahé is gratifyingly wild. Narrow roads wriggle up into the forest, tumbling down into an exotic world beyond: giant ferns, boulder fields like molten cities and old pirate haunts with names such as Hope, Abundance and the Isle of Cows. Almost 45 per cent of the Seychelles is protected land.
Humans have an apologetic role in all of this, clinging to the coast. Victoria is the smallest capital in Africa, with only 25,000 residents (more than a quarter of the country’s total). It still has a slightly castaway, improvised feel; the uniforms are British, the shops Indian, the people African, and the newspapers in Creole or pidgin French.
Nature seems undeterred by human activity. There are herons in the fish market and, at lunch, tiny pinstriped doves settle under the table. Even the latest hotels play their role discreetly. We stayed at the Constance Ephelia resort, among the reefs and mangroves of the northwest coast. Magnificent scarlet land crabs foraged the grounds, and, each evening, flying foxes came flopping home, high above the pool. It would be easy to enjoy all this – the spas, infinity pools, funky bars, wickerwork, granite and tropical chic – simply as a gorgeous hotel. But there’s another dimension too. Totter a few minutes from the restaurant and there’s the Seychelles as wild as ever: reefs, dark forest, pungent swamp, and rumbling surf.
After a few days, we set off again, for the islands of Praslin and La Digue. It was an unforgettable crossing. Sometimes our ferry (a swanky new catamaran) seemed to disappear in great black troughs of Indian Ocean. Although it’s possible to fly to the islands, there’s something important about going by sea. We sailed only 28 miles on that voyage whereas – just to get to the Seychelles – ancient mariners had to cover many hundreds. No wonder the archipelago has remained so unmolested.
After an hour the horizon stopped swinging around and we landed on Praslin. Of the 115 Seychellois islands, it’s the second-largest, but still only seven miles long. At first I thought it was merely a smaller, greener version of Mahé but I now realise that it is its own world. Of all the species endemic to the Seychelles (including 12 birds and four frogs) most of them live here. It even has its own giant snail (pachnodus praslinus), a prehistoric forest – called the Vallée de Mai – and a truly remarkable tree: the coco de mer.
I never imagined a palm could cause such excitement. With leaves up to 40ft long, it grows almost 100ft high and rattles and creaks as if restless in sleep. But it’s the nut that has set pulses racing: a vast, 48lb bi-lobed seed, the heaviest in the world, it bears a striking resemblance to the female pudendum. Once these things washed up in India, where they were worshipped, and – in 16th century Vienna – one nut was worth 4,000 florins.
For the fertile mind, Praslin has other treats too. We spotted black parrots and hand-sized spiders (as light as a hair), and the sea was always the colour of electric sparks. Here too was perhaps the most beautiful beach in the world (Anse Lazio), and Curieuse, a satellite island inhabited only by 200 mooching, munching giant tortoises. To General Gordon of Khartoum – who called by in 1881 – Praslin was surely the last vestige of the garden of Eden. In his feverish account, there’s even a Tree of Knowledge and some forbidden fruits (now recognisable as the voluptuous nuts).
But nature hasn’t always been so amenable. The shark attacks in August, when two tourists died, were a rare, tragic reminder that Praslin’s wildlife is exactly that, and that it wasn’t put here for the entertainment of man. Although the locals have always known this, within a fortnight they were back in the sea.
We travelled everywhere in rattly buses, at the equivalent of 25p a ride. It was the only time we ever paid for anything in coins. Paradise doesn’t come cheap. Given that every doorknob and fish knife has travelled the distance of Marco Polo, this isn’t surprising. Family suites can cost a pirate’s ransom. Our first hotel, Le Relax, was therefore relatively cheap at £350 a night. It was also comfortable and had a garden, full of sunbirds and bulbuls, from which we could peer out along the south coast. At high tide the sea almost lapped into the pool. At low tide it vanished altogether, leaving a prairie of sea grass.
Our second hotel, on the north coast, was more ambitious. Once, Anse Boudin (or Sausage Cove) was a desolate promontory, ravaged by bush fires and baked into a lifeless, bright red scree, known as a glacis. Then came the Raffles Praslin Hotel, with an army of horticulturalists, liveried gardeners and landscape engineers (every eden, it seems, needs a little tending). Among the bougainvillea and takamaka trees there are villas too, a cascade of swimming pools and a few sandy beaches. Our suite had seven rooms, three flat-screens, a plunge pool and a view over the marine park of Curieuse. It’s hard to imagine how such opulence flourished (but then, of course, sheer heaven is just a matter of timing).
Our last few days seemed to belong to another era. We crossed to La Digue, which was named after a frigate in 1768 and has never quite embraced the age of the engine. Ox carts still work the main village, La Passe, and its only taxi is more often a source of music than locomotion.
The island is shaped like a planter’s hat and, on our first morning, I climbed 333m to its peak. There I realised that, though nowhere was more than a mile from the sea, everyone lives on the western beaches. The rest is jungle, left to bats, cardinal birds and paradise flycatchers.
Human life isn’t complicated. Those not in tourism sell coconuts or schooners, which they build very slowly. Our guest house, the Château St Cloud, has been in the same family for 200 years and if their cement mixer hadn’t been so busy in the 1980s – popping out more rooms – we might have noticed that the oldest bits were Napoleonic. Neighbouring houses were made of tin and looked like little tea caddies.
It would be hard, dragging ourselves away. These were exquisite days. Starbursts of brilliant birds would flock to eat chunks of fruit dislodged by the bats the night before. The foreshore was like ice-cream that had first softened and then petrified, and the roads were only arms-length wide. We went everywhere by bike, perching Lucy on the back of a tandem. Her singing was a barometer of her contentment. There was an uncertain chirrup for the coconut stall and something more throaty for giant tortoises and empty beaches. But, by Grand Anse – with its mountainous turquoise waves, way to the south – she was positively operatic.
I wonder whether she’ll remember wild Seychelles in the years to come, or whether – like the luminous gecko and the blue fish – it will all seem just too good to be true.
John Gimlette is the author of ‘Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge’
John Gimlette was a guest of Elite Vacations (www.seychelleselite.co.uk), which offers an 11-night package at the Raffles and Constance Ephelia hotels from £2,598 per person, including flights with Emirates from London, domestic flights, ferries and transfers. On Mahé, the writer stayed at the Constance Ephelia (www.epheliaresort.com, with doubles from £546 half-board); on Praslin, the Raffles Praslin, (www.raffles.com; villas for two from €680), and Le Relax (www.lerelaxhotel.com; doubles from €137); on La Digue, Chateau St Cloud (www.seychelles.net/stcloud; doubles from €130).