Cruising the Seychelles by Catamaran
Published: April 2009
By George Plimpton
Explore the Indian Ocean's most scenic islands
I am not new to the Seychelles. I visited the islands back in February 1979, when I was given the rather plummy assignment of accompanying the Sports Illustrated swimsuit contingent — the models, stylists, photographers, and so on — and describing the various locales where the young women were posed, as well as telling some of the history of the place. I was asked quite a bit about it on my return. To my listeners' disappointment, I had little to say about the photographic end: the models were up at 5:30 every day, not only to be posed in the early-morning light but to be made up — something of a surprise since a blemish or two was the last thing one would expect of a Christie Brinkley.
Though I missed the opportunity to lurk about the beaches, spying on the proceedings, I came away with a fierce love for and interest in the Seychelles. Once or twice a year I dream about the islands, particularly the birds and the granite rocks rising out of a warm turquoise sea — the coast of Maine moved magically just south of the equator.
Guidebooks speak of the Seychelles as "a handful of pearls strewn the length of the Indian Ocean." They are, in fact, the outcroppings of a thousand-mile-long ridge left when the continents of Africa and Asia slowly pulled apart many millions of years ago. Africa now lies a thousand miles to the west, India a bit farther off to the northeast. The guidebooks can't seem to agree on how many islands there are — 100-odd seems the best approximation, the majority being islets occupied only by seabird colonies. The main cluster of islands is centered on Mahé, where the airport, the big hotels, and the capital (Victoria) are located, and from which tourists set out — as we were to do for a few days on a catamaran — to visit the others, in sight to the east, blue hills rising out of the sea: La Digue, Praslin, Curieuse, Bird Island . . .
The captain of the Mbuji-Mayi met our flight from Paris. We were driven down through the outskirts of Victoria to the little yacht club on the bay, where we had our first look at the catamaran. None of our group — three married couples and a bachelor friend from Miami — had ever cruised on such a craft before. The quarters below, set in the twin hulls, are rather cramped, but in the tropics one doesn't care very much, since so much time is spent on deck. The best feature of a large catamaran is the trampoline-like netting strung beween the twin hulls forward — great for sunbathing with a rum drink close at hand, and at night for lying on one's back, looking up into a tropical sky, perhaps seeing a large meteor cross the heavens, trailing flames.
After we were settled into our cabins, the captain motored out of Victoria Bay, rounded the island to the north, and set off down the opposite coast. The water was almost dead calm, as it so often is in that part of the world. The section of the coast we were passing, known as Bel Ombre, is where one of the great pirates of the Indian Ocean, Olivier le Vasseur, called "Le Buse" (The Buzzard), is said to have buried his treasure, by some estimates worth $150 million.
Le Buse was finally captured and hanged in a public square on Reunion, the French island to the south, on July 17, 1730. The legend is that he tossed a scrap of paper out into the crowd with a cryptogram on it and shouted, "Find my treasure he who can."
Around 1940, Reginald Cruise-Wilkins of the British Grenadier Guards purchased from a Norwegian whaling master some documents that included a mysterious cryptogram — possibly Le Buse's. In 1941 he came to Mahé and settled in a bungalow at the back of one of the beaches we were passing, convinced that the treasure was there. Excavations went on for years: mysterious staircases, crude carvings, and man-made tunnels were unearthed, some of them apparently related to Le Buse's message. Cruise-Wilkins died, still searching, and his family has continued the effort, with not much to show for it so far — a flintlock pistol, a coin from the time of Charles I, the trigger guard of a musket. But seen from offshore, the sandy beaches and the grove of takamaka trees beyond make this seem a perfect site for Le Buse.
By the next morning the wind was fresh and the islands in the distance appeared a dark shade of blue, which, the captain informed us, meant rain squalls. Under sail we headed northeast for Praslin, the second-largest of the Seychelles. The wind kicked up seas heavy enough to come over the windward bow and surge along the hulls. The captain kept a line out astern from a fishing rod fixed in a brass socket. He told us that it was rare in cruising from one island to another that he couldn't pull in a catch. Sure enough. Every so often the reel gave off a harsh, ratchety sound as something hit and the line began to run out; whoever was nearest jumped for the fighting chair and reached for the rod. 0n the long stretch of water to Praslin our catch was three clumps of seaweed, one yellowfin tuna, and a dolphinfish — the last two cooked and served that night in a curry sauce.
One of our first expeditions off the catamaran was to the small nature-reserve island called Cousin, a short ride from Praslin and best known in the Seychelles for its bird colonies. Having enjoyed a lifetime of bird-watching, I was looking forward to this. As we approached, I saw noddies, white-tailed tropic birds, huge frigate birds tilting on the wind currents with gaunt angular wings, and lovely fairy terns, pure white, with slightly upturned midnight-blue beaks. The fairy terns almost invariably fly in pairs, wheeling about as if attached by an invisible string. This is not so much courtship behavior as simple companionship; they mate, like swans, for life.
We went ashore in a rubber Zodiac, coasting in on the crest of a wave, the outboard motor first gunned and then drawn up just at the last, so that the craft leaped clear of the water onto the sand as if to escape from something following it in the sea.
In the company of a guide, we walked the perimeter of the island. The fairy terns and the white-tailed tropic birds had their roosting and nesting areas in the glades of takamaka, pisonia, and casuarina trees just up from the beach — an astonishing sight. The birds nest on branches and crevices, often at ground level. Chicks, fat and downy, hunching on branches, looked on bleakly as we walked up to within two or three feet. The chick of the white-tailed tropic bird grows to three times the weight of its parent before the feeding is abandoned and it has to fend for itself.
As for fairy terns, the female doesn't bother with a nest, but lays a single egg on a bare tree branch — the most precarious of perches. The egg is nearly spherical, and I'm told that in awind it revolves on its axis when the female tern is not sitting on it, so it is still there when she returns from the sea. This seems rather doubtful. But what is true (and fortunate) is that the young bird is born with enormous, fully developed feet with which to grab on to the branch when it emerges into the world.
We turned inland, away from the sounds of the seabirds. Here and there huge land tortoises were pointed out, gray boulders in the ruck of fallen palm fronds. These great beasts have been imported from the remote Aldabra atoll, 600 miles from Mahé and the most distant of the outlying islands, where they were able to survive human encroachment. One of the largest tortoises (about 125 pounds' worth) is named George. Alas, this practice of giving human names to wild animals has spread to the Seychelles. The one with my name was waiting for us on the path. I fed him a leaf as the obligatory pictures were snapped. I am not an admirer of extremely large tortoises, and if I believed in reincarnation I would work very hard to make sure I didn't come back as one.
Actually, George was responsible for a great thrill. Fluttering about on the ground in his wake, feeding on what was overturned by his claws as he ponderously pulled his weight along, was a thrushlike black-and-white bird called a magpie robin. I had never seen one before. Once fairly widespread throughout the area, the magpie robin was nearly wiped out by various predators and by competition from introduced birds; indeed, when I was last in the Seychelles, the birds had been reduced to about 40 in number, all living on the satellite island of Fregate. A recovery program — including the transferral of birds to Cousin — has apparently been successful: we spotted several of the robins during our walk. Any bird-watcher, on seeing one for the first time, would let out a great cry of delight, drop to his knees, and thank his Maker for the chance to come to the Seychelles to glimpse such a thing. I resisted this, but barely!
The main attraction on nearby Praslin, and indeed one of the great natural sights of the world, is a forest of giant palms (the tallest rising almost 150 feet) in an area called the Vallée de Mai. The female palm bears the largest seed in the plant kingdom: the coco-de-mer, weighing up to 40 pounds. Inside the husk is a double nut that bears a striking resemblance to the bottom half of the female torso. The male palm is distinguished by a catkin that dangles from a confluence of giant palm leaves and resembles, well, the male organ. As one might guess, there are a number of splendid legends about the valley — one being that the tall palms, male and female, sway against each other on windy nights and entwine to procreate. Given the physiognomy of the two trees, it is certainly easy to imagine this. An island myth relates that anyone foolish enough to venture into the forest to watch the nighttime "mating" is struck dead on the spot.
Over the years the selling of the nuts nearly decimated the forest, since they were highly prized around the world. These days their sale (at about $100 apiece) is government-controlled, but my feeling since I was last in the Seychelles hasn't changed — I can't understand why anyone would want to have one of these huge nuts lying around the house. It would be embarrassing enough to get itthrough customs. I suppose one could think of it as a conversation piece or a souvenir to recall the Vallée de Mai, but surely a more preliminary thought would be to fit it with a pair of underdrawers.
It is difficult to forget the Vallée. Fallen palm fronds, brown and sere, shaped like surfboards and just as long, cover the forest floor in a junkyard clutter. The light barely filters through the canopy. Everything is outsize and surreal, as if one has been put down in a mammoth set for a movie about prehistoric apes.
There are other things on a more minor scale to see on Praslin. One is the feeding (at 6 p.m. sharp) of hundreds of small bloodred finchlike birds, called fodies, in front of a green shack that serves as a convenience store on a street corner above Baie Ste. Anne. Harold Lesperance, the store's owner, has been feeding the birds for 15 years, and the flocks have been increasing annually. They wait in long rows on nearby telephone wires, some of them upside down, so when the seeds are thrown out in a fine spray it's simply a matter of letting go with their claws; little plummets, they drop to feed.
On the road the Seychellois often greeted us as they wheeled by on bicycles, calling out, "Are you having a good vacation?" and then, in Creole, gossiping about the women in our party. On the beaches a few young males turned up — cinnamon-colored, with boxers' bodies — to flex their muscles and flirt outrageously with women tourists whether accompanied or not.
On Praslin we had a chance to see one of the most exclusive hotels in the Seychelles, the Chateau de Feuilles, high on a slope overlooking the Baie Ste. Anne. Surrounding it is a near rain forest of vegetation, the air sweet with the smell of gardenias and frangipani. At the front door a sign (rare, I would think, in the hotel business) announces no visitors. We felt privileged to be allowed in. A large carved turtle stood in the foyer. Beneath the thatched roof were big beams and the faint, rather musty smell of takamaka wood. The Chateau is small (only 12 rooms) and has a very fancy clientele, mostly European: George Harrison, Roman Polanski, and Catherine Deneuve were mentioned, though no guests were evident. On the terraced grounds below the main lodge is a small swimming pool and an open-air dining room. From there we could look down on the Baie, where the water was so clear that a skiff rising at anchor seemed to be floating in midair. As the manager took us around she told us the hotel has no newspapers, no radio, no television. "The only news that gets through," she said — as if speaking of an apocalypse — "is bad news."
Our last evening on Praslin we paid a visit to a tree-house lodge on a small, thimble-shaped islet in the Anse Volbert, barely an acre in size. The lodge is named Chauve Souris after the giant fruit bat of the Seychelles. The manager met us at the dock and led us up a steep path. The five guest rooms are shaded by the foliage outside, and decorated with large ship models (a kind of carving that's one of the great crafts of Mahé). Because of renovations, no rooms were occupied. The clients are usually from Italy; Giorgio Armani comes with friends. The manager told us that three generations of fairy terns had grown up on a branch outside a bedroom window. She had also kept a huge fruit bat as a pet; it flew around the kitchen and hung upside down among the pots and pans suspended from hooks.
As evening fell, the fairy terns began to fly in from the Anse to roost in the trees. The din was considerable. Two of them suddenly erupted from the foliage to chase a fruit bat out over the water. We watched it pump mournfully toward Mahé in the distance.
"Your poor pet?" someone suggested.
I never could get enough of the bats — watching them through bird glasses in the evening and in the dawn as they headed for their roosts. They are huge creatures, their three-foot wingspan matching that of the raven. In other parts of the world they're called flying foxes; as fruit-eaters rather than insectivores they are closer to primates than to true bats. In a few Seychelles restaurants fruit bats are served up as a specialty, often in a curry dish. One problem with ordering a bat is that it arrives at the table looking like a very small, muscular man. Better to see them in their own element — the evening air or the dawn — than in a curry.
The next morning we left the Anse Volbert and Praslin and sailed a short distance to La Digue, the fourth-largest island of the archipelago. One of the pleasures of the Seychelles is the considerable variety of the islands, each with its own characteristics. La Digue is distinguished by a "mountain," Nid d'Aigles (Eagles' Nest), which rises more than 1,000 feet. Once, the only forms of transportation were oxcarts and bicycles. Now a few cars navigate the dirt roads; a truck went by with a bumper sticker that read: YOU TOUCHA MY CAR I SMASHA YOU FACE. Civilization has arrived!
In the evening we took one of the few taxis up the flanks of Nid d'Aigles to watch the sun go down. The Mbuji Mayi seemed a toy far below. Our driver, Elias, turned out to be a marathon runner — he placed third in a race on Mahé. He had been sponsored in the London marathon, where he had finished behind, as he put it, "many! many!" One of 16 children, Elias started his career in transportation — the last occupation one would have expected on such an island — and now controlled six oxcarts, 40 bicycles, and two taxis. We asked him whether crime was ever a temptation for kids growing up in the Seychelles. A potential drug problem, he told us, was the government's main concern. "One marijuana cigarette — three years," he said. "Two cigarettes, six years; and for more than fifty grams of the stuff, twenty years."
"Well, what if you kill someone?" he was asked.
"That gets you five years hard labor" was his guess.
As we pondered these priorities, the sun, a harvest orange, moved down into the gray sea. Fruit bats floated out in front of us. From the houses below, their corrugated roofs a patchwork on the steep hillside, the sounds of dinner drifted up — the clink of pans and tin dishes, the murmur of voices. The slopes of Nid d'Aigles seemed a very pleasant place to be.
Our last day in the Praslin area, we passed the morning on the beach of a small island named Grande Soeur. Huge granite boulders border the sand, so beautifully worn by time that one could imagine Henry Moore had been commissioned as the island's landscaper. The beach is on the windward side, and the waves were tumultuous. Puffing the water out of our snorkel pipes, we found our way to various coral heads and swayed in the sea wash to see what was below. We were overwhelmed by the variety of colorful fish. The guidebooks on board had pictures of what we might have seen and, alas, not recognized, the names in themselves enough to be relished: slingjaws, rainbow flashers, black-spotted sweetlips, zebra humbugs, skunk clown fish, freckled hawkfish, gorgeous gussies, chocolate dips.
We spent our last day of the trip on Mahé, the main island. Those of us who toured Victoria will remember it for its clocks. In the middle of town is the Clock Tower, a silver miniature of the one on Vauxhall Bridge Road near London's Victoria Station. It is passed so often in the course of anyone's wandering around Victoria that it is said of someone especially dim-witted, "Il n'a pas vu l'horloge" ("He hasn't seen the Clock Tower"). It does not chime, because the pendulum was dropped into the bay when the clock's parts were being unloaded, and was never recovered. But on a hill behind the Roman Catholic cathedral is a four-bell steeple that chimes two minutes before the hour (as if to prepare the town for an onslaught of bells) and then on the hour itself. The strange clock so caught Alec Waugh's fancy that he entitled one of his travel books Where the Clock Strikes Twice."
On a tour of the island, we car-hopped past the big tourist hotels, most of them on the opposite side from Victoria, looking out to the vastness of the Indian Ocean. The building code here prohibits any structure higher than the tallest coconut palm, so the hotels extend horizontally through groves of palms and takamaka trees, maintaining the symmetry of the coastline.
After lunch we drove to the highest point on Mahé one can reach by car. The columns and stones of a ruined mission are up there, and a long allee of dragon's blood trees leads to a picnic area with a balustrade overlooking the mountain slope. We could hear the whistle-like calls of parrots in the forest canopy below. The views toward Victoria were sensational — the football stadium, a gray French warship anchored in the bay. Our taxi driver, who went by the unlikely name of Barney, told us that we were standing at a popular departure point for hang gliders: they step up on top of the stone balustrade, drop down, and sail off toward the sea, outlined like giant fruit bats against the cottony trees on the slopes.
That image stayed with me for days, in daydreams, and finally in dreams . . . leaning out, taking off, and working the wind like a seabird heading toward the islands in the distance, rising like blue hills out of the turquoise sea.