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Cruising the Seychelles by Catamaran

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.


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