After going through the sad movie collection on the entertainment box of the Etihad-Air Seychelles flight from Bombay to Mahe Island a million times, I finally settled for Bend It Like Beckham (the Hindi version’s called ‘Football Shootball Hai Rabba!’ – you can guess my amusement). After one-and a half re-runs, I got thoroughly bored and started doodling away on the drawing pad that came with my welcome kit. Exactly around this time, I noticed, sticking out of the seat pocket, the immigration form my kind stewardess had distributed before take-off and since I was bored to my core, I thought well, what the fuck! Might as well take a gander. This is by far one of the oddest immigration forms I’ve come across. Here are a couple of questions it asks (well, I may have exaggerated it a little for effect, but I swear this is what most of them sounded like in my head):
i) Are you carrying any lucky plants or cutesy animals in your checked-in luggage?
ii) Have you spent your summer at a pony farm and/or chasing chickens in vain in your backyard?
iii) Have you been living in a tropical forest in the last few years?
And so on…get the drift yeah? Point being, where most countries ask you about your past crime record, tries to gauge your affinity towards wanton violence and/or any potential sympathies for terrorist organisations, Seychelles focuses more on your immediate history with animals and plants. It is only after I stepped foot on the island that I truly understood why. Seychelles’ greatest treasure besides its picture-perfect beaches is its unparalleled catalogue of flora and fauna. Home to more than 75 endemic species of flora and 12 endemic bird species, more than a 1000 species of fish, and more than 50 species of lizards, crabs and other reptiles, these islands are probably the largest natural eco-system with so many endemic species of life in the inhabited world. With almost 50% of it’s area declared as ‘national parks’ and ‘natural reserves’, the islanders are dead serious about protecting their environment; honestly, I’m not into those Mothers Against Global Warming kinda setups. I believe in doing things at a far more individual level. I try and get by behind leaving too much behind other than memories. Yet, this kind of commitment towards preserving the unique eco-system that these islands are blessed with is commendable and refreshing to see.
With so much wild-life, particularly under water, I was extremely thrilled to be invited as a press member aboard the Anahita – a mighty little catamaran owned by Mason’s Travels for their trademark Reef Safari to Ste. Anne Marine National Park. It was a day of many exciting ‘firsts’ for me, thanks in no small part to the excellent Mason’s crew, but before we get to that, let’s understand a little more about the marine National Park:
The Ste. Anne Marine National Park
The Marine Park was established in 1973 – first of six in Seychelles. Just 5 kms off the eastern coast of Mahe’s capital – Victoria, the national park consists of six islands – St. Anne, Cerf Island, Ile Moyenne, Ile Ronde, Ile Longue & Ile Cachee. Almost all of the islands have an interesting back-story of its own to tell:
St. Anne is significant because it’s here that the French colonists decided to set up their first settlement in the 1770s, when they came knocking on the doors of paradise. In hindsight, this can only be termed a truly brave endeavour, considering these waters were once rife with crocodiles, that have since evacuated these lands (or waters) in search of greener pastures.
Cerf Island is the second biggest island in the marine park. This is also the only island to have a small local population of about 100-200 odd people that commute to Mahe every day for their daily business. The kids living on the island also travel to Mahe every day for school. Both St. Anne & Cerf Islands house luxury resorts where you can stay if you’re planning to spend a night in the marine park.
It was however, Moyenne Island, that fascinated me most. For much of the 20th century, the tiny expanse of land at under 23 acres was abandoned and completely uninhabited. It was in 1962 that a former Englishman by the name of Brendon Grinshaw bought this island for GBP 8000. The objective was more to make it a habitable place for Grimshaw than to turn it into a nature reserve, but with the help of Rene Antoine Lafortune, his trusted aide & friend, the pair of them planted more than 15k trees, built 4.8kms of walking trails, brought & bred giant tortoises and created what is now known as the island with more species per square foot than any other part of the world.
Impressive as this might be, personally, the most interesting part about Moyenne Island was the persistence of its abundant pirate stories. There’s plenty of literature adding credibility to local legends that speak of a treasure amounting to about GBP 30,000,000 hidden on the island. The minuscule island cemetery which housed two tombs when Grimshaw purchased the island dates back to 1892, a period when pirates were very active in the Indian Ocean, and some writing suggests that those pirates were using some of Seychelles’ well scattered islands as a lair. It is thought that some pirates would kill a slave and bury him with their wealth, so his spirit would guard their booty until they returned. This belief seems more validated by whispers of a ghost jealously guarding his treasure upon Moyenne Island. Grimshaw himself made two official digs in the quest for this promised treasure in his 40 years upon the island, but encountered difficulties on both occasions, eventually abandoning the idea for fear of antagonising the fabled spirits that guard the graves. It was only much later he heard about a local legend that says “if a person dreams about a treasure they can dig and find it, but if anyone else digs then they will find specifically charcoal and nothing else”, which is particularly peculiar, given he actually struck upon charcoal on both occasions. The island cemetery today houses 4 graves – Grimshaw buried his father next to a grave he had already dug for himself in the 1990s, in which he was himself lowered when he finally called it a day in 2012. The story of Brendon Grimshaw & Rene Lafortune closely resembles that of a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. Read a wonderful account of his life here as described by Simon Reeves for a BBC series on the Indian Ocean.
Round Island (or Ile Ronde) was an erstwhile leper colony, and in the present day houses a spectacular luxury resort by the name of Enchanted Island Resort. Long Island (or Ile Longue) which was formerly used as a quarantine zone, today houses a state prison with more than a 100 inmates – some of whom may or may not be Somali pirates! Hurrrhurrrr! Ile Cachee which is probably the smallest of the lot is a nesting ground for sea-birds and is left largely undisturbed.
The National Park is a treasure trove of natural wildlife, particularly under the water. This is the first time I’ve seen coral life outside of National Geographic & Discovery Channel, and I was truly mesmerised by the aesthetic brilliance of Mother Nature. The park has one of the largest sea-weed meadows within Seychelles and if you’re lucky, you can apparently watch green turtles feeding on them. Sightings of Hawksbill turtles or bottle-nosed dolphins are also a very real possibility. I would whole-heartedly recommend an entire day in the marine park and ideally even an overnight stay on one of the islands to travellers in Seychelles.