Hopscotch in the Garden of Eden

The Seychelles has been a dream destination of mine for as long as I can remember… or, at least, as long as I’ve known how to sail. This mid-Indian Ocean archipelago represented the epitome of top cruising destinations and I remember sitting of the shores of Mozambique, looking east, dreaming of a future when I’d get to weave my own track through her waters. IMG_2677.jpgI wasn’t quite certain if this dream would ever come to fruition because at the time I’d only been a coastal sailor, never venturing far from the sight of land. Regardless, I often imagined what the country would hold for me: Crystal blue waters shimmering over glittering diamond white sands, endless islets and atolls teaming with sea birds and land turtles, a steel band beating a tune as I turned fresh-caught lobsters on a fire, my toes buried in the sand. I am not sure if it was from a book that I pulled these images or the rumours of a fellow traveler; however they got there, the images were imbedded deep in my sub-consciousness. Now, firmly entrenched in the cruising lifestyle with six years of open-ocean sailing behind us, I was finally going to get my chance to see these images firsthand.

Cruisers often seem to travel in a flock. Perhaps it is some collective force of nature or the under-appreciated inclination for human sociability, but there is an undeniable gravitational force that pulls people together. Watching the fleet of boats transverse the Indian Ocean these past few years, it seems a random pattern of a southerly route followed by a northerly route from the Asia to South Africa; this year the majority of boats that we knew were heading south for Mauritius and Rodriquez but we weren’t to follow them. The Seychelles had been on my radar far too long to pass her by. We would cross the Indian Ocean this year, and I was determined that the Seychelles would feature in our route planning.

While arrival in a country after a long passage is always an emotive experience, seeing the peaks of the tall mountains rise up on the horizon was a particularly emotional moment for me. Here she was, the Seychelles at long last, unfolding herself in front of me on the very ocean that had separated me for so long. IMG_3881Having spent the past six months in a country made entirely of low-lying atolls, it was quite a sight to see the tip of Mome Seychellois, a 905-meter granite rock, rise up on the horizon. The detail of earth and humanity began to fill the blank green tapestry of the mountains as we inched towards Mome Seychellois and Trois Freres: The rich smell of dirt combined with the acrid smell of the tuna processing factory, the sound of chatty shorebirds mixed with the repetitive hum of rotating wind generator blades, a smattering of colourful roofs materializing from the canopy of trees as ornaments decorating the hillsides. I was abuzz with the same ecstatic enthusiasm of a young child licking her first ice cream cone – this was my first taste of the Seychelles and it couldn’t have been any sweeter.

Having waited so long to get to the Seychelles, it was ironic that we would work so hard to sail to her shores and fly immediately out. That said it had been a long time since we’d been home and family was calling. Tickets had been booked well in advance and the departure date was upon us – our time in the Seychelles was going to be short and sweet. We pulled in, played for a week and flew out. Given my anticipation to get here, I could appreciate our agent’s response when we petitioned for the boat to stay during our month departure: “What? You’ve just ARRIVED in the Seychelles and you already want to LEAVE the Seychelles? WHY would you do that?” Us: To visit family. “But, then why wouldn’t you leave from another country?!! Why would you choose to leave from THIS ONE?” Implied: You must be crazy! We were nervous. She was going to reject our application on grounds of national pride. While I understood her line of inquisition — we were leaving a dream holiday destination for a holiday elsewhere — we had already committed time with family and held tickets in hand. With a series of disapproving grunts and shake of the head in disapproval, she stamped our documents and dismissed us.

The next month saw us indulging in almost every shoreside pleasure available to us — something that England has in abundance. My standing joke was that I was going to eat as much cheese and drink as much wine as I could manage to consume, either leaving the country feverishly addicted or my long-standing cravings completely spent. IMG_1729.jpgWe enjoyed time with family and reconnected with longstanding friends and fellow cruisers we’d shared company with in previous seasons. It was fun to ride the trains through the lush countryside and wander through quaint British villages, sail dinghies on the Solent and drive a RIB to the Isle of Wight, picnic in the manicured parks, dine in the pubs, grog up with the family, rock out at a concert and chase a rolling block of cheese down a hill. Above all we were reminded that while the cruising life is rich with reward, life ashore is rich with diversity.

A month after flying out we were back on creole soil, cravings satiated and addictions firmly rooted, this time with a month in front of us to explore the fabled Garden of Eden. What I didn’t appreciate then and do now is that the Seychelles is very different from my picture of a cruising paradise. IMG_3256.JPGIt is worthy as a sailing destination to be sure, but not in the way I’d constructed in my head. The building blocks were there: the white sand, the clear water, the reggae music and the creole seafood. What was missing was the countless isles and the limitless possibilities. For all 115 islands that make it up, the Seychelles has a relatively constricted cruising area. There are three main islands, each with a collection of smaller marine reserves attached to it, that are the sum of cruising grounds for the majority of sailors. The rest of the hundred or so islands are uninhabited or protected marine reserves, most of these lying in the outer islands at a considerable distance from the inner hub and exposed to the weather.

I am and am not one fundamental thing: A planner. I am a Gemini with a drive for change without an interest in detail. The combination means that I do things at the spur of the moment without forethought or planning. I fly on a whim and learn on the way. This has many drawbacks but the advantage is the comedy of learning things in situ. The Seychelles is famous for a few things; well known to anyone that does a quick Google search of the country. I, however, having spent countless miles of hard work to get here never once researched the country to see what it offered. I had a dream, therefore I had drive – that was enough to draw me. As a result, the heart of the Seychelles unfolded itself to us in a series of comic moments, details of the country that I was to learn about over the course of our stay.

The first was the Coco de Mer. For the ungoogled, the image of the Coco de Mer is of the voluptuous derrière of the female figure, and it was everywhere. The female bum greets you on arrival at the airport, it fills the curios stalls in the streets, it is printed on postcards and every brochure of the country, it is even stamped on a page in our passports. There is a collective national fascination with the female reproductive anatomy. You can have a carved wooden statue, hold a key ring, wear a t-shirt, drink from a shot glass — all of a woman’s ass. Having just arrived from six months in a highly conservative Muslim country, the brashness of it was refreshing. The Seychelles was sexual, and they were proud of that sexuality. Or so I thought.

It took me a week, but I was to gradually learn that the Coco de Mer was, indeed, a coconut. It was endemic to the Seychelles and a rich part of its history. IMG_3627.jpgIt was this nut, visually so representative of oversized human genitalia, that created the myth that the Seychelles was the Garden of Eden – scratch that apple, the nut was proof of the origin of mankind. For what it is worth, at half a meter in diameter and 20 kilograms in weight it is the largest seed found anywhere in the world, the male tree does hang a very long penis from its branches and the female does produce the most delicious looking derrière. Had I done my research, I’d have known a decade ago that it was trees on hillsides and not seashells on sandy shores that the Seychelles was known for. The Garden of Eden beckoned me, but to understand why I had to look toward land and not the sea.

The second of our comic relief moments was the granite. What I didn’t realize prior to arrival is that the country was full of rocks. Big, big rocks. In fact, I’d spent over a decade fantasizing about the Seychelles and not once had I appreciated that it was rock rather than sand that made the country famous. IMG_2902.jpgHow did I miss that 41 of the 115 islands were built on a foundation of granite? Was it just oversight that made me ignorant of the exceptional fact that the Seychelles was the only mid-ocean granite islands in the world?! Expecting idle days anchored off low-lying islets with our heads poking around coral gardens, our reality was days spent gaping up at huge mountain peaks, over sheer rock cliffs and at boulder-crowned beaches. Rather than idle, our time was filled with vigorous hikes up steep rocky paths, walks through wooded forest, cycling up hills, meandering around boulder-strewn beaches and rock hopping above the surf.

Another misconstrued notion was that we’d spend all our time in the water. For one, it was cold… or at least, cold in comparison to the sauna-like waters of the Maldives. It took a week to acclimate to the 28-degree water temperature. Once that was corrected, it took time to work a strategy for tackling the big surf. It wasn’t big as in dude, ride that wave big. It was big as in doc, bust out the neck brace big. IMG_2829.jpgThe waves that rolled into the bays were short and powerful, but once you worked out the set you could tackle a suitable approach – body surf four then race out before the next two rollers came and knocked you out in a body-crushing, ego-shattering washing machine. Outside of the in-your-face beach break, there were no obvious reefs to snorkel or charted dive sites to explore – ironic given the sites were fill with as many big rocks underwater as big rocks above water – and both were activities we expected would consume our days. What distinguishes the diving in the Seychelles are the unique granite underwater formations that make a spectacular underwater landscape but the sites weren’t easily accessible and required local knowledge. As a result we didn’t get time underwater as hoped, but we got plenty of time tumbled through it.

It was the third of the comic lessons that filled much of our children’s interest, and fulfilled their sex education. It was the first time the kids had seen a land tortoise and as the heaviest tortoises in the world at a whopping 300kg, they made quite an impression. They were held in open pens in parks, botanical gardens, beaches and bars. IMG_2331They were free roaming and also found in the backyards of local homes as they were often kept as family pets. We watched them eat, sleep, bathe and just as often, mate. There was one particular batch that seemed particularly inclined. The kids fed them their afternoon rations for a week and every day, like clockwork, we’d bear witness to their repetitious and droning copulation – clearly they too felt they were livin’ it large in the Garden of Eden. With the innocence of youth, each time Braca watched the act he told us they were “marrying each other;” it was a honeymoon destination indeed!

Having had my fill of rocks and nuts, we quickly became restless. We’d done the required gape at the country’s natural wonders: We’d pet the giant land tortoise and rubbed palms on the erogenous nut. Now we were keen to explore the country by sea but we had one problem – we didn’t see a labyrinth of reef-encrusted islets sprawled out around us. When looking in detail at the charts, the list of destinations within reach extended to three names, Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, all a short hop between each other. Basically, we had a month to play aquatic hopscotch.

Initially my enthusiasm fell flat as the experience fell far from my expectations — there was nothing intrepid about this experience at all. It was a land full of tour agents catering to tourists. There were lots of charter boats moving daily on their week tour of the country and the beaches were filled with sunburnt foreigners, but there were very few long-term cruisers exploring the area. After a few days of shaking my head in puzzlement, I readjusted my expectations and redefined what our time in the Seychelles was about: G0230594.jpgWe were not going to hunker down with the indigenous population, use sign language and guess translation. We would not traipse across land left virgin to the traveler’s eye. We were going to take a holiday like the rest of them. Regular routine was cast out and we postponed schoolwork and put boat jobs on hold. We pulled out our sunblock and our beach toys and spent the days rolling about in the surf and lazing in the sand. We partied with the bareboat charterers, socialized with the holidaymakers, and entertained locals onboard in a revolving door of new faces. We rented bicycles to explore the villages, walked well-laid paths through native forests, surfed the shore breaks, and ogled at the breathtaking scenery around us.

We started our holiday in Mahe, the largest and most populated of the islands. With 90% of the country’s population living in Victoria, the smallest capital in the world, we had good grounds for observing the engaging confidence of the Seychellois. Their manner is forthright and confident, their personality gregarious and outspoken, their dress daring and bold. In social circles this was charming but in official circles we found it arrogant and blunt. While we tried to distance ourselves from as many administrative agents as possible, we welcomed locals onboard with open arms – this brought many entertaining evenings and some of our fondest experiences. One discussion that stands out was the local concept of self in relation to community. IMG_3812.jpgAs our friend Ronny informed us, “to say a name anywhere in my country is to know the face” – a beautiful description for a country where everyone knew everyone. I compared it to my own community where even neighbours are strangers. “We care little for money here,” he added, “it is time and family we value. In this country, no one is ever alone and no one is forgotten.” Poetic. Regardless of the actual authenticity for the majority, it was a good reminder of the value often lost in Western culture where everything is fast paced, family distanced and friends forgotten, and money matters most. I find myself reminded again and again by local speak how it is the present that we live for in a world where family, friendship and community connection is paramount. When we invited Ronny for an evening onboard, we didn’t host one – we hosted a group. There were three generations amongst us and friends were included. Nor did they come empty handed; wrapped gifts were brought for the kids, beautiful shells were brought for us and the fish they pulled in that night was all donated to us. It was an incredible show of community, hospitality, warmth and camaraderie and I will always value the insights they shared and the friendship they offered.

From Mahe we followed the glossy brochure prompt to the neighbouring island of Praslin in search of the “best beach in the world,” page 8. IMG_3075It was a bold claim and I was keen to verify it for myself. Indeed, there was something to it. The large granite boulders that fringed the white sand beach resulted in a breathtaking panorama, the backdrop filled with tree-filled mountains and turtles that broke the surface of the water around us. It was here that a generous local tested our perchance for defying the law by offering us a sapling Coco de Mer. A generous offer and a tempting one, attracted as I was to the thought of my own palm-fringed deck, but one we had to refuse.

Given my agreement with page 8 of the brochure, I thought I’d follow its next suggestion on page 12: “It is not advisable to visit La Digue as a day trip only. There are so many beautiful spots to visit and so many interesting people to meet that we insist you spend a few days at least on this magnificent island regardless of your length of stay in the Seychelles.” DCIM100GOPROGOPR0464.JPGWith an advertisement like that, who could miss it?! We tucked ourselves into the tight little harbour in the center of town and enjoyed all that the island offered – charter yachts inches from port and starboard side and the socializing that came with it, bicycles to tour the island (it was that or tour by oxcart as vehicles are exempt from the island), creole meals and the festive atmosphere that defined the relaxed little island. In a fast moving world, this was the epitome of chill.

After four weeks of aquatic hopscotch, our little stone thrown at random determining if we moved ahead one space or back two between Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, we hit the end of our cruising permit and were ready to move on. Our key question was: Where to? Having diverged from the flock we were keen to return to it, a regrouping that would set our course south to Madagascar. But my sonar was bending my head to the west and all primal senses were driving me towards the shores of East Africa. It was not a common route; at this time of year the wind and current make moving south difficult and most of the yachts intending to exit the Indian Ocean by the end of the year need to get southward in order to round the Cape of Good Hope. We also need to pass this cape and we couldn’t understand a feasible way to make both East Africa and Madagascar happen this season. However, on close inspection it looks like the current splits at the border of Tanzania and Mozambique and the winds might be favorable if we stuck close to the coast, dodging behind the wind-shadow of Madagascar. In fact, going west to Tanzania might save the battering that wind and sea would give us if we tried to reach Madagascar directly. Besides, we weren’t the only wayward stragglers. We had cruising friends in Tanzania and we had cruising friends heading that way – either the route was feasible or we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to attempt it. Either way, we were going to find out. A week prior to departing the Seychelles we did a typical Atea gybe. We scrapped our plans to head south towards Madagascar and decided to continue our trek west. Onward we sail to East Africa – she has held me in her clutches before, as I am sure she will do yet again.

Images: Seychelles at Long Last

 

 

 

 

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