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Simply Splendid Seychelles

The excitement in our party of nine adults and three children was tangible. We were going on the holiday of a lifetime. We were flying to a tiny island paradise in the Indian Ocean called the Seychelles to spend a week on a houseboat cruising around the islands. None of us had ever been to such an exotic location. The flight over the Indian Ocean was perfect. I looked out of the window at the eastern coast of Africa, and saw the clear blue seas washing over South Africa’s coastline. The captain alerted us to a breathtaking sight. In the middle of the bright blue sea lay an enormous green ring. This is the Cosmoledo Atoll, a ring of islands whose coral reefs are littered with shipwrecks. The reef is home to a prolific number of marine life species. As I gazed down at this beautiful natural phenomenon my husband remarked loudly: “The fishing must be awesome down there.”

Men! Half an hour we were landing at the airport on the main island of Mahé. It was not a descent for the faint-hearted. Much of the land around the airport has been reclaimed, so the runway comes right out into the sea. There is water on either side of the runway.

The pilot took the ‘plane right over Mahé before making a hairpin turn over the island as he approached the runway. The range of mountains was so close to the left hand wing I felt we would be able to touch them if we were seated on the end of the wing. The sight was nerve wracking.

Within ten minutes we in the airport terminal. We passed through customs with no problems, and our holiday mood was heightened when we discovered the shape of the entry stamp. We managed to contain our mirth until we were reached the luggage collection point.

The stamp looked like a pair of buttocks. It was a replica of the fruit of the coco-de-mer palm, found on two of the 115 islands that make up the Seychelles island group. The fruit is very valuable, and is used for medicinal purposes. Shaped like a woman’s buttocks it’s considered an aphrodisiac in some cultures. The fruit is for sale on the island, but the cost is exorbitant – almost US$700.00 for one fruit! We did what most tourists do and bought fridge magnets and wooden carvings of the coco-de-mer.

After collecting our baggage we were met by Chris, the owner of the houseboat on which we were spending the next seven days. Tall, blond and athletic Chris is South African by birth, and is a qualified diving instructor who’d been working in the Seychelles for five years.

It took five minutes in three Mercedes Benz taxis to get to the harbour. The weather was warm and tropical with very high humidity, and we found the heat very oppressive after the air-conditioned comfort of the taxis and the airport. There we boarded a magnificent schooner. Her name was boldly emblazoned on her side: MV Illusions. Her blue and white paint glistened in the brilliant sun, and her decks beckoned invitingly.

Illusions offered six comfortable sleeping cabins, three bathrooms and a huge living room complete with television and video and a huge box of video tapes. A breakfast bar split the living room from a modern kitchen that included two refrigerators, a deep freeze and an ice-making machine that would prove a godsend in the days ahead. There was an open sundeck at the front of the boat. Chris and his wife Desiree lived upstairs near the steering cabin. The dining area was also located upstairs, protected by a canvas awning.

After depositing our luggage in our rooms we met upstairs for a lunchtime gin and tonic and a quick briefing as the boat slowly cruised out of the harbour. We were sailing to the Amirantes, a group of 25 islands surrounded by coral reefs. The area is famous for its crystal clear seas, beautiful beaches and variety of exotic birds. It offers some of the world’s best bonefishing, and this was the real reason for our trip.

The voyage to the Amirantes was going to take 18 hours, and Desiree fed us light snacks for lunch. She warned us not to stay in our cabins unpacking for too long, because of seasickness. We assured her we’d be fine, because we’d taken our tablets. Alberta, who felt seasick watching “Titanic”, was also wearing a wristband her pharmacist had assured her was 99 percent effective. Desiree raised an eyebrow.

“Those things don’t always work,” she informed our eager little party. “Best thing you can do is stay above deck and keep your eyes on the horizon. Don’t read anything. Drinking lots of water and facing the front of the boat also helps.”

Alberta was the first one affected, proving that the acclaimed wrist band was a waste of time and money. Five minutes after lunch she’d gone to her cabin. Julie, Kate and I joined the men upstairs, commiserating with Alberta whose husband Gerrie immediately joined her downstairs. He did not return for at least four hours. After lunch I was feeling so good I thought I’d tidy up our cabin. I passed Kate on the way, who told me she’d just been violently ill and was going to bed. Julie had quietly vanished. Expressing my sympathy I smugly went to pack away my clothes. As I bent down to put the last of our packing in the bottom draw of the cupboard a nauseous feeling enveloped me. I immediately lay on my bed, no long celebrating my brilliant constitution.

Fortunately seasickness doesn’t last. Within a few hours we all felt better, and had a quiet evening above deck, watching the stars twinkling in the jet back sky. The water splashing against the boat gave the evening a truly exotic feeling. The sea smelled crisp and fresh, and when the moon rose over the horizon we truly believed we were in paradise. It was a full moon, and the light dancing over the waves of the sea gave our world an alien appearance.

The following morning we ate a hearty breakfast as the Amirantes appeared on the horizon. Chris slowed the boat as we drew closer, and we found ourselves staring over the side of the boat at the sea bed some ten metres below us. The water was so clear we were able to see the details on the rocks and plants growing on the sea bed. And we occasionally managed to catch sight of pale grey fish, lurking like ghosts in the green seaweed. We anchored about two kilometres from the beach, and our husbands rushed off to get their fishing tackle ready: “Not a moment to waste!” yelled Julie’s husband Carl, enthusiastically.

A bonefisherman stands waist deep in the water casting towards his prey which, when on the bite, will keep him occupied for several hours. Apart from sunblock and fishing tackle the most important thing for anyone fishing in the water of the Amirantes is sea boots. They’re made of rubber – like a scuba diving suit. They cover the feet and ankles and protect the wearer from underwater cuts, stings and grazes while walking on the sea floor. I found these shoes really did look rather amusing, particularly as the fishermen wore them with shorts. I spent a lot of time that first morning giggling every time someone walked past me in his “booties”!

While the men busied themselves catching bonefish the rest of us decided to explore the nearest island. Using three of the dinghies we set off to shore, rowing with all our might. It looks so easy on television we thought it would be a piece of cake. We were wrong.

We discovered the key to keeping the dinghy on a straight course is to synchronise your oars. This is not easy, and the weaker oarswoman really struggled to keep pace with her stronger rowing partner. Kate and I managed to get ourselves sailing in a diagonal fashion toward land after five minutes of straining and laughter. Julie and Alberta spent ten minutes going around in circles before they worked out a regular rhythm. We also discovered another lie the entertainment industry has taught us – it’s impossible to row a dinghy right up onto the beach because the slope of the seabed towards the beach is so gradual. This meant we had to anchor 500 metres from shore and walk in the water to the beautiful beach.

The fine sand glinted white in the sunlight, and palm trees laden with coconuts swayed silently in the cool sea breeze. The sea waves breaking as they touched the shore and the birds calling as they flew through the trees further inland were the only audible sounds. The feeling of being alone with nature was intense. I felt very insignificant as I gazed at our exotic surroundings. We walked towards a cluster of trees that offered some respite from the intense sunshine. There were some beautiful shells on the beach, and we’d brought bags to collect any shells or pebbles that caught our fancy. The shells were small, but some of them reflected brilliant colours in the sunlight. Unfortunately most of them were occupied, and as none of us wanted to destroy an animal’s home we left them on the beach. I did find a lovely pink shell, but unfortunately it was surrounded by other shells whose occupants were busy negotiating which one of them would be its next owner.

We shared the beach with some fairly large crabs, and gingerly picked our way through some rather fearsome looking individuals, including one who seemed to threaten our approach with a bit of seaweed! When we finally reached our chosen spot we made sure the sand was free of crustaceans both large and small. While the three boys rushed around exploring the island we relaxed under the shade and debated fishing, crabs, men and life in paradise.

Eventually it was time to return to the boat. My fear was that our diagonal rowing technique would see us eventually floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean – alone without food or water and at the mercy of the elements. Kate was entertaining the same fears, and suggested we continue to row diagonally, but in a direction so that the current would eventually wash us back to the boat. We managed to get there at least ten minutes before Julie and Alberta, who completed at least three full circles before drifting away from the boat. Fear made them strong, and they rowed in a straight line towards the boat before climbing aboard, relieved.

Considerable quantities of wine and whisky were consumed that night, together with the men’s choice of drink which was Captain Morgan’s rum and Coca Cola. The children preferred to watch a video, and treated themselves to the first of what would be many showings of “Shrek”. To this day I know every word of that film script off by heart, and I cannot watch it without remembering our Seychelles holiday.

The following day Chris offered to take us scuba diving. It was Christmas Eve. We trekked back to our island in the morning, our rowing techniques now perfected. The scuba diving was an afternoon highlight. The fish are beautifully coloured – blue ones, orange and white ones, bright yellow; in face every colour in the spectrum was on display. Darting through the seaweed and coral they sparkled in the sunlight. The water wasn’t deep, and it was clean and crystal clear. I saw some beautiful mollusks on the rocks, and there were sea cucumbers and lots of shells. Alberta retrieved a magnificent conch shell with wonderful spikes and graceful, curving lines. Whatever abandoned this home must surely have been a large, probably fearful creature.

The following day was Christmas Day, and we dined very well at dinner that evening. We ate beef curry with lots of vegetable and fruit, and drank a few bottles of fine red wine and exchanged presents. On Boxing Day Kate’s husband caught a durado while fishing off the back of the boat. It’s a large green and yellow fish, and we ate it for lunch. The remaining few days passed peacefully, and at times it was as though we were the only people in the world. It felt like Paradise, and the fact that we were all friends made this one of the best holidays I’ve ever had.

The day we started the trip back to Victoria was made very special by the appearance of a school of dolphin in the morning. We stood on the upper deck watching them swim through the water, their black fins breaking through the surface as they “porpoised” next to the boat. It was almost as though they were bidding us farewell. A couple of hours later a huge gush of air signaled the arrival of a whale. It was a wonderful way to leave The Amirantes.

We spent the penultimate day of our holiday touring Mahé, and because the island is just 90 square kilometers in area this was more than enough time. Victoria is a charming. Although there are some modern buildings there are many older places, and the style is quite colonial – a legacy of the country’s European heritage. A bit of history: although Arab traders were probably the first to visit the uninhabited Seychelles, the first recorded sighting of the islands dates back to 1505, by the Portuguese. As a transit point for trading between Africa and Asia, they were occasionally used by pirates until the French began to take control of the islands starting in 1756, naming them after the finance minister Jean Moreau de Sechelles.

The British contested control over the islands with the French between 1794 and 1811, eventually gaining the upper hand and being ceded the islands in 1814. The Seychelles became a crown colony 1903 and independence was granted in 1976, as a republic within the Commonwealth. The 1979 constitution declared a socialist one-party state, which lasted until 1992.

There’s one set of traffic lights in Victoria, and the whole town is surrounded by well treed hills. The vegetation on the islands is wonderfully lush and tropical; there are palm trees, ferns and cycads everywhere. At the local market fishermen sell their morning’s catch and vendors offer the public fruit, vegetable, clothes, fabric and souvenirs. Tourism is y the most important commercial activity, and there are many wonderful resorts and hotels all over the islands.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the Seychelles giant tortoises, which were rediscovered in 1995. There is a major breeding programme underway in The Seychelles to increase the very low numbers of these amazing reptiles. They weigh up to 250 kilogrammes and their numbers are increasing. Apparently the Seychellois tortoise was almost eradicated by sailors during the 19th century who used them as a food source. The animal was popular because it could survive on ships for up to six months without food and water. We also didn’t see another animal that is unique to The Seychelles – the black parrot. It’s not really black – more dark brown, but it has a very dark beak and eyes. I had to settle for a fridge magnet.

The following morning our little group bade the Seychelles farewell, and climbed aboard the ‘plane. We were sad to leave, because we’d had the holiday of a lifetime. We were tanned, relaxed, content and happy. We’d visited Paradise, and it was everything we’d dreamed it could be. We boarded the ‘plane with memories that will remain with us for as long as we live.

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