Island idyll

It’s not surprising that a few decades ago South African mercenaries tried to stage a coup in the Seychelles. Who wouldn’t want ownership of a 115-island archipelago nestled in the lee of coral reefs and glimmering with all the green-gold life of every tropical fantasy? What is surprising is that they didn’t succeed. There couldn’t have been much resistance, after all. No one is allowed to own a gun here, except for soldiers, and by all accounts the army’s weapons are not the most fearsome.

North Island, once home to coconut plantations but now long abandoned, has recently been rehabilitated as an environmental protection area. In order to restore the natural habitat, the owners had to eliminate the alien creatures that threatened this balance.

First to go were the rats. Next, the 15 remaining cows that had run wild and were either too old or infirm to be of much use to anyone. Rather than subject these bovine inhabitants to the indignity of a rocky boat ride to a larger island for slaughter, it seemed kindest to do away with them right there.

The army was summoned. Either the cows were faster and more cunning than expected, or the marksmen were out of practice. They had to return the next week. This time a North Island employee with a soldierly background took charge of the weapons, and the remaining cows were quickly and mercifully dispatched.

This story gives an idea of the peaceful life — only imagined by the rest of the world — enjoyed in the Seychelles.

No poverty or unemployment, no harmful fish, snakes or animals, no hurricanes, no violent crime, no garish neon lights or litter. No stress. So much for the negatives. Add the positives — pure clear air, pure blue water, white beaches, untrammelled forests and unadulterated relaxation — and you can understand why living here must be almost impossible.

Unless you’re born into this pure atmosphere, you can’t bear very much of it. For a holiday, however, it’s ideal — like a slow, lingering infusion of pure oxygen to the system.

Even in Victoria, the capital, which rests on the largest island of Mahé, visitors are lulled by the somnolent pace. Move on to the smaller islands and this other-worldliness intensifies.

Praslin is home to the protected Vallée de Mai, where the famed Coco de Mer trees drop their fruit. The double-sided coconut, which bears a resemblance to a woman’s torso, takes 20 years to ripen, weighs up to 30kg and it grows only in the Seychelles.

La Digue, reached by ferry from Praslin, is home to the world’s most-photographed beach, Anse Source d’Argent, where smooth granite giants tower in and around the water.

There is a bar and restaurant on Mahé called La Sirene, named for the sirens that tried to lure Ulysses to his death. The place is run by an elderly Belgian called Bob, who hinted at a somewhat violent past and said he found here what he’d never believed possible — a sanctuary.

Bob arrived in Seychelles from the then Belgian Congo. He met a beautiful young Seychellois woman — his siren — and has been there ever since. Bob would not move from Mahé for all the world. He particularly wouldn’t move to any of the smaller islands.

“The small island — it seems big when you arrive,” he rattled in his Kurtz-like accent. “But every day it gets smaller, smaller, smaller … It may be spectacular, but you will go insane.”

North Island, reached by boat or helicopter, is about as spectacular as it gets. Its highest peak was used in the recent Thunderbirds movie.

From the air, the island is a gemstone of jade green, surrounded by a white-gold band of beach, set in a ring of water so clear that shoals of fish cast shadows on the sea bed. Beyond the pale shallows the sea darkens to tanzanite blue, where flocks of terns dip and swoop in search of fish.

The island has always been something of an oddity. Formed about 90-million years ago when the archipelago separated from India, North Island’s peaks once circled a coral lagoon, now a plateau furred with trees.

When the first French settlers arrived in 1826, the rich deposits of guano from thousands of nesting birds became their major export.

The island was used as a coconut plantation and produced copra until the industry collapsed in the 1970s. The land was sold and most of the inhabitants (except the rebel cows) left. The coconuts grew wild, joining the invasive lantana weed in choking just about everything else on the island.

In 1997 Norisco, a conservation-minded consortium, bought the island and began the delicate process of restoring it to its endemic state, creating a sanctuary for endangered plants and wildlife as well as a sanctuary for humans whose equilibrium has been eroded by the realities of life elsewhere.

Wealthy humans, of course. It takes a lot of money to restore an ancient habitat. In return, however, those who visit get five-star service in an informal bush-lodge setting. “Barefoot luxury” they call it, but luxury is an inadequate word in this place.

There are 11 private villas, each covering a beachside area of 450m2. Each comes with a personal butler and is equipped with a whirlpool in the middle of an enormous wooden deck, a massage room, sunken marble bath looking out to sea and a golf cart for exploring the wilder reaches of the island.

Consisting in the main of bronzed South Africans, the staff are rotated fairly often, which perhaps explains how they manage to maintain efficiency in a place that seems to rob one of all will.

Time is of a different texture on this microdot in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The stillness of each day is ruffled only by eating, either in your villa or at the beachside dining area. Or working up the will to scuba dive, kayak, hike or drive to the Sunset Bar on the western side of the island. Here, a brief snorkel near the shore reveals iridescent parrot fish, striped Moorish idols and all manner of other bright darting creatures.

The vision of North Island is gradually being realised. Giant land tortoises roam the hills and submerge themselves in the cooling mud of streams. Green and leatherback turtles lay their eggs on the beaches. Graceful fruit bats soar above the tree canopy even during the sunlit hours. Soft-voiced local ground birds bustle happily in the undergrowth and luminous green lizards change colour when stared at. You won’t find any cows, though.

Sue de Groot was a guest of the Seychelles Tourist Office

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