The last holiday I had was three days in Tunis, eight months ago. A week after that trip, a few yards from our hotel a woman blew herself up in front of a set of constables (all of whom, unlike her, lived to tell the tale).
I note this as a counterpoint to a beach holiday in Seychelles. My preference is to see the world as it really is, in so much as a cosseted man with a north London mortgage is able. But for a first proper holiday in too long – grim health news causing the cancellation of two trips in the interim – something less taxing was the right move, for both myself and the long-suffering Mrs L.
The Indian Ocean archipelago of Seychelles (not the Seychelles, it transpires) promised a good mix of relaxation, light exercise and nature. And sun. My God, and sun.
But it was pissing it down when we arrived in Mahe, the country’s biggest island. We were headed for La Digue, another island that takes two boats to reach. On a minibus to the ferry port our first sight was a fire engine that seemed to have vaulted onto a wall somehow. Men stood about scratching their heads in confusion, making no obvious effort to un-beach their emergency vehicle. No hurry, no problem.
To the waves. Bloody big waves. From first sight of La Digue it’s clearly the definition of a sunny island paradise. Our fellow tourists eagerly snapped pics of the approaching harbour, little realising they’d get home to find in the foreground of every shot a woman being sick into a Tesco carrier bag.
But finally on land, greeted by a lady named Nathaniel for some reason, we were bussed the short journey to a large but quiet beach resort, with a villa close to the sea and, Jehovah be praised, air conditioning. Unusual birds flitted about, the views were glorious and the bar was close at hand.
Fuck me it’s a tenner a pint.
It’s not cheap, Seychelles. The reason given is they have to import everything, which makes it a bit cheeky that ‘SeyBrew’ is so dear. I suppose they have to import hops, barley and the like, but when you realise they’ll soon be asking for no small sum for a tuna salad, on an island in the Sea of Tuna, it does tend towards the fishy.
My travelling companion is forever bizarrely eager to get in the sea despite the terrors that await. I watched dispassionately from 30 yards as she paddled and floated above the seaweed. I nodded slowly as she first yelped at something chewing on her ankle then ran whimpering from something else apparently chasing her. Up the beach she trudges. “You should come in, it’s lovely.”
Exploring La Digue involves a trip to L’Union Estate. A steep entrance fee gets you in to see a knackered graveyard and the busiest beach on the island, where a leathery Hulk Hogan lookalike vied with a Chinaman in increasingly transparent white underpants for the ideal photo in front of some rocks. Oh by Christ I’ve actually come on a beach holiday.
Giant tortoises! Massive yet surprisingly spritely, these venerable folk can easily live twice as long as a human. They’re calming to watch. They eat, they peer about, they eat. They do other things, but more of that later.
We had five days in La Digue and it required effort to make myself relax into doing sod all and liking it. Don’t worry, I managed. My mind wandered as I watched crabs scampering about the beach. I watched kids playing in the pool without wanting to smilingly hold them under. For the first time in my life I had a pint at a pool bar, half in the water, and felt truly silly sitting on a stool in trunks. Marvellous.
At night, stars came out. Living with light pollution you forget how astounding the night sky can be. It gave me my one reason to use my phone – an app called Star Walk 2 makes identifying Rigel, Alnilam and Pollux a joy. Otherwise I stayed completely disconnected from the world for a full fortnight, remembering a simpler world before the internet. I read eight novels in two weeks. If that doesn’t define relaxation I don’t know what does.
There’s a huge hill in the middle of La Digue. We tried to walk up it in the lunchtime heat. No. Over a much-needed SeyBrew I found fascination in three ants trying to manoeuvre a grain of rice back to base, before we slowly returned through a nature reserve with countless large birds circling and squawking above.
Wait a minute, they’re not birds…
Bats! Massive fruit bats, in their hundreds, in the bloody daytime. The sky teeming, and every tree filled with them, chasing each other along branches and shrieking as only bats can. Standing beneath them in the woods was both eerie and thrilling.
We survived the short boat hop to a fresh island without chunks blown. Praslin is another with a big hill in the centre, home to one of Seychelles’ better known nature reserves. The Vallee de Mai is where you’ll find the semi-famous Coco de Mer tree, whose nuts look like fannies. I’m not doing all the work, go look it up. There are also rare black parrots – parrots, but black – inquisitive bulbuls, and often near-total silence.
In a huge forest we could often hear not so much as a cricket. It’s hard not to wonder if the place was teeming before humanity turned up to ruin everything.
The time was approaching where I was to be forced into the sea. I’d never attempted snorkelling but this is the place to do it, so we got on a boat with some Finns and some fins to an island called Curieuse.
Here we found more tortoises, one of which treated us to the world’s slowest attempted rape. They’re randy bastards, it turns out, and one massive chap decided to make a smaller female his as we stood a couple of metres away. She wasn’t keen. They were matched for pace. He cut a corner, caught up, hopped up.
She carried on going. He fell off, looked glum and gave up. There’s not that many left in the world you know.
As a snorkelling novice it was hard to get used to the idea of breathing underwater, but the fear of bubbling death does pass and it’s great fun when you start to spy the weird and wonderful beneath. Crazy colours, transparent ones, some intrigued by you and others keeping their distance, some in huge groups and other, more sinister fellows by themselves. Oh wow, what’s that shape-shifting one down there? It’s tartan-coloured!
Oh wait, that’s my handkerchief, escaped from my pocket. Goodbye old friend, we’ve seen some things eh? I apologise to whoever ends up with it in their dolphin salad.
My punishments were to have been cooked red raw and to have my ears assaulted that evening by an ‘inter-religion gospel concert’ in a church across the road. The Seychellois are fairly committed Christians and did their best to make us bow to His will with a punishing few hours of contemporary muck sung in the manner of Denise from Cheshunt does karaoke at the Crocodile.
Our next stop was Bird Island, where by all accounts the only accommodation was so basic we’d be baking our own water and fishing for bread. In the event it was fine, though at this point the all-encompassing heat did begin to drain me.
We’d come for wildlife though, and not in Hitchcock’s most fiendish storyboards would you encounter a place like this. At this time of year the island hosts seven hundred thousand pairs of sooty terns, the females nesting on the ground and the males swirling and screeching in huge clouds about. It’s some sight, and sound.
To get to that part of the island you walk through a tunnel of hundreds of nesting lesser noddis, who emit a throaty groan as you pass beneath, seemingly warning each other there are apes about. There are also crabs of all sizes – crabs are everywhere on every island – more tortoises (including the world’s oldest, Esmeralda, aged 178) and a mouse with a penchant for Starburst, the little bastard.
And there was some more snorkelling here. At exactly the spot I’d just emerged from the water there was suddenly what looked like a bloody stingray the size of Alan Partridge’s dinner plate. It later emerged it was likely an innocuous skate. Cries of “See, what are you scared about?”
The next morning, what’s that huge black thing over there? Oh Christ yeah that’s a ray, that kills people get out get out get out. A member of staff later said it was likely an eagle ray, and “totally harmless”. And Wikipedia?
These rays can grow extremely large, up to 1.8 m (6 ft) including the tail. The tail looks like a whip and may be as long as the body, and is armed with a sting.
Seychelles is home to many geckos and skinks. I found them genuinely fascinating, not least because they’re clearly daft. They sit motionless at night near light bulbs, waiting for bugs. A bug lands behind them and they can’t turn round without alerting it. You can almost see it trying to puzzle it out and nine times out of ten it’ll try and leap in a circle and the bug will easily get away, but that tenth time is a true triumph. I think if I can’t come back as a duck I’ll be a lizard if that’s all right.
Our final island was Mahe, the largest and home to the capital, Victoria. The most famous sight in Victoria is a small replica of the Vauxhall Bridge clock tower, so it’s clear what level of tourism we’re dealing with here. Elsewhere was an incongruous multicoloured Hindu temple, the famous Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Selwyn market (I hate markets), a generic loon walking the streets and shouting at himself and two massive rain showers that each time forced us to take shelter in bars. That’s a shame.
Our final dinner in Seychelles was a lovely set menu at a traditional creole restaurant. They’re big on creole here, though they skate a little close to the edge of putting beans in everything. The Indian influence is clear with some fine curries on offer, including a tremendous octopus curry on most menus. Bat curry was a delicacy too far, with memories fresh of the scary forest on La Digue.
After a hair-raising walk back through a dark and deserted city – it reminded me of somewhere like St John’s in that regard – it was time to prepare for home. I can say without question the trip had relaxed me and it had been the right destination. It’s too hot, no doubt, but everywhere will be too hot a few years from now.
But being among a country and people that prize their nature is heart-warming at a time when human destruction is so stark and obvious. Over half the land of Seychelles is protected nature reserve, a greater proportion than any other country. They’ve recently designated new marine protected areas covering an area the size of the UK. Even if you don’t come here specifically for the nature, nature will find you and get into your soul.
At one point sitting on a lounger, a lizard hopped up onto my leg and stared at me. It seemed pretty sure I was harmless, and for a few seconds we shared the planet like equals.
Whether the bloody stingray would have had the same opinion if I’d not run screaming for dry land, we’ll thankfully never know.