Encyclopedia of Islands

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Seychelles islands

Indian Ocean breezes refresh Mahe, capital island of the Seychelles. An island nation, Seychelles is located to the northeast of Madagascar and about 1,600 km (994 mi) east of Kenya. These remote isles promise hidden coves, coco-de-mer palms, and lush hillsides scented with flowering trees and rare orchids.

A song I heard in the Seychelles sings of an island lost in the middle of the sea, a place “comme dans l´air”—as if in the air, afloat like a cloud, somewhere between ocean and sky. The expression carries a hint of the otherworldly, an idea that befits the faraway Seychelles, a group of a hundred equatorial isles sprinkled across the western Indian Ocean like a lone constellation. Unlike most midocean islands, the main isles of the Seychelles are made of granite, heaped into steep, dark mountains of stone, weathered and furrowed like monstrous sculptures. The land is jungled with tropical forests that hold species found nowhere else on earth: coco-demer palms and jellyfish trees; wild vanilla orchids and yellow pitcher plants; black parrots, blue pigeons, and red-headed doves. An aura of fantasy surrounds the land. Resident artist Michael Adams, an Englishman, told me of his first impression of the Seychelles, “The islands seemed so magical, I had the feeling that around the next corner I might find a pink horse."

Seychelles island

From the beginning, the earliest accounts of the Seychelles sounded fanciful. Explorers in the 1700s had found giant tortoises lumbering in the forests and lounging around the tops of the mountains, which rise to heights of nearly 3,000 feet on the main island of Mahé. Huge crocodiles, now extinct, climbed up there to eat them, and 18th-century settlers reported that when the winds were calm, they could hear the dreadful sound of crocodiles fighting with sharks at sea. Along the shores, early-day voyagers saw dugongs - sea mammals that brought to mind the sirens of myth—and some unusual creatures that may have been sea elephants, living far from their subantarctic range.

In the hilly heart of the island named Praslin, second largest of the Seychelles, stands a 46-acre nature reserve known as the Vallée de Mai. It is a primeval forest, musical with bird songs, that shelters one of the highest percentages of endemic species in the world. Thirty of the Seychelles´ 80 species of native flora are found there, and some of the plants and animals live only in the Vallée de Mai, including the most extraordinary of the Seychelles species: the coco-de-mer palm. Standing as tall as 100 feet, with broad fronds as long as 20 feet, the coco-de-mer bears a nut that can weigh as much as 40 pounds—the largest and heaviest seed in the world.

The first people to spot the Seychelles—or to be cast ashore there— may have been voyagers in a Portuguese caravel, a Maldivian Arab dhow, or an Indonesian sailing canoe. Lying just below the Equator 1,000 miles east of Africa, 1,700 miles southwest of India, and 650 miles north of Madagascar, the Seychelles are remote in one of the world´s less traveled seas, and are off the main exploration and trade routes of the Indian Ocean. The land area of the islands totals a mere 171 square miles, less than one-half the size of Los Angeles. The Seychelles, however, are scattered across a tract of sea about the size of California, some 150,000 square miles—plenty of room for a sailing ship to chance upon an uncharted isle.

The Seychelles are so recently inhabited—the first French settlers arrived little more than two centuries ago—that the history of the isles is straightforward and unplumbed. The islands had no ancient civilizations, no indigenous peoples—no population before 1770. Historian Kantilal Jivan Shah, known to everyone as "Kanti," told me, "Tracing the genealogies of the Seychellois is easy. We only go back six or seven generations. The real question is, who first saw the Seychelles? And what is hiding in the islands that we have not yet uncovered?"

In the Seychelles, the islands themselves still hold the elusive qualities of the undersea world. On Mahe, I once sat on a rock by a mountain road looking up at the highest peak in the islands, Morne Seychellois—a sheer wall of granite with a crown of forest. Clouds circled the mountain, but the summit rose above them, comme dans l´air. It looked like a fairy-tale castle, and I let myself think of what might be hidden up there, in a place where few people go. For a moment, the clouds opened, revealing a score of whitetailed tropic birds floating up the mountain face, riding on updrafts. I will save that memory, with the tales of Seychelles, to keep in the place in my mind where islands live.

Perched for a drink, a Madagascar fody plucks a blossom and swallows nectar as it drips from the stem. Introduced to these islands around 1860, the tiny bird thrives mainly in gardens along coastal fringes. Thirteen species of birds and 80 kinds of plants, from jellyfish trees to wild vanilla orchids, live exclusively in the Seyshelles.

Seychelles

Isles of sanctuary and solitude: Sooty terns take to the air above Bird Island (below), a 175-acre coral cay 60 miles north of Mahe. During their April-to- October nesting season, more than one million migratory sooties gather on this tiny haven. The island also accommodates visitors who come to enjoy the winged spectacle. On many of the islands, wildlife conservation coexists with tourism, the mainstay of the Seychelles´ economy. Two reserves in the islands have been chosen by the

United Nations as World Heritage sites: Praslin´s Vallée de Mai forest, home of the famous coco-de-mer palm; and remote Aldabra, an atoll with the largest population of giant tortoises in the world—160,000. Along with Aldabra, several far-flung clusters of coralline isles sprinkle the southern waters of the Seychelles. Two hundred miles southwest of Mahé, a couple (opposite) strolls through surf that sculpts a sandy islet in the Amirantes—seldom-seen isles with a last-place-on-earth beauty.