By Jess De Boer
Imagine the front of a brochure if you will: crystalline blue waters, golden beaches and rustling coconut palms. Turn the page and below the embossed heading that includes the word luxury you can almost hear the faint tinkle of piped lobby music and the waft of an international buffet floating across the grounds of some swanky resort.
But that's not why we came here and it sure as hell is not the reason we’ll come back. This series of 115 islands, speckled about the warm Indian Ocean are floating droplets of natural abundance; on the 20-minute drive from the airport to our first nights pad our eyes were on stilts and the threshold to free-flowing salivation had been crossed.
Check out those trees!
On that first drive alone, during which we passing through Mahe’s main ‘industrial area’ Indian Almonds lined our passage in a fine display of red and gold dotted amongst palms of ludicrous variety, gigantic breadfruit trees laden with football-sized bounty, overloaded star-fruit, guava and bilmbi. In the background stood the trunks of stocky cassurina; bought in long ago together with the unassuming chongololo whose job it was to turn the acidic leaf litter and saline soils into palatable jungle substrate.
Mahé is home to 86% of the country’s population (76,000 people as of 2011) who live in amongst the densely forested foothills. Several windy roads crisscross up and over the slabby granite peaks, the highest of which tops out at 950mt providing a tasty agro-ecological zone for tea, bamboo and carnivorous pitcher plants. This may be the most densely populated of all of the Seychelles islands but if there was a joke about an ecologist, a botanist and a permaculturalist, all 3 would end up smiling.
The oldest spice garden in the world exists up a narrow, concrete lane that proved a grueling test for our tiny rental car; especially when we stalled it in shock upon entering a patch of free-standing cacao trees complete with bright purple pods interlaced with vanilla and the background chuckle of endemic blue pigeons. Shortly thereafter we putt-putted our way round a twisty bend lined with golden coconut palms whose fruit lay clustered in such density it defies convention; a trend that repeated itself with Jackfruit, golden apple and the random explosion of citrus varieties like pomelo, lemon and orange whose flesh burst with a potency long forsaken by the blandly perfumed varieties stocked in modern supermarkets.
Stepping from one island to another is a simple and absolutely essential endeavor facilitated by ferry, yacht or short flight. The world beneath the crystal clear waves is one of equal splendor for despite the universal bleaching of coral there are just so many fish; big ones, small ones, spotty ones and don’t get me started on the regular passing of sea turtles, stingrays and reef sharks. Stepping out of this perfectly warm sea one would be advised to replace goggles with binoculars and feast on the explosion of bird life whose guano deposits helped build up many of the islands into permanence; once fuelling a lucrative trade in the potassium rich droppings that were transported to far distant corners of the world to be spread amongst sugar plantations before the advent of commercial chemical fertilizers. The depositors of such high grade manure; Sooty Terns, Noddies and missile shaped frigates are but a few of the species we met along the way and thanks to the concentrated efforts of local conservation groups the populations of birds returning each year continue to blossom.
But paradise has a catch we discovered, for behind the tropical bounty of rich seas and forest glades whispers an all too familiar tale of human obliviousness. The Seychellois are regularly reported as Africa’s most obese population, shunning the local profusion of breadfruit and yam in favor of bleached rice and other foreign delicacies and the island is alleged to import over 80% of its food from far, far away places and apparently the agricultural division of the main university has just two students; both of whom had ticked horticulture as their chosen career paths and whose dreams involved making it big in the lucrative 5* hotel landscaping business. Growing their own food aka “farming” has a negative stigma amongst the majority of the local populace and the agricultural ministry reputably receives less than a 1% slice of the government’s annual budgetary pie…
And so while the tourists give themselves whiplash staring at the famous Coco du Mer palms and snapping themselves a billion selfie’s with giant land tortoises we zipped in and out and up and down on a mission to absorb as much information from local authorities, determined farmers and like-minded pro-activists who share our vision for this incredible island chain; a vision that involves food and people; education and design, conservation and enhancement all of which tie together into that most essential re-connection with the natural world that, in these tiny flecks of paradise anyway still remain heavily endowed with loveliness.