The Eco-Wonder of the Seychelles

Hikes can be easy or challenging, scenic or tranquil, but rarely are they described as aromatic. However, at Fond Ferdinand that’s exactly what it is.

Words by Ute Junker

As we follow the trail through this nature reserve on Praslin, the Seychelles’ second-largest island, our path is sometimes shaded, sometimes sunny, sometimes steep, but always sweetly scented. Our guide encourages us to pull leaves off the surrounding trees and bushes and crush them in our palms. Each one releases a heady fragrance. Lemongrass, cinnamon, curry leaves – the forests of the Seychelles are a natural larder.

They are also one of the country’s under-the-radar attractions. Most people know this island archipelago north of Madagascar for its white-sand beaches lapped by pristine turquoise waters, and the luxury resorts scattered along its shores. However, these islands are also a haven for nature lovers and have a remarkable ecosystem. Among the most appealing features are the steeply sloping forests that are home to exotic species including miniature orchids and tree ferns.

On Praslin, the best hiking opportunities include the World Heritage-listed Valleé de Mai and the recently opened Fond Ferdinand. Both reserves feature shaded valleys where coco de mer (also called double coconut) grow. This quirky palm species, found nowhere outside the Seychelles, grows a nut that is remarkable not only for its unusual shape – it resembles a pert bottom – but also its immense size, with coconuts weighing up to 18 kilos.

The story of how those coconuts come to be is an adventure in itself. It takes 25 years for a coco de mer to mature, at which point the trees can be identified as either male or female. Female trees grow bunches of small coconuts, around half a dozen in number. In order to become super-sized, the female nuts need to be fertilised by an insect carrying spores from a male coconut tree. Only one or two nuts per bunch will reach full size, a process that takes seven years. A local explains that when a nut turns yellow, it is a sign it’s almost mature, and will soon be falling from the tree. “Until it is yellow, you can sit under the tree no problem,” he explains. “When it is yellow, watch out!”

Underwater wonders

While each island in the Seychelles has its own character, from the high ridges of the main island Mahé, to the flatter topography of outer islands such as Desroches, they do share certain characteristics. Most islands have their share of white-sand beaches scalloping their coastlines; equally, many of them are fringed by reefs, battered by the 2004 tsunami, but nonetheless teeming with marine life of all descriptions. Snorkelling a variety of reefs we spot huge schools of soldierfish and snapper, smaller groups of batfish, vividly coloured butterflyfish, surgeonfish and Moorish idols, as well as tiny pipefish and huge sea cucumbers.

Even the main island, Mahé, has some prime snorkelling spots, particularly in the Sainte Anne Marine National Park. As well as reefs, the park has seagrass beds that are favourite grazing grounds for green turtles. Between April and December, the area also attracts huge numbers of manta rays.

Signature wildlife

A must-do wildlife experience is an encounter with an Aldabra giant tortoise. Fossil records indicate these extraordinary creatures once roamed every continent, except Australia and Antarctica; today, they are only found in the Seychelles and the Galápagos islands.

There is nothing insignificant about these creatures, which can stand as tall as a dog, weigh several hundred kilos and live for more than 100 years. Their gait may be slow, but they are determined, particularly when they spot something tasty (relax, they are herbivores). Most islands have some sort of tortoise sanctuary – in Praslin, there is one at Fond Ferdinand, but there are also plenty of opportunities to see them in the wild.

Cousin Island, accessible as a day trip from Praslin, is home to several dozen tortoises, and is a good example of the many conservation projects taking place right across the archipelago. This former coconut plantation has undergone an extensive rehabilitation that has seen invasive species removed, indigenous flora reintroduced and a tortoise breeding program established. The island has also become a breeding site for thousands of seabirds, as well as the most important nesting area in the western Indian Ocean for hawksbill turtles.

Another appealing island is La Digue, which can be explored either as a day trip or a longer stay. La Digue is considered among the most traditional of the Seychelles’ islands, its slow pace of life deliberately preserved. Private cars are banned; instead locals and visitors ride bicycles between the island’s beautiful beaches, lined with rustic shacks selling local souvenirs and snacks, or to visit the colonial era L’Union Estate, home to a vanilla garden, an old copra factory and more tortoises.

Wining and dining

When you get hungry, wander up from the beach to one of the shoreside restaurants such as Chez Jules, where under a palm-frond roof you can enjoy traditional island cooking. Choose from aromatic local curries, freshly caught seafood marinated in ginger and garlic, or go old school with some fruit bat. This gamey meat, a traditional treat, is surprisingly delicious, but so filled with tiny bones that many people find it not worth the effort.

As international flights land and depart from Mahé, most visitors spend at least a day on the island. The tiny capital, Victoria, has only a handful of sights, including a Hindu temple and a lively fresh produce market, but the Takamaka Rum Distillery just outside town is a must-visit. There is a small tasting room where you can try everything from an eight-year aged rum to a coconut liqueur that is excellent over ice. Head up to the main house – an airy heritage bungalow that houses an excellent restaurant and a welcoming bar – order a drink or two and toast yourself for discovering this little patch of paradise.

Getting there

The easiest way to reach the Seychelles is via Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Airlines has daily direct flights from Melbourne to Colombo; from Colombo, flying time to the Seychelles is four hours.

Flights from Mahé to Praslin take only 15 minutes. There is also a ferry service that takes around 60 minutes.

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