I often ask audiences to define paradise. While responses vary, a high percentage involves some combination of white sand beach, coconut palm and blue-blue sea scenario. It’s so pervasive I’ve long been curious where the notion first originated. Honeymoon brochure? 1940s movie? Similarly, as I travel and explore I keep running into places touted as “paradise on earth.”
A couple islands in the Seychelles make that list, dating back to the mid-1700s when one of the first visitors to Praslin, Charles (Chinese) Gordon, went away convinced he had seen the site of the original Garden of Eden. Having spent yesterday – a gray, humid day – exploring it and nearby La Digue, it’s clear how legends get started.
When Asia split off and drifted away from Africa, breaking up what 160 million years or so ago was the single continent of Gondwanaland, it left in its trail a couple hundred granite “droppings” scattered across what we now know as the Indian Ocean. This makes the Seychelles different from most island groups around the world, which are volcanic. The Seychelles are remnants of continental drift. Characterized by boulder-covered hills and hard mountains as high as 2,700 feet above sea level they are surrounded by narrow coastal plains and extensive coral reefs.
Out of the 115 islands in the group, 42 are granite; the rest are made up of coral and washed-up rubble. While they are chock full of endemic wildlife, the people here are all immigrants; there were no indigenous Seychellois, everyone came from someplace else beginning with pirates in the 15th century. From a wildlife perspective, they are among the most protected on the planet thanks to a 1993 law guaranteeing its people the right to a clean environment. As a result the country holds a record for the highest percentage of land under natural conservation, nearly fifty percent.
Of the 75 endemic plants here, the most famed is the coco de mer. The trees grow for 200 to 400 years. The male fruits are long and slender, while the female fruits often weigh upwards of forty pounds, are the world’s largest seed and are nicknamed the “love nut” due to their suggestive shape. They got their name from Maldivians, a thousand miles away. When the nuts washed up onshore those faraway locals were convinced they must have come from underneath the water, thus “coco from the sea.” I asked my guide Marianne if anyone ever gets hit by falling, forty-five pound coconuts, which would definitely addle you, and she smiles. “The only time people get hit is at night. Because the male coconut and female coconut are love making then and sometimes they fall.”
I spent the morning in the beautiful Vallee de Mai, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1972, packed with the tall trees. Dark and humid under its canopy, the forest has a primeval feel and is a natural greenhouse fostering tall palms of a half-dozen varieties, as well as jackfruit, kapisen, ferns, vanilla and philodendron. The wet and dark also nurtures endemic black parrots and blue pigeons, kestrel and swiftlets, fruit bats, geckos, tree frogs, skinks and rare chameleons, sizable snails, slugs and freshwater crabs. Standing next to twenty-foot tall palm leaves with lizards scampering over my feet it all feels very … prehistoric.
Twenty minutes away by local ferry is La Digue. The fourth largest island in the Seychelles means it is not very big, just three miles by two, home to 2,500 people. From a coastal plateau it culminates in the Nid Aigle (Eagle’s Nest) a thousand feet above the sea. But few come to La Digue for its heights but rather for its meandering boulder-strewn beach – Anse Source D’Argent – which is invariably included on every “best beach” list ever published.
I bike to the end of the island and then pick my way along the beach as the sun sets, scrambling around gigantic granite boulders curved by time and weather tumbling into the sea, sloshing from small crescent beach to small crescent beach of talcum powder pink sand, barely cooled off by plunging into the thirty degree Celsius waters. I keep my eyes open for a sign directing me to the Garden of Eden, but instead discover only a corral of thirty giant, one-hundred-year-old tortoises. By day’s end rather than Eden, I’m beginning to wonder if the place didn’t share roots with “Jurassic Park.”
Read more from Jon at Bowermaster’s Adventures.