Seychelles idyll for Royal Couple

seychelles royal coupleThe British media reported this morning that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge–the two young lovebirds you may know as William and Kate–arrived in the Seychelles earlier today to kick off their long anticipated honeymoon.

After touching down at Seychelles International Airport in Mahé, the Royal Couple boarded a helicopter and took off for a private, unidentified island.

The location of the Royal honeymoon has been a matter of intense speculation in the UK over the last several weeks. Jordan, the Isles of Scilly, and Barbuda have all turned up as potential destinations.

The Seychelles, a cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean, are a top upscale destination, with tourist inflows coming mostly from Europe. Surely the Royal Couple’s decision to honeymoon in the country will not damage the Seychelles’ reputation as a playground for the rich.

[Image: Flickr | Olivier Cochard-Labbé]

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Bowermaster’s Adventures — Ibo

Ibo – officially Ilha Do Ibo, by the Portuguese who colonized it – is one of a string of 32 islands that make up the Quirimbas archipelago, separated from the Mozambique coast by just a shallow channel. Barely two miles long and two miles wide a fringe of reefs surrounds it; at low tide you can walk to the next island. On its main, slightly derelict beach fishermen hammer at boats turned on their sides and a pair of skinny boys walk the mangrove shallows with a net between them, trolling for baitfish. Just offshore cruise elegant-if-paint-flaked wooden dhows; their triangular white cloth sails making them look more windsurfer than sailboat. Ironically their masters can only fish when it’s windy, since most have no motors.

A grassy square of abandoned colonial houses in ice-cream pastels anchors the island’s main town (there are just three). Their grand size and wrought iron terraces and lampposts suggest prosperity. But the ironwork is rusted; the walls pitted with black mold and fig trees grow through the roofs. After the church, the grandest building on the square is the Customs House, pink-painted with ornate iron lattice along its roof. Inside, in a vague attempt at tourism, it has been turned into a tourist office. The unmanned display consists of an elephant skull, an old dining chair with a label reading “cadeira usada pelos portugueses” – chair used by the Portuguese – and a table laid out with a few coffee beans.

Ibo’s heyday was during the late 1800s, based on slaves and ivory. When slavery was abolished in the early 1900s and modern ships no longer needed to stop off so often for water and supplies, it faded. The island’s graves tell how, over the centuries, it attracted the Chinese, Arabs, British and Portuguese. Today it feels as if time has stopped since the Portuguese left abruptly in 1974, its population having fallen from 37,000 to fewer than 6,000. There are no cars, no banks, no postal service, no television or Internet and virtually no electricity … except at its lone and elegantly restored hotel, the Ibo Island Lodge (www.iboisland.com).

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One thing that sets Ibo apart from much of the rest of the Africa today – a continent on the verge of continent-wide drought – is an abundance of fresh water. For an hour I watch young boys come and go from a pair of wells in the center of town, pumping fresh, clear water into yellow plastic bottles with red screw tops. It comes from not far beneath the sand and according to locals seems bottomless. (For a good read on how the rest of Africa is dealing with serious drought, read my friend Andy Revkin’s recent. dotEarth report.)

“All day long it will come,” says my guide for the day, Ali, of the clear fresh water pouring from the rudimentary pump. “People even come from mainland Mozambique to get Ibo’s water. Maybe we can turn it into a business. What do you think?” I assure him that if he can figure out a way to export the island’s water, while preserving enough for local needs, he may have found his own path to riches, Ibo-style.

Read more from Jon at Bowermaster’s Adventures.

Bowermasters Adventures — Becoming a French state

Dozens of small tri-colored French flags hang from the awning of the bar 5/5 on Mamoudzou’s seafront. A Malagasy polka/country/blues/rock band plays to a mixed crowd of blacks and whites. Two weeks ago a historic vote turned the street out front into a riot of celebration when 95.5 percent of voters on this tiny island of 186,000 people voted to officially become French citizens.

Though Mayotte is closer to Mombassa than Paris, its traditional dish is manioc eaten with boiled fish, is 98 percent Muslim and known for cultivating the sweet-smelling essence ylang ylang (which made the perfumery Guerlain famous) it is now the 101st department – or state — of France.

A celebratory hangover lingers. I talk with a pair of women sitting in the back of the bar, taking advantage of a cool breeze blowing off the nighttime sea. They are all for the changes French citizenship will bring once the deal is formally signed in 2011: Social security benefits (though not for 25 years!), a new educational system, Islamic judges traded in for French ones and even the income taxes they will eventually have to pay. But they tell me they are also for a couple things the vote will outlaw: Polygamy and child marriages. “Those are from another time,” says one, her face masked by a traditional beige-colored paste of ground coral and sandalwood meant to keep the sun away, skin younger.

That its overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population is set to become full-fledged French citizens seems a bit odd to me. Having lived in France for nearly a decade I have seen how the French in France often treat Muslims living there, rewarding them with a high rate of joblessness, apartments in the poorest banlieues and even traditional headscarves banned from schools.

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Not everyone is happy about the outcome of the vote. According to the U.K’s Guardian, in an in-depth pre-election report, the African Union and the Comoros administration – which sees Mayotte as an “occupied” territory” – denounced the referendum. There are economic disparities too: About a third of Mayotte’s residents are undocumented workers who arrived illegally from the three other Comoros islands; while Mayotte’s GNP is only a third of that of another French Indian Ocean island Reunion, it is nine times that of the neighboring Comoros.

During a walk through the streets of the capital city and talks with some of its savvier business people it becomes clear the vote was a power play masked by populist vote: Mayotte is a strategic asset in a much broader international power play as France tries to counter Iran’s growing influence on the Muslim islands off Africa’s east coast.

France is already struggling to deal with a wave of illegal immigrants from the other three impoverished Comoros islands, which risk their lives to reach Mayotte by boat despite the growing number of shipwrecks and drownings. Expectant mothers hope to give birth here and young people hope for jobs or a chance to get to mainland France and Europe. The European commission has criticized the dire conditions in Mayotte’s French-run immigrant detention centers.

But France is concerned with the strategic importance of bringing Mayetta into its fold. Last month’s visit to the Comoros by Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad highlighted the Islamic republic’s growing presence on the three islands, building schools and mosques and tightening ties with the current Comoros president, Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, who studied in Iran.

Standing at the 5/5 bar I ask the bartender if he’s worried about the influence of Ahmadinejad and his Iranian bosses. He laughs. “I would love for them to come here and live for a few months, to try an island life. Maybe that would make them see the world in a different light.”

Read more from Jon at Bowermaster’s Adventures.

Bowermaster’s Adventures — Communing with hermit crabs

It is with great privilege and no small amount of humility that I spend as many days as I can on remote, uninhabited atolls. This Sunday morning it is in the Alphonse group of the Seychelles – south of the main granite islands of Mahe, Praslin and La Digue – and is called St. Francois. Shaped like a broken piece of coral, with several small fingers jutting northwards, it is just two miles around. But the lagoon that surrounds, outlined by a sharp reef, is a sizable nine by three miles.

Two facts of nature here in mid-April warrant an early morning exploration of the island: high heat and low tides. By nine it will be over 90 degrees F and humid, the lagoon covered by just a shallow, warm sea.

At seven, when much of the world is contemplating miraculous ascensions and chocolate egg hunts, I am communing with hermit crabs. I’ve never seen such a huge population (though it’s rivaled by a small island off Peru we visited last fall, which had a more intense concentration but nowhere near the volume). Every shell on the beach has been converted into a mobile home, from fingernail sized round shells to the long and conical to big, mossy, partially busted. There are easily fifty quick-moving hermies per square foot trundling shells of every size, shape and color. There does seem to be some weird segregation going on; though admittedly purely empirical it looks on parts of the beach that white shelled crabs mingle only with other white shelled crabs and that in other parts, moss-backed green shells hang only with their own kind.

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It’s possible that Sunday morning is moving day too, because we saw an inordinate amount of “house hunting” going on; big red hermit crabs having grown out of their existing shells looking for, and fighting over, bigger, empty versions. Something resembling a Manhattan condo open during headier real estate times.

By eight, it’s too hot not to be in the water, though it’s almost 90 degrees too. While the plunge is not exactly refreshing it’s an absolute necessity. Swimming alongside are a solitary hawksbill turtle and dozens of bonefish being chased by big jack fish. This lagoon is a Mecca for fly fishermen in pursuit of glassine-tinted bonefish, but never a paradise for boaters given the mean reef rimming the lagoon. From shore three big metal hulls rust where they ran aground decades before. It’s certain that this beach on an otherwise uninhabited island has been home over the centuries to a variety of shipwrecked sailors. I wonder if their ghosts still roam here?

It’s important on luxurious days like today – far from land, away from civilization, alone on an uninhabited island – to stop and listen. My aural memories of remote corners are as powerful as the visuals I carry in my head. This morning it is the far-off crash of waves on the reef; the gentle wash on sand as they lap onto the beach; and the distinct clicking of dry palm fronds rubbing together, blown by a hot breeze. (The most distinct sound I took away from yesterday was on yet another pristine sand beach, on D’Arros Island, where hundreds of frigate birds nested in tall, beachside palms. As they swooped just overhead on the way to feeding it was possible to hear only the flap of wings as they whooshed by.)

By nine, the tide is running out fast through the lagoon’s main pass, requiring a slow kick and swim to reach the reef edge. Floating on my back in the now hot, two-foot deep Indian Ocean, a last ditch attempt to cool off, I am surprised by another great sound, the whiz of a flying fish as it zips out of the water and past my head. Which if it isn’t a good-luck sign, I’m making it one.

Read more from Jon at Bowermaster’s Adventures.

Bowermaster’s Adventures — LaDigue

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.

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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.