Saturday, February 27, 2010

Island hopping

La Digue and Praslin    (Seychelles  - Part II)

For a moment let’s put the cart before the ox. Let’s imagine the world before man. The oceans waters are sparkling gemstones – turquoise, aquamarine, lapis and sapphire, while the vegetation radiates emerald, jade, rubies and corals. Giant tortoises lumber on the land marking their territory; crocodiles and turtles rule the submarine landscape; and fairy terns or tropic birds ride the air like free spirits. Everywhere, the pristine, primeval glory of the Earth lies untouched, unspoilt. This idyll still persists on many remote islands of the Seychelles archipelago that has been variously proclaimed, albeit in a clichéd manner, as “Paradise on earth” and “Another world”. After exploring Mahe, the principal island of Seychelles, I am now on an island-hopping spree to cruise back into time.

The first hop is the charming island of La Digue; with a dimension of barely five by three kilometers it is an extended coastal town!  Sitting in an ox-cart which is the main mode of mass transport here one is transported into small town India of the olden days. As the cart ambles on I take in the hustle-bustle at the jetty: locals cycling their way to their destination, administrative offices that look more like homes, an old church painted beige and traditional mud houses with thatched roofs. The somnolent island-town has a population of merely two thousand though tourism has ensured that visitors clamber on to this haven in hordes and to pander to their demands the island denizens, in turn, fall in line. Thus, as a prelude we are taken to a coconut oil factory and vanilla plantation.

Though they seem to dominate the skyline, the coconut palms are not native to Seychelles and were introduced – we are told - by the Arabs who first sailed to Seychelles serendipitously during their forays in East African waters. Coconut oil extraction, thus, has come to be a small scale industry here, but the copra (that is what they call it!) factory we visited was more like a manual mill in the backyard. The “show” hit the right notes with the Westerners who ooh-ed and ah-ed at the “exotic” display especially when a nimble-footed Seychellois climbed the palm like an agile ape. With a sense of déjà vu, of having seen these “tricks” as a matter of routine in rural India, I looked forward to my version of “exotica”.

As we headed to the beach away from the artificiality of the jetty, we hit upon deserted roads, the La Digue I was eager to see. I was intrigued by the sight of a bikini-clad young mother on a rickety scooter zipping by with her daughter as a pillion. Their appearance defied racial profiling - not African, nor Asian, nor European, perhaps an amalgamation of the three! I, subsequently, learnt that the early settlers on this virgin island were French - political rebels from Réunion - and today’s population is their direct descendants. Just as I could not put my finger on their ethnicity, I was also unable to slot them in any socio-economic class, an exercise we so idly indulge in everywhere but which seemed so futile here. Are they “rich” or do they belong to the “middle-class”? Do they live in a big mansion with a swimming pool like the filthy rich Europeans settled in Seychelles over the years? Did it really matter? The island is their home and the ocean their pool. They do not have to be dressed to go anywhere; they could afford to be in a perpetual manner of undress to get into the water not unlike a fish taking to its habitat! At La Digue, this truth stared at me crystal clear like its ocean, itself.

 We have the beach, popularly called Bacardi Beach after the advert was filmed here, but formally, Anse Source d’ Argent, all to ourselves. The silver sands contrast artistically with the turquoise waters so glassy that you can see sea weed and small marine life right to the bottom. Grey granite boulders rise out of the waters like miniature mountains, providing props for the seabirds – terns and herons, to land on. At noon, the sun is beating down, but its edge is blunted by the cool waters of the ocean, and it is, at once, soporific and rejuvenating.  In fact, our guide tells us that this beach is one of the most photographed beaches of Seychelles and I can see why! It is indeed postcard perfect. An afternoon in La Digue has a languid air about it and a sense of timelessness envelopes me.

We leave the “timelessness” behind to enter a “before time” zone, if you know what I mean. In the heart of Praslin Island (which is our next hop) lies the Garden of Eden, literally! Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, the pearl in Praslin’s crown, is the last remnant of prehistoric forest that existed when Seychelles was still a part of Gondwanaland. The subsequent million years of isolation has helped retain its ancient and rare wealth even today. And since this fragile ecosystem has been nursed back to virginity through the commendable efforts of Seychelles government’s environmental housekeepers, the forest has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We follow the guide on a nature trail through the palm-rich forest enchanted by the symphony of bird calls and the music created by twigs of the trees brushing against one another. There are the pandanus, cycad, and the legendary coco de mer that gives the forest its heritage status.

 Coco de mer is a kind of double coconut and the heaviest palm nut anywhere, weighing anywhere between 20and 40 kg.  The most astounding part of the real-life lore of coco fesse, as it is also called (fesse is a French word which means ‘butt’), is thus: The nut or seed inside the husk is uncannily suggestive of a woman’s pelvis! And if you thought this was a mere coincidence, listen to this: the palm has distinct female and male trees and the latter bears a catkin shaped like a sausage! What do you call this consonance - Nature’s naughtiness, tomfoolery, fortuity or ingenuity? More likely, a chronicle of human reproduction foretold, as the palm predates human evolution! Like Thomas Gray’s poetic flower that blushes unseen and wastes its scent on desert air, gentle wind and green geckos weave magic to the accompaniment of black parrot’s serenade and the coco de mer is born, in utter seclusion. Fortunately, I got to see both the nut and the rare black parrot. Vallée de Mai is world’s best-kept secret that I am now privy to.

Next hop, Aldabra Island, hopefully, in this lifetime!

NOTE: All Photographs in this blog and website are the author's original  work.

1 comment:

  1. Superb pictures and lovely write-up! I remembered a video that is linked to what you have mentioned about coco de mer. It is a TED talk by Jonathan Drori.

    Check out-