For most visitors it’s a trip of a lifetime. But for Tim Ecott, a first Seychelles experience spawned 47 others...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
IN THE SHALLOW waters of Baie Ternay off the island of Mahé I came face to face with my first turtle, ancient eyes in a wizened face that made me feel like crying. It was the week my mother died, but underwater my mind was newly occupied by wonderful things. I peered into orange sponges where dark red brittle stars hid. I saw 30 eagle rays flying into the safety of the blue. There was the sense of something new on every dive, a trepidation about what might appear from the darker water away from the reef, and a compulsion to go there. I became addicted to being underwater, obsessive about learning the names of the fish I saw. And I fell deeply in love with the Seychelles.
It was not my first visit to the islands. I had passed through in 1988, en route to reporting for the BBC on the turbulent politics of Madagascar and the Comoro Islands. As the aircraft doors opened, the sweet dampness of the tropical air stirred memories of my childhood in Malaysia. The twin forces of recollection and discovery created an emotional link, a passion that was as invasive and tenacious as a tropical vine clinging to the trunk of a sandragon tree.
I became intrigued by this line of reefs, islets and atolls stretching across the western Indian Ocean. Even the names were poetic: rocky Frégate and Félicité to the east and north of Mahé, southwards the Amirantes—coralline specks like Desnœufs where the harvest of birds' eggs was awaited as a delicacy on Mahé tables. And far away, below the African Banks, sailors talked of Providence, Farquhar and mysterious, uninhabited Aldabra.
I determined to visit as many of the 115 islands as possible. I wanted to discover what each was like, and what it was about the country that kept drawing me back. Over 24 years, through a combination of determination and serendipity, I have returned twice that many times. For a while I lived there. Seychelles holds the most vivid memories of my life.
MAHÉ IS THE largest island, not quite 20 miles long and five at its widest point. Along with nearby Praslin and La Digue, it's home to over 90% of the population—though Victoria, with its single set of traffic lights, has something of a Toytown feel. The capital sits in the shadow of the Trois Frères, granite peaks covered with dense forest, a sharp-edged, prickly place thick with humus underfoot. Giant millipedes as fat as Cumberland sausages crawl through the leaf litter. The air is heavy with the scent of rich decay, and pitcher plants wait for insects to crawl into their sticky maw. Cinnamon trees and vanilla vines escaped from ancient plantations survive, away from human interference. Mahé's luxuriant interior remains a secret, accessible only to the adventurous few who brave the 90% humidity and the sloping, slippery terrain. I was once lost up there, with a local pilot who claimed he could navigate among the trees by compass. After nine hours we found our way back, scratched to pieces, dehydrated and munched by mosquitoes.
As years passed my tally of islands grew, and each one taught me a little more about the country—and about myself. Inextricably linked to my emotional life, the visits gave me adventures and exotic memories. I considered spare money not spent on a ticket to Seychelles wasted. I returned to dive and, for about a year, combined an obsession with the liquid world with a love affair with a diving instructor. It was a relationship built upon getting close to fish. Underwater, I believed we were united in spirit, and I barely noticed our total failure to communicate above water.
Each island had its own character, its own story: Aride with its rocky shores, where elegant red-tailed tropic birds and scythe-winged frigate birds breed; the crumbling mausoleum of a planter family on Silhouette; half a million mobster sooty terns on Bird. Four hundred and fifty miles south of Mahé, on Farquhar, home to a few workers harvesting copra, bleached turtle bones were laid out like a jigsaw in the sand. At sunset on Frégate, flying foxes glided above the forest canopy in search of ripening mangoes. On Curieuse (once a leper colony), I heard the grunting love lament of male giant tortoises as they hauled their heavy-toed limbs aloft to mount the fortress of their mates. I ate fresh wahoo minutes after it thudded onto the bouncing deck of a wooden schooner in a rolling sea. I gorged on crisps made from breadfruit and even, ashamedly, tasted fruit-bat curry.
Photograph Samantha Owen