The Seychelles – Paradise on the Cheap
“Get Off!” shouts the driver of the number Nine Victoria bus. The words somehow pierce through the passengers’ linguistic hash of French, Swahili and odd bits of Hindi and English. They have the desired result. A handsome, chocolate-hued woman sways gracefully down the aisle, a chubby baby on her hip and exits. The bus cranks up again until the next “Get Off”, a quarter mile up the switch backed road.
Sweetie and I boarded the ancient vehicle a half hour ago back in Victoria, the Seychelles capital. Fare: one U.S. dollar. I’ve brought my snorkeling mask and tube halfway around the world for this. The bus is bound for the Port Launay National Marine Park, where I keenly anticipate indulging my passion for skin diving on coral reefs.
The Seychelles Islands, just south of the equator in the mid-Indian Ocean, are enchanting from the traveler’s first view of the picturesque harbor, over which loom mysterious granite cliffs. Within the harbor lie anchored several glamorous-looking international yachts and a couple of small cruise ships, one of which we’ve debarked from (we’ve been lucky and had a great Indian Ocean cruise as a freebie, in return for my giving several lectures, on the sea days, as a historian).
The granite outcrops everywhere are a puzzle. Somehow, 200 hundred million years ago the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland, urged by its restless underlying tectonic plates, began to break up and drift away to the east and north. The bulk of the huge continental mass of rock, mostly granite, wound up as India (finally stopping when it crashed into the Himalayas) or Australia. However, a few small remnants dragged their feet and lodged in the Indian Ocean, as Madagascar and the Seychelles Islands. The proof is in the identical, radioactively dated rocks and terrestrial fossils found at all these places.
The bus wheezes up the steep mountainside and begins to emit white steam from the radiator. The driver stops, hops out and inspects. From an open window a passenger tosses out a water bottle, from which the driver injects the contents into the radiator. We begin again and soon a serendipitous tiny cascade of water looms up on the right side of the road. Another stop, this time longer, while the driver offers several bottles-full to the thirsty radiator. We finally reach the summit.
As the bus descends, its brakes complaining, the passengers emerge, one by one, or women with small children. Sometimes the stop is alongside a trim, tidy small cottage, surrounded by brilliant bougainvilleas and hibiscus. Another time it’s a ramshackle dump. Broad-leaved banana trees are ubiquitous, though.
By the time we reach the Port Launay National Marine park terminus, we’re the only passengers left. We exit, first determining the schedule back to Victoria. We learn that there’s an alternate route by which to return from the same place, leaving at three. This gives us about five hours at the park, just about right.
We stroll down the hundred yards to the entrance, really little more than a path, and proceed though a narrow fringe of trees to emerge onto a deserted beach, strewn with erratic granite outcrops along a fifty yard-wide strip of fine white pulverized coral sand. We park our backpacks against a big boulder in the shade of a delicate-leaved casuarinas tree and I rip out my simple gear. I strip to my bathing trunks and head for the water while Sweetie settles down with a book.
The water deepens and is somewhere around tepid, i.e., producing no shock to the winter-bleached skin. I quickly glide out and start to make my way along the edges of the reef. More and more fishes come into view: inquisitive squadrons of little zebras and sergeant major fish, purple and pink wrasses busily nibbling at the coral, several big groupers, half circle tailed jacks, brilliant little blue and gold royal grammas and a dozen other species. There’s even a shy spiny lobster peering out at me from behind his feeler stalks, hidden in a rock crevice. An hour passes seamlessly. Time for lunch. Reluctantly I emerge and head for the towels. Sweetie’s already had her share of the purloined rolls and fruit from the ship’s lavish buffet breakfast, and I wolf down mine, with some bottled water. Feels about right, considering the way we’ve been overfed like geese headed for foie gras, for a week.
Then Sweetie, normally not much of a swimmer, tries out the Indian Ocean, emerging after a quick dip, ecstatic about the water. After a few moments for digestion I can’t resist another go at the water. Another hour blissfully spent exploring the reef — only later do I regretfully realize I should have put on more SPF cream or maybe even worn a shirt; the UV rays in these latitudes can be brutal. I get a red head and back, but not dangerously so. Then it’s time to leave, to catch the three o’clock bus.
The ride back to town is just as interesting as the first one had been, this time from a more human perspective. Hundreds of schoolchildren surge on and off the bus, stretching the return ride to two hours, newly twice as long as the earlier bus trip. Some are pink and white-bloused grade school size, many responding to Sweetie’s friendly smiles with shy smiles of their own. Others are tall slender high school kids dressed in several hues of brown, green, and red shorts and skirts for boys and girls. Many are striking-looking, exhibiting the ethnic mix that makes up the bulk of the Islands’ population: Africans (or the Arab-African Swahili mix), European, and Indian. They’re generally well behaved, considerably less exuberant than typical American counterparts. The bus trundles along close to the shore, sometimes spurting up to speeds that Sweetie finds scary.
The kids finally empty out as we near the outskirts of Victoria. Neighborhoods, again lushly vegetative, come and go, lots of people about their business now at this late afternoon hour. Tiny entrepreneurial enterprises squat in nearly every block.
We make it back to the terminal, thence to catch the shuttle to the cruise ship. We’re silent, both savoring the day so vastly rewarding and memorable. I’d say we more than got our two bucks worth.