Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 November 2019

Paradise found: incredible and rare encounters to enjoy in the Seychelles

Discover ancient creatures, rare plants and giant seeds

Granite rocks and untouched bays make Praslin Island one of the world's most coveted beach destinations. Courtesy Constance Lemuria
Granite rocks and untouched bays make Praslin Island one of the world's most coveted beach destinations. Courtesy Constance Lemuria

The noise is deafening. As the propellers spin and the pilots ready the plane for take-off, I lament my decision not to bring noise-cancelling headphones on this trip. The drone from the tiny 16-seater plane grows louder as we begin to move along the runway. A few seconds later, we are soaring high above Seychelles’s lush mountainscapes.

Whether the noise dissipates or whether I am simply too enthralled by the scene below to notice anymore, I’m not quite sure, but a few minutes into the short flight to Praslin Island, I am completely engrossed in the grandeur below. As the plane soars over glassy waters, I watch the surface break every so often over the swell of an emerald-tinged island. The sun glints off the rippling shallows and waves crash against yellow bays, turning white as snow before rushing up coastlines and disappearing again beneath palm-fringed perimeters.

In the distance is the second ­largest island in the Seychelles archipelago. Flying over a cluster of thatched roofs, the pilots expertly navigate through the peaks and angles of Praslin’s tree-strewn landscape and we land a few moments later.

From above, picture-perfect Constance Ephelia is an idyllic slice of nature. 
From above, picture-perfect Constance Ephelia is an idyllic slice of nature. 

We head to Constance Lemuria, the spot we will call home for the next few days. Set on 101 hectares of land, the five-star resort has nature at its heart. Home to idyllic beaches, including one of the most picturesque in the country, Anse Georgette, it is a little slice of natural paradise.

I set out to explore and, wandering among the mammoth granite rocks strewn across the resort, it’s difficult not to feel as though I’m on the set of a Jurassic Park movie. I’m not surprised when I find out that a few million years ago, prehistoric creatures were thought to inhabit this area. Today, it is home to some of those dinosaurs’ descendants.

Aldabra giant tortoises are endemic to the Seychelles and, at Constance Lemuria, they roam freely, stopping to nap in the shade of a palm tree or meandering ever so slowly along leaf-strewn riverbanks. “The tortoises are special,” Markus Ultsch-­Unrath, head of health, safety and environment project manager at Constance Hotels & Resorts, says. “They are only found in the Seychelles and people say they originally came from the Aldabra atoll.”

Aldabra is the biodiversity jewel in the Seychelles’ gleaming crown. Rivalling the Galapagos Islands in ecological importance, it is not only where the giant tortoises came from, it’s also home to manta rays, nurse sharks, lemon sharks, spinner dolphins and dugongs, among others.

“Even before the islands were populated, there were tortoises here,” says Ultsch-Unrath. What this means is that no one ­really knows how old some of the animals are. What we do know is that there are an estimated 100,000 left in the world. On Praslin, Leonardo is the eldest, at more than 100 years old and, at the hotel’s sister resort, Constance Ephelia on Mahe Island, that title goes to Dusty, who was born in 1909.

As I watch the tortoises walk idly across the grass, I can’t help but think that the chilled-out island life of the Seychelles seems like a good fit for these creatures. “Tortoises take life very easy,” Ultsch-Unrath adds.

Making my way across the resort, I arrive at a thatched eco-hut a few metres from one of the resort’s beachfronts. There, Robert Matombe, resident turtle manager, tells me about the resort’s other VIPs. “Every season, we have a lot of sea turtles coming to our beach to nest,” he says. “We have hawksbill and green turtles and the nesting period runs for about five months.”

Robert Matombe, turtle manager, is in charge of making sure the grounds at Constance Lemuria are primed for turtle nesting. 
Robert Matombe, turtle manager, is in charge of making sure the grounds at Constance Lemuria are primed for turtle nesting. 

During this time, it’s Matombe’s job to ensure there is no light or noise pollution at the bays. He also monitors the turtle nests and helps guide hatchlings into the ocean. It’s no small job, given that every season one female hawksbill turtle lays up to 200 eggs at a time. But he’s not complaining. Compared to the turtles, he has it easy.

“It’s tough work,” he explains. “After mating, the female comes ashore to dig a hole about 50 centimetres deep in the sand. She puts about 200 of the eggs in there and uses her flippers to carefully camouflage the spot.

“Most of the eggs will hatch, but how many hatchlings will make it to the ocean? And then how many will make it to maturity?”

Strolling through the valley is much like walking through something from a fairy tale.

Even with help from the Constance Lemuria team, only 10 turtles on average will make it to maturity, which they reach at about 30 years old. “It’s because they’re surrounded by enemies,” says Matombe. “As well as predators, they’ve got human threats such as fishing nets, fishing lines, plastic pollution and matchsticks. Plastic bags are the worst because they look like jellyfish, which is a sea turtle’s favourite food.”

Vowing to do more to eradicate plastic bags from my life, I head off to discover another fascinating facet of life on Praslin, in the island’s Unesco World Heritage site, the Vallee de Mai National Park. This area is one of only two spots on the planet where the coco de mer plant grows. Known for the voluptuous shape of its seeds, which are the largest in the plant kingdom, the coco de mer is a protected species with a remarkable nut.

Amid hundreds of trees, huge fronds shield me from the tropical rain as tour guide Angela prepares to explain more about the coco de mer. As we stop where a seed has ripened, at her suggestion, I pick it up – and it takes all of my strength to do so. ­Apparently, the seeds can weigh up to a 32 kilograms each.

This is Leonard, the oldest Giant Tortoise on Praslin Island. Hayley Skirka / The National
This is Leonard, the oldest Giant Tortoise on Praslin Island. Hayley Skirka / The National

Strolling through the valley is much like walking through something from a fairy tale. As the light streams through shades of green, thick trunks, huge stems and spreading fronds bluntly obstruct my view.

Angela regales me with legends about the coco de mer. She says that some people believed it grew beneath the waves of the ocean; others thought its seeds were so huge because they were formerly dispersed by dinosaurs. One man, upon seeing the shape of the nut and the nearby four connecting rivers, proclaimed that Praslin must be the Garden of Eden.

True or not, on this island kingdom where rare creatures have a home and the seeds are worthy of giants, Praslin is definitely a paradise found.

Updated: October 19, 2019 04:07 PM

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