20 July 2004 | Seychelles
"When I forget how talented God is, I look to the sea".
The first thing that impressed me about the Seychelles isn't the high cliffs surrounding the anchorage in Port Victoria as promised, but the luscious roundness, the easy movements and the curvaceousness of the Seychellois woman. After being in Asia for the past eighteen months seeing a woman who doesn't appear prepubescent stands out as a symbol of real womanhood. I guess I'm a woman who appreciates the realness of the full female form after all.
It's simply refreshing and possibly quite understandable given the topography and the vibrant history of the Seychelles that the people here look and act the way they do.
The roundness of the granite coastline, the luscious overhanging jungle, the high rugged often mist shrouded hills, the easy movements of the sea birds, and the curvaceousness of the waves as they roar into the picturesque rocky outcrops...so strong yet stunningly beautiful.
Of course the physical shape of the local people here is more directly a result of Seychelles history. The islands were uninhabited until 1742 when the French arrived and claimed the Seychelles, named after the French King's finance minister, Sechelles, as their own and it wasn't until 1770 that the first seven French settlers arrived with 123 slaves. Shortly after, the British decided the small French contingent on the Seychelles would be easy pickings so attacked, but the French simply conceded by lowering their flag. The Brit's stupidly stayed only a few days, so the French continued to fly the French flag in their absence only to lower it when a British ship entered port. It wasn't until the end of the Napoleonic wars that the Seychelles became a dependency of Britain, still ruled by the clever French Governor.
The Seychelles was also a convenient hang out for pirates who plundered the coast of Africa, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and tormented lone ships in the Indian Ocean. Pirate legend has many a loaded treasure chest buried on the coast or sunken deep in the rugged bays and coves of the outlying islands. So great where these tales and so many the treasure hunter that the Seychellois Government had to move to make digging for treasure illegal. Even our cruising guide advises us, should we find treasure 'we'd be well advised to remain silent', advise we unfortunately haven't needed to heed.
Unfortunately, all is not as idyllic as the carefree banter, the easy Rasta music and the beaming smiles would imply. There has been a history of repressive governments and although there are now democratic elections, Seychellois locals are not encouraged to travel outside their own country due the relatively small amount of money they are allowed to export. It is also clearly evident that the government is moving to reduce a dependence on tourism and from the small amount of tourist activity we witnessed has been somewhat successful. Their debateable rationale is to charge the fewer tourists extortionate prices rather than have a country buzzing and full of visitors. The upshot of this is empty hotels and restaurants, very few backpacker facilities and outlandish prices. The 20 minute, 3 mile ferry ride from Praslin to La Digue was $US28 return.
We were warned that it would be an expensive place to visit but that given the right contact, money could be exchanged at more than the government controlled rate. So it was with stealth and 'under cover' intent that we searched out a contact to do the deed with. We managed to exchange our US dollars at nearly double the bank rate, which brought down the cost of things to around New Zealand prices...still a shock after Asian prices. As I mentioned forewarning was the key as we made sure we had enough US$ to get us by and we provisioned cleverly so that only fresh produce would be required. In Port Victoria, the local fish and produce market was always full and colourful and there is a tuna factory, where we managed to buy 48 cans of Tuna in water for the princely sum of 64 rupees in total (about $US6.00), so bargains where available if you know where to look.
The cruising around the Seychelles was stunning. Around Mahe, the main island, many anchorages beckon and delight with some of the most picturesque, you'd almost swear 'landscaped', surroundings we've seen to date. Due to our visit being in the off-season for snorkelling and diving we could not compare the Seychelles with our recent experiences in Chagos or the Maldives. On the few dives we did however, we witnessed teaming fish life that was remarkably friendly, leading to a short but memorable turtle ride and the underwater terrain would be dramatic and totally unique if only we could've had better visibility.
Praslin offers more of the same with some delightful and quite anchorages. One great thing about the Seychelles is its bus service which is extensive, circular and runs on both Mahe and Praslin at the cost of just 3 Seychelles Rupees no matter how far you travel. You just pay another 3SR when you get on the bus again.
La Digue being a much smaller island, with virtually no cars, has a network of good tar sealed bullock tracks and is easy to cycle around. This small island has more than it's fair share of the fabled rock formations, with massive granite rocks carved out by the smashing of waves into impossible shapes, rocks as big as houses perched at equally impossible angles which cast shadows and provide natural frames through which the gleaming white sand and the surging turquoise water lends itself to yet another Kodak moment.
Back on Mahe, we had the invitation to dine with the local sail maker, Maxwell who for us was the embodiment of the spirit of our Seychelles experience. Dinner, he cooked himself, started with a tropical cocktail along with sugared glasses, followed by seafood chowder starter, then a buffet which included along other things three whole fish, tender octopus salad, lentils, salad, chicken Creole. He then entertained us along with his friend on Guitar and Bongos singing songs from the Seychelles and tunes that we recognised. The sail loft made an excellent place to dance the night away and his parting words were " thaaank's.
We had a superb time in the Seychelles and it remain one of the highlights of our trip.
What criusing is all about...
20 March 2004 | The Maldives
"He who lets the sea lull him into a sense of security is in very grave danger"
From the Andaman Islands we sailed to Male' the capital of the Maldives.
The 1400 mile passage was slow and frustrating and was the longest and slowest passage since leaving NZ. The winds were very light for the first 1000 miles and then we had strong headwinds for the last 400. We were sure there was a gigantic fan on top of Male set to blow us away. To top it off our auto pilot died, actually drowned to be more precise. The relentless SE Asian sun had distorted the case on the control unit located in the cockpit and water had eventually found its way in, fortunately we were only without it for the last 4 days, and were able to get a replacement sent into Male' on arrival. The Maldives are made up of some 1200 coral islands/atolls of which only about 200 are inhabited they are on average only five feet above sea level, so our landfall in Male' was rather spectacular. From a few miles out all we could see was a large collection of buildings - many of them multi story - jutting straight up out of the sea.
Most yachts that pass through this area do so only briefly to provision and take on fuel before heading on to the Red Sea or south to Chagos. We decided to linger a while and check out some of the dive sites in the area, we were particularly interested in seeing Manta Rays and the giants of the deep, the Whale Shark as well as some of the interesting wrecks. We planned to travel south through the atolls stopping along the way. Many of the atolls in the central part of the Maldives now boast world class resorts. The economic benefits to the area is evident, particularly in Male' and also the villages on the islands near the resorts. Tourism is now the Maldives biggest income earner and most people who come to these Resorts, do so to dive. It is also the cleanest country we have visited since Singapore, and walking on the footpath was not a death defying feat as in Asia.
One of the major challenges was finding a safe anchorage's each night. The water around these atolls drop to two thousand metres and inside they rarely get much less than 40. Many of our night stops are close in to a reef and so we end up sleeping with one eye open keeping a look out for any change in the weather. Fortunately the weather has been settled and most nights are spent under a canopy of stars.
We buddied up with an Australian couple, James and Barb on their yacht "Bright Wing".
Male is a very ordered and clean city but understanding the hours shops are open is hit and miss. Because this is a devoutly Muslim city the shop hours are determined by the prayer hours. We spent many hours at various cafes waiting for a particular shop to open as it was a 20 minute ferry ride back to where the yacht were anchored, so whilst it was quite frustrating, it was very social. Together with the 'Wingers' we went to the qualifying soccer game between Sri Lanka and the Maldives for the up coming World Cup. It felt like Barb and I were the only females in the crowd and it was a surprise to watch the majority of the men file out of this highly intense game, to pray at the required time. The game was a Maldive victory...not because they won, but because they held out the Sri Lankans to a nil all draw. The Maldivian victory lap would have you thinking they had won by 7 goals!
James was also keen to dive and bought a whole set of dive eqipment in Male'. Barb, not keen to dive, would happily fulfil the most important job of 'boat person' a vital role as nearly all of our dives would be drift dives some with a strong current. We fitted a dive compressor whilst in Thailand so we are self sufficient with air fills. The visibility was usually around 40 metres and the fish life prolific, and at times we could loose each other in the schools of fish. We spent hours trying to identify the multitude of species seen during the dive, many we had never seen before. Unfortunately in 1998 an increase in water temperature caused wide spread coral bleaching in the region and although there are now signs of recovery there is little colour on the reefs. But without a doubt the highlight so far has been the Manta Rays and Whale Sharks. We did a night dive near a resort where the flood lighting from the restaurant located over the reef attracts plankton on which the Manta's feed.
We positioned ourselves on the edge of the reef some distance away and the beam of our spotlight appeared to cause an additional concentration of the plankton as the manta's swam straight towards us with their huge mouths open wide. The first time it happened we hit the deck! We assumed the light had affected their vision and we were going to get hoovered. On successive passes we grew bolder and they would pass within inches of us. After watching them feeding for nearly an hour we returned to LWC but not before collecting a couple of crayfish on the way. They were sitting out in the open, lots of them, a sort of crayfish supermarket really. The next day we dived outside the reef and had been in the water less than five minutes when out of the gloom a appeared the very large grey head of a Whale Shark. It was very broad, almost flatish in form and it appeared to be smiling - but not nearly as much us. It passed very close and we resisted the temptation to reach out and touch it as they are quite timid and don't like physical contact. We estimate it was about 8 -10 meters in length and looked unreal and almost mechanical as it swam past us. The past two weeks of diving has certainly broadened our knowledge and appreciation of this amazing underwater world. We are now in Gan in the southern Maldives and will be heading for Chagos in a few days. We re-crossed the Equator at 2.00 in the morning enroute and were welcomed back to the Southern Hemisphere moments later with a 40 knot squalls and rain. Perhaps a timely reminder of what to prepare for as we make our way west to Africa later in the year.