In 1962, the Reuters journalist Brendan Grimshaw was dropped off in the Seychelles with a boat arranged to collect him in a month’s time. He had travelled widely across Africa but was captivated by the Seychelles, in particular. His month was spent as most people would spend a month here, but with one exception: alongside his regular sightseeing, Grimshaw found himself searching for an island to call his own.
After dinner with the owner, at around 4 minutes to midnight on the last night of his trip, Grimshaw shook hands and purchased a tiny, uninhabitable island just off Mahé for just £8,000. At 0.89 square kms and rising to just 201ft, the island had passed through successive owners who failed to take much notice of its potential. It had been left largely devoid of the rich plant life that made up the rest of the archipelago and did not make much of an impression on most people. Grimshaw evidently wasn’t ‘most people’ and his eccentric decision was to see Moyenne Island transformed over the next 50 years.
Rowing the 2.8 miles back to Mahé for barrels of drinking water, Grimshaw soon earned himself the moniker of the Seychelles Crusoe. Grimshaw and one other man (his Seychellois ‘Man Friday’ Rene Antoine Lafortune) battled the odds to not only survive on the island but to transform it. Together, they planted over 16,000 trees, brought Aldabra giant tortoises to the island and bred them there and generally took care of the ecological well-being of their little corner of paradise. The hard work paid off and, after much campaigning, Moyenne Island became a National Park in its own right; the smallest in the world. The tree-planting attracted numerous species and some citations give Moyenne as having more species per sq. km than anywhere else on Earth. Legend has it that a visiting Saudi prince (some of whom own some significantly outlandish properties here), once offered Grimshaw a blank cheque for his island and he refused to sell, stating that his work had been for the island not money. Grimshaw died in 2012, leaving his island to the people of the Seychelles and it remains a National Park open for visitors. Well, with a story like that, how could we resist?
We joined some friends for our first glass-bottom boat ride out to Moyenne, stopping in the St. Anne Marine Park for a spot of snorkelling and fish feeding before continuing our journey to lunch at the tiny Jolly Roger restaurant that gives the island the turnover it needs to be maintained (two unmarked graves on the island have naturally been dubbed pirate graves, if you were wondering about the name).
Once again, we took a chance on J having a beach-tent nap and the gamble paid off, which provided H the opportunity to explore the island more and B to construct a quick Motte and Bailey to keep everyone happy. We’re not sure how much longer we’ll get away with them, as J is growing fast and becoming less and less easy to persuade into sleep so it may well be our last energetic day-trip.
We followed our time on the idyllic Moyenne with a zip around the back of its close neighbour, Round Island (a swanky 5* hotel, of course), to an interesting sand bar where the ludicrously flat-bottomed boat sat tight for us to get out and wander around in the middle of the bay. We took a walk along the bar to another nearby island, Long island (a kite-surfing favourite launch) to inspect the scant remains of a former prison (which, I imagine, is quite hard to use as a punishment on an island like that) and an absolutely huge concrete structure that was, apparently, the start of yet another 5* hotel complex that turned out to be a Czech money-laundering operation that was busted half-way through, leaving the island scarred with the structure but providing local youths with a great adventuring spot.
A swift drink at the Marine Charter bar on return saw the perfect end to an altogether brilliant day-trip and one that, no doubt, we’ll be repeating. Worth every rupee!
Contrast Moyenne, then, with the story of Silhouette Island. Our wedding anniversary and the imminent end of the school holidays saw us looking to treat ourselves to a few days away. We’d hoped to visit Praslin or La Digue (the next most populous islands after Mahé) but government requests for people to stay away saw us being good little citizens. La Digue, evidently, traditionally hosts some kind of Catholic celebration that attracts large numbers around the end of August which had the Ministry of Health expecting spikes.
Silhouette, on the other hand, was still an option. The third largest of the Seychelles, it lies 20km from Mahé and was once host to a significant plantation and the community that accompanies this. For over a hundred years, it was owned by the Dauban family (one of whom was nicknamed ‘the Rothschild of the Indian Ocean’ for his vast wealth, later squandered). It has a similarly strong ecological significance to Moyenne but a very different recent history. In 1983, it was bought by the Seychelles government and the La Briz hotel was built there, later taken over and run by the Hilton chain (as it remains today). More at home in a Vango tent than a Hilton hotel, this was going to be a different type of mini-break to anything else we’ve had before, but it was a special occasion and the options were few. So we got on the boat and headed across (thanks, we’ll admit, to a special rate for local residents).
I admit that I wanted to dislike it a little bit, I expected the resort to be crowded (they were busy in terms of bookings), characterless and utterly out of place with the environment but the government ownership of the island is clearly an influential partnership. It was simply breathtaking. The island, of course, is stunningly beautiful and, while we didn’t get a chance to explore much of it (ALWAYS make sure the baby-carrier is packed!), the natural beauty of it would be hard for anything to hide. The staff, guest lodges (not rooms), food and amenities were great and it never felt busy or faceless. We couldn’t bear to leave so much that we even extended our stay by an extra night.
The original owners’ lodge, I was pleased to see, has been restored and houses a small museum which provided a better idea of the island’s fate. Before the resort, however, you pass through some of the old buildings from former residents. The old school is still there, but all of the children have been moved to Mahé and the island’s population is, in essence, now made up of Hilton employees. Just as photos from the schools in places like Pripyat hit home, an abandoned school really comes to symbolise a lack of future generations; a community’s death. I found the difference to our visit to Moyenne just a few days before to be stark. One island owner’s legacy thriving thanks to its ecological merit, another island owner whose legacy was to be discontinued; its community faded away and replaced by an exclusive 5* hotel resort. They’ve done a good job of it, Hilton, and it really is a gem of a place to enjoy. Moyenne just makes us all see what could be, so Grimshaw’s legacy is perhaps much larger than just his little island.