A tale of two islands

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 strange feeling, walking between islands

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.

Coconutters

As with so many in the education sector, suddenly I find that the end of August has crept up on me! Every year! So I chastise myself for both putting off so many of the tasks that had been set aside for the Summer (technically Winter here but, even after 5 years in the far South, August will always be Summer in my head) and also for paying so little attention to our record of our time here (and the adoring blog fans, of course). With both of us being around all day, little J has been spoilt for attention, adventures and stories (though it always makes us sad to think that our earliest memories are generally formed around 4 so everything that has passed will only appear in photo/blog form in later life). All the more reason to keep working on this then B!
We haven’t yet left Mahé (the largest and most populous island in the Seychelles archipelago), so we had intended to make some trips to the nearby Praslin and La Digue islands, but government travel advice (the smaller islands’ Covid cases are dropping so necessary travel only please) and cost have kept us Mahé-side for now. Not that we’re complaining. This island is quite interesting! The Seychelles are highly unusual granitic islands with a dark and interesting history that continues to impact on the experience here today. With over 70% of the island still primary rainforest, even a short drive around the twisting mountain roads can be quite an experience. C. 25% of the island is made up of the National Park, whose only permanent residence appears to be that of the President (which probably doesn’t send a great environmental message but I suspect that was a decision made some time ago). As outdoorsy types, you can be assured that we have made good use of both the island’s well-marked hiking trails (including our first forays into the lengthy and multi-pronged Mare au Cochon trail through the National Park) as well as exploring some of the lesser-known outdoor opportunities, such as joining our good friends for a scramble up a boulder-filled river to a small pool for a cooling dip.

This month is always a busy one with personal celebrations aplenty. H’s Birthday provided a nice excuse for us to enlist the services of our Seychellois neighbour Carl, who kindly offered to show us the coal-free BBQing method that I suspect we won’t be replicating ourselves elsewhere (more’s the pity, as the results were widely appreciated):

The BBQ is just one example of the many new things we’ve been learning about our surroundings and, I must admit, much of it is food related. I think sometimes it takes moving somewhere to realise just how much of our culture is linked to what we eat. We’ve started experimenting with some of the many, many local fish availabl, even being brave enough to buy some whole fish from the Victoria market in bulk, which works out very cheap (even after you’ve paid one of the stalls to clean it all up for you, and play around with some new recipes):

It’s not just the oceanic produce that defines the island cuisine, of course. The tropics have long been known for their fruitfulness, in every sense of the word.

There have been almost weekly battles over who gets to finish the red passion fruit (did you know there were red ones by the way?): will it be little J, who has the advantage of being adorable and desperately wants to eat it, or H, who is Irish and wants it to take her gin and tonic to the next level? It’s often too close to call! The quality and variety of the fruit here will, I’m sure, prompt a post of their own. The soursops, for example, have seen tears being shed over them not being ripe enough to eat immediately (and it’s not always little J on that front). Then, of course, there’s the humble coconut…

Little J’s coconut obsession stretches beyond the coco-rouge that grow in our garden (the orange ones that each contain about 400ml of sweet water but little or none of the white flesh) to the green coconuts (the classic brown furry coconut that you and I might associate most with a Bounty bar). The green coconuts are often dropping onto the beaches here or floating by in the sea so J has had ample opportunity to build up small collections at every opportunity. They’re VERY solid (ALWAYS check what’s above you when choosing beach spots) and can’t simply be cracked on the step like our home-grown goodies. I’ve yet to purchase the all-important machete but some help and advice from a kind local gardener has given us the knack for turning J’s scavenging into a useful addition to the larder. We had a go at making our own coconut milk from coconuts picked up at the beach, which was something I never thought I’d do but was strangely satisfying. I’ve outlined the process below, mostly because it reminds me how much little J loved joining in every step of the way and is yet another reminder of how lucky we are to provide experiences like this to our child:

First, send a small child to collect your green coconut

Aside from feeding J’s addiction to coconut collecting, we’ve been taking trips elsewhere around the island to push ourselves a little in terms of parenting as well as to see some more of this rock we are lucky enough to inhabit. We planned an all-day trip to the beach of Port Launay in the South but, on arrival, decided to keep driving to a place called Cap Ternay (part of the Marine Park). Cap Ternay is a slim beach, rarely visited and utterly beautiful. The isolation and ruins of what turned out to be a Youth Village from the one-party government’s National Youth Service (more on that story later; I’m not yet ready to tackle the history) make it a little spooky but somehow add to this hidden gem:

We’ll definitely be returning to the South more as the best and most interesting beaches seem to be down that way. Not that the North (our end) is without its attractions! We didn’t realise how close we were to the local beauty spot of the Machabie rockpool, for example:

There’s another side to the island that, as residents of a regular district, we don’t really get to see all that much of. The high-end tourism sector here has also given birth to some major and exclusive projects. Eden Island is one of these: a private artificial island accessed only by residents with finger-printed entry and personal golf-buggies for transport. It is inevitably divisive in the attitudes towards it as it is connected to the main road by a bridge but is also clearly exclusive in more than one sense of the word. The private jetties for each house hint at the clientele there. It’s truly incredible to think the entire, quite expansive, development is on land claimed from the sea. I might not admire the sentiment, but I admire the ambition and vision of the developers on that front. We were able to visit the island recently and found not only a new place to visit but some new experiences too, including seeing our first turtle from a jetty. They are very common here but have so far eluded us, becoming a running joke as they seem to appear by friends after we’ve stepped foot out of the water on numerous occasions; so far the best theory is we’ve accidentally bought turtle-repellant sun cream.

It’s always nice to see new things and different elements of any society. I do feel that there’s more than financial reasons keeping us from living in a place like Eden Island, but the luxury and appeal for some can’t be denied there. They’ve done a great job on the place.

As it turned out, H’s Birthday was the gift that kept on giving throughout the month as kind family members bought several vouchers that proved their worth while we had some time. One saw us pushing our night-time routine to try an evening meal out for only the second time ever, possibly. La Scala restaurant is not too far from us and serves excellent Italian and Creol cuisine. Tempting as the fruit bat curry was, we opted for safer options and weren’t disappointed. It’s not something we do often but J especially enjoyed it (mostly because of the ample supply of bread rolls rather than the fine dining) so perhaps we need to indulge more.

The other experience coming from other people’s generosity was one well-suited to H’s annoyingly capable creative side: Roots Seychelles is a studio running workshops creating different products and H took her artistic flair up there for the first of several opportunities to impress, starting with a leaf-stamped pareo using the flora to hand:

Watch this space to see what else she comes up with. No doubt it’ll be incredible, as it always bloody is.

Between all of this, of course, the vast majority of our days are spent on the usual daily/weekly chores (which in themselves can be quite novel here) and being led by little J’s daily routine which, here, includes many, many hours of this kind of thing so all in all life is good:

Yes, I borrowed a 7-year-old girl’s SOT kayak and, no, I am not the correct weight for it.

Closing the loop

Forget Branson and Bezos: someone else has been busy taking a high-powered machine into new territory! Granted, the vehicle in question hasn’t quite been as sexily named as ‘Blue Origin’ but, yes, we’ve had the Daihatsu Charade on the road again with a full tank and all 989cc of engine just rearing to go. But first, some updates from life on the island:

Long-time followers of the ‘Pen Going’ sagas will have noticed that updates have been less frequent of late and this is down to a mixture of factors. Partly, it’s been a particularly challenging time work-wise and spare time has been at a premium so adventures and subsequent blog posts have been limited. Partly, it’s been a result of our home internet struggling to upload any photos. Partly, it’s been linked to the fact that I (B) rarely take my DSLR out with us (prompting me to have fewer photos to publish). This, in turn, is a result of almost every outing we take involving a trip to a beach and just not suiting a DSLR accompaniment. This hints at a lack of preparedness for our time here, yes, but is also noteworthy as a marked change in our habits. Moving countries has a direct impact on the ways in which you spend your time. Where once I occupied my time with squash, walks, photography, wildlife, off-road driving, writing and such alike, I’m now more likely to be found snorkelling, digging holes in sand (mostly for J’s sake, a little for mine) and generally enjoying the warmth. H has experienced similar changes and it’s not altogether attributed to our status as parents now. So expect fewer posts and fewer photos than perhaps there once were. That is unless I choose to finally make the move to a smartphone; I always said a time would come when I would have to do so and life in Seychelles is, ironically, proving quite difficult without one. I say ironically as islands so far into oceans aren’t know for their connectivity yet everything here runs on WhatsApp and Facebook. Small communities make it easier to corner a large percentage of the population and so my attempts to escape the trappings of busy Western lifestyles have evidently backfired. I’m not there yet, however, and I’m glad of that at times.
You see, a few days ago we received a text to warn us that the internet was going to be down for maintenance for a period of at least 12 hours. Not our internet, you understand, but the internet; the country’s internet cable was getting some work and the nation would be without internet access for an unspecified amount of time. It caused me to wonder what kind of havoc, protests and economic ruin such an event might produce in other countries and yet here no-one really batted an eyelid. It came and went. It was heart-warming to know that we have our child growing up in such a society. Of course, if latest security analyses are correct, Western powers may one day have to find out how they might cope when such an occurrence strikes and I hope that everyone can remain as calm as our recent outage.

While life without the internet might not be anything new for those of us well-practised in remote island life, we have had a few novel experiences turn up in the last month or so. As with most of our life now, much if it centres around little J but that’s reaffirming in terms of our decision to uproot and move here. Some of these are quite mundane, others less so. From the former camp, for example, H takes J to the serene Beau Vallon Beach on an almost daily basis. On occasion, local fishing groups turn up and anyone on hand will join in assisting them with dragging their nets in. This has proved to be a fascinating spectator sport for little J. True to the strong FOMO genes inherited from the maternal side, J insists on joining in with the process of gathering the catch into buckets and H has come home with a cheap and very fresh dinner. I can’t say I ever recall experiencing this on the beaches of Southern England but J is already way ahead of us in terms of experiencing things we didn’t until we were in our 30s.


Speaking of J experiencing plenty, H took a trip to the Seychelles Botanical Gardens (established 1901). Not quite up to the standards of Kew in the Victorian Botanical Garden leagues, I hear, but it does have the attraction of a sizeable giant tortoise enclosure where guests can feed the inhabitants. This, of course, led to J promptly getting an index finger nibbled. Contrary to the tortoise’s short-lived snack, J has been dining out regularly on the encounter and has positively beamed at telling this story several times a day in the many weeks since (all this with the very limited vocabulary available but with much signing and onomatopoeia). Once again, we are forced to wonder how many one-year-olds can revel in their many encounters with native giant tortoises (as well as penguins in the previous move). See, way ahead of us on the life-experience front.

Since our last post, we’ve made countless beach trips but often to the usual spots. I shouldn’t write it like that, I guess, as it makes it seem like they’re not worth mentioning but I know that these stunning locations shouldn’t be classed as commonplace (even for the blog). I guess I just always think that we should be writing about new things here and perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves that we’re very fortunate to call these beaches our regular haunts (reflecting, not bragging, I assure you).


We returned to the majestic Anse Major with some friends but for a morning picnic this time rather than an all-day affair, which was fantastic as a trip in itself and also great to remind us that we can at the beach within 45 minutes of leaving our front door (including the beautiful couple of kilometres of walk-in).

We’ve come to realise that hiking here is much more pleasant with somewhere to dip or swim at the end. The temperature can be quite restrictive (4 months in and we’ve yet to break out an item of long-sleeved clothing, even at night) but it’s nothing a nice dip in the ocean won’t fix. Not far from where I grew up there was a whole hospital devoted to sea-bathing as a medical treatment. The approach to medicine might have belonged to the Victorian era, but anyone who lives on the coast will testify to the good feeling that accompanies a nice dip (perhaps with limits in terms of latitudes, I could add).
Our most recent big outing was to a beach called Baie Lazaire in the far South of the island and we were pleased of the distance from our Northern home for two reasons. Firstly, it allowed us the opportunity to complete the full loop of the island (there’s basically one road around the island and the bottom section was missing from our trips so far). Secondly, it made the trip much more possible as we knew J would sleep in the car for the hour drive back, thus allowing us to relax on the beach without worrying about the night’s sleep ahead. We were so engrossed in seeing this new, slightly different side of the island that we forgot to take any good photos and instead just enjoyed a beautiful drive through the rainforest and down the coastline, stopping briefly at our new favourite shop which was, in fact, less of a shop and more the field where the products were all being grown capped at the end by line of tables for selling the wares. The cheap passionfruit supply, among other things, will come in handy on future trips as J goes through quite a few each week if given half the chance. Apologies for the lack of photos. I guess we’ll have to return. Oh damn. We did get this one from the drive, so you get a tasty teaser of the quality of the views:

For now, we’re looking forward to spending a few weeks resting up, perhaps doing the much-recommended open water diving course here and getting to know our surroundings a little more. No doubt H and J will continue to work on the garden, which seems to not need too much care; things here just seem to go in the ground and grow so we’ve got pumpkins, aubergines, papaya, tomatoes, peppers, onions and various other things appearing around the garden. We also have a moringa tree out front which is apparently one of these super-foods so we must get to cooking with that more often. Our culinary habits, like so man habits, are changing as a direct result of our time here (new foods combined with the cost or availability of some things forces you to adapt) and we’re quite OK with the results so far. More on that story later.

We’ll try to keep you posted with what we get up to, but if it’s quiet then just assume we’re happy on a beach in the sun watching the tides come and go and little J become less and less little with frightening speed. Perhaps accompanied by this recent and very welcome discovery:

National Day

Today, 29th June, is a Public Holiday here in Seychelles (they don’t use the term ‘bank holiday’ here, as I found out by using it and observing the reaction). It marks the day that Seychelles achieved independence (from Britain) in 1976. We’re told it’s usually quite a big deal but you all know why celebrations are called off this year.
As a Brit and a historian, I find that occasions like this are a little…conflicted…to celebrate anyway. It’s not guilt, as such, as I obviously wasn’t old enough to play a part in Britain’s colonial past, but there’s certainly an awkwardness that goes alongside knowing that your own country’s suppression is something that others are celebrating the end of. Unfortunately, for us Brits, there aren’t too many countries that we can travel to without people having experience of our nation’s past indiscretions so a little awkwardness is the least we can put up with.

Independence, it seemed, was not to be the end of the country’s political woes: the next year, the country’s first President (the late Sir James Mancham, whom H coincidentally met in Ireland a few times over the years) was ousted in a coup d’etat and replaced by his Prime Minister (whose successors have held power right up until an election late last year).

We arrive in the country, then, at a pivotal time where new-found freedoms are being explored, long-hidden opinions are being expressed and questions are finally being asked about some of the conduct of the one-party state that has defined so much of the independent Seychelles. The stories of the coup (and the failed counter-coup) are, again, issues that require much more exploration another time (you can spot future blog posts lining up now).
For now: congratulations on your independence, Seychelles. This Brit is pleased that you hold no grudges.

Mountain(r)eering Part II

Mountainreering, verb, to raise a child in the ways of the outdoors. Possibly made up by Pen Going East.

As our previous few escapades had shown us that little J was keen to be thrown into a carrier and hauled to the heights of the island for his “wow” views, we took the opportunity of half-term to attempt some all-day trips as well as some shorter ones. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about: taking opportunities.

We began with a popular hiking route called Copolia, which is a well-marked, short but sharp hike up to a viewpoint on a granite hilltop. There is a small charge for tourists to enter the trail, but we’re not tourists so we can hop in for free. I dislike the principle of paying for access to natural areas, but the tourism industry here has been obliterated and they provide toilets, regular shelters and some informative signage so I guess that’s how the government justify it. It’s a popular hike for a reason: easy enough to do in a short time and a rewarding vista at the summit.

Buoyed by our ability to look like semi-competent residents, walkers and parents, we had our eyes on a whole-day trip to the popular Anse Major (a beach that requires a short hike in or water-taxi), but we were unsure whether little J would take a nap in the heat and light of the day. Unwilling to risk throwing days’ worth of routine (and subsequent sleep) away without a back-up plan of getting the wee one to rest, we decided to try a warm-up day-trip. One with the option of a back-up plan that we could rely on: the car-nap for the hour drive home. We’d had the recommendation of a beach in the South of the island by the name of Anse Forbans so we set off with a beach shelter, a day’s worth of food and the usual beach paraphernalia (those historically-accurate castles won’t build themselves, after all).

Evidently, we had erred in reading the tourist hiking guides for Anse Major, some of which proclaimed the walk to be a lengthy undertaking. Perhaps we’re not as obese as some of the nationalities that these reviews were aimed at, but the walk in was nothing but a 35 minute relatively flat beauty stroll. Running slightly raised along the granite coast, the hike (walk) is well-marked, enjoyable and easy, but still adds a little novelty to getting to the beach. In usual tourism seasons, we were informed that there were food facilities there, but we were glad to have brought enough food and water to last us the day as I didn’t see anywhere to get them if we hadn’t. We did get a glimpse of some of the target of the exaggerated walking guides as a middle-aged Indian couple whooped and high-fived their way onto the beach, only to be dismayed as their enquiries revealed that little J hadn’t got the water-taxi in, as they had hoped, but had been carried in (along with our shelter and other supplies). This might have been disappointing enough for them, but we left to return to the car shortly before they boarded the water-taxi, only to bump into them in the Boat House pub that we had decided to hit to finish off such a perfect day out. In their defence, once we had decided that we’d hit the pub if we had time, H was true to her Irish roots and double-timed it back to the car.

As we’re parents now (and I’ve already stepped away from education once, so I’m trying to avoid burning out), I’ve been trying to work more on my work-life balance. With that in mind, we squeezed one last outing in on the Sunday, before Sundays returned to being occupied by work (or guilt). We’d heard Morne Blanc was a steep one, but we’d also heard it was a little different to some of the other hikes here as its higher altitudes (still only at 517m) alter the rainforest to a mist forest ecology. Luckily, the start of the hike begins high, so it’s another short but sharp hit, then views galore. It gave us some new experiences: the nauseous smell of the (edible but pungent) jack fruits that had fallen onto the trail quickly explained their infamy. Also, the native snail here wiggles its shell back and forth if touched, which provides children and adults alike with several minutes’ worth of entertainment.

Not to be included in the hiking listings, but still worthy of mention were two other visits that we undertook that same eventful week. With my own fond experience in the sector, I’m always keen to work with local Museums so we had one of what I’m sure will be many family Museum trips, where we learnt about the Seychelles’ role in the slave trade. It’s one that I will write up when I feel more fully informed and able to tell the story in the depth that it deserves.

What it did do, however, was prompted us to take a drive out to Venn’s Town. This small settlement was established by a Church organisation to give freed children somewhere to live, learn and work. The recent tragic news of the Church’s particular flavour of education will be very raw for the people of Canada right now, so we guess that the reality on the ground at Venn’s Town wasn’t nearly as harmonious as their aims suggest, but the site itself remains a fascinating and beautiful setting today. It was, apparently, here that Queen Elizabeth had the issue of Seychelles independence raised in the most British of fashions: over a cup of tea. I’m sure there was more to it than that, but the story’s a good one and people here like to tell it.

He’s only 4, bless him. Years ahead of him (possibly hundreds).

And, yes, that’s a pineapple growing in their garden. As they do.