I arrived on the main Seychelles island of Mahe in the middle of the night, uncomfortable and annoyed. It was just a four and half hour flight from Johannesburg, but I spent most of the day at OR Tambo International Airport as my flight was delayed for several hours. All, however, was forgotten by sunrise, as I woke up to the amazing natural beauty of the island. Seychelles is an archipelago of 115 islands, but the majority of them are home only to the abundant bird life. The islands are clean, the people are friendly and the beaches are sublime. The sand feels like you are walking in a bag of flour. The water is cool and clear and the waves are soft and subtle, even at high tide.
If you manage to pull yourself away from the beach, walking through the streets is relaxed and safe and you are surrounded by lush green-covered mountains. The islands are largely underdeveloped. Coming from the fast-paced, traffic-crazy Johannesburg; it is just what was needed, as you are forced into a state of relaxation.
My trip began in Victoria, the economic hub and capital of Seychelles. Despite being the most populated of all the islands, I found myself completely surrounded by nature. A walk up to the Morne Seychellois National Park is most rewarding. The park is at the top of Mahe’s tallest peak, which at over 900 meters high, provides magnificent views. Back on lower ground, I enjoyed a tour of the famous Takamaka Rum Distillery at La Plaine St Andre followed by a short history lesson on sugarcane juice as they call it, the production process, and the different flavors of island rums.
The next best thing to do in the Seychelles is eat. The food is mostly Creole-style, spicy curries and grills. Some restaurants even serve bat curry—I am told it tastes like chicken. The dish is made in only a few upmarket restaurants as a delicacy. Shark chutney also peaked my interest. I was horrified, until I learnt that sharks are not caught for consumption but are used when they get mistakenly caught in fishing nets.
The islands make for the perfect beach holiday but you need to have deep pockets. The Seychelles rupee is at almost 1:1 to the South African rand, but very weak. Basic items cost four times what you would pay in South Africa. Agriculture is minimal as there is very little land space and the population is a mere 86,000, making manufacturing a non-industry. As a result, everything is imported. The Seychelles has a multi-party democracy with a socialist government. The locals have free access to health and education and because tourism makes up 70% of the economy, Seychellois pay reduced prices on most services. A local pays almost a quarter of the price that a tourist pays for a ferry ride from one island to another.
Traveling between the islands by ferry and a ride to the main tourist island of Praslin is a must. It boasts several beaches that consistently win accolades. The Anse Lazio beach took top honors in the 2012 World Travel Awards and was also listed as one of the 25 most beautiful beaches in the world in 2013 by travel website, Trip Advisor. Seychelles enjoys summer all year round making the beaches accessible at any time. Apart from lying around the beach, one can venture out to sea for a bit of snorkeling. The crystal clear water makes the experience memorable, more so if you find yourself swimming next to a yellow turtle. The islands have the world’s largest population of hawksbill turtles. The nation is also famous for its giant tortoises which can be found roaming around freely on certain beaches. Most of the species cannot be found in other parts of the world because of rapid urbanization.
A walk through the famous Vallee de Mai nature reserve must be comparable to walking through the Garden of Eden. Long towering palms with giant leaves hover above, with rare bird species creating an almost scary jungle experience. If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of the endangered black parrot, but you will have to rely on your memory for that experience as no cameras are allowed in the forest. You also cannot miss the fascinating Coco de Mer plants which resemble male and female genitals.
The quaint island of La Digue has small narrow roads that are cut through lush forests. No cars are allowed, except for the few that belong to tour companies, and riding a bicycle is the main mode of transport. I spotted a few brave tourists attempting to hike to the statue of St Mary on the tip of the island.
The Seychelles is a tourist haven and a major source of income to the country. But, for years only the Europeans could afford it. Italians, Germans and the French are the most frequent visitors. When Europe went into recession in 2009, the Seychelles followed. The tiny country received a loan from the IMF to revive the economy, and the focus has since changed. Seychelles is now turning to Africa.
The government is working on creating partnerships to attract foreign investment from the continent and to lessen its heavy dependence on tourism. Eden Island boasts luxury villas for the uber-rich, ranging between $425,000 and $2.2 million. Over 40% of these are owned by South Africans.
Across the bridge in Mahe, Seychellois live in modest homes. There are no big shopping malls and fast food outlets at every corner. The locals are simple, caring and community orientated. They admit they do not care for lavish lifestyles, but they do care for each other.
“The one thing about Seychelles, no-one dies hungry and no-one dies alone,” says Elsie Sinon, a tour guide with the Seychelles Tourism Board.
The fishing industry contributes 30% of the revenue to the economy. The government wants foreign investment to double the fishing industry’s contribution to GDP. So far, only India has recently invested in a tuna factory on the main island of Mahe. With more ocean than land, Seychelles is not only looking for more fish but for oil too. Earlier this year, the government opened official bids for oil exploration. Two companies, one from London and another from Australia, grabbed the opportunity and have already conducted preliminary studies which found that there is in fact a fortune lying beneath the sea bed.
The thought of oil drilling in a country that depends on fishing, beautiful beaches and deep sea coral for tourism, is slightly alarming. But it seems the research has been done and the risks are being well managed.
“We understand the risk, a government department has been set up to specifically manage the oil exploration and the environmental impact assessments show little risk to the natural habitat,” says the country’s finance minister Pierre Laporte.
It will be an absolute shame if the natural environment is devastated. Unlike most island destinations, the Seychelles is largely untouched. The beaches are pristine and not very populated. What a treat to have a little piece of an island all to yourself.
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