Searching for Treasure in The Seychelles

A holiday in The Seychelles suggests languid white beaches, lapping blue seas and nothing more taxing than an airport novella to occupy you.

But life on this tiny stretch of paradise hasn’t always been plain sailing. This summer I took my three children back to the rocky scenes of my childhood and encountered thrilling tales of piracy and choppy seas.

IMG_7066The remote archipelago was once the hiding place of an infamous pirate whose exploits inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Nicknamed Le Buse´, which means the buzzard, for the speed and ruthlessness with which he attacked his enemies, Olivier LeVasseur is one of piracy’s legends. The story of how, in the 1720s, he plundered a Portuguese galleon carrying gold, silver, diamonds, pearls, silks and the ‘Flaming Cross of Goa” – a solid gold jewel-encrusted cross belonging to the Goan church – is well documented.

Even more enthralling is the ongoing hunt for his treasure, which at current valuations is estimated to be more than £100,000,000. La Buse´ was hanged for his misdemeanors in 1730. The story goes that as he stood on the scaffold he tore a rolled cryptogram from his neck and flung it into the crowd shouting; “Find my treasure, ye who may”.

In the 1950s an English expatriate, Reginald Cruise Wilkins, took up the challenge. Convinced that he had found the cryptogram, he set about trying to decode the mystery. According to Wilkins, Le Buse owned a stretch of coastline known as Belombre.

This very stretch of land once belonged to my grandfather. Captivated by the legend, he helped to fund Wilkins’ excavations. A series of carvings, a stash of old guns, some coins and two skeletons are all that have ever been uncovered.

On the long journey from York to visit their own grandfather, I kept my children entertained with tales of the legendary buccaneer. As the plane descended, bucking and swaying in the cross winds that have always made landing at Mahe´ International Airport an adventure, I looked out at the landscape of my memories.

The steep, lush mountains, the precipitous rocky outcrops, the flame trees, frangipani, bougainvillea, hibiscus, the noisy mynah birds, clouds of scarlet cardinals and the egrets elegantly pecking at grubs in the airport car park. Mahe´ is the largest of the islands and home to its country’s capital, Victoria, where my father has lived since he and my mother separated when I was four years old. I hadn’t been back for 10 years and I was struck by how little it had changed.

As my father drove us to his new apartment on the other side of Mahe´ I looked out at the tiny replica of Big Ben that stands in the central square, a nod to the islands’ colonial past. The south east monsoons were blowing in earnest and the sea was furious – the frothy waves in keeping with the tales of piracy I’d told the children during the long flight.

The next day we drove to the other side of the island to see my old house. I hadn’t been back for 30 years. “Shall we bring our spades to dig for the treasure?” asked my six-year-old daughter.

Thankfully this side of the island sits in the lee of southeast winds and the sea was a glassy, mirrored blue. As we reached Danziel, the place of the sunsets, I pulled the hire car up behind a bus shelter. And there, still hidden by the shiny dark green leaves of a very old and very familiar mango tree was my old house.

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Built from local granite the house, which in a supposed fit of European nostalgia my grandmother had named Tarantella, loomed impressively over the small bay. The sight of it brought back a rush of memories. I took the children down to the beach directly below. Too rocky for swimming, it was best explored at low tide when the rock pools team with starfish, smooth shiny shells, sea urchins, sea slugs and there, tight between fallen boulders, I found the place where you can still knock fresh oysters off the rocks and swallow them in salty gulps.

As a child I had spent lonely, motherless hours exploring this tiny beach; trying to catch glimmering pilot fish and hermit crabs in a jam jar. Looming giddily above the boats was the rock from where my friends and I would knock still-green mangoes from the boughs of our old tree and dip them in salt and chilli.

Behind the house I could just make out the custard apple tree and the golden pear that I used to have to climb onto the garage roof to scrump. The bread fruit tree had gone though– probably a blessing as I remember hating treading barefoot into its rotted fruit, which has the texture of a cow pat when it splats onto the lawn.

Inspired by stories of my memories, the children clamoured for evidence of piracy. We hopped back into the car to find the spot, just 400 yards away at Belombre, where Wilkins had built sea defences to protect his explorations from the rushing tides. The rocky walls surrounding the excavations are still there, but there is little to explain to visitor stheir significance.IMG_7183

But by now the sun was beating down fiercely. It was August and, for Seychelles, the coldest time of year but at 28ºC warm enough for our Yorkshire-whitened skins.

During the two weeks that followed we took several excursions, including a tour of the islands in a glass-bottomed boat. There was a squall out at sea that day and the view through the glass was cloudy with swirling sand. We donned flippers and goggles and tumbled over the side of the boat for a better look at the coral two metres beneath us. Purple parrotfish, feather-finned angelfish, tiny pilot fish and a million other brightly coloured tropical beauties glided silently by our masks. It was breathtaking.

We visited old friends who cooked us traditional Creole fare. Job fish smoked in coconut leaves, grilled shark served with salt and lime, octopus, stewed tuna, spiced squash, egg and potato salad. Despite the intricate spices, the children tucked in. “Much better than the way you cook fish,” declared my 11-year-old. I was proud of them, when I was their age my father capitulated and bought me imported Bird’s Eye fish fingers.

Like so many in the Seychelles our friends kept pet giant tortoises, which they fed on kitchen scraps. My daughter climbed astride one of the larger ones. I wondered if it was the same one I too sat astride at her age. These magnificent creatures can live to 150 years. They are native to Aldabra Island; the world’s largest raised coral atoll and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Gazing out to sea from the comfort of our friend’s verandah we watched fruit bats glide past as we listened to stories of island life. Pirates, it transpired, still sail the bright blue waters of the Seychelles. Only a few years ago a couple from Tunbridge Wells was snatched at gunpoint by Somali brigands and the Seychelles government has launched a crackdown to protect tourists.

The story brought to life the chilling brutality that belies the legends of piracy and buried treasure of these otherwise idyllic islands and our holiday explorations took on an undertone of drama. Perhaps fitting for a return to the landscape of memory. Continue reading

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Doing Bird: How Birds of Prey are Helping to Reform Teenage Prisoners

A young person on the scheme holds a Harris Hawk in the Raptor Centre, within the secure confines of the prison.CAGES AND PRISON WINGS:

Chained to a post by one scaly black leg, a Russian steppe eagle lunges at its shackles. Its wings flail against a skyline punctuated by rolls of razor wire.

Ken, 18, is in sole charge of the thrashing eagle; one of 48 birds of prey kept behind the chain-link fence that secures Wetherby Young Offenders Institution.

A former borstal, a sign outside the fenced enclosure declares that this is now a “Secure College of Learning”. Beneath, in a swirl of yellow script, it pledges to be “Turning Young Lives Around”.

The raptors, which include Harris hawks, kestrels, barn owls, and a snowy owl, are among an unlikely menagerie of animals that help staff attempt this recovery. Their incarceration here gives a whole new meaning to the expression, ‘doing bird’.

The idea is that boys like Ken, who is serving a three year and eight month sentence for serious violent offences, will learn to master their tempers when handling these haughty birds and then apply this control when faced with everyday challenges in society.

In the prison’s high dependency wing, ducks, rabbits, hens, pigeons, and fish are used for more intensive work. “The animals work on all sorts of levels,” explains the unit’s manager, Mrs Terry Wilson.

“They are used in therapy sessions – in lessons where for instance if the lads catch a fish they then weigh it and find out where it comes from and so on. But mostly they calm the lads down.”

This place is home to some of the country’s most traumatised children, many of them the products of neglect, abuse and the chaotic childhoods that are the legacy of alcohol and drugs.

It is named after an 18th century seafaring hero, Sir Augustus Keppel, in recognition of the fact that this was once a naval base, and is the only unit of its kind in the UK. The children are sent here because they are capable of such extreme violence, mainly against themselves, that mainstream prisons do not know how to contain them.

Staff here are on constant suicide watch. The furniture is fixed to the floor, cutlery is restricted to spoons that must be handed in and counted after every meal and boys are watched carefully around sheets, pens, even fragments of stone picked out of the cracks in walls that can be used to draw blood.

In spite of the offenders’ past, the atmosphere in Keppel is tranquil. Built in 2008, the unit was designed to look more like a home than an institution. There are no bars on the windows and the youths each have their own rooms, 48 all told.

Animals play a key role in the way that the specially trained staff get the 15- to 18-year-olds, to take responsibility for their offending behaviour. Ducks roam freely on lawns that gently slope down to a well-stocked fishing pond. Hen and rabbit coops are dotted on the furthest bank. Those who have never known physical boundaries, are taught how to touch them safely and appropriately.

Among a group fishing by the pond in bright orange life jackets is Steven, 18. He is serving consecutive sentences for street robbery and witness intimidation and he confesses to having “bottled someone”. “I never even thought about my victims before,” he says, “I feel sorry now.” Steven adds that he is saving for a fishing rod when he gets out.

So far there has only been once case of cruelty here. The culprit, who threw bread at the ducklings, was immediately banned from fishing. Mostly the boys are fiercely protective of the animals and have been known to scoop the pet rabbit, Maddie, out of harm’s way when fights break out.

“I’ll never forget being called to a fight between two lads,” says Reg Bond who runs the raptor centre. “The boys put the barn owls down safely before laying into each other.”Mr Bond regularly takes inmates to show the raptors at schools and festivals. Last year the project won a Duke of York Community Initiative Award.

“Watching these birds raise their young is the first time some of these lads have seen two parents do that,” he says. Mr Bond is hand-rearing three orphaned kestrel chicks and Stephen, who has a four-year-old daughter at home, finds their utter dependency poignant.

Rob, 17, is serving the last day of an 18-month sentence and will miss the racing pigeons, whose long pedigrees impress him. Three of the pigeons are on loan from the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. “I wasn’t brought up with family,” he shrugs. “I like that these stop with their babies.”

There is a respectful, but easy rapport between inmates and staff. Officers call them “lads” and the “lads” in turn call them “sir” or “miss” – although in the case of 17-year-old Charlie, who has been here eight months and is among the unit’s most vulnerable children, Mrs Wilson is “Aunt Terry”.

Charlie’s favourite animal is an Airedale terrier brought in weekly by a volunteer from the charity, Pets as Therapy. Animals are a commonly used by child psychologists to engage traumatised children.

“I had one lad here who wouldn’t talk at all, but he would talk to the dog. So we used to talk through the dog,” explains Mrs Wilson. “I would ask the dog a question, and the lad would answer the dog.”

Despite its unorthodox approach, Her Majesty’s Prison Inspectorate has lauded Keppel as exemplary and there are plans to build more units like it across the country.

The difference between Keppel and the rest of Wetherby Young Offenders Institution (YOI) is palpable. The overriding sound here is one of birdsong, a stark contrast to the clamour of swinging key chains and slamming doors that pervades the rest of the prison. The young men from the main prison can see the Keppel inmates through the barbed wire and jeer at them as they pass the fenced boundary on their way to and from lessons.

A few lean out of the upper windows overlooking Keppel and make sneering farmyard noises. The lads in Keppel are permitted much greater access to the outdoors as part of the strategy to reduce stress levels.

Admittance to Keppel is not assessed on the severity of the crime that these lads have committed – the gamut of offences among them ranges from rape and murder to far lesser crimes – but rather it is based on their personality.

Extrovert or disruptive boys are not admitted and only those with inward personalities that are more likely to self-harm gain access. The staff ratio here is six to one, compared with 10 to one in the main prison – a necessity among youths who are usually habituated to violence. The cost per inmate is about £90,000 a year.

A high proportion of those in Keppel have been transferred here after being bullied in the main prison. One, a cheerful, bearded 18-year-old, explains that he was transferred after he flatly refused to come out of his cell for six weeks.

Some, like Linda, a transsexual admitted this month because no other prison in the country could accommodate her, would be bullied mercilessly in any other setting.

Understandably, most of the lads prefer Keppel, where they say they are treated “decently”. Keppel has had a waiting list of applicants from prisons nationwide since the day it opened.

One downside of this is that the unit is less able to work with their families to establish ties both during and after their release. This fact attracted criticism from HMI Inspectorate in 2009, which described Keppel as a “victim of its own success”.

But Mrs Wilson says there is little funding and scant support for children when they leave and many of the more seriously disturbed children return. To prevent reoffending, she claims, the safe, caring environment provided by Keppel should be continued after release.

“Our work doesn’t finish here. It starts here. When these lads come here they get to know reasonable people who give them the care and the boundaries they need and then they go out and to what?” she says.

Mrs Wilson wants to see better funding for organisations in the community to make sure the work at Keppel continues, but is realistic about the status quo. “At the end of the day we’re a prison wing, not the Priory.”

Mrs Wilson was awarded an MBE last year in recognition of her role in the conception and development of Keppel. Conscious that victims of crime might see Keppel as a soft option, she points to the extremely difficult backgrounds these youths have endured and claims the approach is the only viable way to address their rehabilitation.

The most disturbing, she says, was a 16-year-old autistic boy sentenced for arson. He was illiterate, doubly incontinent, and had been routinely locked in his bedroom and sedated with cannabis and alcohol by his parents. Staff at Keppel taught him to use the toilet, read, write and weaned him off his drug dependency.

“I see these lads when they come in and I see them when they go out and they are different boys. There is a glimmer of hope. We give these lads rules, boundaries, an education. Things they’ve never had before.

“They have to go back into society when they leave and they have to know that there are choices other than rape and pillage and robbery.”

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Tribal elders parlee for peace 

Wildlife conservationists in northern Kenya have brokered a temporary peace agreement with tribal elders following a spate of armed incursions in the region. 

The move comes as the British High Commission issued a travel warning to tourists visiting the Laikipia region and tourist lodges in the unsettled Kenyan county began evacuating visitors. 

Unrest in the region spread this week to private cattle ranches that support sustainable wildlife tourist camps. 

Armed herdsmen began marauding through the region in their 1,000s, burning property, shooting at farmers, raiding cattle and slaughtering elephant and zebra.

Provoked by a prolonged drought, the herdsmen began driving their cattle into the ranches in search of grazing, but the incursions have become increasingly violent and already hundreds of small holders have abandoned their land.

Now the private ranch owners have offered the herdsmen free grazing and access to water in return for an amnesty. 

“It’s still very tentative but so far the Moran (warriors) have responded positively and some have even begun to guard homesteads” one farmer, who asked to remain anonymous, explained.

Among the ranches allowing the herders free grazing is Suyian, a 40,000 acre wildlife ‘conservancy’ which combines ranching with wildlife and tourism. 

The deal, brokered with traditional tribal elders, follows the burning of the ranches’ exclusive tourist camp Suyian Soul by the insurgents on Sunday night.  

Suyian, which means wild dog in Maa, is named after a wild pack of dogs living in a rocky outcrop above the lodge. 

It is run by the respected botanist, Anne Powys. The Powys family have farmed the ranch for more than 100 years.

In recent years Anne, whose books on African flora and the medicinal properties of Kenyan plants have attracted interest worldwide, has promoted the camp as a spiritual haven, offering yoga and holistic healing to those wanting to reconnect with nature. 

After the attacks on Sunday she said her ‘soul’ had been burned. 

Suyian overlooks a salt lick and boasts one of the largest elephant populations outside Kenya’s official national parks 

Visitors reported seeing the herdsmen attack a herd of elephants when they descended on the camp on Sunday. 

It is one of many tourist camps based on ‘conservancies’ that have been attacked this month or are at risk of attack. 

Ranchers report being shot at repeatedly and of their buildings being ransacked and burned. 

Although some ranchers are hopeful that the peace will hold, others claim to have packed emergency bags in case they have to leave.

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Armed herdsmen attack Kenyan tourist camps

Unrest in northern Kenya has spread to cattle ranches that support sustainable wildlife tourist camps.
Armed herdsmen have been marauding through this region in their 1,000s, burning property, shooting at farmers and tourists, raiding cattle and slaughtering elephant and zebra.
The government appears unable to contain the unrest. Over the last year hundreds of small holders have abandoned their land. Among them George Mwai, who is confined to a wheel chair since being shot trying to defend his medium sized cattle ranch and wildlife farm. 
Now the land grabs have spread to long established wildlife ‘conservancies’, where ranchers combine raising cattle with tourism and wildlife conservation.
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On Sunday night a tourist camp run by a respected botanist, Anne Powys, was razed to the ground. It has been reported some 10,000 tribal herdsmen descended on the exclusive bush camp known as Suyian Soul.
Guests staying at the thatched camp report seeing the armed men attack an elephant herd as they descended. Anne, who fled with one guest to her father’s house on the 40,000 acre family ranch, texted her sister shortly afterwards;

‘We are safe. [tribesmen] have lit three places at front of lodge… Sadly may lose my camp’

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Anne’s staff remained hidden behind rocks overlooking the camp. They kept in radio contact with her, whispering reports of how the mob swarmed through the eco-camp, looting as they went.
Suyian, which means wild dog in Maa, is named after a wild pack of dogs living in a rocky outcrop above the lodge. It is based on a  ranch in the Laikipia region of northern Kenya. The Powys family have farmed the ranch for more than 100 years.

In recent years Anne, whose books on African flora and the medicinal properties of Kenyan plants have attracted interest worldwide, has promoted the camp as a spiritual haven, offering yoga and holistic healing to those wanting to reconnect with nature. 

Yesterday Anne’s family returned to the partly-burned-out camp where the fires still smouldered. They turned back after spotting the armed raiders looting the site. Anne’s father Gilfrid had managed to salvage a few clothes and Anne’s precious books before they returned. Suyian overlooks a salt lick and boasts one of the largest elephant populations outside Kenya’s official national parks. It is one of many tourist camps based on ‘conservancies’ that have been attacked this month or are at risk of attack. Ranchers report being shot at repeatedly and of their buildings being ransacked and burned. 2-game-drives

“We don’t know where they will attack next but we’ve been packing an emergency bag in case we have to leave,” said one farmer. Those in the path of the armed gang include a nearby rhino sanctuary.

Despite a public plea  by Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta for the raids to stop, little has happened. Known as ‘land grabs’, these attacks have mainly been carried out by Samburu and Pokot tribesmen from the far north of Kenya where a drought has led to a severe lack of grazing.
Reports in the Kenyan newspaper The Star suggest the attacks are being encouraged by local politicians hoping to boost their vote in Kenya’s elections later this year. They point to the way the raids appear to be organised and claim that the tribesmen are armed with military issue guns.
The land owners have appealed to the tribal elders to offer them free grazing until the drought subsides in return for an end to the killing. One concerned land owner said she was afraid the herdsmen ‘no longer listened to the elders”.
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Animals do the funniest things

I spent an engaging afternoon in the company of a weasel named Fidget, who, as his name suggests, barely kept still. I was meant to be interviewing his keeper, the Yorkshire wildlife artist Robert E Fuller, but it wasn’t easy to concentrate as Fidget scampered about the room.

There’s never a dull moment when working with wildlife and Fidget demonstrated this perfectly. As Fidget crawled across Robert Fuller’s easel, spreading green-paint pawprints about the room, the artist shared some of his favourite comical animal anecdotes with me.

Robert is currently holding an exhibition of his funniest wildlife photographs and video slip ups. Read more about them here  My interview was published in the York Evening Press.

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Step-Family Adjustments

From Cinderalla to Snow White, the mantel of wicked stepmother is notoriously difficult to shift. But what is it like to be on the opposite side of the step-family scales? How does a mother manage to share her children with another woman?

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Interpreting Birdsong

Spent a fascinating morning with an ornithologist learning to recognise birds by their song. I learned some incredible things. Did you know, for instance, that birds have regional accents? That a Russian chaffinch pipes a different tune to a British one?

Read about my experience here in the York Press

Lessons in Birdsong: York Press

And my tips for learning to recognise birdsong are summerised in Country Living here

Country Living Online: Learning Birdsong

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