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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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