BY KATIE - MYGREENPOD, 13th Mar '14

JARVIS SMITH ON THE FORGOTTEN ISLANDS THAT INSPIRE OUR CHILDREN

Sitting at a family gathering when I was five years old, my uncle announced (proudly, as was his way) that he and his new wife were off to the Seychelles for their honeymoon. ‘Pure white beaches and turquoise blue waters’, he said. ‘It’s paradise.’ Everyone gasped with ‘Oooo!’s and joyous ‘Wooo!’s, before promptly following with ‘Aren’t there sharks there?’ ‘How long will it take to get there?’

‘Sharks?!’ I said, and my aunt swiftly put my easily-influenced mind at rest. ‘Don’t worry – they have shark nets to stop them coming too close to the beach.’

Whilst sitting on a panel for responsible tourism at London’s latest World Travel Market conference for the BBC World Service, Alain St. Ange, the Minister for Tourism in the Seychelles, caught my attention. He expressed very real and serious concerns for his national – and global – responsibilities during the current climatic changes.

I was drawn to his sincerity and passion and decided to go and see for myself what he was up to. I would take my five-year-old daughter, Sophia; maybe she could learn something valuable for when she becomes a young adult and starts to consider her own environmental impact.

Upon arrival at Victoria airport at 13.30, we were immediately blessed with the warmth of the golden sun. Ahh I’d missed it; this was February and we’d had a pretty miserable winter in the UK. Sophia said ‘Daddy it’s so hot!’ Yes, we had arrived.

‘Was it a private beach? I was told there are no private beaches in the Seychelles; everyone can go to any beach any time. How refreshing. I was beginning to feel that this country had got things going for it.’

It was a more mountainous country than I’d imagined; green and lush in parts with stunning turquoise seas. We arrived at the Constance Ephelia Hotel in the Port Launay Wetlands on Mahe, a wonderful resort bordering a national park on the north of the island – right on the coast of a secluded, mangrove-lined bay (more on that later).

Our villa was well-equipped, with a lap pool, jacuzzi, steam room and hot tub, two nice-sized bedrooms and a separate entertainment room with TV.

I do remember thinking ‘Wow, based on size and comfort I could live here!’, and felt slightly disappointed I was leaving in a few days to see other parts of the island. I wanted to get down to detail: did all the lights have to be on? What toiletries were provided? But being with my little one, I just had time to dump our luggage and off to the beach we went.

Little did I know how much of a treat this would be. Was it a private beach? I was told there are no private beaches in the Seychelles; everyone can go to any beach any time. How refreshing.

I was beginning to feel that this country had got things going for it. Was this the sentiment I had felt from Minister Alain? Could this really be a country that equally cares for its residents, land, businesses and tourism? Well, over the next seven days I found out…

There was a relaxed vibe in the air and Sophia and I quickly headed into the sea. Wow it was warmer than my local swimming pool – warmer, in fact, than the kids’ pool. Sophia and I giggled at how much fun we were having – little did I know how much better it was going to get.

The mangroves

So mangroves, as I explained to Sophia, are the Earth’s natural defence system in areas of high-energy wave action. They dominate three-quarters of tropical coastlines, and play a vital role in protecting the islands that will be most troubled by the rising sea levels that result from melting ice caps. I drew some little pictures in the sand to explain. ‘So they’re very important, Daddy?’ ‘Yes darling, as is all nature on the Earth. It’s all connected, so if they get cut down then that will have an effect on the rest of the island’s natural habitat.’

How great this hotel has a project in Port Launay Wetlands with NGO Sustainability for Seychelles, under an arrangement with the Seychelles National Parks Authority (SNPA) and the Seychelles Department of Environment (the official management authority for the site). Working together, they protect the environment and the landscape that form the core of this resort’s attraction.

Bird Island

We travelled to Bird Island on the daily charter service, using Air Seychelles aircraft, departing from the Seychelles Domestic Terminal. Not an ideal way to travel, but with a little one and time constraints it was unavoidable. I explained to Sophia that, had we had a little more time, we might have sailed to the island and allowed the air and the sea to take us, which would have reduced our carbon footprint. And perhaps if our lifestyles allowed us to take longer holidays then we could have sailed to the island.

As I had her attention, I explained we could also take the train through countries rather than flying over them, and that social and lifestyle changes would only come about if the governments that set the rules supported the environment and our wellbeing. Our lives would have a much healthier balance of work, rest and play. That made her smile. Anything involving play makes her smile (and me too, in fact).

‘Bird Island’s website states, ‘The magic of Bird Island cannot be told, you have to live it.’ We’ve been very fortunate to visit one of the most beautiful islands of the world – and I have to agree.’

Being greeted by Mrs Savy, the wife of the owner of the island (which has been owned freehold for over 60 years) made it feel like we had arrived somewhere very special. Landing on a grass airstrip down the middle of the island added to the buzz – and seeing Aldabra giant tortoises wandering around freely made it easy for Sophia to connect with the magic and wonder of this extraordinary place.

Bird Island ticked all my boxes; the eco-design of the lodges (built with locally-sourced materials), the solar-heated water for all guests, the conservation of wildlife… For 35 years the island has operated on ecological principles and it has run conservation programmes for various aspects of its wildlife since the early 1970s.

Currently the focus is on programmes that monitor and protect sooty terns (which breed on the island in their millions from May-September), the green and hawksbill turtles (which also come to the island to lay their eggs), the long-tailed white tropic bird (which nests on the ground next to trees), the newly-introduced Seychelles sunbirds (which trans-located from the main island in February 2006), weather monitoring and plenty of other programmes.

Raffles Praslin Resort

So the newest resort indeed… I must admit I was blown away by the luxury here, but at the same time I also questioned the necessity of such an overwhelmingly ‘beautiful’ resort. Lots of vibrant flowers and plants spread around grand villas and suites over vast swathes of land, and something in the natural air felt uncomfortable to me. I didn’t feel it had the same depth of connection to nature as the other places I’d visited.

Later that day I began to find out why. I was shown pictures of the natural yet fairly barren land on which it had been built, and the huge disruption to the rock faces and plant life. Perhaps in a very strange way I was picking up on how nature had been handled here. I understand there is a market for luxury tourism, but why does it have to be at the expense of the natural world? What about working with what’s already there, and building around the trees to allow people and planet to co-habit together, using the trees and rocks as part of the building’s story?

I wanted to dig a little deeper and find out what was real here and why we had come; on the one hand I was effortlessly seduced by the Royal Panoramic Villa suite and its stunningly breathtaking views, and on the other hand I was shocked by what felt to be a reckless and destructive misuse of the land.

‘I understand there is a market for luxury tourism, but why does it have to be at the expense of the natural world? What about working with what’s already there, and building around the trees to allow people and planet to co-habit together, using the trees and rocks as part of the building’s story?’

So I met with the landscape gardener and picked his brains. He explained that actually, a lot of this land was dying off due to corrosion, heat, lack of water and other climate issues in the area. With the 86 villas and their surrounding environment, he had been able to re-introduce fauna and flora growing naturally around the island, feeding the area with far more sustenance than it had received beforehand.

He had done a beautiful job, but I think because it was all so new it hadn’t quite taken shape and felt unnatural to me. I would like to revisit this place again in a few years’ time to see how these two environments, the resort and its grounds, grow together.

Having met with the site’s wedding planner, I believe this could be the perfect wedding location. With its pool and spa, restaurants and kids’ club, you can see why there have been a few celebrity weddings here – and if it’s good enough for them…

The next day was very, very exciting for me – though I’m not so sure about Sophia. We headed off to see a tree that boasts the biggest nut in the world, which only grows naturally on Praslin and one other island. Now this is the kind of thing that really excites me these days.

On the way we stopped off at the humble Bon Bon Plume beach restaurant, and I can say with hand on heart that I had one of the best curries I’d ever tasted. A must stop in Praslin.

Vallée-de-Mai Nature Reserve was declared protected in 1966, and hosts the largest concentration of Coco de Mer trees in the world. This palm is endemic to the islands of Praslin and Curieuse and reminded me of Jurassic Park: huge trees, huge leaves and even huger nuts. Sophia could only just pick one up. The nuts take six to seven years to grow and a further two years to germinate, with the largest fruit recorded to date weighing in at 42 kg. The mature seeds weigh up to 17.6 kg and are the world’s heaviest.

Conservation priorities here are the continued protection of populations, the enforcement of regulations and effective fire control. Firebreaks also exist at key sites in an effort to prevent fires from sweeping through and devastating populations. Cultivated palms are grown on a number of other islands and are widely present in botanic gardens – though the collection of seeds for this purpose may be a further threat to the natural examples.

This ancient forest is also home to the indigenous black parrot, the population of which has declined to about 200–300 birds, with fewer than 100 breeding pairs. When our guide mentioned this to Sophia and began mimicking the parrots’ mating call, Sophia joined in – only to become disappointed when none immediately appeared. To lift her spirits, I asked if she had asked the angels and nature spirits to guide her to see the black parrot.

‘Hello angels, would you please guide me to find and see the black parrots before we leave?’, she said.

Within seconds, our guide cried ‘Look!’ and pointed to a mating pair of parrots, one of the rarest of sights with these birds. Not just one, but two birds showing their love for each other. ‘Wow!’ I said to Sophia, ‘That just shows what you are capable of! See, you are an earth angel.’ If all of our children believed this, perhaps the world would be a different place to live in.
Oh, and by the way – I still don’t know if those shark nets were real or not. I have a sneaky feeling that, even if they were used back then, they’ll have been pulled in since due to the damage caused to marine life (it was 1975!).

To plan a trip to the Seychelles and explore the natural beauty for yourself, have a look at the tour operators listed on www.seychellestravel.com.

Off to the beach…

We were advised to head to the beach, and oh my, this was the most spectacularly beautiful beach I had ever seen. Soft and bouncy white sands, warm crystal-like turquoise seas and the deepest, bluest skies.
It was twilight; the deep orange sun was setting and it felt like the birds had all taken flight for a prayer of appreciation to the sun and what it gave us all that day.

I have felt euphoria a few times in my life: once upon exiting the Great Pyramid, having laid in the sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber; another time swimming with free pilot whales in Hawaii; seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time – and not being able to speak for two hours as I was so in awe of and overwhelmed by its magnificence – and when I gazed upon my first son being born 24 years ago.

But this feeling was different. It was a feeling of union. I was watching Sophia and her whole being became truly angelic; she bounced around giggling and absolutely high on an experience of immense beauty, in full celebration with the sun and sea, dancing the dance of creation. It’s so difficult to put into words, but I felt it and I could see she was feeling it, too. Was this the feeling of heaven on earth? Never before or since have I seen Sophia so free and spirited; it made me want to give her that life for ever. I wondered, could that be possible?

Sophia and I quickly headed into the sea. Wow it was warmer than my local swimming pool – warmer, in fact, than the kids’ pool. Sophia and I giggled at how much fun we were having – little did I know how much better it was going to get

We ate beautiful local food in the open restaurant and then headed off to bed. By this time the wind-up torches provided in the room were needed, and actually made this all the more of an adventure. As we got closer to the room, the birds began to sing – and oh my what a symphony. I’m sure the song changes with the seasons, but this was loud and close and like nothing I had heard before. Sophia was asleep within five minutes and I got to listen to the conversational chatter until I drifted off myself.

The next day we met Robbie Bresson, the island conservation manager and expert. He had so much enthusiasm for what had been achieved on the island, and took such great pride in his work, that hanging out with Robbie is a must. He’s a wealth of knowledge and experience and taught Sophia about the different bird species as she stroked the white-tailed tropicbird chicks and chatted to the tortoises.

Walking back to that heavenly beach afterwards, I explained to Sophia that all animals deserve this kind of freedom and that’s why I don’t eat meat, because the animals are mostly bred specifically for human consumption. If humans became vegetarian, then animals would live a much richer life – plus it would reduce our carbon footprint, help conserve land and water and protect the oceans. You can find more information on the Vegetarian Society’s website, www.vegsociety.org/info.

A few days later we were leaving the island and off to stay at the newest resort in the Seychelles, the Raffles Praslin Resort. We had to fly back to Mahe and were heading to Praslin by boat, but we had one very important place to visit along the way.

Conservation with Nature Seychelles

Nature Seychelles is described as a dynamic, independent organisation involved in a wide range of conservation activities. I met with Robin Hanson who runs the place, a young English gentleman who greeted us with fresh coconut milk from the trees on site. Probably one of the best greetings in the world.

One of the things this organisation does is study the flora and fauna and invite groups of people from all walks of life to re-connect – or perhaps connect for the first time – with nature. I was particularly drawn to a programme to rehabilitate drug users, re-teaching life skills through yoga and conservation.

‘Vallée-de-Mai Nature Reserve was declared protected in 1966, and hosts the largest concentration of Coco de Mer trees in the world. This palm is endemic to the islands of Praslin and Curieuse and reminded me of Jurassic Park: huge trees, huge leaves and even huger nuts.’

If I had a personal playground, this is the kind of place I would want it to be – where I could learn about the impact of climate change and its effect on my immediate environment whilst growing herbs and fruit, nurturing mangroves and other important species for a sustainable world.

In fact, if everyone in the world stopped ‘business as usual’ tomorrow, and committed to regeneration, regrowth and the redistribution of land, I bet all the money in the world (which, incidentally, will have absolutely no use when the tides and winds change) that this planet could be turned around to become completely sustainable in less than five years! For more information on Nature Seychelles and the work its doing, visit www.natureseychelles.org.