Tropical ramblings on a Friday before a long weekend…
I woke up early this morn, half-dreaming of a place with palm trees and teeming reefs, half-real, half-fading in my morning haze.
I walked by the water a little later, the sea a bit less ultramarine here, contemplating the green-ness of late May, seeming late this year; I listened to the mockingbirds and blue jays and the distant knocking of woodpeckers. I made tea from ingredients I’ve collected from faraway spice markets.
I’m working from home today, listening to Zulu music between meetings while my dog’s snoring keeps time with the beat.
It’s a weird and wonderful world out there, all these places whispering their invitations to go exploring. Today, I’m collecting that feeling and brewing it, like a magic tea of sorts, to glean inspiration and motivation.
Mahé is a booming metropolis compared to La Digue, and I’ve booked us at the lovely Sans Souci guest house, set in the jungly hills above Victoria. It’s something to look forward to, after the day we’ve just survived. The tummies are feeling better, tho we’re clearly wrung out as we board the early ferry and land back in Mahé.
An effervescent Jeanine greets us when we arrive at the guest house. We’re given a map, some general suggestions on how to spend the day, and keys to one of their guest cars. The weary adventurers have survived the worst of the food poisoning, and we’re back on track for a last day of exploring: a hike to the top of the island and then some lunch and a swim before C needs to be at the airport for his flight this evening. Oh, and they drive on the left here, roads vaguely marked by random signage and large boulders. Let’s go exploring, as they say.
We drive up to the trailhead at Morne Blanc, opening the way to the second-highest point on the island. It’s a natural staircase of sorts, lined with lush jungle that elevates us from rainforest to cloudforest in the time it takes to climb to the top (667 metres). The view of the west side of the island is lovely; pristine beach sprawls below, less industrial than Victoria’s shipping port and industry. We follow the windy mountain road, Chemin Forêt Noire, down to see what sea we can see.
Lunch at the rather chic Del Place restaurant affords us a view of l’Islette, a private island resort that can be reached via short walk across the lagoon. Unfortunately, the tide is high. Fortunately, we’re experienced aqua-hikers and my Sherpa is up to the task. That evening I learn that the island is being leased by a Russian reality TV show called Dom 2. I daresay a German word pops into my head: kopfkino. 😈
Adventure points: 1 for driving jungle roads, on the left side. 1 for the hike up to the top of Morne Blanc (0 points for realising Morne Blanc means “dull white.” I have no idea why it is called that, because the view of this side of the island is fantastic!). 1 point for more aqua hiking in waist-deep waters to the island.
Roadside view near the end of the road on the northwest side of Mahé. It’s not ugly here.
We head back to the guest house for a siesta before C goes to the airport. I’m anxious now, both for airport goodbyes and the fact that I’m due to navigate (on the left) back to the guest house, on my own, in the impending darkness. But it goes well and award myself 1 adventure point for making it all the way to Victoria from the airport without getting lost (NB: it’s a straight line).
This cockiness is short-lived because I subsequently receive -362 adventure points for getting profoundly lost, almost running out of gas, going the wrong way down a 1-way street, and getting directions from a toothless drunken woman before finally managing to navigate to the correct exit off the roundabout to go in the proper direction to get up the jungly winding roads in the pitch blackness of the night, only to be an hour late to dinner with the lovely folks at the guest house. I shouldn’t be allowed to drive in uncharted territory without a co-pilot.
The new day finds me navigating (correctly, this time) to the Sir Selwin-Clarke Market in Victoria and taking a wander about town. If I’m honest, the spice market in Stone Town, Zanzibar is much more interesting and I’m finding myself wishing we were back on charming La Digue for this last day.
And, yes, my spice cabinet is overflowing…
I even managed to find a Hindu temple here!
Regardless, it’s good to see the downtown and have some downtime in the afternoon to get organised for my trip back home. Time flies, as they say (NB: the least problematic item of the Mahé experience was driving on the left).
I’ve planned a stopover in Istanbul to break up the two long segments of my journey home, and I’m staying at the adorable Empress Zoe B&B once again. Location meets character: it’s literally around the corner from the 4Seasons and even has resident cats!
It’s not quite 5am when I arrive. I’m greeted by foggy, empty streets as the Adhan, the call to prayer, sounds. It’s an exquisite, almost intimate welcome back to the neighbourhood with its cobblestone streets and winding alleys. At once I feel at home and excited to explore this city once more. My goal for the short time I have here is to cross the Galata Bridge and climb to the top of the Medieval Galata Tower to see the city from that perspective.
The view from my window
The spring rains break for long enough for me to walk from my B&B in Sultanahmet (near the Blue Mosque and Ayasofya), through the city and to the waterfront. I like this city, its old stone architecture and elaborate mosques juxtaposed against the bustle of one of the most important cities in this part of the world. East meets West in every way imaginable.
Looking across to the Asian side of Istanbul
Mission: accomplished, and I see the city from up high, disappointed that this beautiful old stone tower is now not more than a restaurant with a (really crowded) observation deck. Regardless, it provides a fantastic panorama of the city, both the European and Asian sides.
I wander the city, revisiting the Mısır Çarşısı (spice market) and the Grand Bazaar, wending my way to the fantastic fish place I had dinner at last time. 20km or so on the legs, dozens of photos on my camera. A brilliant way to spend a stopover!
Istanbul spice market
Fishing from the Galata Bridge
Banners adorning the park
In the morning, there’s just time for brekkie and a wander around the neighbourhood before my taxi brings me back to the airport for the looong flight home.
As we navigate through traffic, I contemplate the trip and the amazing variety this brilliant planet has to offer. In the past 12 days I’ve travelled over 15,000km, been on 3 continents (and seen a 4th across the Bosphorus) seen spectacular beaches with tide-carved granite obelisks, encountered animals not found elsewhere on earth, witnessed first-hand the effects of global warming on our oceans, watched a white-spotted moray eel swim beneath me as I snorkeled, wandered past centuries-old stone buildings, sat under mind-blowing night skies, walked the streets of an ancient city bustling in a modern world, hiked in lush rainforest, driven on the left-hand side of the road, spoken two languages and heard least a dozen more, ridden a bike in a bikini, sampled a rainbow of foods and drink, seen a rainbow, and shared laughter in tropical rains while feeding a gentle beast that was (conceivably) conceived in the 19th century.
This morning, we load up the bikes with dive gear and the day’s necessities and point ourselves towards the dive shop. The sky shines a vivid, almost musical blue, and the sea competes with an azure rainbow; variegated cyan delineating reef from sand.
We had seen the rocky mound of an island from land, its sole palm reaching for the sky as if trying to escape Poseidon’s wrath. Ave Maria, it’s called; there’s no use attempting to mix metaphors here. This is our first dive site.
The Seychelles’ reef system has suffered much the same fate as others in this ocean: a bleaching event a couple of years ago and a subsequent coral die-off, which leaves me sad but not surprised that the vibrancy isn’t as I’d hoped. It seems to be trying to come back, though, and the fish are here to stay. We see a few green sea turtles, and some decent-sized schools of fish; moray eels, humphead wrasse, unicornfish, triggerfish, butterflyfish and puffers; octopi, cowfish, un petit requin (black tip), moorish idols, and that silly-looking yellow and black one with stripes and spots whose name I’ve forgotten…we’re even graced with the appearance of the elusive pipefish. Clownfish are few, alas, as there are few anemones in which they live. But we tally 5 adventure points for the dives, including C’s earned by fending off a rogue sea urchin. This mermaid’s fins are sated for now.
Back on land…
As if the day’s humidity weren’t enough to sap one’s strength, we decide to ride our (15ish kilo) bikes up the island’s highest hill to take in the view at Nid d’Aigle. The road winds its way up, the hills at a 45° angle to the rest of the world; the humidity rivalling the consistency of, say, lobster bisque. Biking gives way to pushing said (leaden) bikes, which eventually leads to surrendering to the elements (we are, by this point, more liquid than solid humans; sweat becoming just another layer on top of sun cream), depositing them at the side of the road to climb the rest of the way à pied. This is one of the steepest roads I think I’ve ever been on, but the reward here is the view (bonus: also the restaurant, Belle Vue, from which we’re vue-ing makes the best fruit juice on the island). We make reservations to return the following night for dinner and sunset (transport inclus), then continue upwards on the gnarly trail behind the place to the mountain’s peak (hint: the view from the restaurant 350 metres below was better).
Adventure points earned: 1 for biking up the absurd hill on leaden bikes; 2 for surviving without suffering heat stroke; 1 for hiking into the jungle, to the top of la montagne, and not falling to the same fate as the storied German*.
One final adventure point is earned for wildlife encounters on the way down: a free-range tortoise greets us, out for its morning stroll (at a tortoise’s pace…arriving to us in the height of the afternoon), enjoying a snack of freshly-fallen mangoes. C befriends the beast and they share a moment.
The next day’s dives are similar to the first, with a parallel state of corals and ditto sea critters. They are nice dives with fun swim-thrus and more interesting granite structures than the previous day, sea flora painting the rock its underwater patina. This being a nice but unimpressive dive overall, I was not prepared for what we saw next. As we exited a swim-thru and rounded a corner, a massive, majestic, magnificent marbled ray defied not only the m-adjectives, but my expletives as well, by making itself known. It was nestled between two rocks, flanked by several smaller stingrays, seeking or providing protection, I am not clear. We stayed close, watching their behaviour, the smaller rays coming and going, fawning over the larger in almost a caress; nature never ceasing to amaze. It is at these times I feel fortunate to be a diver, experiencing the undersea world in childlike awe and wonder, as if given special access to explore another planet.
Back on dry land, we bike to the north and then to the east (La Digue map), to where the road ends at Anse Fourmis; jagged rocks teasing the way to a jungle path we are determined to explore when we’ve got more hours (not tonight, tho, we’ve got a date with a sunset). The surf is wilder here, the rocks sharper: testament to a more exposed coastline on this side of the island. The views no less spectacular, and we’re awed anew.
Adventure points earned: 10 for the diving (attributed mostly to the ray and its entourage) plus one for the evening: a lorry ride up and down the giant hill, a sunset dinner and an overall lovely day. I fall asleep with a smile on my face and can’t recall the last time I road a bike with a basket in a bikini.
End of the road at Anse Fourmis
The Seychelles fruit bat
Sunset from Belle Vue
More diving the next day and a half, adding a handful more adventure points to the tally. The sites are good, but Pemba is still at the top of our list of favourites. We see dolphins from both the room overlooking the ocean, and the boat during the surface interval off Grand Soeur island. There are small black-tip shark sightings, barracuda, moray eels (one more massive than most!), swarms of Indian ocean fish… A collection of fun dives with more granite rock formations to swim thru and sea turtles to swim beside. There’s also a lovely little yellow frogfish, adding to the list of sea critters I’d not seen before this trip.
The diving has been fun thus far, but the end of the road calls… back on La Digue, we mount bikes and head for Anse Fourmis again, and our quest to reach Anse Cocos. It’s like a Monty Python meets Indiana Jones meets Bear Grylls: we’re not 200 metres into the jagged, rocky, jungly trail as the clouds decide to open and release monsoon-like rains. We can continue on and risk life and limb on the rocks and jungle brush, or play it safe and return the way we came. Opting for the latter, the bike ride home is like a 7-year-old’s dream: fat, warm raindrops form giant puddles through which we splash, laughing. We’re soaked to the core when we come across one of the local roadblocks: a massive tortoise, looking spic and span in the downpour. They’ve not yet become a novelty, so we stop to share our oranges with this friendly beast. It is not possible to be more drenched than we already are.
Adventure points earned this day: 1 for the dive, another for a remora that took a fancy to C and remained our dive buddy for the entire dive; add one for bushwhacking and jungle hiking in the rain.
It is only in hindsight that we declare, “do not eat the chef’s special.”
We return to Anse Banane by bike in the inky darkness, a headlamp and a torch lighting our way through the still-damp night. We’ve come to a highly-recommended restaurant, with its charming décor and seating facing the ocean, the storm-fueled waves crashing fervently across the way. The meal, a lovely smorgasborg of salads and fish of all styles: curry, fritters, grilled (chef’s special), with a home-made banana cake for dessert.
The day, the dives, the hike and the silly soggy bike ride: excellent. The night: not so much. We both wake in the wee hours, reeling from what can only be food poisoning. Details spared, this dashes our last diving day (my 1.5km bike ride to the dive shop to let them know we’re half-dead nearly does me in for good) and has us horizontal, indoors, for the day. With one foray to the beach in a failed attempt at a swim, we retreat to the relative safety of the hotel to recuperate and commiserate. This is not how we wanted to spend our second to last day here…I know C is cursing the elephant. Survivor points: 5.
*About the German: local lore tells of a German tourist who hiked up to Nid d’Aigle with his fellow travellers, spotted a house he wanted to see again, and went back up the mountain on his own. He was never heard from again; search teams and dogs couldn’t even find him. We heard this over lunch from the owner of a café on our way up to Nid d’Aigle…whether the story has morphed into island legend, we’re not clear.
After contemplating even farther-flung possibilities (and deciding they’re not possible within our time constraints), somehow we settle on the Seychelles: warm water in which to dive, jungle to explore, the possibility of seeing interesting critters, some fantastically cool topography…flights, booked!
I arrive on the main island of Mahe first, whisked away by an uber-efficient taxi driver, and am greeted in my hotel room by a towel creature in the form of Ganesha, the elephant-god and my patron saint of sorts, bestowing well-wishes on a weary traveller. He’s my reminder that obstacles may be removed to charm a journey but may also be placed in the way as tests of mettle, meddle and might…all of which one might encounter on holiday in as far-flung a place as a speck of an island in the middle of the Indian ocean.
“Actually, the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures.” – Lewis Carroll
The Seychelles are volcanic islands, and as such, where jungle meets beach is displayed in spectacular form. Look inland, and the lush hills remind you of a scene straight from Jurassic Park – you expect to see T-Rex or one of his contemporaries bounding through the jungle brush at a moment’s notice. The enormous granite rocks that jut out of the sand like monstrous dinosaur teeth invite one into the bathwater-temperature ocean (if you dare…).
After a lazy day fending off jetlag, it’s an early airport run to fetch my flight-weary Calvin, travelling companion (and human) extraordinaire, then a dash to the ferry to take us to La Digue, leaving the relative civilisation of Mahe behind: traffic and construction and bustle, the din of a small city bursting at the seams, desiring to be something larger than it ought. Funny that what we call progress ends up shuttering out the natural world in favour of big buildings, motor vehicles and pavement. Regardless, we’ll be back to spend a day here on the other end of our week’s adventurings.
What we didn’t realise at the time was that this lorry would haul us up the mountain later in the week…
We arrive on La Digue on a Sunday. It’s noticeably quieter than Mahe, the town itself (La Passe) bustling in that charming way you’d expect from an idyllic island where there are few cars and everyone gets around by bicycle. And because we haven’t obtained our bikes yet, we walk the 1.2km to the guest house, up and down the hills that are to become familiar this week, “Left! Left! Left!” on the mind, because even though there are very few cars, there are bikes (and European tourists and Aldabra tortoises) to dodge. English colonisation here has left at least one vestige: left-side driving.
It’s during this walk, about half-way to the guest house, where we encounter our first free-range tortoise.
An aside on the Seychelles and the Aldabra giant tortoise: Seychelles is an archipelago, consisting of 115 islands of all sizes, plunked in the middle of the Indian Ocean, east of Somalia (yes, there are the occasional pirates) and north of Madagascar (and unfortunately no lemurs or other primates). The farthest-flung outer islands are 1100+km from where we are. One island, Aldabra, is a World Heritage Site and the Indian Ocean’s answer to the Galapagos. Its native species include the Aldabra Tortoise, some of which have made their way to La Digue over the centuries. Being easy prey and a good source of food for La Digue’s earliest residents, the La Digue subspecies of the Aldabra giant tortoise is extinct, so the ones that remain on the island are the original Aldabra variety, many of which are kept, quite loosely, as pets.
Needless to say, encountering a 200-kilo walking dinosaur as you drag your luggage uphill on a 30° C day (with equal humidity) is more than enough reason to stop for a fresh fruit juice by the side of the road and interact with local (semi)wildlife.
We’re here mostly to dive, but our first full day on the island is spent exploring the world-renowned Anse Source d’Argent. This famous beach (Castaway and Crusoe were filmed here) looks even more unreal in person than it does splattering the pages of every travel mag’s world’s best beaches issue. Je suis d’accord.
To get here, a pleasant bike ride takes us to the southern end of the island, through a vanilla plantation that rends the air a sweet and salty mix. The path to the beach goes by the park’s tortoise pen; a weird sight really, with dozens of the massive reptiles lazing in the sun and engaging with chattering tourists who feed them leaves and grass in a United Nation’s collection of languages.
Then, it’s down some jungly paths which end at the promised Anse. It looks like a lost paradise; a sort of déjà vu, because the beach looks both familiar and surreal mere steps from the throngs of tourists sunning themselves (they don’t show you that on the InstaWeb). But we’ve come south of the equator largely to escape the world at large, so trekking farther south to flee the selfie sticks and instaglamourous beachgoers seemed the right option. Also, the tide was coming in. So we earned some of our adventure points* this day by coining a new water sport: aqua-hiking. The water, waist-deep (my waist) by the time we returned from our exploration, was a refreshing yet balmy bath verging on hot at water’s edge – in hindsight, more than a foreshadowing to what a warming planet had to reveal under the surface.
We’re rewarded mere metres from the selfie-crazed masses: we manage to find a completely empty beach and encounter only a handful of humans between Anse Source d’Argent and the southernmost tip of La Digue. The location scouts got this right.
After the aqua-hike back to the throngs, lazing a bit, and an attempt at sunning ourselves to dry out, we decide to air-dry instead: more biking, up and across the island, to Grand Anse.
An overall fantastic day awarded us our first set of adventure points for the trip: 5 for the aforementioned aqua hiking and discovering deserted beaches; 1 for bikes as mode of transport, navigating the wrong side of the road, and dodging the errant tourist and meandering tortoise; and 1 more for feeding (albeit captive) living dinosaurs, aka, giant tortoises.
*A couple of years ago, C and I devised a system of adventure points to reward ourselves for tackling and completing myriad explorations and adventures. The silly ranking system takes into consideration physical effort, wildlife encounters, natural wonders, vistas, summits, mishaps, getting lost (we do this sometimes), finding unexpected treasures, being gobsmacked by the natural world, getting dirty, getting wet, and other general adventuring. [“let’s go exploring…”]
I’m getting ready to go on a semi-big trip, grateful for these luxuries, but it all seems a bit absurd: I’m about to get on a plane to take me to a dot of an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where I’ll meet my Calvin, the international man of mystery to some; a tall, sort-of dark, handsome polyglot… The dot of an island, apparently a haven for International partying and business dealings (I learnt only after booking)… We’re going to dive, to see nature, to soak in the azure sea. From the outside, one could write a totally different narrative; and so my colleagues think I’m much more interesting than I really am. And, possibly, that I’m a spy.
The adventure starts, as they do, at an airport: I’ve got leaving down to a T, but need to work on my packing skills. My own fault, for I’m travelling with equipment: cameras and dive gear and a sack full of adapters and wires for the electronic things. And snacks.
Taxi, bag drop, security, all go smoothly. Waiting, then boarding, then sitting practically upright for too long, as this metal bird wings me and 200 or so others over the Atlantic and across Europe. Captive for 9 hours, thankful to have been able to sleep on this flight. It’s been a long few weeks back in the real world.
The large international airport is something of a time warp; a black hole, where time and culture and language and fashion meld into a weird melange that’s like a 26-ring circus on amphetamines, but with more neon lighting and these uniformed guys weaving through the throngs on segues.
I’ve landed in Istanbul with a long layover in which to entertain myself. Instead of risking mishap to go exploring in town tonight – I’m only half-way to my final destination as is – I opt to go the lounge route: $30 or so gets you a quiet-ish place to wait out your airport time when you don’t have enough clout or smooth talk to make it into the Turkish Airlines lounge (tried, failed). It covers WiFi, food, drinks, the lot… I’d spend more than this at a crowded restaurant in the airport and wouldn’t be able to stay for 6 hours unbothered!
And so, where one might find this newly-jetlagged wanderer this night is the Milennium Lounge in Istanbul’s airport, while, interestingly enough, cultures and ideologies and politics don’t seem to clash at all here since everyone has better things on which to spend their energies.
[stay tuned for more adventures as Year of Africa continues if and when I have WiFi again]