The way I see it, there are four luxuries in life: peace, privacy, time — and tortoises. Sadly, all are in short supply. Unless, that is, you head to Alphonse Island.
Just south of the equator, 250 miles from the Seychellois capital of Mahé, Alphonse Island takes some finding. As we head there in our eight-seater plane, all I can see for miles and miles is blue sky and fluffy clouds. And then, suddenly, it appears — a green speck amid the azure.
At the Alphonse Island Resort, each guest is given a bicycle for the week; after mainlining a coffee, I jump on mine and go for a ride. I cycle along dusty paths into dense forest. The coconut trees are everywhere — like many invasive species, they now have the run of the place, towering above me at angles askew, like tropical towers of Pisa, their fronds swishing in the wind. It’s very peaceful, until… suddenly, there’s a loud thud — a coconut crashing down somewhere inside the vast forest.
On my first morning we meet at the beachfront for a tour of the reef flats. In no time at all, several creatures have come into view — from stingrays and moray eels to turtles, which nest in huge numbers on the island each year. We wade through the water and out to the reef’s edge. Next we see a puffer fish, which makes itself known by puffing out the very spikes it uses to keep us at arm’s length. A little further on, we find a turtle resting inside a small hole, refusing to come up for air until we leave.
The next morning I’m sea-bound once more, this time in a kayak. But as I paddle away from the island in search of more wildlife, I’m suddenly beckoned back to the beach. Someone has found a hawksbill turtle nesting — the first of the season, we’re told. A crowd gathers at a distance safe enough not to disturb her. She digs a huge hole in the sand. She’ll do this four to five times this year, laying between 150 and 200 eggs, only a handful of which will survive. Her maternity ward is basic, to say the least, but the sight is magnificent. We leave her be and return to the water.
In the afternoon, we visit uninhabited Bijoutier Island, where herons swoop, hermit crabs scuttle beneath our feet, and lemon sharks and turtles swim in the shallows. It’s stunningly remote and beautiful. Sadly, the creatures aren’t alone. Over two tonnes of debris, including plastic bottles, flip-flops and lighters, washed up on Alphonse Island’s shores in 2015 alone, and it’s a similar story for Bijoutier and neighbouring St François Island. The Island Conservation Society (ICS) works hard to clean up the mess, but it’s clear they’re fighting an uphill battle.
However, at least Alphonse Island is doing its best to minimise its environmental impact. Tourist numbers, for instance, are kept low (a maximum of 70 at any one time) so as not to ruin the natural beauty of the island or interfere with the already delicate ecosystem. These limits mean that those fortunate enough to come here get to enjoy unparalleled close-ups with nature. I see baby dolphins frolicking in the sea, nesting turtles, fish of every hue and variety and, of course, giant tortoises — 52 of which are resident on the island, many having been rescued from elsewhere.
Another big issue is overfishing. Large trawlers fish in the waters around Alphonse, dropping FADS (fish aggregating devices) into the ocean to attract tuna. These are often abandoned after use. Small fish congregate around them, attracting larger species such as turtles, tuna and sharks, which can become trapped and die.
This is catastrophic for such a delicate environment, but both the ICS and local hotels do their best to limit overfishing and protect wildlife. The seafood we eat during our stay is caught by our guides (the island is famous for its world-class fly fishing) in sustainable waters, while a huge amount of the fruit, vegetables and herbs we consume are grown in the island’s gardens. The gardens are carefully maintained by a diligent team led by Latif, who insists on showing us his compost heap, of which he’s immensely proud.
Catch of the day
Given the island’s sustainable ethos, it’s with a sense of responsibility that I take to the seas later in the week as part of the kitchen run. I’ve been instructed by chef Trevor to catch a wahoo, a deliciously meaty, tuna-like fish, which we’ve eaten two night’s running now.
Along with two other guests, I board Flyer, one of the island’s many powerful fishing boats. The waters are choppy, but there’s little sign of life. We wait for the rods to hook something, but they stand erect and undisturbed. For a long time, nothing happens. I peer over at the cooler. I don’t know what’s in the sea, but I do know there’s Seybrew (a delicious local beer) in there. Perhaps we should just give up on the fishing and enjoy ourselves. And then, all of a sudden, a rod springs to life. The line becomes taut, the reel spins around and around. Whatever’s at the end of it is kicking up quite the fuss.
“You’re up,” says my guide, thrusting the rod into my hands. I clasp the handle and reel, trying to recall those fishing trips in Ireland, but all I can actually remember is rain and my mother shouting that I’m doing it wrong. “Reel!” the guide screams. I do as I’m told, reeling in with all my strength until the line refuses to budge any more.
“Lift the line,” he says. “Drop it, and reel again.” I lift the rod, now curved like a vaulter’s pole. I drop it, and reel once more. “That’s it,” says the guide. “Keep doing that.”
“What is it?” asks one of my fellow guests.
“It’s a shark,” says the guide.
Sorry, a what? As if able to read my thoughts, he smiles. “The tug on the line; you had a wahoo, and now a shark has the wahoo.” Deflated, I stop reeling. “Keep going!” he shouts. “No point in stopping now.” I do as instructed. There’s pride at stake. The shark might not be dinner (as a protected species, it’ll have to be thrown back into the water) but I don’t want to leave this boat without catching anything. Raise and release, raise and release — I repeat the motion over and over, reeling in whenever the line cuts me some slack. The guide urges me to continue, as lactic acid wills my forearms and legs to give up. How can fishing use so many muscles?
I continue, reeling, lifting, sweating, panting, but the shark is a stubborn and formidable foe. He jumps out of the water, close to the boat, but just as I prepare for one final push, the rod straightens, limp and lifeless in my hands. The line is broken. Jaws has escaped to fight another day. I can only admire him.
My guide smiles. “You were so close,” he says. “But at least you got to see what it’s like.’
All too soon it’s the final night of my trip, and I decide to take one last cycle ride to watch the setting sun as it slips down into the ocean. I head past the restaurant and the tennis court, and into the clearing where I’d earlier seen the giant tortoises resting in the shade. It’s quiet now, away from the hustle and bustle of the bar, where the anglers are busy toasting their day’s achievements.
I get off my bike, camera in hand, and walk slowly towards a large male. He allows me to come close and lets me feel the tough carapace of his shell and the leathery skin beneath his neck. I kneel down to take a photo. He poses willingly for several moments, then jumps to his feet (surprisingly fast) and charges towards me, snapping his jaws.
He probably just wants a leaf, but I don’t stick around to find out, aware that I’m encroaching on his territory. From a distance, I watch as he settles back down, munching happily on the grass.
I get on my bike and head back, but on the way back to my bungalow I turn off, unable to resist one more cycle through the forest, one more moment of peace and solitude. It’s the right decision — although as the light begins to fade and I’m faced with the forest’s descending veil of darkness, I speed up, cycling as quickly as I can, wary not to bump into any wayward tortoises on my way.
How to do it
Published in Experiences 2017, published with the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)