It hangs there in the canopy, extravagantly rounded — a swollen, ripe mass of tropical fecundity. Certainly, it is large enough that I can allow my mind to wander a little. Grey-green in colour, this enormous pod could, possibly, be an alien pupa secreted here, high in the treeline of the Seychelles, by an invading extra-terrestrial force with a master plan.
Perhaps I’m just unnerving myself unnecessarily with this wild line of thinking. Because, when the wind blows, bending the tree to its will and shaking the giant cargo in the upper branches, I take a rapid stride away from the trunk, worried that the gust might bring this colossal ball of forest fertility — and whatever angry Martian creature it may contain — down onto my head.
In truth, my instinct that I should probably avoid being struck by a plunging coco de mer nut is sound. The coco de mer palm produces the largest seed of any plant on the planet: a sort of conjoined double coconut that can grow to about a foot-and-a-half in diameter, and 65lbs in weight. It is not the type of organic matter you would wish to see falling towards your face from the top of a tree that can reach 115ft in height in the rich Seychelles soil.
It is, however, rather special. And decidedly rare. The coco de mer palm is found in only two places on the globe. One is the tiny Seychelles island of Curieuse. The second is my location, the neighbouring island of Praslin, where a tranche of virgin forest — the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve — has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.
This ecological pocket, less than a tenth of a square mile in area, sits at the heart of an outcrop that is itself not vast. Praslin, although the second biggest island of the Seychelles archipelago, is a dreamy sliver of sea-lapped rusticity, just seven miles long by 2.5 miles wide. It lurks 28 miles northeast off the main island of Mahé (and is easily reached from the Seychellois capital Victoria by a 15-minute flight or 45-minute catamaran crossing). Here, it is renowned for its fine beaches (the splendid curve of Baie St Anne on the east coast; the sweeping Grand Anse in the south, the delightful crescent of Anse Volbert in the north-east), and for the luxurious retreats which base themselves on these soft sands, such as Raffles Praslin on Anse Pasquiere, and the Lemuria Resort on Petite Anse Kerlan.
It is from the latter that I set off in search of the natural wonder that eclipses all of these beaches, following the winding highway that hugs the south coast, then turning inland at the eastern end of Grand Anse, where the road rises into Praslin National Park, which frames the Vallée de Mai. The entrance to the nature reserve is marked by a simple wood sign, and by the time I have stepped inside and found myself amid its crowd of trunks, I feel as if I have swapped the pleasures of five-star travel for a lost world. In effect, I have.
The Vallée de Mai — like the Seychelles as a whole — is a remnant of Gondwanaland, the super-continent that formed 600 million years ago, and splintered 330 million years later to make Australasia, Antarctica, Africa, South America and India. When this parting of the ways came, the 115 isles of the Seychelles were left adrift in the Indian Ocean — 1,000 miles east of Kenya, 700 miles northeast of Madagascar, 1,000 miles north of Mauritius.They stayed hidden until two and a half centuries ago: so remote that they never accrued an indigenous population, so isolated that they went unclaimed until France roused itself to plant its flag in 1756. And all the while, the Vallée de Mai kept its own counsel, unpolluted by outside influences — although it did send out regular declarations of its majesty. Despite their size, coco de mer nuts are hugely buoyant, capable of floating for hundreds of miles. The sailors who spotted these curious creations during the 18th century — many of them pirates who prowled these distant, lawless waters — thought they burst up from a supernatural tree, which thrived on the seabed. It was as good a suggestion as any.
Modern science has proved that the Vallée de Mai is not quite as magical as this far-fetched mariners’ story, but it has a mystique nonetheless. Aside from the coco de mer palm, it shelters five other arboreal species that are endemic to the archipelago, such as the Thief Palm and the Seychelles Stilt Palm. Then there is the Seychelles Black Parrot, that most elusive of birds, which lives only on Praslin, mainly within the nature reserve.
There is a shrill call and a beating of wings, and I crane my neck upwards, hoping to catch sight of dark feathers. My sole reward is to have sweat stream into my eyes. A hike in the Vallée de Mai does not require extreme fitness, but tropical heat lies in wait under the roof of leaves, dogging your footsteps, sapping your energy. I also realise that I have misjudged the terrain. The island’s highest point, Fond Azore, lifts its head to 1,224ft within Praslin National Park, and the Vallée de Mai helps it to achieve this altitude, its ground sloping steeply, its trails stretching calf muscles as its tangled roots try to trip you.
I pause, and stare aloft again. A shaft of sunshine has pierced the canopy, casting a swarthy coco de mer pod in a woozy half-light. And just for a moment, I can believe in another of the outlandish theories that has been used to explain the reserve’s purity — the words of Major-General Charles Gordon. A British army officer and empire administrator who served as governor-general of Sudan from 1874 to 1880, he visited the reserve in 1881, and declared it to be the very Garden of Eden where the biblical Eve plucked forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Perhaps he was right. For if ever there were a place where heaven and earth might meet, this otherworldly enclave would surely be it.
Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve: open daily 8am-5.30pm, €20 (£16).
Double suites at the Lémuria Resort cost from €600 (£472) per night, including breakfast.
For more information visit seychelles.travel
Published in the Indian Ocean supplement, distributed with the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)