TURNING TIDES
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|October 2021
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the Indian Ocean’s pin-up paradise archipelago is far more than lazy, diamond-dust beaches and technicolour reefs. A new generation of dynamic Seychellois are changing the record, creating adventure tours, embracing crafts, reviving Creole culture and taking conservation to the next level
SARAH MARSHALL

"I've not yet found the perfect shade of green," sighs Seychellois artist George Camille.

He’s lamenting his never-ending quest to replicate the jungle and its fresh and fertile hues. From the window of his studio, the painter peers through wire-rimmed spectacles at the palette he’s spent a lifetime attempting to recreate: mosses that sour like pickles, ferns as zingy as lime zest and palms more outrageous than the plumes of a parakeet.

A slender man, whose thought-ruffled brow is softened by a haze of wispy curls, George is one of the country’s few native artists. His studio, on the island of Mahé, is filled with canvases depicting snapshots of local life: a man clutching a bunch of bananas; fresh fish for sale in the market; the contours of a prized coco de mer seed, as seductive as a voluptuous woman’s curves.

“I started with these subjects, because that’s what tourists wanted,” he shrugs, pulling out some of his early canvases. “These days I prefer to get to the core of what’s happening in the Seychelles right now.”

Originally colonised only by drifting coconuts, these Indian Ocean islands were first sighted by explorers in the 16th century and settled 200 years later. Raided by pirates, populated by enslaved Africans, Indians and Malays, and tossed between French and British rule, the Seychelles finally gained independence in 1976. A relatively young country, its culture has always been difficult to pinpoint.

Not until recently has a distinct Creole identity taken shape. And last year’s election of the more liberal Linyon Demokratik Seselwa coalition government — after 43 years of autocratic, socialist rule — signifies a welcome wind of change.

“There’s a different energy,” nods George. “Everything is flourishing.”

Hemmed by diamond-dust beaches and sapphire swirls of ocean, the Seychelles earns its reputation for being a travel brochure cover star and paradise honeymoon escape. But dig deeper and it becomes clear the 115 islands have a lot more to offer. Inland, emerald forests and high peaks present opportunities for hiking. Underwater, a rainbow of exotic marine creatures promises divers a pot of gold. In the sky, terns and tropicbirds create a spectacle as they flock like cherubim in a heavenly display.

Hopping between islands for three weeks, I’m eager to do it all. Like George, I’m searching for the colours that paint a picture of the Seychelles today. Plantation-era houses cling to the steep granite hills of Mahé, the heart of the archipelago and international gateway. Bumping along rough roads in a vintage Santana Anibal four-wheel-drive vehicle, local resident Franky Baccus drives me to one of his favourite viewpoints, where a mob of gorged pitcher plants feast at the base of the country’s highest peak, Morne Seychellois.

“Restrictions make adventure tourism tricky here,” admits the energetic young explorer, who takes tourists on Jeep safaris, hikes and packraftrides exploring hidden corners of the island. “You can’t camp, kayaks are forbidden in wetlands and there are issues with e-bikes.”

Not that these are a deterrent for the former athlete, who was — as a younger man — on course to be the Seychelles’ first Paralympian, although failed to qualify.

Crushed but still determined to make something of himself, Franky, who has Erb’s palsy in one arm, founded White Sands Adventures, which lanched in 2019. On a mission to share his passion for adventure with others, he’s ducked through loopholes and sidestepped bureaucracy to transform the interior of the island into a thrilling playground.

Clever thinking allowed him to secure a licence to guide trips in foldable Oru kayaks at Grand Police, the largest and last remaining pristine wetland on Mahé. Paddling in the complex piece of aquatic origami, we slice through a reflection of basking palms and lazy clouds so perfectly symmetrical that, for a moment, I can’t tell which way is up or down.

“Almost 90% of our wetlands have been lost to infrastructure development,” laments Franky, as we glide alongside mangroves once threatened by a five-star resort, but saved after a public outcry.

The place is deservingly special and otherworldly. Pockmarked by lunar-like craters, a slim sandbank separates ebony waterways from the ocean’s ivory surf — a contrast as stark as the republic’s generational divide.

“Those of us born in the 1980s and 1990s have a different mentality,” says Franky, who speculates former generations were guilty of being lazy in the past and too dependent on a nanny state. “We care more about the environment now and we have big ideas.”

Part of a new wave in favour of sustainability, many resorts have also upped their green game. Sandwiched between the popular Beau Vallon public beach and the jungle slopes of Morne Seychellois National Park, newly revamped property Story has worked with the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles to protect a lagoon in its grounds.

Walking into my beachside suite, with its own private gateway and plunge pool, I barely realise I’m in an ecohotel. But glossy good looks can be deceptive: regular beach clean-ups, a coral restoration project and the introduction of an osmosis plant to supply fresh water to the guest rooms are all part of a greater effort to keep the Seychelles’ natural jewels sparkling.

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