The dreamy Valle + secluded Cousin Island, where conservation wins
The sleepy island of Praslin is best known for it’s Valle de Mai, a UNESCO World Heritage protected valley that’s home to a handful of endemic flora and fauna, including the world’s largest coconut, the Coco De Mer.
For some time the Valle de Mai was thought to be the geographic location of the Garden of Eden and the Coco de Mer presumed to be the forbidden fruit that Eve (born of Adam’s rib, remember, because that makes sense) so lustfully indulged in.
Since Ming is a purveyor of palm porn, this was a major initial draw card to the Seychelles.
We weren’t the first ones the traverse an ocean to get our hands on a Coco de Mer. The world’s largest and most suggestive nut has lured humans for a century or two, maybe more, with it’s pelvic shape and lore as an irresistible aphrodisiac. This coco is found nowhere but the thick jungle of the Valle de Mai and the neighboring island of Curieuse. Ready to dive into the ecological history of the Seychelles, we forewent a day of surf and trekked into the Valle de Mai.
Light hardly touches the floor of the protected valley. Prehistorically large palm fronds and a towering canopy of 50-meter coconut trees create a kind of monastic quiet that begs for reverence. The female trees drop 35 kg coconuts to the forest floor and male trees dangle with meter long flowered phallic appendages.
The sweet, jelly- flesh of the Coco de Mer is a prized aphrodisiac once worth its weight in gold, and was nearly hunted to extinction before being protected governmentally. I ask every local we encounter what they taste like. Though they’re technically illegal to eat, everyone had a whimsical Coco-De-Mer story. One quirky vegan Indian/Seychellois cab driver told us of how his very first romance was deeply entwined with the Coco-De Mer; how they would sit under the canopy and nosh on its sensuous fruit. He was convinced that the nut serves as some magical source of divine knowledge that it “explains everything,” as he put it. We weren’t sure if he meant this just anatomically, or metaphorically, but he didn’t care to elaborate.
After an afternoon of hiking through Valle de Mai and snacking on fried banana chips, we nestled into a night at Hotel Coco De Mer & Black Parrot Suites, where the ocean laps just off our doorstep.
The next morning, our friends at Nature Seychelles, one of the most successful NGOs in the country, arrange for their staff tinnie to pick us up from a little ramshackled jetty nearby to spend a day on their conservation island called Cousin. With us and boards and camera gear, plus the live-in staff’s weekly groceries, we’re seriously weighing down the little boat and we get a refreshing, sea sprayed ride over to nearby Cousin Island.
The coconut has come to symbolize all things tropical. In the Seychelles, where securing food has always been tricky, the coconut became an essential natural resource and a cornerstone of the culture. However, like too many European legacies of raping and pillaging, basic survival needs eventually escalated into monocultured groves to increase productivity and profits.
While a grove of coconuts might be the very foundation of a tropical dreamscape for us and a source of revenue for others, monotonous groves meant extinction or near extinction for many species that once called the pre-grove forests home. Colonisers left no room for native habitat, as was the case for the Seychelles Warbler, of which there were less than 30 remaining.
“Cousin Island was purchased by the International Council for Bird Protection (now BirdLife) in 1968, for the immediate purpose of saving the endemic Seychelles Warbler Acrocephalus sechellensis. Twenty-six warblers had been found in the mangroves of the island clinging perilously to life, with much of its original habitat converted to coconut plantations. A campaign was started to rescue these birds and they became the flagship species for the island.
To save the warbler, a habitat restoration programme was implemented: Cousin’s coconuts were cut back and native vegetation encouraged to regenerate, which allowed the warbler to flourish. Its numbers increased. Soon over 300 birds could be heard singing on Cousin. From here the warbler was re-introduced to other islands in the Seychelles to boost its population and the bird now occurs on five other islands in the Seychelles. (CousinIsland.net) ”
In the realm of environmental preservation, where overwhelm and despair dominate the presses, Cousin Island is one of the great conservation success stories that deserves celebration. The island is now a thriving native forest.
Success is everywhere. Birds flock and nest and hunt over every inch of the sand and granite little island. You literally have to dodge bird shit with every other step. Millions of seabirds will call the island home for some stretch of each year.
The Seychellois sun is bright and hot, so our first order of business is to get our gills wet. As we’re getting our gear on, we see a wind affected right-hander peeling around the curve of the island. OASIS!
We ask the rangers – several of them surfers — if they ever surf there. Apparently it’s too shallow, or too average compared to their go-to wave on the leeward side. We tiptoe over the shallow rocky reef and stroke into a couple of sweet little sliders. We’re joined by a little family of hunting dolphins, stark white Tropicbirds sailing overhead, and the giddy feeling that we’re surfing somewhere that not many other humans have.
Eric Blais, Cousin Island’s Special Reserve Coordinator, tells us that one of the challenges that his organization faces is getting the message about their work out to the world — and to visitors of the Seychelles. Cousin Island is self-financed through eco-tourism, so they rely on visitor fees to pay staff, maintain rustic facilities, and to conduct vital research there.
After brainstorming, we conceptualize a mural to celebrate another of the major conservation wins that Nature Seychelles has earned — the stabilization and flourishing of the endemic ( and once endangered) Magpie Robin, which had dwindled to only around 35 individuals, but thanks to their work the population is now around 300+. The mural will add a little color to the visitor arrival hut and (we hope) will encourage visitors to take photos of their visit, hashtag the photos in social media and trickle out the message about Cousin Island.
Although drawing and painting takes up most of our day, we get to spend a couple of hours traversing the island, fluffy little baby birds are tucked into nests at the base of trees, in piles of leaves and at the forks of branches above us. The island is also home to a small population of giant Aldabra Tortise, a grove of native pink pineapples, and at least one native terrapin. There are too many questions to ask and there’s too much beauty to take in in just an afternoon.
At the end of the day, we are salt crusted and sand crumbed, soaked in the enlivening experience of sensing new spaces. Life hardly gets better.
Thanks to the Nature Seychelles team for the amazing work they’re doing to preserve species and maintain delicate conservation areas.
Learn more about their work:
Stay tuned for the finale Part 4 of Chasing The Sun: Seychelles – The Four Seasons coming up next…
Accommodation on La Digue – Hotel Coco De Mer & Black Parrot Suites
FRIENDS OF CHASING THE SUN: