- The ferry from Praslin to La Digue cost 940Rs per person the equivalent of about £26 each. This seems expensive, but as Becca pointed out is less than a train ticket to London from our town of Biggleswade!
- The incredibly rare Seychelles Black Paradise Flycatcher
- Despite being the third biggest island in the Seychelles it has managed to maintain its relaxed, desert island appeal by restricting vehicles on the island and meaning most people get around by bicycle.
Where is it?
Right from booking our trip to Seychelles La Digue was on the list of places to visit. For a 32 year old I don’t exactly have the same tastes as most of my contemporaries, in fact I’m famous for it. I was wearing tank tops at least 20 years after they went out of fashion, Bob Dylan leads my most listened to list every year and of all the fitness hobbies I could pick I went for the ‘hard to make look cool’ world of cycling. So for me La Digue was like an island sent from heaven. Full of tank top wearing, Bob Dylan listening lycra clad cyclists. Well, I’ve stretched the truth a little but I was right on 1 out of 3.
La Digue is famous for its lack of vehicles. It doesn’t seem to be some radical statement on global warming, more that they never really got round to it. They started with no cars and it was a bit of a hassle to bring them over so didn’t bother. This is a philosophy I like and one I’ve adopted widely thoughout my life. Forget about being an early adopter, sit back, wait and see, then make a call. Some people might say I’m not on trend, I prefer to think of it as being a pragmatic approach. Due to missing the trend on combustion engines the main form of transport on La Digue was bicycles. It’s like Cambridge but without the snooty, well-moneyed, faux erudites, well that and the fact thats it’s an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, surrounded by picture perfect beaches, Listerine mint waters and containing a population of giant tortoises. Maybe the Cambridge comparison was a little narrow. They both have loads of bikes though, you get my point.
To add to the list of embarrassing and out of date things I shouldn’t be doing at 32 I also like a bit of birding. Not the extreme ‘camping out in a damp field for hours to see some small brown vagrant from 300 metres away’ type of birding but I do have a real appreciation for our beaked, tweeting neighbours. As a kid spending time in Africa with my Dad I caught the bug. When even the backyard birds are bright blue, or weave nests, or are giant screaming Ibis then it’s hard not to be. I’m not sure I would have stoked that fire on the mostly drab species of the UK but get out to Africa, Asia, South America and look hard enough and you can’t fail to be amazed. La Digue had a particularly important target for me the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher. These guys number less than 200 and are only found on this island. Bike and birds. This place had it all!
We rocked up after getting the ferry over from the jetty on Praslin. Becca was not looking well. She hadn’t taken her normal concoction of tablets that stop her going green. This was my fault. And not in one of those usual husband ‘it’s your fault’ altruistic moments where you just take one for the team to stop an argument. This was actually my fault. I had reassured her that the anti-green tablets would not be necessary for this trip. ‘It’s a big boat, they move around less’ I’d told her. After the many years I spent in a town as far away from water as you can get in the UK, I should know. She took my advice on board, both metaphorically and literally. Turns out this big old catamaran was doing its best Alton Towers impression today, even I was ailing. I hid it well, this was important. Pretend it wasn’t all that bad and most normal people don’t take tablets. Then it is her fault, weak genes.
After disembarking we wandered up the narrow concrete walkway through the harbour battling with tourists, suitcases and sellers. It was a chaotic scene like a Moroccan bazaar but with only one product to sell. No spices, rugs, ornate cabinets or tiny monkey hands on sale here. Just one things, hire bikes. When everyone is selling the same thing the sellers have to work a little harder to stand out. When the product is the same, the sales pitch needs to get you noticed. Some kept it simple; ‘You want bike?’. A phrase so uncomplicated it had been narrowed down to the least number of words possible to keep it coherent. Others worked the guilt angle. ‘Sir, it’s hot, the island is big, you are not going to make your wife walk so far are you?’. This was a man who had not done his homework. Becca has been made to endure adventures far longer than this in search of wildlife. My favourite was an old shrivelled up man who had clearly been working his pitch in the sunshine at the harbour’s edge for many years. His tactic was essentially belittling everyone else and picking up the scraps. ‘Don’t buy from him he expensive’ was one approach or the more simplistic ‘his bikes rusty, old, buy here’. It seemed to be working as he was regularly leading tourists off to a little shop on the other side of the road. He must have been the most unpopular little man on the island. His anti propaganda mission was clearly taking trade away from the others, but they didn’t seem that concerned and nor did he.
We headed away from the harbour up the unpaved main road out of town in search of La Veuve nature reserve. La Digue was a strange place, like a glimpse into the past. The road was cobbled with sand from the beach encroaching from the sides. There was the occasional piece of flat tarmac but mostly the road had been painstakingly laid block by block. The houses were single storied and colourful with orange walls and green corrugated roofs that were wider than the buildings propped up with wooden beams. Often it was hard to tell the distinction between public and private with gardens open and butting right up to the road. Where there were boundaries they were beautifully done; bright yellow walls or small picket fences broken up by palms. What was most strange was the lack of cars. It’s not until they’re not there that you realise how much they dominate. Roads get cluttered and need to be wider to accommodate, parking bays filled with metal ruin the views and fumes clog up the air. Here there was nothing other than the occasional bus or truck ferrying people round the island.
Unfortunately not all danger had been removed. The absence of cars meant many people were forced against their better judgement into the hiring of a bike, and what was clear is that this was either a new or long forgotten skill for many of them. And this was further highlighted by the prowess of the locals who – again due to the lack or cars – were showing off their incredible dexterity on two wheels. It was a stark contrast. The tourist were flip flopped, wheezing, swerving and generally cursing their decision. The locals seemed to be competing in a ‘odd things to carry on a bike’ competition. Rods and oars were pretty standard, 20kg of rice wedged between the legs was a level up but holding a canoe above your head with one hand whilst steering with the other is simply a sight to behold.
After a half hour walk we made it to the Veuve Reserve. This place exists as a home for the Paradise Flycatchers. There are less than 200 on the planet, and 30 pairs of them live in this tiny patch of woodland. There is then a small population that has been moved out to the neighbouring Denis Island and a few more around La Digue. Other than that they are no where else in the wild. No where. That’s simply ridiculous to come to terms with in my head. The train I get to work every day has more than 200 people on it. The ridiculously named non league team ‘West Allotment Celtic‘ regularly draw a crowd of more than 200. There are even more than 200 people in the USA named ‘Roger Rogers’ (573 to be precise). The world is a very strange place.
We entered the woodland reserve on the hunt for the flycatchers, Becca clear in the knowledge this would be a long day if we didn’t find any. Veuve Reserve on the face of it could easily mistaken with an ancient British woodland. This was certainly very different to the tropical palm forests at the centre of Praslin Island. Dig a little deeper inside though and this is certainly not the normal Sunday afternoon stroll in England. The differences start off subtle, the patch of ferns or the sunbird guzzling nectar from a nearby flower. They stack up pretty quickly though. The 8 foot mass of spider web contains 20 odd spiders was a big hint that this wasn’t a normal wander. The bats dropping fruit stones onto the path in front of us really rammed home the point.
The flycatchers were doing their best to prove exactly how rare they were. There would be no drama if they just came up and curtsied in front of us of course, but they could have at least made an effort. As endangered as they were this forest was meant to be full of the little buggers but our initial efforts proved fruitless. We tried heading off down all the side paths but this didn’t work, so eventually we just sat on a bench in thee in hope they’d come to us. Needles to say this approach also backfired. Short of tieing a fly to a piece of fishing wire and running around shouting ‘here birdy’ we tried everything. But our luck was to change. It seems we’d taken the wrong approach. Don’t look for the birds, look for the people who are better at looking for the birds than we are. In our case what we spotted was an advert for everything that gives birdwatching a bad reputation.
A German couple were perched on two single legged stools in perfect silence. The size of their camera lenses was trumped only by the size of the bellies propping them up. They were dressed head to toe in the kind of khaki clothing that was clearly designed just to stick two fingers up at the fashion industry. It had clearly been a long time since they’d moved, so long it seems evolution had actually passed them by a little. He was clearly the ringleader; more kit, better camouflage, bigger binoculars. I imagine there was a time where they had normal holidays with beaches and cocktails and fun but gradually he wore her down to his way of thinking. Now there was no way back. Becca glanced at me, as if she’d just seen a worrying glimpse into our future. Our German friends had hit the jackpot though, about 50 yards in front of them was perched the rusty chestnut colours of a female Paradise Flycatcher. They truly are amazing, the difference between the sexes is striking. This is not in the normal way with birds where the boys have all the sexy plumes and the girls are left to be dowdy and brown. With the Seychelles Paradise Flycatchers it’s like the two are competing for best dressed. The only way you can even tell they are the same species is from the brilliant blue colour surrounding the eyes and running down the beak. Well that and a rather worrying addiction to flies. Here is where the similarities end. The male is adorned in glossy black/blue feathers leading down to two long streamers three times the length of his body that trail behind him as he flies. The female does not have the long tail but makes up for it with her coppery back contrasted against her beige front. Her head is almost identical to the male but looks out of place with the rest of her outfit, looking like a lady that’s decided to combine an evening dress with a balaclava. It was an amazing experience to see a bird like this in the wild. We watched for a few minutes as she flitted from branch to branch picking lunch out of the air. As quickly as she’d appeared she was gone again off to find a new spot for a meal. We meandered around the rest of the reserve desperately hoping to see a male too but weren’t quite lucky enough. Happy I could tick it off my list regardless we left in search of some lunch of our own.
We stopped off for lunch at a little creole restaurant Gala Takeaway that sits just across the road from Veuve Reserve. This was mentioned in our Lonely Planet guide as a great place to eat, but as with alot of eateries in the Seychelles it did its best to hide it. Concealed behind the green walls and rusted corrugated roof was a little restaurant reminiscent of a classic British chippy. It had borrowed the panelled wooden counter, garish peeling walls and even the signs with 3ft pictures of unappealing food. We persevered. The food was displayed in a bain-marie more commonly seen in workplace kitchens, Despite all this the smell was incredible, a rich air of spice and stock. The queue of locals was a reassuring sign the food was going to be good. When we got to the front we didn’t choose from the menu, more by pointing at whatever looking nice on the counter in front of us. I came away with a salt fish and coconut curry, Becca with fish fillet in garlic sauce. We sat outside and enjoyed both the sunshine and the moaning of a Brummie couple on the table next to us. These were the first Brits we’d seen on the holiday and it made me proud to hear the lady really go for it. She was mostly whinging about how unappetising the food inside had looked, but also covered many other topics such as the heat, the flies and how expensive things were. Her husband had two beers with lunch. I don’t blame him.
After lunch we carried on away from the harbour with the vague ambition of reaching L’Union Estate. We did, but by the time we got there we were both about ready to collapse. The walk wasn’t too long but the lack of shade and baking heat nearly wiped us out. This coupled with both having had a massive helping of curry and rice was a recipe for post lunch disaster. We decided to head back towards the harbour stopping off in La Digue’s little church on the way back.
We ended our trip to the island by sitting in a bar at the harbour looking over relaxing with a Seybrew and a cider, which in my opinion is the perfect way to finish any day.