Monday, January 25, 2010

Experiencing Seychelles resources

The Seychelles: steep-sided granite islands with fascinating runnels in the boulders peculiar to this island group; amazingly and surprisingly covered with dense luxuriant growth (what can support such robust plant-life as a growth medium in those rocks?); fringed by reefs and hence in many cases inaccessible to yachts; beautiful beaches of fine, soft, dense-packed white sand offering perfect photo opportunities for that ubiquitous “white sand, blue sky, boulder and shady tree” picture of the travelogues. The shady trees are generally coconut palms or the local takamaka tree, wide-spreading, with big leaves and an apparent love of sand and salt water!

The extended Seychelles group sits on a plateau only about 40m deep. Thus the seas from outside this plateau are accelerated onto the “bank”, providing potential for challenging waves and currents. Add to this the fact that with so many small islands interrupting the flow one finds odd patterns arising as the sea channeled round the top of an island meets that channeled round the bottom. Then add the fact that the tall islands have impact on the wind patterns which also affect the wave movement… we mention all this to provide background for the news that we have experienced really odd swell/wave motion on many occasions, both while travelling between the islands and when on anchor… the worst being in Port Launay (on Mahe Island)where we recently found ourselves swinging wildly and erratically, no doubt affected by the tide, the general sea motion in the bay, and the wind which has the channel and two gaps between peaks to whistle through. At least we never became bored with our ever-changing view… and the anchor held well, although we were up several times nightly to check!

So here we are, 6 weeks into experiencing this heaven, having just completed a circuit to take a look at some different islands and beaches…. and still learning how to do things! So, for example, take “getting to the beach”. All of our experiences until recently were in calm seas where gaps in the reef were obvious and easily accessible, making it easy to get the dinghy or croc to a gentle grounding.

Then there was the time when Irene needed a haircut. This required identifying (no, not an appropriate salon, but…) a remote, un-peopled beach where Monsieur Rolf could brandish his scissors with aplomb and no fear of covering the boat with hair that would keep turning up for weeks. So, a magnificent quiet beach was found on Felicite Island where we anchored for two days. From the boat, we could see the reef and the on-shore swell but it all looked manageable. Putting our kit and camera into a dry bag, we set off on the yellow inflatable canoe (the croc), paddling with great skill and rhythm towards the beach area, making adequate use of the swell to take us in smoothly. Sounds good….? Well it started that way but ended with us being side-swiped by a wave from the back that tossed Irene out from her aft perch and she rolled in, bouncing on the reef rock (which fortunately, in this area, was smooth and not sharp coral) while Rolf managed to hold himself and the boat in check. After a calming snack and a foray into the coconut palms to plunder our next smoothie-bases, the hair was sufficiently dry and received its styling. The return journey was considered with some trepidation (see photo below) but we walked out over the rock confidently, Irene (in front) holding the nose of the trusty vessel into the waves as Rolf stabilised from the rear. Take #2: Sounds good….? Well it started that way but ended up with Rolf stepping into (and almost disappearing down) a hole in the rock requiring Irene to gallantly power the croc out through the waves from her perch up forward this time… and waiting for Rolf to swim out to where she could hold the boat and not be pushed back to shore! Damage? Mainly dignity and pride on both counts.
The second learning experience was dinghy-based: getting to Anse (Beach) Lazio on Praslin Island necessitated firstly a 45 minute dinghy trip, crossing open sea for part of it (a jaunt to be approached with more caution in future…) then beaching the boat in waves larger than anticipated (fortunately no rocks). While the final outcome of the landing was successful, it says nothing of the almost-overturning that Rolf (after first getting us into it…!) managed to skillfully avoid: the result was that the watching beach-loungers witnessed a slewing boat and water waves over the side, resulting in a drenched Irene. Our time on this beach was spent in the beautiful environment seen below. So plans were laid for the departure and involved using four local young men (swimming at the time) to help us get the dinghy out through the breakers: they just had to hold it firm and pointed into the waves. They appeared to understand, and they appeared resolved. The first wave hit and they all gasped and relinquished their hold! Nonetheless, most of them recovered and we got the boat out (all very drenched this time), Rolf boarded it and motored it hastily out to smoother water… and Irene had to swim out to it (after, let it be said, being the one at the front who had the most firm grip on the boat…!).
Experiences under the water are always rewarding (referring, in this case, to the planned under-water experiences, i.e. snorkelling / diving!). Although the coral has been very disappointing in some areas (compared with some of the SA coral gardens at Sodwana, the Cape and Aliwal: here we have seen enormous tracts of dead, broken coral albeit with some small signs of recovery), we have also seen many areas where the coral is plentiful, healthy and handsome, although there is little in the way of the soft corals. Just swimming off any rocky point takes one to an underwater world with unusual and spectacular topography and general structure, often being a continuation of the boulders under water and hence the “runnels” in the boulders become crevasses decorated with picturesque coral in which the fish feed and flourish. Strangely, even in the dead-coral tracts the fish-life is absolutely awesome, resulting in our seeing new fish every time we venture into their world. Every reef area has large numbers of a huge variety of fish type as well as offering rays, eels, white-tip reef sharks, a school of trumpet fish, giant bump-head parrotfish, sea stars, needle fish, turtles and many of the regular reef fish that grow very large in this environment which (as evidenced by the gunge that grows on the hulls of our boat) is extremely nutritious.

Snorkelling from Ketoro off “Haircut Beach” produced, as well as the usual lovely reef fish, a great sight of 8 spotted eagle rays flying in formation under us, many box-type jellyfish (scary) and a pair of hawksbill turtles. The boat frequently invites a variety of fish seeking shade and food: the butterfly fish in common mooring areas have become accustomed to people and are very large and very bold and …. intimidating!! The photo below looks down on numerous boat-lovers in attendance. One area also has sucker fish (ramoras?) that latch onto the bottom of our hulls and feast on whatever is on offer; unfortunately these fish also strip off a layer of anti-foul paint from the hulls but look too scary so we do not dare get close to them to knock them off!!
To identify other snorkelling or dive spots, we investigate where the day trippers are taken; thus we found our way to Cocos Island, a tiny round boulder island which sees hordes of visitors paying dearly for the trip there. The snorkelling in much of the area is unusual in that the water is no more than a metre deep over stone and rock and the fish are all quite accustomed to the presence of people in their space. Most of the tourists (we have seen mainly German, French and Italian in our time in the Seychelles) wade bare-foot over the rocks, to our horror: we saw a very sinister-looking stonefish (very poisonous) in those same rocks, not 2m from a barefoot visitor.

When there are only two of you on the boat, the opportunities to dive are limited as we must dive as a buddy pair – which leaves the boat unattended at the dive site. However, when we see a commercial dive boat hovering over an area we do all we can to identify the exact spot and recently had an excellent dive from the dinghy (which we are happy to anchor casually and leave unattended). We dropped the anchor in exactly the right place using estimated GPS coordinates and bearings to land references and a portable fish finder to identify the depths. The most notable memory from this dive was a ray (let us repeat: RAY where the capitals indicate extent of our awe for this fellow)… looking like a large mound on the sea bed, Rolf and I simultaneously saw this monster of 3m diameter and more-than a metre tall (deep? thick?) beast with a short stubby tail and eyes the size of saucers. We backed off very quickly and maintained a very respectful distance! Far more unnerving than the various shark encounters, which we think (hope) have been reef sharks and not particularly aggressive. Shark encounters are always tinged with some apprehension, however, as we obviously snorkel above them (not a good place to be as they generally feed upwards, we believe). Just a point: the movies always have the “Jaws” music accompanied by the sight of a fin slicing through the water… we have, in all our sightings, never seen a fin above water but seen plenty at greater depths!

Of course, some of the fish species find their way to peoples’ plates. In our case we seem to be landing only Bonita (a type of tuna) so are becoming creative with our ways of presenting this fish and tolerant of the lack of fish variety in our diet. We have seldom put in a line and not caught anything: these waters are teeming with fish and we are grateful for this resource. A few days ago we left an anchorage at 6:30 am and by 9:30 had 4 Bonita in the freezer or prepared for dinner! The process is not without its potential dangers: whilst underway (visualise the boat rocking and rolling, even though Irene gets the speed down to about 2 knots or slower) Rolf must first secure the fish (lasso round the tail, the non-toothed end), kill it quickly, gut it and cut it up into steaks or fillets while standing on the bottom step of the sugar scoop … not falling off it into the sea nor cutting himself or attaching himself to a hook.

We were awe-struck to see a most magnificent sailfish at the end of our line some time ago; it gave a stunning display of tail-walking on the water before, happily, shaking off our lure and returning to the deep. We did not really want to land one of those magnificent creatures. Some flying fish throw themselves at us and we find them looking (dead and) surprised on deck in the morning. They are bony and scrawny and not to be eaten but make for good viewing as they leave the water at the side of the boat and fly away, looking from behind like little biplanes, and fly often for a few hundred metres, curving and banking before re-entering the sea.

We have recently made full and happy use of another of the Seychelles resources: rain. Our water-maker, bought at a cost of just under $12 000.00 and previously providing 60l per hour of desalinated water, has packed up. Negotiations are underway for repair/replacement of parts (under warranty) but meanwhile we must make do with what we have. Fortune (and not the sun) smiled on us… it rained. It bucketed down in squalls for a number of days … so out came all the buckets we could find and we filled the tank (see below). The process was repeated several times and we kept our tank full with the pure stuff from the sky!
Speaking of on-board resources: the toilets don’t work so well in the early mornings! Strange? Well, they are electric (have a pump and a macerator in the (very narrow) pipe which exits the bowl) and are very voltage-dependant. This is how the power works on the boat: we have a battery bank which at best sits on 13V and 100% capacity. Everything electrical draws from it and, if not charged by our motoring (e.g. if we purely sail or are sitting at anchor) we must charge it with the generator. So we monitor the voltage and capacity most carefully and generally have to run the genset in the late afternoon to charge up the batteries sufficiently to get us through the night (since fridge, freezer, anchor light, fans, toilet circuits all drain the batteries overnight too). It would appear that the toilet motors are very voltage dependant: if the loo is required in the early hours one hears the pump motor straining to clear the flush water, whereas when batteries are full the loos clear with a flourish!

Things of which one is not aware when living on land unless you monitor your consumption very carefully… a small fridge and freezer draw 14 amps (when the compressors are running…. and the more they are opened and closed, the more work the compressors must do), hair dryers simply do not get used as they will fry the batteries (who needs hairdryers anyway!?), the same applies to the microwave unless used on very low wattage setting, while charging notebook computers is also very draining. Hence, to use many of these things it is best to be running the motors/genset or be on shore power! We also have a clothes washer-dryer… an indulgence which has proved to be very useful although we generally only use it when on shore as the rate at which it consumes our two most valuable resources (fuel/power and water) is alarming. Nonetheless, we have found the most economical setting and that gets used occasionally while travelling …. but only when motoring and with the genset on so that the water maker may be run simultaneously!

We have returned to the Wharf Marina near Eden Island and Victoria to enjoy flat seas for sleeping and working, shore power, shore water and the chance to see Mahe on land! Irene is taking the opportunity to return to SA for a visit (friends and family in Pretoria area) and undertake a giant shopping spree for unobtainable or horribly expensive foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals …. in readiness for the next leg, to the uninhabited islands of Chagos.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Christmas in the Seychelles

After all the wonderful looking forward, anticipating Christmas with the family in the Seychelles, we now look back.… on the most amazing, marvelous time of celebration and fun with our family. While the boys thought they had landed in their own “Boys Own Annual” the girls had as much fun from watching their antics as participating in their own.

So, a day in the life of a boy on the water: wake early, pull up anchor, get fishing rods prepared in their stands, munch on a healthy breakfast quickly because you are about to start pulling them in! Gut and fillet the fish (someone else is controlling the boat meanwhile….. normally a girl….!) then sit back and open your first beer: although it is only 9:30am you have done a good days work already! After a bit of sailing, anchor off a pretty beach, swim and eat your fish for lunch, done on the braai (this IS a South African boat!).
Not long thereafter, sail to your final destination, hop in the water and snorkel before sundowners on the foredeck… generally blessed with the most spectacular sunsets. Days may be varied by throwing in a beach walk, paddling the inflatable Croc around the shallows, adding in a scuba dive off a spectacular island, eating your tuna as a steak or fillet or lasagne or fish cakes instead of kebab, for example! Days always ended with boys washing dishes.... their contribution to the galley (as well as providing the protein!)

Meanwhile, how do the girls pass these hours on the boat? Resting and reading in between passing across the necessary fishing support instruments, enjoying the sailing and the odd dolphin, snorkelling, beach-walking, sundowners and passing some incredibly creative hours in the galley (more of that later). All enjoyed the freedom offered by the dinghy and the croc and the fact that you never had to swim far from Ketoro to snorkel in a spectacular marine environment where we saw rays, turtles, giant bull-nose parrot-fish, eels and occasional sharks on top of a plethora of the usual beautiful reef fish. The photos give an idea of the fun we all had.

Soon after the kids all arrived we set about decorating the Christmas tree (a family tradition). Necessity stimulated creative thinking in this regard: Rolf dutifully provided two cardboard bases from beer-cases from which a tree was fashioned, standing in beach sand from our first over-night stop, covered in silver paper and plenty of pretty shells collected in Madagascar and the Seychelles. Christmas lunch was spent at a lovely restaurant overlooking the main beach, Anse Volbert, on Praslin Island and the days thereafter were passed anchored off Praslin, Curieuse and La Digue Islands. The latter provided opportunity to hire bicycles and cycle round the island, a wonderful experience particularly when coming upon a giant tortoise strolling (as tortoises do) towards you on the road! Barry kept his foot away from the tortoise's beak.... but then relented and gave it a stroke. Seychelles has thousands of the these huge, wonderful creatures, who love to have their shells scratched and necks rubbed (Irene being happy to oblige, but standing far from them, with recent wounds inflicted by a Madagascan tortoise fresh in her mind!)
New Year’s Eve was passed in the National Marine Park off Curieuse Island. After a quick beach sundowner among the spectacular granite rocks on the beach, we ate great paella on the boat, bathed by a full moon, supported by much wine, champagne and other liquid refreshment. We (and the yachts around us) had unusual company in the form of two boats: a charter schooner that looked just like Johnny Depp’s pirate boat… and a Seychelles Coast Guard boat. So the start of 2010 was heralded by brilliant red flares (illegal but beautiful!) and of course a midnight swim in the black water. I am still unsure of the reason for the boys’ not requiring costumes for their swim, and even more unsure of their reasons for wanting to shoot the pirate boat (or alternatively the Coast Guard boat) with the paint-ball gun. Fortunately some measure of sanity prevailed and they simply went across to visit the “pirate boat” with a bottle of Vodka and the story that they had wanted to shoot them (or share a drink). The German charter party thought them most amusing, schlurring away on the dinghy but declined to invite them on board! Thank heavens they did not try the Coast Guard boat….
(Note the moon behind us....)

Having the four “children” on board with us for two weeks was an absolute treat. They put up (uncomplainingly) with cramped, wet conditions, heat and humidity, little own space, little own time, sometimes sea sickness, sometimes rolly anchorages, sometimes tense anchoring or berthing procedures; they absolutely embraced the cruising way of life and added a new dimension and perspective to our enjoyment of it all. They helped us wherever they could and the girls particularly were marvelous in the galley, bringing forth culinary masterpieces when all they had to work with was left-overs and some scrawny veg! They need to collaborate on a Cook-Book for yachties!

Good-byes are always terrible and for a couple of days we were left at a loss; for so many months we had looked forward to this experience and it proved to be everything we dreamed of. Now we have exceptional memories and promises of other journeys together.

Before then, we will investigate other islands and try to make the Seychelles our own…. We are finding that as we talk to more people and learn how a place works – where to get stuff, how to deal with local practices and peculiarities, what to take seriously and what to ignore, when and where the good things happen, etc. a feeling of ‘belonging’ quickly develops. After a break of almost 40 years, we have re-discovered the art of hitch-hiking – buses take too long and taxis are too expensive and not nearly as interesting; chance encounters with a broad cross-section of locals, re-living memories of carefree travelling on the back of a truck with sun in your face and wind in your hair and dirt on your clothes! What the Seychellois must think of these two ageing delinquents walking the main roads – with dark tans and Rolf’s scruffy clothes (at least he had a recent haircut at Salon Ketoro), we surely look like a pair of hobos.

Almost all encounters with people in the Seychelles have left us with a feeling of wellbeing and I think this must reflect the general state and mood of this society. (This does not apply to waiters – who without exception are bad at their jobs or grumpy, or both.) We had often heard of people staying many months in the Seychelles and being very sad when finally having to leave; and had wondered at this because surely the finite number of islands and island activities must pale after a while. Perhaps it is the people and the mood of the islands that gets to you.

The reported very high crime (claimed by other yachties) – particularly theft from boats - has not been experienced by us, nor have we heard of incidents while we have been here and this perhaps encourages the feeling of goodwill we currently enjoy.

We had also heard reports of very high prices and this is certainly true, particularly in the tourist restaurants and hotels. Surprisingly, shopping is somewhat ‘third world’ with small shops, each stocking an eclectic mix of goods, scattered throughout town. Provisioning, as in Madagascar, becomes a tiring exercise… getting to town (foot), carrying parcels from shop to shop and returning burdened. Then there is the issue of obtaining certain goods and the quality thereof. A case in point: nowhere can you buy brown or whole-wheat flour for bread, so when I spotted multi-grain bread in a shop I asked to buy some flour from them. When I declined to buy a 25kg bag (all imported from Dubai) they kindly obliged and gave me two 2kg bags. For which I paid 400 rupees (about SA R270). On opening the packets to decant into smaller ones and vacuum-bag, I found they were crawling with weevils. We are about to set off to town AGAIN to return it; hope they are as obliging, but if not, I will have to ask Livi and Kay for their other book, “Ways with Weevils … Protein in a Packet”. The kids all became very aware of the problems of long-term storage when they were here….

The tourist areas themselves are very rustic and under-developed. Rolf had expected at least the main beach on Praslin (the tourist hot spot) to have a Camps Bay or Clifton feel – in fact there is nothing even remotely like this level of development. There is almost no signage visible through the thick foliage to identify the few restaurants and hotels that do exist and pub crawling along this 2km long stretch of beach would lead to certain death by dehydration! However notwithstanding this hazard, the absence of obvious mass tourism has its advantages as property developers and entertainment houses rarely manage to exercise taste or restraint when fleecing the hordes; and the genuine island style that prevails comes as a pleasant surprise.