In the shallow waters of Baie Ternay off the island of Mahé I came face to face with my first turtle, ancient eyes in a wizened face that made me feel like crying. It was the week my mother died, but underwater my mind was newly occupied by wonderful things. I peered into orange sponges where dark red brittle stars hid. I saw 30 eagle rays flying into the safety of the blue. There was the sense of something new on every dive, a trepidation about what might appear from the darker water away from the reef, and a compulsion to go there. I became addicted to being underwater, obsessive about learning the names of the fish I saw. And I fell deeply in love with the Seychelles.
It was not my first visit to the islands. I had passed through in 1988, en route to reporting for the BBC on the turbulent politics of Madagascar and the Comoro Islands. As the aircraft doors opened, the sweet dampness of the tropical air stirred memories of my childhood in Malaysia. The twin forces of recollection and discovery created an emotional link, a passion that was as invasive and tenacious as a tropical vine clinging to the trunk of a sandragon tree.
I became intrigued by this line of reefs, islets and atolls stretching across the western Indian Ocean. Even the names were poetic: rocky Frégate and Félicité to the east and north of Mahé, southwards the Amirantes—coralline specks like Desnœufs where the harvest of birds' eggs was awaited as a delicacy on Mahé tables. And far away, below the African Banks, sailors talked of Providence, Farquhar and mysterious, uninhabited Aldabra.
I determined to visit as many of the 115 islands as possible. I wanted to discover what each was like, and what it was about the country that kept drawing me back. Over 24 years, through a combination of determination and serendipity, I have returned twice that many times. For a while I lived there. Seychelles holds the most vivid memories of my life.
Mahé is the largest island, not quite 20 miles long and five at its widest point. Along with nearby Praslin and La Digue, it's home to over 90% of the population—though Victoria, with its single set of traffic lights, has something of a Toytown feel. The capital sits in the shadow of the Trois Frères, granite peaks covered with dense forest, a sharp-edged, prickly place thick with humus underfoot. Giant millipedes as fat as Cumberland sausages crawl through the leaf litter. The air is heavy with the scent of rich decay, and pitcher plants wait for insects to crawl into their sticky maw. Cinnamon trees and vanilla vines escaped from ancient plantations survive, away from human interference. Mahé's luxuriant interior remains a secret, accessible only to the adventurous few who brave the 90% humidity and the sloping, slippery terrain. I was once lost up there, with a local pilot who claimed he could navigate among the trees by compass. After nine hours we found our way back, scratched to pieces, dehydrated and munched by mosquitoes.
As years passed my tally of islands grew, and each one taught me a little more about the country—and about myself. Inextricably linked to my emotional life, the visits gave me adventures and exotic memories. I considered spare money not spent on a ticket to Seychelles wasted. I returned to dive and, for about a year, combined an obsession with the liquid world with a love affair with a diving instructor. It was a relationship built upon getting close to fish. Underwater, I believed we were united in spirit, and I barely noticed our total failure to communicate above water.
Each island had its own character, its own story: Aride with its rocky shores, where elegant red-tailed tropic birds and scythe-winged frigate birds breed; the crumbling mausoleum of a planter family on Silhouette; half a million mobster sooty terns on Bird. Four hundred and fifty miles south of Mahé, on Farquhar, home to a few workers harvesting copra, bleached turtle bones were laid out like a jigsaw in the sand. At sunset on Frégate, flying foxes glided above the forest canopy in search of ripening mangoes. On Curieuse (once a leper colony), I heard the grunting love lament of male giant tortoises as they hauled their heavy-toed limbs aloft to mount the fortress of their mates. I ate fresh wahoo minutes after it thudded onto the bouncing deck of a wooden schooner in a rolling sea. I gorged on crisps made from breadfruit and even, ashamedly, tasted fruit-bat curry.
If diving was crucial to falling in love with the islands, what was born in the water soon moved onto land. It became apparent that this was not some passing romance: while I still notice their beauty, Seychelles' lingering charm is something deeper, more complex and, ultimately, more earthy. "You will only understand this country", a Seychellois friend told me, "when you have made love to a Creole girl in an old house with a tin roof when the monsoon rains are drowning out the sound of everything else."
Seychelles is sexy. Sexual conquests here are a badge of honour and sign of strength—certainly for men. Once, after interviewing a local bishop about the church's stance on something political, I lingered for an informal chat. Seychelles is nominally Roman Catholic, but it's the women and children who make up the majority of the Sunday-morning congregation. Immaculate dresses, smart shoes and a hat are still the church uniform. "Women have much more of an oblatory spirit," the bishop explained. He sighed and fixed me with an enquiring gaze. "Tell me, my son," he said casually, "how long have you been living here?"
"Almost a year," I replied, "with my wife and baby daughter."
"And do you have a local mistress yet? It's only a matter of time you know. I advise you to leave before the year is out, for the sake of your soul and to avoid eternal damnation."
I have resisted the urge to take a Seychelloise mistress, so far, though it hasn't stopped colleagues, even friends, believing I have one. These islands intoxicate. The first European to fall under their spell was Lazare Picault, who claimed the previously uninhabited specks of land for France in 1742. There was a half-hearted attempt to set up a plantation culture, and various African, Malagasy, Indian, Chinese and European traders, planters, freed slaves, sailors and colonial administrators made their ways to settle the islands; you can see their mixed influence on the face of every Seychellois today. After the Napoleonic wars, Seychelles became British, but the colonial masters were distracted by their possessions in east Africa and India and, while it was strategically convenient to own Seychelles, they were run as part of Mauritius until the early 20th century. A small, largely French landowning class dominated the culture of the islands; the native Creole sounds French, perhaps the reason people still seem to think the islands were a colony of France until independence in 1976.
That's when things became really interesting. Seemingly removed from mainstream politics, but scattered across almost half a million square kilometres of crucial shipping routes, Seychelles became alluring to the superpowers during the cold war. Soviet and Western nuclear submarines played hide and seek in Seychellois water, while the government capitalised on its non-aligned status, staying part of the Commonwealth and renting out a mountaintop to the United States for a satellite-tracking station with one hand, while pocketing Eastern-bloc aid with the other.
Seychelles only enjoyed one full year of democratic statehood, under the leadership of "Jimmy" Mancham, a London-educated, self-styled playboy from a wealthy trading family. His plan was to make Seychelles an Indian Ocean tax haven for the jet set. People like Peter Sellers and George Harrison had been seduced into buying land in the 1960s and the early 1970s, and Mancham wanted more like them. But it didn't match the ideals of his prime minister, France-Albert René, who stormed the police station armed with a pistol and told the radio station to announce a curfew. He had some Eastern-bloc sponsorship, training and weapons. Like Mancham, René was a lawyer, but from a poor family and with a grudge against the old "grand blanc" landowners. He confiscated the properties of foreigners and set about turning Mancham's pleasure dome into a socialist, one-party state.
It's not just the sharks, the giant millipedes, eagle rays and gentle chittering fruit bats. I have formed a deep attachment to the Seychellois. I respect their ability to carve nationhood from a population—and a land mass—not much bigger than the Isle of Man. Colleagues who reported from the hotspots of mainland Africa were sometimes dismissive of my determination to follow each twist and turn in the islands' political development. They accused me of "reporting from the beach". I couldn't see the problem.
"Sir James", as Jimmy Mancham had become, was already in exile in Putney, south-west London, when I first met him. I had just returned from interviewing his nemesis, President René. Although I had moved freely around Mahé, people warned me that I was being followed, and that I should be careful. They spoke of people disappearing in the dead of night, and one prominent opposition activist in London had recently been machine-gunned to death on his doorstep.
Mancham offered me whisky, which we sipped as he talked about the events of the coup. It happened during the Queen's Silver Jubilee Commonwealth conference. He was asleep when the phone rang at 3am. It was Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi billionaire, who broke the news. "I wasn't alone," Mancham recounted with great seriousness. "There was a beautiful blonde sleeping peacefully in the bed beside me."
Unable to return, he stayed in exile in London, trying to drum up support from the British government and influential friends. When a reporter from the Evening Standard was sent to interview Mancham, he clasped her hand and recited some of his poetry. She became his second wife. At the end of the cold war, when Seychelles went back to multi-party politics, Jimmy returned to challenge René at the polls. He stepped off the plane to the strains of "Una Paloma Blanca", the song he had adopted as his informal theme tune. His political star had waned, however, and René won decisively at the polls, leaving Mancham to a graceful retirement.
Over the years, I met René several times and found him courteous, quick-witted and pragmatic. But many Seychellois found life impossible under his Cuban-style regime. About 15% of the population went overseas, many of them coming to Britain, where a large exile community sprang up in Hounslow. It was as bitter a contrast to life in Seychelles as you might imagine. But for many, especially the Creole majority, René came to symbolise a freer, fairer Seychelles, and when he finally stepped down from the presidency in 2004, he was the longest-serving head of state in the Commonwealth.
After that socialism waned, the economy was liberalised, the celebrities returned. Private islands were available for rent, helicopters and yachts became part of the scenery. The arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for their honeymoon last year sprinkled a new dash of stardust. As they left, President James Michel gave them a coco-de-mer. It was an obvious souvenir for a young couple fresh from a fortnight on a private island. The coco-de-mer is a giant coconut which, when de-husked, resembles a plump female pelvis. Some call it the love nut, although I never hear the phrase without thinking of the unromantic bar of that name in Victoria, popular with visiting sailors.
I have my own coco-de-mer, but it is kept out of sight in a box made from veined calice du pape wood. Occasionally, my 11-year-old son will lift the lid and encourage a friend to peer inside. Adults and children alike often recoil from its erotic form, complete with tufts of vegetative pubic hair attached to the rotund seed of Lodoicea maldivica. But when I show the coco-de-mer to visitors it is not with prurient intent: I want them to marvel that this is the largest seed in the plant kingdom and that it comes from a perilously endangered tree found only on two islands in Seychelles. As my son says: how cool is that?
On the surface, the end of the cold war restored tranquillity to the Seychelles. Yet scratch a little, and not much has changed. The current president was one of the original band of a dozen men who helped René stage the coup. There are democratic, free elections, but the ruling party always holds sway.
Seychelles draws modern adventurers, just as it once drew pirates looking for somewhere to bury their treasure. To preserve the highest standards of living in Africa, it has welcomed property developers, foreign potentates and an ever-increasing number of tourists. But some recent foreign visitors have been unwelcome: the Somali pirates. They have hijacked not only foreign yachts and cargo ships, but local fishing boats too. Astonishingly, Seychelles has become the hub of the fight against modern-day piracy. Jean-Paul Adam, the world's youngest foreign minister when he was appointed in 2009, aged 32, has managed to attract financial and military aid from America, the European Union, China, Russia, the Emirates and Britain to build an anti-piracy command centre and a new prison to accommodate pirates who are caught, tried and imprisoned or repatriated. I remember when Jean-Paul was a schoolboy on the Seychelles swimming team.
It is those kinds of realisation that underline how well I know the islands. I feel as at home in Seychelles as I have ever done anywhere. No longer just a series of tiny dots on the map, it has become a self-contained universe. From here, it is the wider world that seems chaotic and impoverished. I have found balance here, an emotional centre on islands where the forces of nature are still untamed, and where people are dominated by their landscape and not the other way round.
Last year I finally made it to Aldabra, 700 miles south of Mahé. It was a culmination of years of hoping and dreaming that I could one day set foot on the giant coral necklace. The lagoon in the middle of the coral islands could hold Manhattan—twice over. A few scientists are allowed to stay at a small base on short-term research projects, but no tourists. Here there are 100,000 giant tortoises, about ten times the number in Galapagos. It's the last place on earth where giant reptiles dominate an ecosystem.
Underwater, Aldabra is equally special. Mangroves around the islands are a breeding ground for hundreds of species of fish. Swift tides rushing through the narrow channels flush nutrients in and out of the lagoon, attracting birds, fish, turtles and sharks. Floating over the seaward reefs felt like being the only diver in the Indian Ocean. As so often when diving, I thought of my mother, wishing she were alive to hear about it. On land, surrounded by the vast blue horizon, I felt the contentment of isolation that is the true gift of the outer islands. I saw nightjars sleeping on the forest floor, and Aldabra rails—the last flightless birds in the Indian Ocean—pecking at baby giant tortoises that tucked their heads inside their shells to escape. At the western edge of the lagoon, hundreds of red-footed booby birds soared above the mangrove. I fell asleep to the skitterings of land crabs climbing the coconut trees and paddled through a pass in the reef with lemon sharks following like puppies in the trail of bubbles left by my feet. It felt not like the ends of the earth, but a vision of its very beginning.