During the one glorious week that I spent in the Seychelles in February 2015, I was introduced to a panoply of natural habitats from reefs, beaches and oceans to mountain forests and wetlands. Yet, it was in a more familiar one — the mangroves beside the opulent Avani Barbarons Resort and Spa — that I discovered one more facet of the ebb and flow of life.
It’s hard to imagine a better located resort. On the western coast of Mahe island, the largest of the Seychelles islands and home to its diminutive capital, Victoria, Avani nestles in the shadow of Morne Seychellois and Morne Blanc — the tallest peaks on the granitic island. It hugs the breathtaking Barbarons beach with its snorkelling reefs fringed by palms and lush vegetation. The Indian Ocean washes its shores, which are lined with beach casuarinas and Takamaka trees (Calophyllum inophyllum) perfect for stringing up hammocks. In the shallow creeks forged by rivulets and streams threading into the ocean luxuriate matted forests of mangrove trees, their spiky roots surfacing for air above the dense, runny ooze.
Stepping out of the resort, I walked on the highway for a couple of minutes before entering the mangrove forest. The Vacoa Nature Trail takes you into the heart of the mangrove swamp beside the sea, urging you to watch crabs, fish, insects and birds that inhabit this unique ecosystem. It was a short, unnerving walk, for this highway is arguably the only terrestrial thing that can potentially kill a human on the Seychelles, unless you are struck by a falling Coco de Mer. The highway is narrow, and there are no footpaths. Not even a shoulder. I had no choice but to walk on the macadam. Cars and trucks whizzed by, inches away. It was a brief walk, mercifully. Anxious minutes later, I turned and entered the mangrove forest.
When I stepped into the woodland, it was still and quiet. But I knew it was just potential energy, winding its shadowy coils tight like a spring. A few steps along firm ground and the creeks began. An elevated boardwalk allows visitors to experience and enjoy the mangroves without disturbing them. In that sense, the resort performs a vital function – stewardship of the habitat by keeping a watch on depredation. Below the boardwalk the ground falls away into pools of dark mud that looks ominously like quicksand. The stubby stilt roots of the mangrove trees (Seychelles has six species) poke out of the mud.
Sunlight, filtering slowly from behind the peaks of Morne Seychellois and Morne Blanc, the island’s highest summits at 2,969 feet and 2,188 feet respectively, rained down on the darkness in sharp, angular beams. Suddenly and abruptly, the forest was bathed in light squeezed through the mist from the mountains. Its force and intensity were surprising. Clearly, it had been impatient to get here.
For years, mangroves were thought of as a hindrance to construction and that led to their being uprooted and cleared to dredge ports. This has happened in the Seychelles, too, but in recent decades better sense has prevailed and awareness drives are afoot on a war footing to conserve mangrove ecosystems. There is a good reason why the Seychellois know better than to allow their mangroves to die – shore erosion.
Coastal mangrove wetlands form a bulwark between the beach and the vegetation of the large islands of the Seychelles. Granitic rocks, clothed in lush forest, taper toward the western coast of Mahe island. Often they end abruptly in beaches, but in certain places the mangroves form a buffer. They limit the intrusion of erosive salt water into the island and maintain watersheds for the breeding of fish, crabs and shrimp. They also form natural bulwarks against damage from tsunamis and tidal waves.
I waited, still, as the light filtered into the mangrove. A boat lay moored against the far end, brushing against the foliage, a vitreous sheet of water separating me from it. Bits of ocean junk — plastic bottles and rubbish — had washed up against the floor of the forest.
Birds emerged. Seychelles Blue Pigeons, a pair of sleepy Whimbrels waking noisily, the dark Seychelles Sunbirds, the fire-orange Madagascar Fody, the ungainly Seychelles Bulbul… all ticked off their names in the attendance register. Crabs poked their heads out of burrows in the soft wet mud and vanished as soon as I made eye contact with their probing stalks.
As light penetrated down to the ground, as the day warmed, life went into quiet mode. Birds made themselves scarce and the sounds of the highway became insistently louder. It was time for me to get back on the road.
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