It all began with a telephone call from an old friend of mine, a man of many passions, one of which is chartering beautiful boats in some of the most beautiful places on earth.
Thirteen years ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to join him and his family, and some other friends on a cruise around the Polynesian islands, starting in Tahiti, and working our way up to Bora-Bora and Maupiti, which are islands about as beautiful as anywhere on earth. So, when my friend telephoned towards the end of March in 2003 to ask what my then partner, now wife, Chrissy, and I, were doing over Easter, it was with some curiosity, and anticipation, that I replied: ‘absolutely nothing’. I was then asked if we would care to join him and his wife, on a cruise around the Seychelles, which, I was assured, would include endless opportunities for deep sea fishing, salt-water fly fishing, snorkeling, and generally ‘hanging out’ around a group of the outer islands known as the Amirantes. My response was not over long in coming, and was in the affirmative, and so it was that on Good Friday, 2003, that we boarded our flight from Heathrow, on Air Seychelles flight to Mahe, via Zurich.
Our arrival at Mahe coincided with a rainstorm as we transferred to a smaller Air Seychelles ‘island hopper’ for the trip to Des Roches, an isolated island about 120 miles southwest of Mahe, with a landing strip about a quarter of a mile long cut diagonally across the island. Des Roches is a raised plateau coral island on the edge of a lagoon formed by an eight mile atoll, with a small ‘settlement’ which now supports a luxury hotel in the form of a series of individual bungalows or huts, which is being built on the western end of the island right beside the landing strip.
We were met by our Skipper and the island Manager, who rejoiced in the name of Elvis, and some other helpful locals with a tractor and trailer, who transferred all our luggage. This included a large tube containing several fishing rods of various sizes, the larger ones for deep sea fishing, and smaller rods for the salt water fly fishing which we intended doing on the various ‘flats’, within the lagoons formed by the coral reefs, which comprise all the islands in this archipelago. The tractor and trailer wound their way through the palm trees of the interior of the island until we reached the settlement, where the 72ft Bermudan Ketch, was anchored a few hundred yards offshore. This would be our home for the next 12 days.
The deckhand, Steven, a charming 26 year old Seychellois from an island called ‘La Digue’ , the smallest of the group around Mahe, was waiting on the beach with the tender and took us straight on board to be greeted by the skipper’s wife, who would be looking after all our needs. Fortunately, she was a resourceful cook, because she was required to invent endless ways of cooking the numerous varieties of fish which we would catch over the next 12 days, including rainbow runner, yellow fin tuna, dog toothed tuna, green job, dorado, bonito, wahoo, blue finned and giant trevally, red snapper, and mangrove snapper.
We spent the first night aboard the boat moored opposite the settlement at Des Roches, and caught up on our sleep after the 12 hour flight, before setting sail the next day for St Joseph’s and D’Arros atolls, where, after a four and a half hour crossing, we moored opposite the small island of Fouquet, the Seychelles name for a shearwater. The crossing was punctuated by several exciting episodes as the two lines which we were ‘trolling’ from the stern, sprang to life as their colourful lures attracted a pair of dorados, bright fluorescent yellow/green fish about 42” long, and weighing about 20lbs, and a yellow-fin tuna about 3ft long and weighing about 22lbs. We also caught a Job and a Rainbow Runner, which were ceremoniously filleted and served for supper whilst the other fish were consigned to the deep freeze for future consumption. This was a promising start to the holiday, and my host was delighted as he is not only a passionate fisherman, but also an equally enthusiastic consumer of fish, at breakfast, lunch and dinner! However, this deep sea fishing, was merely a prelude to the salt water fly fishing which we had been promised on the ‘flats’ at St.Joseph’s atoll, where it is possible to fish for ‘bonefish’, generally regarded by most fly fishermen as one of the most challenging salt water prey, along with tarpon, and permit. Bonefish live in and around the ‘flats’ of these lagoons, where they feed in the shallow water because this affords them protection from attack by larger prey such as shark, barracuda, and giant trevally. This means that to catch bonefish it is necessary to wade through the water of the flats which can be anything from a few inches to several foot deep, and which are also populated by rays of all kinds, lemon sharks, black-tipped reef sharks, and other breeding sharks such as bull shark (Zambezi), as well as moray eels (which can give a good nip on the leg if you disturb them).
These ‘flats’ are therefore a fascinating environment in which to stalk the elusive bonefish, which are very easily ‘spooked’, even by the shadow of a bird flying overhead. The skill is to see where the bonefish are in the water, and then cast the fly into their path, and lay the fly gently on the water, let it gently sink, and then ‘strip in’ about 12 inches of line at a time, so that the fly appears to swim like a shrimp, and the bonefish will pounce on it.
However, this is just the easy bit! Once on line things get very exciting because bonefish are immensely fast and strong for their size, and swim like ‘bats out of hell’, in fact so fast that you can hear the line slashing through the water as they accelerate into the distance. A big bonefish will typically take most of your backing line (up to 400 yards), and it can take up to 15 minutes to land, during which time there is a constant battle to keep it on the hook. Another challenge which we experienced was actually getting the Yacht’s tender, a 3 metre RIB, close enough to the reef, to enable us to clamber over the reef and onto the flats, without the RIB being smashed to pieces. Whilst we managed to achieve this easily enough getting onto the flats, we had considerably greater difficulty on the return journey because the sea had got up, and the surf around the reef had increased in size by several feet.
So we had to wade out through the surf with our rods in the air, and then actually swim the last twenty yards through the surf to reach the safety of the RIB, passing our rods up, and then clambering on board. This was OK for the stronger swimmers amongst us, but extremely frightening for the ladies, who had loyally accompanied us on our first bone fishing expedition, but who had not bargained on having to swim for their lives to get back on the RIB afterwards.
Anyway, we all happily made it back safely, and enjoyed a stiff gin and tonic when we got back on board. However, a storm was by then brewing up and we were forced to move to the southeast corner of the atoll because of the wind, which was, very unusually, blowing, from the northwest. When we woke the next morning, the weather had improved slightly, but we still decided to move to a better anchorage in the channel between D’Arros and St.Joseph. Whilst moving the boat we witnessed the most extraordinary phenomena. We found ourselves surrounded by a school of false pilot whales, and numerous groups of Risso Dolphins, covering an area three miles long by five miles wide. We became transfixed by the behavior of the dolphins who were performing elaborate ‘tail-stands’ in large groups, which we were assured by our Skipper, was very rare, and he had never seen anything quite like it before. Having no other explanation, he suggested that this behavior may have had something to do with the extremely evocative music which were playing on board at the time, which was ‘Arias’ by Café Del Mar, a compilation of operatic arias, which clearly appealed to the dolphins! This music lent the most unearthly atmosphere to what was, by any standards, an extraordinarily unusual occurrence.
D’Arros is one of only two privately owned islands in the Amirantes group, and belongs to Prince Chadram Pahlavi, the son of the deposed Shah of Iran, who currently has an arrangement with the cosmetics group ‘L’Oreal’ which leases the island. The island is now run as an exclusive holiday retreat for the owners of L’Oreal who have clearly invested heavily in the island, creating a number of guest cottages, surrounding a stunning central Beach House. This has echoes of Pierre Cardin’s house near Theoule in the south of France, which incorporates a series of round and oval shaped windows, of varying sizes, positioned at irregular intervals. This effect works particularly well when they look out over the Indian Ocean, and the roof is constructed of wooden shingles into which some of these windows are set. Immediately in front of this impressive Beach House there is an infinity swimming pool, which sits a few feet above the beach looking directly out to sea, and St.Joseph’s atoll across the bay.
The overall effect is a somewhere between Polynesian and Balinese, with a bit of Mediterranean thrown in for good measure, and it makes a spectacular focal point, around which are sited the various guest houses, and, further away, the huts which accommodate the permanent staff which are kept on the island, and who, amongst their other duties, meticulously groom the beach each day. Because the island was not being used by L’Oreal during our visit, we were allowed to swim and snorkel off the beach, where there is a wonderful coral reef, populated by a variety of spectacular tropical fish.
That evening, my host and I went out in the RIB to do some ‘trolling’ along the edge of the reef where it drops off into much deeper water, and within minutes he had latched onto a 4ft Barracuda, which made for some spectacular sport. This was followed by a succession of other catches, and during our peregrinations, I caught a bonito, which fought very hard, and attracted the attention of a shark, which, in a flash, unceremoniously removed the lure, as well as the leader, from my line, (i.e. hook line and sinker). Not content with this insult, the shark then continued to circle the RIB for several minutes looking for any more ‘easy pickings’. Exhilarated by this experience, we headed back to the boat as the sun set on the horizon, looking forward to a sundowner, and yet another superb dinner on board. The next morning we set off for Ramire, an island 18 miles to the north, which is the private domain of the President of the Seychelles, Albert Rene, and on which he was resident at the time of our visit. The journey up to Remire was on flat calm sea, and we could see the sea bed forty feet below. It was also punctuated with numerous stops to haul in various fish we caught from the stern of the boat.
As we approached Remire, we could see an array of boats moored off the island including a large Motor Cruiser and two, smaller Sports fishing boats. The whole effect was rather ‘James Bond’ like, and we felt that the interior might harbour some weapon of mass destruction! This feeling was accentuated by their refusal to answer our radio message requesting permission to anchor just off the island. So, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and continued on to African Banks, another twelve miles sailing, which is little more than a series of sand spits with sparse vegetation on the largest of them. However, they are magnificent, simply because they are so isolated, and are about as far away from civilization as you can get.
We arrived on a crystal clear afternoon, and all went ashore to walk around the largest of the sand-spits, where we also swam and snorkeled over the reef. The next day we took our fly rods, and fished each sand spit in succession using the RIB to ferry us from one to the next. The colours of the sea on these sand spits were as spectacular as any we had seen, with deep blue fading into turquoise, and the dark green vegetation set atop the bleached white sandy beaches. We returned to the boat for lunch, and then spent the afternoon fishing for bonefish in the lagoons surrounding largest of the sand spits. We were unable to catch any bonefish, but our host caught a blue finned trevally on his fly rod, which fought so hard that we were forced to climb aboard the RIB so that he could continue to play it from the boat.
After 45 minutes of maneuvering, he finally managed to land it, and our Skipper; said it was the biggest blue finned trevally he had ever seen caught on a fly rod. We returned triumphantly but our high spirits were diluted by the weather, which was beginning to break, yet again, and so we were forced to move the boat to what we hoped was a better anchorage for the night. That night, the wind really got up and we all spent an anxious few hours while the boat rolled violently, and the skipper was forced to move it again because we were getting dangerously near the reef. The next morning, although the wind had dropped slightly, the sea was still choppy, and so we decided to head back to Remire in the hope of a more sheltered anchorage. Fortunately, the weather steadily improved, and we had a good run down to Remire, again punctuated with some exciting fishing from the stern, and by the time we arrived at Remire, we were able to enjoy lunch on board in a much calmer sea. We also noticed that the President’s mini fleet had left, and so we assumed he had too. Our skipper went ashore to see the Gardien whom he knew, and was told that the President had indeed left the day before, and we were more than welcome to come ashore and walk around the island, although we could not take photographs of the President’s house. Therefore, after another wonderful lunch ‘alfresco’ on board, we took the RIB across to the small island settlement, which consisted of no more than a few shacks, and the Gardien’s house, which was slightly more substantial. His friendly wife then very kindly gave us a guided tour of the island, including the generator house, landing strip, and all the other essentials of island living. There were ‘free range’ chickens of every hue in every direction, thus ensuring a ready supply of fresh meat and eggs, and breadfruit, coconuts and wild fruit hanging from the trees. We passed the President’s ‘new’ house, which was right on the beach with wonderful views out to sea, and conveniently situated near the landing strip. We were given copious quantities of coconuts and breadfruit, having already brought our ‘offerings’ of glossy magazines and wine – a fair exchange! Before returning to the boat, we swam, and walked along the beach, and drank coconut milk with our hosts.
It was a truly memorable experience, and in such marked contrast to the unfriendly reception we had a few days earlier when the President was still on the island. The next morning, the men got up early to go fishing on the flats within Remire Reef, where we found mile upon mile of crystal clear waters, which looked extremely promising for bone-fishing. Unfortunately, we had missed the low tide, and therefore the best opportunity to catch any bonefish, although we did witness two turtles mating in the sea, which looked like an extremely cumbersome operation! However, we were able to navigate a way for the RIB to get inside the flats, and so we went back to the boat and collected the girls, and took an icebox full of cold beer, which we drank in three feet of lukewarm crystal waters in the middle of these fantastic flats, looking back at the boat in the distance with the backdrop of Remire Island, and every shade of blue and green in between.
It was an extraordinary to be standing in just a few feet of water in the middle of the Indian Ocean, sipping ice-cold beer, surrounded by reefs on all sides with breakers showing where the sea met the reef. After this wonderful experience, we decided to head back to D’Arros and St.Joseph, to see if we could master bone fishing on the flats there. Once again, we had the most wonderful journey, interspersed with the usual fishing episodes, and a memorable lunch, accompanied by a ‘Sixties Hits’ compilation CD, to which we all sang along like a bunch of demented geriatric hippies. We arrived at D’Arros and St.Joseph atolls at about 5pm, and dropped anchor opposite the beach house where had anchored previously. The next morning we got up early to go bone fishing with the skipper on the flats of St.Joseph’s atoll. Fortunately, the weather had improved considerably, and we had a fantastic morning walking miles across the flats, being followed by curious terns, and fregate birds, which wheeled and towered above us in the thermals, against a stunning blue sky.
The flats were alive with rays, and small sharks, as well as moray eels, so we were constantly watching where we trod, whilst at the same time trying to get close enough to some bonefish to have a chance of catching one. Sadly, despite several hours of concentrated fishing, and occasional sightings, and a few ‘takes’, we were unable to catch a bonefish, and so we were forced to radio to the boat and Stephen to come and collect us. Once again, this proved more difficult than expected, because we had to wade out over the coral reef, through the incoming surf, holding our rods aloft, and then try and clamber aboard the RIB, which was being buffeted by the waves!
Anyway, we all made it safely, and were rewarded by the sight of dolphins dong ‘tail’ stands out at sea, so we took a detour for a closer look and found ourselves surrounded by dolphins. We then returned to the boat, where we enjoyed a cold beer, and a wonderful lunch, where we recounted tales of the huge bonefish, which got away!
After lunch, we went snorkeling on the reef opposite the beach at D’Arros, which is populated with numerous varieties of tropical fish. We then decided to take the RIB on a trolling expedition in the bay between D’Arros and St.Joseph’s atolls, which had proved so productive a week earlier, and we were rewarded with a good size blue fin tuna. On our way back, we went right around the island of D’Arros, and again found ourselves surrounded by dolphins, which made a perfect end to a perfect day. Unfortunately, as we returned to the boat, we could see a storm brewing on the horizon, and, sure enough, within minutes of getting back on board, it hit us, and we were forced to move to a more protected anchorage.
We spent an uncomfortable night, rolling around in the storm, and the next morning decided to head straight for Des Roches, where we were meeting the plane to fly us back to Mahe. It was a relief to be moving again, and the forward motion of the boat was much better than just being rocked around at anchor. The weather improved slightly as we headed for Des Roches, and with a following sea, we made the crossing in about four hours, which included stops to haul in various fish which we caught ‘en-route’. However, when we reached Des Roches, there was still a heavy swell, and so we were forced to move around to the lee side of the island where we found a better anchorage in Bomb Bay, but it was dark by the time we got there, and so more difficult to judge where we were in relation to the surrounding reef.
Anyway, we finally found a reasonable anchorage, and spent our last night on board being rolled around by the swell, which follows every big storm. This made packing a pretty sick-making experience, and I do not think anyone got much sleep that night, especially as we had to be up very early to transfer all our baggage across to the island to get an 8.45 am flight back to Mahe. Although dawn brought clearer skies, the swell was still growing, and we had considerable trouble getting all our bags and ourselves onto the RIB for the transfer ashore, but managed it in two crossings, and were all very relieved to be on ‘terra firma’ again! We bade our farewells to the skipper and his charming wife, and Steven, who had become good friends over the preceding 12 days, and wished them well for their return journey to Mahe on board the boat. We then loaded all stuff onto the tractor and trailer, which had arrived to collect us, and take us through the island, to the landing strip, where our plane was waiting.
As the plane took off over Des Roches, we could see the boat at anchor, and we sadly waved good-bye to what had been our home for the previous 12 days. However, we were grateful that we would be back in Mahe in 45 minutes, whereas it would take the skipper and his crew, twenty-four hours to make the same journey by boat, and we later learned that they had to fight high seas, and a serious storm on their way back. On our flight back to Mahe, we could clearly see, and identify all the surroundings islands, and vowed that we would return to explore them on another occasion. In the meantime, we would be returning to the UK with many happy memories of our experiences in the Amirantes, sailing around some of the most beautiful and unspoilt islands on earth.
The Editor alone with his thoughts!
There are fewer things in life more enjoyable than sharing such experiences with good friends, and we were grateful to our hosts for giving us this unique opportunity.