The sand I’m standing on is soft and bleached, the type that squeaks beneath your soles if you walk too fast. The type that snuggles between your toes and presses footprints across the beach, then scatters footprints across the wooden floors inside.
It’s the type of sand that makes a private island.
We’re 230 kilometres from the mainland here on Desroches, afloat in the Indian Ocean somewhere south of the horn of Africa. And the mainland I just mentioned is less than 60 square miles.
The horizon holds nothing but air and water. And we’re standing only on sand.
“There’s no land underneath,” says Aurelieu Nahaboo, his eyes scanning the undergrowth. “And there hasn’t been for years. The volcano erupted 80 to 100 million years ago.”
I glance around. No obvious volcano.
“Through sinking and erosion, the silting up of sand…” he pauses to separate the casuarina leaves, “the Island of Desroches appeared.”
I scrunch sand with the arches of my feet. He looks out to sea.
“The reef around the island? That’s the rim of the crater.”
Technically, then, I’m standing inside a volcano.
Desroches Island, like most of the Seychelles, is a land of a thousand fantasies. Of deserted islands and sun-smooched beaches, palm fronds, white sand and clear water. Tales of sharks, pirates, lost princesses and exotic plants that no-one else has ever seen.
And they’re partly true, of course. The beaches are brochure-buff and Wills & Kate did stay here, albeit before she became a princess.
“And the sharks?”
“There aren’t any,” replied every single one of the people I met on this six kilometre long island. And to be fair, on Desroches, there aren’t. Yet in the summer of 2011, the Seychelles suffered two fatalities at the jaws of shark teeth, breaking a safety record that had been blemish-free for nearly 50 years. And sharks, as Aurelieu pointed out, can swim. Up to 45 miles a day.
I check a few stats in my head and keep my feet where I can see them.*
As for the pirates, I’m more reassured. While Somalia looks uncomfortably close to the Seychelles on the lovely spinning globe that sits on my desk, in reality it’s over a thousand miles away. Distance is given a helping hand by updates from the American military, ensuring that unauthorised vessels stay far from the Seychellois island chain.
So that just leaves exotic vegetation. Coco de Mer, the voluptuous giant fruit with the sophisticated name and the saucy bulging shape does exist, it does live in the Seychelles but, alas, not on Desroches.
“Everybody asks,” says Aurelieu, “but each of the islands are different. On Mahé, for example, you’ll find granite boulders along the shore. Here, we rely on plants to hold back erosion, which is why beach profiling is so important.”
Desroches is a private island with a single hotel and a flotilla of villas on the sand. Yet over 40% of the Seychelles is formally protected – and a poor report from the ICS can result in closure of an offending hotel.
I watch Aurelieu and his team do their work on the beach. They pace, count, measure, write, record and repeat.
“Is there a conflict between their work and the desires of the hotel?”
“Not really,” he says. “At least not here. It’s a quiet place, with few lights on the shore to distract the turtles. We did have a consultation about the position of the spa – so they agreed to move it.”
“And how about the guests? Any conflict between what they want and what you’re trying to do?”
He shifts a little.
“The trouble is that people want to come to a desert island but they want every comfort from home. Air conditioning. Television. Internet.
“It’s very hard to get people to care about environmental issues.
“People see this place as an escape for a week or two and then they go ‘back to reality.’ It’s difficult for them to see that this is the real world. That the hawksbills are dying, that 80% of the earth’s oxygen comes from the sea, that seaweed is a sign of a healthy ecosystem rather than a nuisance to be swept away, that shrubs on the sand protect the beach from erosion, even if they spoil the view.”
He pauses for breath, this tall and eloquent man from Mauritius. We’re standing on sand in the middle of the Indian Ocean, humidity cloying at our skins, yet the conversation feels like one I’ve had before, on the icy glaciers of Alaska.
Kevin, a naturalist with Inner Sea Discoveries, said this: “At the end of their trip, guests say that ‘it’s time to get back to reality.’ But this is reality. These glaciers, these rivers, these salmon, bears and whales. This is the real world.”
Ice in Alaska, sand in the Seychelles. The memory reminds me of my own eco-guilt.
“And what about global warming, carbon footprints and the like? Do you think, that is…I’ve often wondered… Look, other than flying less – is it worth paying into those carbon offsetting schemes?”
Aurelieu smiles and looks away. I think he’s a kind man.
“Well, they don’t hurt but they aren’t going to solve the problem,” he replies. “It takes twenty years for a tree to grow.”
“Are they just a way for companies to make money from people who want to feel better about themselves?”
He looks away again. “Stopping deforestation would be the quickest thing, the most effective way to make a change.”
“And donating to your society?”
The smile becomes a chuckle. “And donating to the ICS, yes, if you have to put it like that.”
Our buggy arrives to take us back to our villa. His team cycle on to the next profiling point.
From my four-poster bed I gaze out through the windows, while cotton-light curtains rise and fall like slow sighs. I can’t see the water and I can’t see the shore. Scratched patchworks of grass run down to the trees, while scattered sand footprints show my path from the door.
Plants and seaweed protect the white sand beach here.
It’s hard to remember that this is the real world.
*At the time of writing, there have been no further shark attacks reported since the summer of 2011.