Sunday, March 20, 2022

March 16th – Two Days on Mahé

After the supremely relaxed atmospheres of La Digue and Praslin, then the Seychelles main island (Mahé) can seem a little hectic. Of course, it’s nothing of the sort, but there’s a bit of a buzz to its pint-sized capital, Victoria, that acted as an interesting contrast to those tranquil sister islands.

Like the other Seychelles, Mahé is all about its beautiful beaches, and there’s a greater tourist infrastructure here of resorts and upmarket hotels. So, on various itineraries of the island, we visited the lush botanical gardens, explored Victoria, swam to the lovely Beau Vallon beach, and visited the Hilton for lunch where we paddled at the shallow Anse Forbans.

The highlight was a superb beachside evening meal with great company at the Eden Restaurant in the Story Hotel – a supremely romantic setting, even if it was so dark that we could only just make out what we were eating!

If money were no object, there can’t be many more idyllic places than the Seychelles.

March 15th – Finding Paradise in La Digue and Praslin

Today we got two for the price of one, as we visited the neighbouring Seychelles islands of La Digue and Praslin.

Our first stop in La Digue was utterly idyllic. As we stepped off the tender in the small village of La Passe, you couldn’t have imagined a more relaxed scene, people meandering around its quiet streets on bicycles, with a backdrop of lush green hills and turquoise seas. 

Our mission today was to hike the length of the island down to the secluded Grand Anse. On an island where almost everyone walks or cycles, there’s not many places in the world where as you hike along the island’s main road, you get passed by maybe ten cars or trucks at the very most. The peaceful road took us past a nature reserve, so we were constantly accompanied by the chirping of exotic birds in a tranquil atmosphere where even the stray dogs were friendly.

It was an extremely hot and humid day, but it was bliss just savouring this unspoilt environment, before our view of paradise was completed as we emerged onto the blinding white sands of Grand Anse – one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to. To confirm how romantic a spot it is, a (rather sweaty) couple were getting married up one end of it.

As we walked we couldn’t help forming a plan to spend more time here – our enthusiasm was only slightly tempered by a bumping into a couple from the ship who told us that they’d just paid $54 dollars for 2 Pina Coladas! Maybe paradise comes at a price.

In the afternoon, we called in at the slightly more developed island of Praslin, famous for being one of only two islands where the extremely rare coco de mer grows – a suggestively shaped nut (use your imagination) that has all kinds of legends attached to it (not surprisingly, most of them relate to sex).

We visited the unspoilt Vallee de Mai, a forest that’s home to thousands of swaying coco de mer trees and other prehistoric-looking flora with huge leaves and weird shapes. In this quiet forest, where the only sounds were creaking branches, rustling leaves and cooing birds – you half-expected to see a velociraptor skulking in the undergrowth.

After our time in the Garden of Eden, we moved on for some beach time on the Cote d’Or, yet another gorgeous beach of amazingly warm waters and soft sands. 

I think we have found paradise! 

Sunday, March 13, 2022

March 9th-11th – Hakuna Matata (No Worries) in Zanzibar

Before I came to Zanzibar, I thought that “Hakuna Matata” was just a cheesy Disney song. Actually, it’s a Swahili phrase that you hear all the time, meaning “No worries”. It sums up the kind of relaxed, easy-going pace of life that’s dictated by the incredibly hot weather here, where you just have to accept that everything will go along at its own slow pace, and that not everything will go to plan. The exotic atmosphere of this beautiful, but crumbling, town more than compensates for the sense of chaos running just below the surface.

Actually, I’m not sure that “No Worries” is quite the attitude I’m taking for the current state of Zanzibar. I worry about the impact of the pandemic on an island whose economy almost totally relies on tourism – you just have to see the groups of people sitting around with nothing to do, to know that the economy is hurting. I worry about the dilapidated state of so many of Stone Town’s historic buildings – the House of Wonders (it’s most impressive building from its years as an Arab Sultanate) collapsed during botched renovations in 2020 and who knows when it will be rebuilt. I also worry whether the city has its priorities right as it tries to balance tourism and everyday life. There are some really beautiful hotels and restaurants, right alongside some very basic lifestyles – for the time being people are overwhelmingly friendly and polite, I just hope that the economic disparities don’t begin to grate on the locals. 

However, for the time being, Zanzibar remains a wonderfully exotic, exciting and exhausting place to explore – as you turn every corner in Stone Town’s maze of alleys, there’s always something to see; as you drive around the island, the street scenes alternate between chaotic hives of activity, to indolent inactivity. 

There’s another Swahili phrase you hear all the time here on Zanzibar – “Pole, Pole” – “Slowly, Slowly”. Change happens slowly; traffic here moves slowly; and life proceeds slowly. Maybe I should stop worrying about Zanzibar’s future, and just enjoy its exotic present. Hakuna Matata.

PS. We did a lot of tours over our wonderful three days here – spice plantations, palace ruins, monkey forests, Freddie Mercury Museum, Slavery Museum, and plenty of Stone Town walking too.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

March 5th – A Taste of Maputo

I’ve been coming to Maputo (Mozambique’s sultry capital) for over a decade now, and normally I’d be left with a feeling that things have been slowly getting better in a country that had been torn apart by so many years of Colonialism, Communism and Civil War. However, last time I was here (in 2019) it felt like the city was going backwards, as corruption and economic stagnation saw life for its ordinary citizens get significantly tougher. So, it was going to be interesting to see what impact the global pandemic had had on this struggling city.

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. There were signs of progress all around – new tower blocks and building projects abounded, the litter problem had improved, while there appeared to be a number of nice-looking new restaurants around the city and along the re-developed riverfront. So, some people were clearly doing well – although, from the sheer desperation of the vendors who surrounded our bus at every stop, it was clear that poverty was still a significant issue here. However, the city appeared to be in much better shape than you’d expect for a country that officially has the 6th lowest GDP per capita in the world (just $1,200 p.a.).

I joined a “Foodie Tour” that took us around various venues in the city where we could sample typical Mozambican cuisine, in venues where the ordinary people would eat. It was a great way to get a taste for the city in more ways than one. We sampled sugary-coconuty delights at the magnificent train station, we had cashew nuts at the teeming market, we tried deep fried badjias (bean dumplings) by the side of the road, we feasted on delicious grilled chicken by the beach, and we had other traditional dishes at the artisans market. All were really tasty, and it was great to stop in so many different venues and mix with the ordinary people.

Maybe it was just down to the great food, but I got a much more positive vibe from the city than I did on my last visit here. Let’s hope that it wasn’t a mirage, and that things really are getting better for all the citizens of this wonderful country.