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LOCATION: Vallée De Mai is located on the steep road between Grand Anse and Baie St Anne that cuts through the middle of the island.
OPENING TIMES: It opens between 0830 and 1630 daily (closed Xmas Day and New Year’s Day)
COST OF ENTRY: 350 Rs (20 Euros) per person (Oct 2017). Children under 12 free.
GETTING THERE: There is a decent sized car park on the road opposite, or if you haven’t hired a car there were bus stops nearby and local cab drivers waiting outside for a trip back to your hotel.
WHY VISIT?: Vallée De Mai is one of two UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Seychelles. It has the endemic Coco De Mer palms, Black Parrot, Blue Pigeon and is an amazing reserve of intact forest that feels like walking straight into the jungle!
ANYTHING ELSE?: There are guides outside who will take you round in a group for an additional charge. We opted to go by ourselves but the guides we overheard were knowledgeable, funny, patient and really helped visitors make the most of their visit.
There is a visitor centre which has lots of great information about Vallée De Mai and Aldabra which is the other UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Seychelles. There is also lovely little café serving fresh food (I recommend pineapple juice, grilled fish sandwich and cassava crisps) and a gift shop selling locally made curios.
Vallée De Mai is a nature reserve at the heart of Praslin Island and one of massive ecologic significance. Awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1983 it contains the world’s largest intact forest of the Endemic Coco de Mer palm. The Coco de Mer is famous not only for being so rare but also holds the dubious title of being the ‘world’s sexiest fruit’ (see the photos if you don’t believe me!) with the world’s heaviest seed with some weighing in at 25kg! Vallée De Mai has been referred to as the ‘Original Garden of Eden’ with the Coco de Mer the forbidden fruit. Some of the trees are up to 1,000 years old so it has certainly stood up to the tests of time.
When we decided on our trip to Praslin this was the first place on the list to visit. We’d both claim not to be ‘beach people’ which does make the decision to book 12 days on what is essentially a desert island famous for its beaches a questionable one! We did however want somewhere that would allow us to both relax and explore, so the Seychelles seemed like the perfect place. As well as the famous Coco de Mer, Vallée De Mai is also home to the Seychelles Blue Pigeon and the incredibly rare Black Parrot. Let the exploring commence.
Entering the reserve is like buying a ticket to the set of a Hollywood Blockbuster; neither Jurassic Park or King Kong would look out of place here (the island bit, not the smashing up a large city bit!). The well-worn rock and sand footpaths are towered over by trees so tall it’s never entirely clear where they finish. They gather together forming one large canopy high up in the distance. Ground level is covered with the dried out leaves of old palms in varying states of decay constantly rustling with the movement of perfectly camouflaged skinks.
In the first clearing a sign shows us the lifecycle of the famous Coco de Mer tree. It’s no wonder it’s so rare. The palm forms a trunk at the earliest age of 15, can take 30 years to mature, and the seed can take another 8 years to grow. You would have thought evolution would have taught this tree to hurry up a bit! By this point we’ve accidently briefly tagged onto the tour group in front who are pointing into the canopy above, cameras clicking. The Seychelles Blue Pigeon has graced is with her presence. Whilst along way up the beauty of this bird is clear. It’s got the clear shape of a pigeon, but with a royal blue sheen to the feathers of its back leading up to a white head and red wattle that wouldn’t look out of place on a rooster. These are fairly common on the island, and like so many things in the tropics are like life back home but with a wonderful twist. Sat side by side with the pigeons of Trafalgar Square these birds look like they were designed by a different God; one with a sense of humour, an extensive collection of Hawaiian shirts and a love of strong cocktails. And if so it turned out his tastes had been passed on to the birds. According to the leader of the group in front it turns out these birds had a real drinking problem at one time. Farmers would find them laid out cold on the floor after a night out on the juice of fermented guavas. At first they thought there was a problem with disease but after splashing some cold water on them they’d get up and go about their business, if a little more wonky than before.
The forest has a number of walking trails, none too taxing for the reasonably fit despite the hot weather and near 100% humidity. The longest route around the edge is only a few kilometres. Despite this it’s easy to end up by yourself which is a rare pleasure in an environment like this. Despite the isolation What struck me most is there is no silence in a forest like this. The palms creak and scrape in the wind, seeds and fruit bash their way back to earth and the ground cover is alive with life. It’s deceptive, causing us to constantly stop and survey the canopy for the elusive black parrot but with no joy. We were however greeted with the fleeting site of a Tenrec; a small mammal with spines like a hedgehog but the face of a shrew and with colouring like a bleached hair style gone wrong. He shot across the path in front of us with barely enough time for a photo and disappeared as quickly as he arrived. You have to be both alert and lucky in nature reserves, you could walk the same path up and down all day and see different things every time.
The paths wind and twist, uphill and down into valley ever changing. One minute we were in a dense palm forest, close, muggy and impenetrable to light. The next in a clearing with a stream idly making its way down the easiest possible route, shards of sunlight throwing out colour and catching the nimble flight of countless insects. Hordes of Bulbils filled the trees, we were regularly left with a backdrop of their cackling and babbling settling one dispute or another high up out of view.
We finished up the circular route which left us only a couple of minutes from the start. After two hours of walking in the humidity we were both desperate for lunch but I was determined not to leave without the big prize of the day. I dragged Becca back up the central path towards the main clearing again. We’d been given the nod by a guide helping round an elderly Indian couple that there were a flock of black parrots hanging out somewhere near where the two paths crossed – and sure enough our faith was to be repaid. Up in the top of one of the big fruit trees three parrots were quietly going about the business of lunch. A hard bird to get excited about, dull greyish-brown feathers on the body of a species that is usually vibrant. Quiet other than the odd whistle and ‘wwww-tooo-twee’ but easily located due to the amount of fruit they were dropping to the floor. I clenched my fist and celebrated. There are somewhere between 500 and 800 of these birds left in the world and they breed only on Praslin Island. A victim of liking the same fruits as human settlers they have long been persecuted. They also have an unfortunate habit of nesting in hollowed out old trees, exactly the kind that is chopped down for timber at the end if its life.
Seeing something as rare as this is a hard feeling to describe. It is by far the scarcest creature I have ever or may ever seen in the wild. To context it, the airbus A380 we took from London to Dubai has a capacity of 853. There is a very real chance there were more people on that plane than Black Parrots on the face of the planet. But when you see one it is hard to context. For Praslin Island they are not that rare at all, in fact they can regularly be seen begging tourists to give them fruit at the local hotels. And for me, at this exact moment they are as common as any other bird I’ve ever seen in my life – like watching the Wagtails on the lawn at home. The reality is though, when I stop looking, that may well by the last time I see them with my own eyes. Sure I may come across one in some zoo or another, but seeing them here, in their own environment, this is what counts. I do my best to take in every detail, trying to turn a fleeting moment into a well carved memory – a microcosm of travel as a whole. Before I know it they’re gone, moving off to their next feast of next mango or papaya. We walk back towards the entrance looking for a feast of our own content that we’ve made the most of our trip to Vallée De Mai.