I remember packing an old suitcase when I was about seven years old. My petulant and all too precocious nature had boiled over and my mother had offered to help me pack my luggage so I could move out. A napkin on a stick over my shoulder? No, no, no, I was far beyond my years for a traditional, Enid Blyton escape. I packed my leather suitcase and satchel, red-faced and mildly enraged, adding all my Ladybird books as a pseudo-guide to life. I had told my mother that I wished to live with my grandparents. This was on the basis that they were willing to buy me all the toy cars I could fit in my Corgi carriage and would continue to buy me diabetes-inducing amounts of sweets from the local shop on a Sunday after church.
Sadly though, I’ve wanted to run away from life a lot more in my adult years than I ever did as a kid. The need to explore our world, to escape, to seek one’s fortune, or to grow physically and mentally on a journey, is strong in my family. When each generation before you emigrated from a different country, you know that you’re destined to traverse the globe at some point in your life. Every year I tell myself I will spend more time at home base, build this, fix that, start the other. Inevitably though, projects land on my desk throughout the year that are of such significance, they are impossible to refuse. Seven degrees south of the equator, 250 miles south-west of Mahe, in the heart of the Indian ocean, the Seychelles, is Alphonse Island. To be specific, Alphonse Atoll, Bijoutier and St. Francois Atoll together are the Alphonse Group. Alphonse isn’t a desert island, but it’s about as close as I’ve ever got to a Robinson Crusoe moment.
At 0.66 square miles and at a zero elevation, when you come into land on Alphonse, everyone is all too well aware of your imminent arrival. The weekly flight is an occasion observed with all the civility of a colonial outpost, except the natives are not serving tea and are certainly not flying the Saint George. The island’s entire shoreline is 3.42 miles and plays host to lagoons, sea flats and, at last count, a population of only 108. As I step off the plane, I’m greeted as if I’m an old war buddy. Gordon Rankin, Gordie, or Flash the GM, has an infectious enthusiasm. The man does live on a desert island after all and is busy populating it with more fellow South Africans. Much like the main island of Mahé, Alphonse is a melting point of nationalities all drawn to its cult-like travel status. Passport control involves coconut milk and cool towels, followed by a stroll from the airstrip to a people-moving truck. There is little room for bureaucracy here on the Atoll.
The ‘roads’ around the island are little more than jungle paths cut through the trees, with nature dictating life here on the island. As we make our way towards the resort area under the canopy of palm trees above us, I play back the main title from Out of Africa in my head. The team unloads at reception, which is a rather grand affair with natural wood and soft furnishings. Our group of arrivals is made up of game fishers, solace seekers and escapists. Historically, Alphonse Atoll has always been regarded as a fishing mecca amongst those seeking world-class fly and game fishing. With multiple species caught on a fly, diversity gives anglers the opportunity to target a myriad of species during their stay. The resort only permits twelve anglers to fish per week, ensuring that the expansive, hard white sand flats provide the background for the fly fishing experience of a lifetime. The atolls are home to incredibly large populations of bonefish, three different types of triggerfish, barracuda, snapper, grouper, permit, eight species of trevally (including the GT), and the incomparable milkfish amongst a myriad of others. I can’t say I’m a super-keen fly fisher; I much prefer to list lazily on the deck of a well-appointed yacht with a cooler of drinks and an endless supply of Marlboro Lights at hand. The banter to be had on a fishing trip is unparalleled, I assure you.
The temperature seldom drops below 22 degrees on Alphonse. Gordon has a sure-fire way to combat this, however. As we sit down in the beach bar with its magnificent views out to sea, we order a round of Seybrews in some vain attempt to battle the midday sun. We’ve also already been informed that this trip will be a 99% digital unplug. The island does have sat-phones and wifi, but it’s effectively the 1990s, so if you want to send a text or upload a picture, there’s a process. Make the necessary arrangements, push send or post, place your phone down on the bar, order another drink – and after one or two, it’s likely to have been sent. Your best bet, of course, is to fully surrender to the way of the island. This is season seven of Lost: ‘the island has them now’. That isn’t to say that the bar area isn’t without it’s ample share of luxuries. You can order Bollinger, Dom Perignon and Laurent Perrier, or Layton and Sheena can mix almost any cocktail known to man. My single biggest expense on the island was my drinks tab. It’s the central hub to the pool, restaurant, reception and back office. And of course, there’s the fact that I am a highly-functioning alcoholic.
After an hour and a few drinks, I was starting to settle into island life. If you are infirm or lazy, you can traverse the small island on a people mover or golf buggy, but the general population uses bikes to get around above all else. The possession and security of which becomes a priority after your first walk home having had your bike taken by someone else. This doesn’t happen with any intended malice, but only because after that third shot of tequila and second bottle of wine, you hop on the first bike you can find.
The island has 21 private beach bungalows and five one-bedroom beach suites. The bungalows are set out on the eastern shoreline of the island, no more than a few metres from the beach. The island is populated by all manner of wildlife. One of the privileges of visiting is the ability to walk amongst the giant Aldabra tortoises that roam the island. These gentle herbivores live up to 120 years and can weigh in at well over 400 kilograms. There’s one that, at the right time of day, will stand up and raise his front leg like a dog in exchange for a neck rub. The thing that I feared most on the island, however, was the entirely nonvenomous palm spider, spinning large sticky webs. As someone who is more than happy to catch and release spiders, I was not willing to walk under or near them and would have happily beaten a stranger to death to avoid them. Luckily, the beach bungalows are laid out in their own private gardens with obligatory tortoise roaming back and forth rather than any arachnids.
The bungalows are well laid out with all the usual creature comforts, and fit effortlessly into the surroundings, blending ecological awareness with first-class service. The properties were designed by Florence Masson, a Mauritian decorator who pairs deluxe accommodation with a rather low-key island atmosphere. Each property is set on pillars with a thatched roof, deck and wonderful open-air shower. Despite the beautiful dwelling, our itinerary wasn’t going to allow a lot of downtime to take in the king-size bed; we would be tackling the islands many activities head on.
Later that night, we sat down to dinner on the beach with the other guests; a relaxed affair where service is attentive yet discreet. The Bijoutier restaurant combines Creole specialities with international cuisine. If you are travelling to the island, you can call in any dietary requirements in advance. However, in this millennial world of no dairy, no wheat, no animal fats, I would urge you to pull yourself together and dine on whatever the kitchen prepares. If you want, go out with the team on their weekly run to see just how fresh fish is. You haven’t had fresh until you’ve eaten tuna sashimi that you’ve just reeled in. There is no terminal tackle fishing on the reef, however, and all game fishing is done below 80m for pelagic fish, Alphonse stays true to its strict sustainability principles. Without a firm set of credentials, there wouldn’t be such strong biodiversity in the region.And this place of boundless beauty might not survive for generations to come.
After a hearty meal and a few rather good bottles of white, Gordon drives us out to the runway for a spot of stargazing. Sitting at the north end of the runway on giant beanbags, sipping a decent sauvignon blanc, we couldn’t be further from civilisation as we know it. Sure, there’s wine and good food and air conditioning, but the beautiful thing about Alphonse is the marriage of sustainability with modernity. People’s modern day needs are not entirely sacrificed in order to maintain the ecosystem of the island. Those luxuries that can be delivered without causing any harm to the island are carefully considered. The stars would have shone just as bright without the beanbag and sauvignon; they may have even been a little clearer. What knocks you sideways is the vacuum of silence. I have spent many a day in the mountains on ski trips and there is a stillness and silence to be appreciated in this world that few locations have managed to maintain. There are not many places that could be considered truly remote. For a brief moment, I consider packing it all in and moving out here. I could live on the less inhabited west side of the runway, fish and hunt for food, and grow a Forest Gump grade beard. When you truly consider how infinitesimal our existence is, you wonder why you don’t spend every waking moment doing whatever the hell you want.
The following morning, I drag my body out of the air conditioned bliss, down the stairs, and out onto the beach for a wakeup stroll. There is nothing to be seen: no boats, no people, no debris from human life, just the occasional breach out to sea from the wildlife. It’s hard to wonder why people don’t stay and just jack it all in.
You would be forgiven for wanting to spend your days cycling around the island, reading thick novels and working on your tan. There is much more to do here than just fish. As you cycle around the island, you will find tennis courts along with a juice bar set in a sizeable garden serving fresh smoothies and botanical goodness. Most of the west side of the island is uninhabited, so whilst there are paths clearly marked out for cycling, if you’re looking for escapism and to get away from the very few people that are here, this is the place to go.
Sam, the island’s conservation officer, explains that the Island Conservation Society, ICS, is a Seychelles NGO that promotes the conservation and restoration of islands ecosystems along with their sustainable development. Your stay directly contributes to maintaining the island and the ongoing clean-up effort and research programs.
Now, despite my years, I have never been diving. Even with a visit to Belize and Koh Samui under my belt, I have never even touched a regulator. If you wish, you can dive all week on Alphonse with groups going out as and when it suits, from the dive centre on the south of the island. As an inexperienced diver, my first port of call was a ‘basics’ lesson in the resort pool, with Byron the dive instructor. You learn signals, breathing techniques, how to avoid panic, and ultimately the safety principles that allow for a safe and enjoyable dive. Of course, Sam and Byron would be there on dive day to take myself and another inexperienced diver out. After a few hours in the pool with Bryon making that we knew the signals and, most importantly, how to secure our regulators should they become estranged from us, we were let loose to swim laps around the rather shallow pool. I had decided that this was absolutely for me. I was mentally making a list of all the items I would need to dive in the future and totalling up the brands to speak with on my return. I was utterly ensorcelled by the process.
Now, no one wants to dive when hungover or with alcohol in their blood. I did, however, claim the award of ‘last man standing’ for a second night. On an island with some 50+-plus guests, I think some form of award needs to be given for this willingness to die by the time I hit 40. I did manage to take advantage of the wifi now that everyone had vanished in the pavilion and was only moderately concerned when I started hearing rustling in the bushes and coconuts falling on the roof.
After my short cycle home, I clambered into bed, and expecting another blissful night’s sleep, I was out cold within minutes. Until, at 2am, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse arrived. No one ventured outside to see if there had been a lightning strike, but when the bungalow shook after the third thunderclap, I knew it was pretty near. How near? Near enough to stay in the god damn bungalow. After all, there was a mini fridge full of snacks and beer should I need to spend any considerable amount of time here.
At 0630 hours, I arose like Jacques Cousteau drinking a cocktail of equal parts trepidation and excitement. I arrived early to the dive centre to collect my gear and slow my breathing rate as best I could. There were many quiet and considered looking faces on the dive boat that morning. I could tell everyone was excited, but the usual conversation had been surpassed by either a feeling of deep contentment or nerves. People looked out to sea with that 1000-mile stare you expect from seasoned snipers. I am last into the water and calm as a Hindu cow. Byron does a final safety check to make sure that we all understand the requirements and can fulfil the PADI check list. Sam takes myself and another diver by the reins and guides us down into the depths. Well, 9-12 metres, so not exactly the depths. And I can still see sunlight, which was pleasing.
The water is French-Alps clear with outstanding visibility. I stare down to the ocean floor as the life aquatic unfolds in front of me. After about five minutes of Sam steering us around from above, he makes a hand gesture to calm down or relax. I’m perfectly calm. But as I start to wonder what intimates that I am not, I begin to panic a little. I say to myself ‘your calm and his calm, are two different things’. It transpires his calm means breathe in a more regulated fashion to preserve your air supply. The ocean floor is teeming with life. Whilst diving off the atoll you can see hammerhead, whitetip reef and silvertip sharks, as well as large napoleon wrasse, giant sweetlips, catfish, and even bumphead parrotfish. There had been wide sightings of manta ray that week, so everyone out on the water stays in communication to allow guests to travel to any sightings.
After about 17 minutes, Sam asks what level my air supply is. And after a few more minutes, we surface together. He tells me that I have gone through my air supply rather quickly, checks I’m okay. and submerges again. From that moment, I am hooked.
After we arrive back on shore, everyone cycles back to their bungalows and presumably crashes in a similar fashion to me. Diving certainly takes its toll. There is little respite though. Within the hour, we return to the dive centre for the famous flats lunch. We journey twenty minutes out to St. François, in a location that I doubt any other will be able to top. The sand flats that overlook the lagoon are a huge expanse in the middle of the atoll that become submerged during high tide. During the afternoon, the kitchen team setup camp on the flats and cook a buffet BBQ that I still yearn for today. Parasols keep us covered whilst we dangle our feet in the water eating pulled pork, beef fillets and brownies that make life worth living.
As the tide starts to rise and the water laps at our knees, the fisherman return to their skiffs in earnest whilst we head back towards Alphonse. As the current begins to flow towards Alphonse, we don our snorkelling gear for one of the most exhilarating experiences, as we let the current carry us over the endless coral beds and shoals of fish. Zero effort is required at this point. Simply float motionless as the current takes you closer to the island, your guide ensuring your safety and the chase boat staying close by. We drifted for over fifteen minutes totally emerged in another world.
Diving and snorkelling might not be your thing, and you may well prefer to keep your feet on dry land or deck. Alphonse Island has a small armada of vessels including a 54-foot catamaran called A’mani. So, whether it’s fishing, day tripping or just toasting the sunset, you needn’t always have to get your feet wet.
Whilst on the Island I urge you to take a day drip with Sam to the uninhabited island of St. Francois. Mangrove grabs scuttle around whilst nursing baby sicklefin lemon sharks swim around your feet. Alphonse and its surrounding islands boast the second highest number of recorded bird species, with over 100 listed. This is about as remote as it gets; St Francois is effectively untouched. Expect for the all too familiar pieces of debris that float onto its shores every year. The most frequent sights of western civilisation are worryingly high amounts of plastic waste.
In 2016, a simple two-hour volunteer clean-up effort removed 423 kilograms of debris. The stranger sights are fish aggregation devices. These large rafts, fitted with tracking buoys and usually made from synthetic fishing net, are deployed in their thousands by tuna-fishing vessels. They often drift away from fishing grounds or lose their buoys, entangling sea turtles sharks and marine life, before washing up on coral reefs causing hazard to wildlife. The Alphonse team plays a crucial role in ensuring these remote and uninhabited islands maintain their fragile ecosystems.
After a strong three-hour trek around St. Francois, we make our way back to the boat, which is now a few hundred metres offshore, across the flats as the tide is rapidly heading out. I assume that on most holidays, I will able to come home heavier or equal to my take-off weight. Not in the Alphonse Atoll.
My final ocean-bound trip that week would be on the kitchen run with Steven and Bertrand. Once a week, the fishing teams head out to fish for the incoming guests. They’re looking for all manner of fish, but careful not t overfish. Sailfish, Wahoo, Dogtooth Tuna, Yellowfin Tuna and Dorado are all there for the taking. It’s clear when the first tuna and wahoo come onboard, not everyone in our group is entirely captivated by the idea of fishing. There is a certain amount of blood that goes with catching and hunting food. As a society, we are entirely removed from the cultivation process that goes into securing our fish, meat and poultry, so it is not surprising to see a few shocked faces. Keep note: if you want your ethically sourced pancetta panini, you’re going to need to spill a little claret to get it.
Our goal was to secure a quota of 240 kilograms of fish, but we weren’t past 40 at this point. And whilst the skipper didn’t look worried, I wondered what would happen without a sizeable catch. With that, about 100 metres in the distance, birds began circling and the water became frenzied. Bertrand threw the boat into reverse as Steven began to cast out into a large shoal of tuna. I have never seen a cast that far in my life. These guys are hardened fishermen. Sadly, we are too late to the party, and the tuna get a free pass as we make our way out to deeper seas to try our luck.
Having watched two of the girls pull in tuna and wahoo and landing one of the latter myself to the tune of 8 kilograms, we decide it’s time to crack open a Seybrew and toast ourselves. After all, sport fishing is as much about enjoying the experience and being out at sea as it is the catch.
Had I known what was to come next, I would have likely stayed on water. My turn had come up in the rotation, so I began to stand, feet planted, looking down at the water below. Bertrand suggested that I reel a little, and with that, I felt a sharp tug, then nothing. We looked at each other puzzled. I continued to reel, but could feel the line getting more and more tense with almost no give. Bertrand took over and couldn’t work out if the line was caught or if we had simply landed something that was hiding out under the rocks. After about ten minutes of Bertrand walking up and down deck assessing the situation, the fish took off and Bertrand proudly handed me the rod. Now, my experience with game fishing is minor. Line trawling off the Cornish coast is not game fishing. It felt like reeling a car up through syrup. After thirty minutes of battling the fish up and away from the light, I tapped out. Bertrand said “I you need me to take over, there is no shame. It’s probably massive”.
By this point, my arm is numb my grip wavering, but I tag back in after ten minutes for another stint, counting the line as best I can. Just when we both have very little left to give, about twenty metre out, it surfaces, motionless. We haul the huge fish into the boat as Bertrand tries to work out what it is. He thinks it’s a dropoff grouper; the team back at the fishing centre are not so sure, but also have no idea. Later that night, when it’s weighed in by the kitchen staff, it comes in at 23.5 kilograms. The fish is so large, it gets placed in its own body bag. How to ensure the strongest bond with another human being, go fishing together. It turns out that Bertrand was actually born in London to Seychellois parents and only moved back to the Seychelles when he was 17. He regularly visits his father in London and we agree to meet in the UK for a drink sometime.
Later that night, at the bar, the earnest evening ritual that bonds this group, who come from far and wide, takes place. A bell is struck for each noteworthy catch, shots distributed and badges given. It appears that the most prestigious of these is for catching a giant trevally. The GT is one of the world’s most powerful nearshore game fishes and are known to reach weights in excess of 72 kilograms. It is a catch worth celebrating for sure. As my name is read out for largest catch of the day, along with the weight, I try to stroll to the bell nonchalantly, knowing that most of the fisherman at this bar are not easily impressed. I notice out of my peripheral vision a lot of surprised looks around the bar and a warm round of applause rings out as I neck my shot and return to my bar stool to a few handshakes.
Later that evening, Bertrand joins us at the bar for drinks. This week’s flight will be arriving at Alphonse Airport in the morning and we will all be making our way back to reality before the sun sets again. I tell him that he cannot pay for a drink tonight, which he dutifully battles before lamenting. I had packed three H. Upmann half coronas in my travel holder and decide that tonight is the night to annoy all non-smokers. To their credit, the fisherman and guests who were staying on were actually interested to see if there was a box of cigars hiding somewhere, and if any more could be secured.
Alphonse Island was a trip of many firsts for me – and certainly not one that will be forgotten or beaten anytime soon. The whole team is welcoming and very quickly becomes an extended family. The facilities and sheer depth and breadth of options to fill your time will keep you enthralled. But the location itself will leave you spellbound. There is nothing like it. Creating an island culture of enthusiasm and fun for a hardened luxury and fishing clientele is a tall order, but one that they have perfected. I assure you that a trip to Alphonse Island might be your first, but certainly not your last. All I need to do now is see if that old suitcase is still in the attic, pack my Corgi cars, and run away.