Enforced isolation is going to give us all a case of serious itchy feet. Forward planning is all we have right now and this is one trip from Noble Caledonia that needs some serious advance notice – an Indian Ocean Island Odyssey expedition cruise including time in one of the least visited places on the planet, the awesome Aldabra Island Group in the Outer Seychelles. Cathy Bartrop shares her experience of this incredible cruise in print and on video.
Our journey began on the stunning island of Mauritius with a day of relaxation before joining our ship, the MS Serenissima, for the 14-day adventure ahead.
Accommodating a maximum of 95 passengers, Serenissima is, in modern cruising terms, tiny and not in the least bit conventional. Built in 1960, she actually started life as a ferry but, over the years, has been through many updates and refurbishments. The word ‘quirky’ comes up a lot when trying to describe the ship – quirky as in the layout is odd and the cabins are all shapes and sizes. For many, these quirks are her charm. Certainly on this cruise, I would say at least 50% of the guests had sailed with her at least once, if not multiple times. It’s her size though that is her trump card, ‘oddities’ can be easily overlooked when the itinerary is this intriguing.
From Mauritius we headed to neighbouring Reunion Island. As a French department, it is the furthest flung corner of the EU (oh the irony to be there on the exact day Brexit became official). It’s a fascinating place – lush and green with a beautiful coastline, rising up through verdant pastureland to a quasi lunar landscape. Our excursion included a drive up to the peak Pas de Bellecombe (2,354m) where we peered down though the cloud into the crater of the volcano Piton de la Fournaise.
In both Mauritius and Reunion we were able to go dockside but thereafter, the expedition truly began with every trip ashore undertaken on the ship’s fleet of zodiacs. We were now visiting places that simply do not have ports. Some offer a dry landing to a rickety looking docking area but more often than not, it was wet landings on the beach. Not a hardship in the almost bath temperature Indian Ocean!
A day at sea en route to Madagascar allowed time for us all to be fully briefed on zodiac safety and etiquette and to get kitted out with snorkelling gear. As the fourth largest island in the world, we were only going to see a tiny part of it, but we had four full days ahead to explore the North East corner with its lush rainforests.
Our time in Madagascar really shone a light on all the advantages of expedition cruising. It’s a country with abundant, diverse natural resources and is home to over 80% endemic wildlife but it is also one of the world poorest countries. The potential to develop tourism is undeniable but the infrastructure is not yet there so, for the time being at least, a cruise really is the best way to visit. Being able to access remote harbours and bays with our zodiacs meant we got to see many facets of life here in a very short space of time. We also had some challenges with the weather – November to April is the hot rainy season and, as we were to discover, the weather can change rapidly. Our first afternoon provided an idyllic beach stop on Ile Sainte Marie with time for snorkelling and chilling – super sunny, calm weather. Next day, after landing to a narrow beach in Antongil Bay, a change of shoes and discarding of lifejackets and everyone was excited to hike in to the Nosy Mangabe reserve. Under the canopy of the rainforest, distracted by frequent chameleon sightings and peering up in to the trees to spot the lemurs jumping around, we didn’t really notice the skies darkening until the heavens opened and we had our first taste of a proper monsoon downpour. It’s not called the rainforest for nothing! Drenched through we finally arrived back at the zodiacs only to realise we then had to go back to the drop off point to pick up the stuff we had left there. Let’s just say none of us will forget the drama of that long zodiac ride in the torrential rain.
Safely back on board thanks to the wonderful expedition team and their zodiac driving skills, the rest of the days plan had to be shelved. The storm that swept in bought not only rain but large swells that would make zodiac landings impossible. But on an expedition cruise, flexibility is the name of the game. The team spent the afternoon rethinking the plans as we headed for more sheltered waters around the peninsula, effectively skipping ahead a day in the planned itinerary to dock in Diego Suarez. It proved to be a wise call, we woke next morning to calm seas and blue skies and a fun trip out in a convoy of 4wd vehicles to Amber Mountain. The following day, what we had lost from the afternoon scheduled in Nosy Mangabe, we more than compensated for with an impromptu stop at Nosy Hara where we got to snorkel once more and then follow the Tsingy Mitsiry trail up to a spectacular viewpoint, spotting macro and micro wildlife along the way.
Another day at sea followed, giving everyone chance to catch their breath and reflect on our Madagascar memories before arriving to the remote Aldabra island group in the Outer Seychelles, 700 miles south west of Mahe. Having made good time overnight we arrived around noon at Assumption Island. We weighed anchor and everyone was soon out on deck marvelling at the dazzling turquoise shoreline. So near and yet so far, we would not be allowed ashore until the ship had gone through customs clearance and to do that, we had to wait for the officials who were flying in from Mahe and they were delayed! The thing about being on an expedition cruise is that there is never a dull moment. We couldn’t step foot on land but we could snorkel off the zodiacs. Healthy marine life is of course a good indicator of a well-balanced ecosystem so we knew only too well that we were in for a treat from that first underwater introduction.
The next day was spent on Cosmoledo. In the morning we explored the aptly named Wizard Island, a pristine and untouched ecosystem. It’s real Robinson Crusoe stuff – a vast sweep of white sand edging a dramatically fluctuating lagoon, inhabited only by birds and crabs. Our afternoon excursion was a different story as we headed out in the zodiacs to Ile Sud Ouest and found ourselves in the midst of a bird nesting party. Thousands and thousands of frigatebirds, red footed boobys and elegant white terns filling the skies, swooping around us and nesting in the trees and mangroves. So many birds, seemingly completely at ease with having tourist ‘paparazzi’ in town. As we clicked and cruised around the lagoon getting right up close to the fascinating limestone ‘champignon’ rock formations. We also spotted large populations of Hawksbill and Green Turtles swimming all around us. Mesmerising and unforgettable.
For me though, the real highlight of our three days in the area was to visit the Aldabra Atoll itself. Described by Sir David Attenborough as ‘one of the wonders of the world’, visitor numbers to the atoll are strictly controlled and fewer than 1200 people a year get to experience it – it was an incredible privilege to count myself among that number.
Made up of a group of islands surrounding a vast lagoon, the highest point averages no more than eight metres and the atoll stretches 35km by 15km. Timing is everything to access the tidal lagoon and the team planned it to perfection. For us it meant a ‘drift snorkel’ on the incoming tide through a relatively narrow channel leading into the lagoon. Many of us had never attempted a drift snorkel, so it was a plunge into the unknown in all ways as we slipped off the zodiacs into the turquoise water. The very first thing I saw was a massive shoal of bright yellow fish seemingly showing me the way. Not that I needed to be shown, I barely needed to move a muscle as the tide gently carried me along through this aquatic dreamland. Parrotfish, triggerfish, potato cod, giant trevally, clownfish, too many to remember or even identify – we saw them all and could even hear some chomping away on the coral. It was, by some margin, the best snorkelling I have ever done.
After lunch back on board, it was then finally time to set foot on the atoll and visit the research station on Picard Island, manned by a small team of volunteers and run by the Seychelles Island Foundation. Before that could happen though, some of the volunteers came aboard to brief us and to make sure we weren’t about to bring anything on to the atoll that might adversely affect the delicate ecosystem. Shoes had to be meticulously scrubbed, bags vacuumed and their contents inspected by the team before we were given the all clear.
Once ashore we split into small groups to have a guided walk around and say hello to those giant tortoises and learn more about the SIF’s conservation work. For the twitchers among us the prize was to spot the rare Aldabra white throated rail, the only flightless bird to be found on any Indian Ocean island. And then there are the idyllic bays and the moody skies full of frigate birds, masked boobys and turtle doves. It was a surreal and enlightening experience.
But there is trouble in paradise – piracy and oil spills are an ongoing threat but also of course these islands and atolls are our barometers of climate change – rising sea levels and global warming are without doubt taking their toll on plant and wildlife. And perhaps most pernicious threat of all can be seen washing up with every tide. Until you see it for yourself it’s hard to believe that discarded plastic could be such an issue in this remote and idyllic spot but the evidence was sadly clear to see.
As Cheryl Sanchez, a senior scientific research co-ordinator on the island explained to me, it’s not just a question of clearing up the rubbish – try as they might, it just keeps coming – but the practicalities and cost of transporting it all off the islands is prohibitive. Supported by various charities, including the Noble Caledonia Charitable Trust, some cleanup projects have already taken place but fund raising is ongoing to find better solutions. Happily, I can report as a direct result of our visit, and the support of some very generous passengers, the money has now been raised for an incinerator to help dispose of some of the rubbish more efficiently. A great example of how carefully managed tourism can have a positive impact. A battle won but the war continues.
Our visit to the atoll came to an end with a sunset zodiac cruise around the lagoon. The water is so clear, it was hard to know which way to look as turtles, rays and huge shoals of fish danced around us. We weren’t the only ones with eyes on the water, frigatebirds swooped and dived for fish all around as the golden light of dusk cast its magical spell.
Throughout a full week of cruising in Madagascar and the Outer Seychelles, we saw only one other (small) ship and literally did not cross paths with any other tourists – it was, ironically, the ultimate in splendid isolation. Writing this now from lockdown in East Sussex, it truly does feel like the stuff of dreams.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Noble Caledonia.