Of scrubland and tortoises

ALDABRA, SEYCHELLES: Mushrooms of limestone, with the waters of the lagoon lapping unceasingly at their roots, stood like sentinels off the beach as we approached Aldabra in a motorised rubber dinghy. The noise of the motor jarred the stillness of the lagoon, emphasising the intrusion of a pack of humans into territory carefully preserved as a Nature Reserve. 

Gentle giant tortoises of AldabraAldabra is actually an atoll of four islands forming the southernmost part of the Seychelles. With its elevated limestone reefs, vegetation and wild life that has remained comparatively undisturbed by man, Aldabra is unique. 

It is also extremely difficult, unless one is a scientist on an approved project, to visit. And even scientists' visits are governed by the schedule of the government supply boat that makes the four day journey every three months from Mahe, the Seychelles capital, to this lonely, desolate outpost. 

The passengers on board the Caledonian Star cruise ship were aware of the privilege of being able to visit Aldabra. That's what they were paying for, and the ship was making a contribution to the Seychelles Island Foundation which is responsible for Aldabra. 

Many of the ship's passengers were amateur naturalists, interested in Aldabra's bird life. They stormed ashore from the fleet of rubber dinghies, armed with binoculars and water bottles. Heedless of the scorching sun, they trecked with determination into the interior scrub to try to catch sight of rare birds like the sacred ibis and the white-throated rail. The birds on Aldabra are of interest because they all arrived there by natural means, and were not introduced by man. 

Lesser experts, such as myself, found Aldabra fascinating for its magnificent population of giant tortoises. Because it is the dominant animal in Aldabra, and herbivorous instead of carnivorous as in most terrestrial ecosystems, the giant tortoise and the way it lives, feeds, reproduces and regulates its population, is of great interest to biologists. 

Frendly tortoises sniffing the two-legged invadersGiant tortoises are quite primitive reptiles; they evolved about 180 million years ago. Now they are found in their natural habitat in only a few islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There are over 150,000 giant tortoises on Aldabra, and only a handful of humans. Both kinds of animals seemed interested in each other, the gentle giants sniffing the two legged invaders and seeming to pose while the tourists snapped souvenir photographs. 

Its inhospitable terrain and sparse fresh water supply has helped preserve Aldabra as a naturalist's haven, but it was not always so. To the Portuguese goes the credit of including the atoll first in a map in 1509. Settlers, and even pirates, kept away from the island until in 1814 it became part of the British colony of Mauritius. It probably irked the British adminstrators that such a large territory (60 square miles of land and a lagoon of 130 square miles) should serve no useful purpose and contribute no money to the exchequer. Leases were issued right up to 1955 for commercial exploitation of timber, green turtles, and fishing. But every attempt to exploit Aldabra's natural resources was, fortunately for nature- lovers, doomed to failure. 

Tourists wading back to mother ship at low tideIn 1965 Aldabra and its population of tortoises became part of the British Indian Ocean Territory and plans were advanced for it to become a military staging post. Led by the Royal Society of London a crusade was launched against the establishment by environmentalists to save Aldabra's unique flora and fauna from the encroachment of military technology. 

The tortoises and their habitat were saved from extinction. In 1982, Aldabra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and now it is one of the most intriguing ports of call for vessels in that part of the world, some 250 miles northwest of Madagascar and 400 miles east of the African coast. 

Aldabra has no bars, no toilets, just scrubland and tortoises, with scorpions and crabs and birds and rats and bats and other fauna to photograph, and the fantastic shapes of the eroded limestone reefs that pockmark the lagoon and lend the atoll a spooky quality. To complete the adventure of a visit to this strange, primeval atoll, the ship's passengers found, when they came to leave, that the tide had turned and the lagoon was too shallow for their motorised dinghies. They had to wade back through the lagoon to the mother vessel. It was a sign that Aldabra intends to safeguard its isolation, enabling future generations to observe its curious flora and fauna, saved form the indignity of mass tourism. 

Travel Notes: The only way to reach Aldabra is by sea; private yachts have to obtain permission from the authorities in the Seychelles capital of Mahe before making the voyage. There is a once a week connecting flight from Colombo via Dubai to Seychelles.

Aldabra is the world's second largest coral atoll
. It is in the Aldabra Group of islands in the Indian Ocean that form part of the Seychelles. Uninhabited and extremely isolated, Aldabra is virtually untouched by humans, has distinctive island fauna including the Aldabra Giant Tortoise, and is designated a World Heritage Site.

Aldabra was visited by Portuguese navigators in 1511. The islands were already known to the Arabs, from whom they get their name. In the middle of the 18th century, they became dependencies of the French colony of Réunion, from where expeditions were made for the capture of the giant tortoises.

Aldabra is a raised coral atoll more than 700 miles (1,100 km) from Mahé, the principal island of the Seychelles and is closer to the coast of Africa and is 265 miles (426 km) northwest of Madagascar and a similar distance northeast from the Comoro Islands. The atoll is located at 9°24 S 46°22 E  (-9.419258, 46.343079) and belongs to the Aldabra Group, one of the island groups of the Outer Islands of the Seychelles, which includes the island of Assumption and the atolls of Astove and Cosmoledo.

For more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldabra