THE GHOST OF THE HEADLESS WOMAN HAUNTS a sea cave near the ruins of an ancient pirate’s fort. It is said she and her husband lived happily on the beautiful island until the day her brother-in-law came to visit. One evening, returning from a hard day’s work on the plantation, the husband found no one at home and so went in search of his wife and brother. He walked deep into the forest and stopped to rest in a place overshadowed by tall coconut palms and giant takamaka trees. There he heard the sound of his brother’s jaunty whistle and saw his wife emerging from the undergrowth. Blind with fury in the certain knowledge that they had been caught together, the husband spun his scythe and cut off his wife’s head. At that moment a nearby magpie-robin repeated its perfect imitation of his brother’s distinctive whistle, and took flight. From that day on, the ghost of his wronged wife has haunted the island, and she is still blamed for anything that might go wrong.
Apocryphal tales such as this abound in the Seychelles, frayed remnants of stories told for centuries, dating back to a time when French plantation owners cultivated many of these far-flung Indian Ocean isles with slave labour from Africa and India. Here you will find ancient graves and ruins built with coral rock thought to be the work of 17th-century pirates, and giant white crosses used to indicate which of the 115 islands are inhabited while also marking the safest spot for boats to land. The main island of Mahe – just 26km long – and its neighbours in the Inner Islands are stupendously forested and encircled with preternaturally beautiful beaches; some of those further afield are no more than windswept specks of coral, scattered like shotgun pellets over vast distances, or huddled together in tiny atolls as if taking comfort in each other’s company in the face of such terrible isolation.
A great number of the islands have never been sullied by human habitation and remain splendid reminders of how things were a million years ago, like miniature versions of the Galapagos or Madagascar, worlds suspended in time. Some are protected nature reserves, and the Seychelles has two UNESCO World Heritage sites. Others are in private hands and undergoing the lengthy process of rehabilitation, the scars and scabs formed by decades of degradation slowly fading with the eradication of invasive plants and critters, and their replacement with more kindly native species.