Doug Bruns

Bonefish, Sharks, Sunburn and the French

In Adventure, Travel on November 17, 2003 at 1:44 am


George, my friend in France, sent me an email. He had a cancellation on a fall trip he was putting together to the Seychelles. “We’re going to fish two new atolls. The bonefish have never seen a fly,” he wrote. “It should be quite good. Interested?” Of course I was interested. There aren’t many places left where fish haven’t met a sport and you’d better jump to when you hear about one. Seychelles, I seemed to recall, was off the coast of Africa. Beyond that, I’d have to consult an atlas. “Count me in,” I emailed back. I’ve got incurable wanderlust that, when coupled with fly-fishing, knows no cure.

I looked it up. The Republic of Seychelles is located in the Indian Ocean, about 150 miles northeast of Madagascar. It is an island-country of 115 islands scattered across 154,000 square miles of southern hemisphere sea. Only a few of the islands, 15 or so, are inhabited. It is a place that existed in remote obscurity, little changed since first noticed in 1502 by Vasco de Gama. Then 25 years ago an airport was built on the largest island, Mahe, and tourism arrived. I mentioned my imminent trip to an acquaintance that had sailed through the Seychelles archipelagos in the navy. “It is the most beautiful place in the world,” he said.

They say that in life and in travel, it is the journey not the destination that matters. The notion befits the nineteenth-century adventurer where links of sea travel, rail, carriage, even horseback and foot travel were employed to deliver one to destination. Travel one hundred years ago evokes images of patient journeying, casual connections and quiet rendezvous. But in modern terms, I find nothing romantic or particularly pleasurable about the journey itself, assuming air travel is involved. And one is put off by more than cramped quarters and bad food. Once, on a flight home from South America, my row mate, a Chilean farmer, fell asleep and farted continuously until he awoke, smiling, as we touched down. But a passion for travel blinds the traveler to the disagreeable realities of the modern journey. Consequently, I booked an 8-hour flight to Paris, where I got a day room, napped a couple hours, dined with George, then, that evening, boarded Air Seychelles for the 10-hour flight to Mahe. I looked at my row mate and crossed my fingers.

I’m certain my blood carries a genetic intolerance for all conditions hot and sticky. I’m convinced my European ancestors came from cool latitudes. Maybe they were northern Europeans, Scandinavian perhaps. Living in the Mid-Atlantic, where two hundred and fifty years ago British solders were paid tropic duty, I am annually reminded of my aversion to summer heat and humidity. But I know I am an anomaly, more people than not like hot weather. My fellow passengers cheered as we landed in the radiant sunshine on Mahe. A member of the crew welcomed us to “paradise.” The door racked open and the ten-hour stale vacuum of the cabin filled with a warm salt-scented air. I immediately prickled with perspiration and thought of autumn back home, my favorite season.

I spent the night on Mahe along with my new friends, six French anglers, at the Paradise Resort Hotel. There were miles to go before I assemble my rod and wet a fly, but the next leg of the journey would not begin until morning. I called my wife, nine time zones away and told her I missed her a great deal. It was the last time we would talk for a week, for once I set out communication would cease. From the back lawn of my bungalow I watched the sun slip behind an island mountain, then escape below a perfect horizon. Venus rose. As the light faded, big dusky bats took to awkward flight, stroking the air with leathery appendages and pulling hard to traverse the evening sky.

In the morning we flew to outlying Desroches, out little plane circling for a better look before dropping to the asphalt strip, which rent the island foliage like a perfect scar. Desroches was named in 1771 by Chevalier de Roslan, commander of I’Heure de Berger, in honor of the Chevalier des Roches, Governor of the islands of France and Bourbon. Later, during British occupation, it was called Wood Island because of the dense vegetation. Palm trees stretch 100 feet skyward and one wonders how they root themselves in sand fine as confectioner’s sugar.

Aboard the Mbjui-Mayi, a 57-foot catamaran, we sailed from Desroches to St. Joseph Island, five hours by open sea. We trailed teasers behind the boat, small plastic red and blue fish that danced and bounced, slapping the waves with silly little wings in an effort to seduce billfish to the surface. Francois, Philippe and Jean Claude stood at the ready, rods in hand peering into the frothy deep. I was jet lagged and the gentle rocking of open sea transit upset my stomach. I watched quietly, breathing deeply and stayed focused on the horizon, where I’d been told the battle against seasickness is fought. Then, as if the sea congealed and took form in solid indigo, a marlin rose to a teaser. I had never before seen anything so quickly wonderful. Guide Nedi pulled in the teasers hand over hand, yelling in Creol, then French. The air was suddenly electric. The anglers threw big gaudy flies at the fish with 12 weight rods. There was shouting. I sat at attention. Goddamn, this is fishing, I thought. Then Francois pulled his rod hard and violently. He shouted. He was connected. All rods were stayed. Jo, Captain of Mbjui-Mayi, looked over his shoulder from the bridge. The fishermen yelled in French. They gestured. The marlin, now 50 feet off the stern shot through the surface like a great blue projectile, twisted in the air, frozen for a heartbeat. It then fell heavy to the sea. He sprinted again, now 100 feet off. The shouting increased. Skipper Jo frowned. The Mbjui-Mayi steamed forward still. Francois’s reel screamed and I looked at it and saw backing, then less backing, less still—more shouting, screaming even—Skipper Jo not understanding French—the boat continuing—another top break and jump of the fish. Then, with a little pop, the last of the backing separated from the reel. The line floated in slow motion through the air and silently fell into the water. Universal quite, but for the chugging engine. All turned to Captain Jo. Francois was red-faced. His eyes bulged. The captain asked what happened and for an ensuing two hours he was gently and politely upbraided for not stopping the Mbjui-Mayi, for losing Francois’s great fish, for not understanding French and for not knowing how to go about catching wonderful muscular beasts on a fly rod. I thought it a hell of a trip, so far.

Bonefish cast a shadow. You sometimes spot them feeding, their tail tipping above the surface, but when the sun is beating down and the water clear, when the sand and fish seem to coalesce to liquid beige, you search for a moving shadow on the bottom. There you find your prey. As our little party of six anglers spread out and shuffled across the lagoon I saw a bottom shadow, then another and several more. I false cast to the side, getting line into the air, forty, fifty feet; then squaring up I dropped the Crazy Charlie in front of the fish. This was my first cast ever to a bonefish, being a cold-water trout fisherman. “Let the fly lay a moment to two,” George had coached me. “Then when you see him come on it, strip it slightly, like a crab scurrying.” The fish followed my fly, then noised down to it. I slowly lifted my rod tip, felt the fish heavy on the line, and tugged–we were off and running. I knew what to expect, a blistering run, line to the backing, but knowing a thing and experiencing it is the difference between reading about sex and having it. My reel sang with the first run, for which bonefish are rightfully famous. Yes! This is why I had traveled 8000 miles. Water cleaved as my line accelerated. Jean Paul, yards up the lagoon, cleared back as the fish, a hundred feet from me, continued past him across the inlet. He cheered for me, his voice carrying across the flats. After two more runs I brought the fish to hand and released him after Nedi took my photograph. I was no longer a Bonefish virgin.

We began our trip back at the end of the week. We stopped for fresh vegetables on Poivre, where an inhabitant cultivated a garden. There is a legend surrounding Poivre: After Louis XVI was imprisoned in the French Revolution, the Dauphin, pegged as the next Louis, escaped and was taken in by one Poiret, a name he later assumed. Escaping France, Poiret (Louis XVII) reached the Seychelles in the early nineteenth century and settled, as the legend goes, on Poivre. He worked with colonists who were attempting to develop a cotton industry. In 1822 he moved to Mahe, claiming to be the scion of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Today many Seychellois believe themselves to be the descendants of Louis XVII. There is a restaurant, Auberge Louis XVII, on Mahe.

While Captain Jo bartered for lettuce and melons, I spoke to a local Creol. “Fifteen people live on Poivre,” he told me. He was young and dark. He wore no shoes. “The government pays us to live on the island. Here we work.” After six months the work contact would be up and the next group of fifteen would arrive. There was one phone on the island, hanging under a palm tree in the middle of the village. Electricity was seldom generated, as diesel fuel was expensive to import. “Many people leave anyway,” he said. “They go crazy here. There is nothing but sand and ocean.” I explained that some people in the States would pay to live here in what the brochures call paradise. He shook his head and smiled, then laughed slightly. “They crazy,” he said, pointing to his head. The next day we arrived back in Mahe.

I was attempting to leave Victoria, capital of Mahe, in a taxi driven by Bennie, a small man with pleasant features. He smiled often and when he did, his face creased deeply. His cab was clean. I was trying to return to the Eden Paradise Resort. “Breaker Reef Resort?” asked Bennie. “No. Eden Paradise Resort.” “How you come?” I had come into Victoria, the capital, on the public bus, directly from the Eden Paradise Resort. We had crossed the island, up and over the mountain, Morne Seychellois, 905m. “Other side?” asked Bennie. “Yes. The other side.” “Miami Beach Hotel?” he asked. “No. Eden. Like Garden of Eden.” It was a small island, only seventeen miles long, with six or maybe seven hotels. I expected a cabbie to know them all and hadn’t thought to get an address. My cell phone rang. I looked at my watch. It was seven in the morning at home.

“Good morning.” I knew the only person who had the number was my wife. “What are you doing up so early?”

“I couldn’t sleep. When did you get in?” He voice was squeaky from sleep, quiet and sweat sounding.

“This morning, around eight.” She asked what I was doing and I explained that Bennie and I were trying to find the Eden Paradise Resort. I glanced at Bennie and he smiled and nodded.

“Should I be worried?”

“No, don’t worry. It’s a small island. We’ll find it.” Several years ago, Carole and I arrived in Jerusalem on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. We dropped our bags in the lobby and rushed into the street to join the evening throng silently walking into the old city, to the Western Wall. We got lost in the moment, a mix of travel exotica, history and sensory satiation. Much later, as the early morning crowds dispersed, we realized that we had no idea where we were staying. In our rush to hit the streets we had failed to even note the full name of our hotel. It took until dawn, finding an English-speaking cabbie and driving to every place with the name David in it, to get back.

“Are you pulling a Jerusalem?” she asked. I told her I would call her when I got back to the hotel. I nodded to Bennie. “We’ll find it,” I said. He nodded and smiled deeply once again. I gave him a thumbs up. He aped me a thumbs up back.

Bennie and I found the Eden Paradise Resort, but only after calling George’s company in Paris and getting the district name, Port Glaud. “Ahh,” said Bennie. “Yes, yes, Port Glaud. Eden Hotel. It’s new.”

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