Traveling in Chagos: BBC Travel Article from Diane Selkirk
In December last year, photographer and travel writer Diane Selkirk published a piece for BBC Travel (full article not available in the UK) about her visit to the Indian Ocean’s Saloman Atoll, one of seven Atolls located within the north eastern part of the Chagos Archipelago. She describes her rare experience, “Salomon Atoll is the kind of fabled stop that travellers sail halfway around the world to reach”. Selkirk explores the Ile Takamaka.
“My walk around...was already wilder than expected. The eel had been chasing a fast-moving
crab out of the water and up the beach when it spotted my toe. I quickly scrambled onto a tree trunk to escape and tried to hide my tender toe from view. Happily the eel settled for the crab, and I went back to contemplating my way forward: through the ocean over jagged coral, or back inland through dense jungle”.
Her journey to the region required “proof of medical evacuation and boat-wreck removal insurance, and then for £200, you get a 28-day yacht visitors permit”, “It’s not a long stay” she adds, “but it’s a better deal than the one the archipelago’s long-time former population got”.
Selkirk makes sure to detail the “unsavoury arrangement” made between Britain and the US in the 1960s, depopulating the Chagos Islands in order to build a US military base on Diego Garcia. “Over the next decade, the archipelago’s entire population, an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 Chagossians, were uprooted from their villages – where they had worked on coconut plantations since the 18th century – and moved many hundreds of kilometres away to either the Seychelles or Mauritius”.
The complex legal fight Chagossians have been engaged in for decades is contrasted by Selkirk who describes a “bounty” of nature on the Islands.
“At one point during our walk, we waded through a blacktip reef shark nursery. In a shallow tide pool, newborn pups swam in lazy circles near my ankles, looking comically small next to my feet. Further on, we found a lagoon with a half dozen green turtles and were dazzled when huge schoolsof turquoise parrot fish darted in and out of the shadows.”
As high waves meant Selkirk and her crew could not travel, she ventured inland and describes exploring Ile de Takamaka, contrasting it with her experience on Ile de Boddam.
“Unlike nearby Ile Boddam, which was the atoll’s main village site and holds the crumbling ruins of a church, a jail, a hospital and a graveyard where time has rubbed away most of the inscriptions, Takamaka was a lightly populated coconut plantation; it has no trails through its interior….. At one point, we rested under a gorgeous old banyan tree and pondered the only open grove we’d seen on the island – imagining it had once been part of the workings of the island.”
Selkirk is uneasy about her visit, “It's a strange thing to be permitted to use the nation of an exiled people as your private tropical playground”. She is impressed by the “lushness of the place”, “scrambling over trees and wading through the warm ocean”. Her piece is beautifully descriptive, including some rare and impressive photography.
Looking to the future, Selkirk describes the opportunity for Chagossians to return this year.
“In previous years, positive court judgements raised the possibility of resettlement – only to have the UK government counter with arguments about the expense and difficulty of sending the people back. However, after finally acknowledging the Chagossians had been treated wrongly, the UK now seems to be leaning in their favour”.
Selkirk considers what this would mean for the islands, noting that the British government's creation of a marine reserve around the Archipelego means that “eco-tourism is one of the only industries that can meet the criteria set by the marine protected area”.
Sensitive to the history of the region and the pain of the people stripped from the land, Selkirk gives us a rare insight into the distant world of Chagos, still aching for its children to return home.