Simon Reeve celebrates the life of the Yorkshireman who created a national park far from home in the Seychelles
Bounding from rock to rock around the shore of his tropical island in the Seychelles, Brendon Grimshaw, a sprightly old chap, was teasing me about the location of buried pirate treasure. ‘I‘m sure it’s under this one,’ he said, watching as my eyes widened. ‘No, no, definitely this one,’ he corrected himself, leaping onto another huge boulder. Brendon has had a life many of us dream of. In the 1960s, the Yorkshireman paid £8,000 for the gorgeous little island of Moyenne, rumoured to be the resting place of a hoard buried by the infamous pirate Oliver Levasseur, who was hanged in Réunion in 1730.
Brendon spent years searching and digging for treasure, but he also cut through dense bush to create walking paths, hacked steps out of rocks with crowbars and heavy hammers, planted 16,000 trees and established a wildlife reserve on Moyenne. For the first 10 years or so, he survived by collecting rainwater, or rowed back to the main island for a barrel of fresh water. It was backbreaking and exhausting work. ‘My hands were covered in blisters,’ said Brendon, remembering the pain.
But when I turned up on the island while travelling around the Indian Ocean for a TV series of the same name, Brendon was 86 and enjoying retirement in paradise. He would wake to the sound of rustling palm trees and the Indian Ocean lapping against the shore, and spent his days caring for the island, and for the thousands of birds and animals that called the place home. Set in azure and turquoise waters, Moyenne was one of the most spectacular islands I have visited anywhere in the world.
Thanks to Brendon’s tireless hard work, it was home to a glorious array of plants and wildlife, including mango, paw-paw, 40 species of endemic palm trees, and 13 of the salacious coco de mer. Giant tortoises pottered around, slowly, and fluttering above them were just some of the 2,000 species of bird Brendon collected from around the Indian Ocean, including the indigenous pigeon hollandais, so named because it shares the colours of the Dutch flag, and the beautiful reddy-orange fody. The 115 islands of the Seychelles are home to only about 94,000 inhabitants, and hundreds of secluded beaches.
Little Moyenne stands out among neighbouring islands, which are owned by billionaires and international hotel chains. They all have obvious buildings and yachts moored at jetties. Moyenne, by contrast, still has a wild look. A Saudi prince once offered Brendon a blank cheque for Moyenne, but left disappointed. ‘I didn’t spend years transforming the island for money,’ Brendon told me. ‘I did it because I was making the island a wonderful place to live.’
Brendon was one of the finest accidental conservationists I have met. He has passed away since my visit, but he lived a glorious life in the tropics, and leaves an impressive legacy. Moyenne is now the smallest national park in the world. If you are lucky enough to visit the Seychelles on a family holiday, take a short boat trip from the main island Mahé and say hello to his protected giant tortoises. And pack a spade, because the fabled Fiery Cross of Goa, encrusted with diamonds and rubies, is still thought to be lurking somewhere beneath those huge rocks and golden sands.