Defoe’s fictional character comes to life in the form of Brendon Grimshaw, the sole inhabitant of the island of Moyenne.
“Tortoises have the right of way” reads the board that I was peering into. In the midst of thick foliage and no sounds other than those of my tiny boat bobbing up and down where it was tied at the shore, I let out a loud chuckle as I read it. I was on the island of Moyenne, and I was on a mission. I had set out to meet the man who came closest to my childhood hero, Robinson Crusoe.
The tiny isle of Moyenne is one of the 40 granitic islands of the Seychelles archipelago, the only oceanic granitic islands in the world. Moyenne means “middle island”, and was named in 1768 by the leader of a French expedition, Captain Marion du Fresne. However, the name that it is most synonymous with today is that of its sole resident’s, Brendon Grimshaw. And as he would proudly proclaim, he indeed was “the only Moyennois, as an inhabitant of the island would be called, in the world”. Moyenne is also believed to be the secret hideaway of a legendary pirate whose private treasure is rumoured to be buried somewhere on the island.
I had not heard of Grimshaw till a conversation with the captain of a small cruise boat I was on during my travels in the Seychelles. Not far from the capital island of Mahe, he told me, was a small island called Moyenne which had been home to a man for over 50 years. I asked him if it was possible to go there, and he said he could arrange for a smaller boat and one of his men to take me there and I would have to pay a landing fee that the old man charged for the maintenance of his private island. “I’m not guaranteeing his mood though,” the boatswain guffawed. But I was willing to take my chance; anything for Defoe’s fictional character to come to life!
As we reached ashore and I sunk my feet in white crystals of warm sand, I prepared myself for a meeting with an old, capricious man with a temper as hot as the sand. And then I chanced upon the board that cracked me up, and heard a voice boom through the verdure: “Any tasty children coming my way?” I laughed aloud as I walked up the slope, till I came face to face with a gentle, tanned face creased with the lines of age and wisdom, and in it embedded twinkling, azure blue eyes. Brendon Grimshaw shook my hand firmly and welcomed me to his cottage that he had constructed and constantly improvised over the years. He introduced me to his dogs, and to Derek the tortoise, the oldest resident of the island. I mentioned his board about tortoises having the right of way, to which he promptly replied, “Well, they’re probably older than you!” I was lucky to be the only visitor that day, as Brendon was something of a celebrity here. What truly broke the ice was me fixing his “damn cellphone” which he found quite a nuisance and had been pressured into owning in the recent years by well-wishers. He had had thousands of visitors, including prominent figures, but was happy to sit down with me and tell me the story of Moyenne, and his favourite dog many years ago whom he had named “I Don’t Care”. And through those tales and some newspaper clips displayed outside, I pieced together the story of his eventful life.
Yorkshire-born Brendon Grimshaw had an illustrious career as a journalist and editor, working with Reuters in London and finally working in Africa as editor and director of the Taganyika Standard. He eventually became the first PR consultant to an independent Tanzania and its President. He retired early to live his dream of living on an island, and bought the tiny 22.5-acre tropical island. Over a period of 35 years and with the assistance of his “Man Friday” Rene Antoine, this latter-day Robinson Crusoe relentlessly laboured in the equatorial sun to convert the land overgrown with scrub into one of Seychelles’ most successful conservation stories, the Moyenne Island National Park, which is also the smallest national park in the world. Today, the island is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna including endemic trees and giant tortoises, its edges flanked by protected coral reef.
Grimshaw died soon after I met him last year, but I was glad he penned down his extraordinary life and left behind an inspirational autobiography full of adventures with piranhas, tsunamis, poachers and more. Like its title, he believed he was but another grain of sand. He also believed he would one day find the treasure, and told me in his make-believe gruff tone how he spent his spare time hunting for the fortune. I had thanked him for the gift of a copy of his book, and as the boat tore the reflections of the sunset and jetted back towards Mahe, I turned to the page I had asked him to sign. I smiled as I read: “For Shikha who came ashore like the pirates of old, from the Himalayas, and found the treasure — the island itself.”
(The documentary on Moyenne and Brendon’s life, entitled A Grain of Sand can be viewed online and the book Another Grain of Sand can be purchased online.)