Mauritius, Paradise Island of the Indian Ocean: Country of Contrasts; Nature, People, Infrastructure, Weather, Tourism
Map of Mauritius
Where is Mauritius?
I knew it was a popular tropical island holiday destination but had to look at a map for its precise location. Find Mozambique on the east coast of Southern Africa, fly due east over Madagascar, and the Republic of Mauritius will appear as a tiny dot in the Indian Ocean. It is geographically part of East Africa.
Our visit was a last minute decision to experience somewhere totally new, totally tropical. We were in the south-east, near the airport, between Mahébourg and Blue Bay (a little to the south).
The island of Mauritius covers a mere 790 square miles, has a coastline of 330 kilometres, with a population of 1.263 million (in 2016). It is 45km wide and 65km long.
Formerly a Dutch colony (1638-1710) and a French colony (1715-1810), Mauritius became a British colonial possession in 1810 and remained so until 1968, the year in which it became independent.
Colourful Flag + Motto with Dodo, Stag & Sugar Cane
Its motto is ‘Star and Key of the Indian Ocean’. Three languages are spoken here; English, French and Mauritian Creole. Mauritius is the only country in Africa where Hinduism is the largest religion. The administration uses English as its main language, though it seems French is more commonly used by the man in the street.
Shacks, Villas & TemplesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Mauritius is small but has a big heart. I have visited just once and found in those five days that you should never be surprised by the unexpected or the unconventional.
It has wondrous beaches, lagoons and reefs, a dormant volcano, dramatic verdant scenery in the Black River Gorges National Park and activities which cover chilling out, hiking or flying across ravines. It has rainforests, waterfalls and much wildlife - a rare bird called the Mauritius Fody and the flying fox. It has soothing, crystal-blue waters and shouting vibrant colours.
It has riches and poverty sitting side by side, along with a generous acceptance of several religions living side by side.
I’m speaking from only five days experience in the south east but we encountered an array of ethnic backgrounds, all friendly and helpful.
There is a wonderful, refreshing, complete disregard for time. The bus drivers give the impression that they are autonomous, will come and go as they please and will drive with total abandonment, seemingly disregarding any rules of the road that might exist but managing to miss hitting anything. Ask for a timetable and they don’t seem to understand why you want one. On the other hand, they will allow those travelling to dictate when and where they stop, as we experienced.
It was a day of sunshine and rain; full-on searing heat giving way to all the cats and dogs you can think of, then back to tumble-drying atmosphere. The humidity, for the unaccustomed like me, was unbearable.
A group of women alighted at Blue Bay, the south end of the line. It was clear they were all friends. The conversation and volume rose as each smily face greeted the rest, one by one, some in the French custom of a kiss on each cheek. They plonked themselves on the solid bench seats, a few overflowing along with their multi-coloured garb. The driver decided it was time to go.
The next thing we knew, there was a whistle as though someone was trying to attract attention, then another and another. It turned out to be the bell which more than one of the ladies had pressed whilst yelling in a good-natured fashion for the driver to wait for yet another friend who had emerged out of a shelter to duck the pelting rain and make for the bus. He stopped and on she hopped.
Several times on our journey, this scenario was repeated, each time a woman emerging from a gateway or any available shelter either side of the road. Talk about girl power! It was hilarious, the more so because there we were, two obvious white tourists, happily in the middle of this friendly babble. I wanted to stay on that bus all day.
Fabulous FodyClick thumbnail to view full-size
Landscape & Wildlife
We did not have time to go everywhere, even on such a small island. The backdrop of hills and dramatic craggy mountains gave us an idea of the valleys and verdant foliage hidden within.
You can experience a walk over a ravine on a rope bridge or dare the thrill of a zip-wire from hilltop to valley. You can visit the sugar cane factories. Indeed, sugar cane grows all around and is paramount to the Mauritian economy, not to mention its rôle in the production of rum (yes, of course we brought some home).
There are beautiful white sands lapped by translucent turquoise waters but a reminder of lurking danger are the shark nets ensuring safe swimming.
Flitting around the trees by our small hotel was a wondrous orange-red bird, about the size of a sparrow. One of them had the grace to pose for us. I found out that it was a Mauritius Fody, a rare species in the weaver family and endemic to the island. It is also classified by 'Birdlife International' as 'endangered'. What a privilege to see it!
As Dead as...
Talking of wildlife, once upon a time there was a Dodo. Unique to Mauritius, a flightless bird with no reason to mistrust others, it was rendered extinct by invading hunters so is no longer seen in the flesh. However, there are statues and likenesses in parks, gardens and the airport though much more colourful than the originals!
How sad that man is responsible for such carnage. How wonderful it would be to see this large, ponderous, quirky bird wandering around at peace.
Lion Resting by the Sea
The aptly named mountain rises above the sea just north of Mahébourg (pronounced ‘may-bour’). Often surrounded in rain clouds, it could be a threatening lion or a protective one; the latter I hope. It is visible from inland across the cane fields, recumbent and passive, covered in tropical foliage.
Turquoise & Cobalt BluesClick thumbnail to view full-size
I expected an idyllic white-sanded beach lapped by gentle waters with some small shops and cafés for visitors. The former is true, the latter can be described more as a couple of food shacks and a fruit and coconut stall, all open to flies but still with a simple charm.
Wild dogs wander at will, often badly treated, often emaciated but sometimes friendly and healthy enough.
Round the corner, an unexpected luxury spa and restaurant for the richer clientèle from where you can see the open sea and the bay but no shacks. Opposite the spa is a local bar and restaurant serving good food and drink, many dishes with prawns and local piña colada, rum and coconut being ‘de rigeur’ of course.
You can hear the bus coming through from the main road, its engine clattering and belching, tyres squealing round the corners. Time to wander down to the bus stop with plenty of time to buy a coconut from the stall and suck the milk through a straw.
Port Louis, Capital of Mauritius
Port Louis is an over-bustling version of Mahébourg, with a large port. We were short of an adrenalin rush so took the bus. It would have been a shame not to visit the capital. You must be prepared to be jostled along the narrow pavements, accosted by vendors coaxing you into their spaces (many aren’t self-contained enough to be called shops).
It seemed it was our duty, as English persons, to provide rain each time we descended from a bus. The heavens opened. There is no drizzle here, only tropical rain. Such is the roofing gutter system that at intervals on each block a pipe extends from gutter to just beyond the kerb, designed to protect the pedestrian. However, the splash which hits the road returns to cover the feet and legs of anyone nearby. The saving grace is that the rapidly returning sunshine dries clothes, feet, hair and walkways in a matter of minutes.
We decided to try to find the port itself, a glimpse of the dock or the sea. I spied a policeman with a couple of other officials. They would surely provide us with directions. The conversation went like this:
‘Which way do we go for the port?’
(with a grin conveying their opinion of English tourists). No, there is no sea, no beach.’
‘But this is a port. There must be some water. Which way do we go?’(more grins and shaking of heads)
‘No. There is no water.’
I was becoming increasingly frustrated.
‘This is Port Louis. The clue is in the name. There must be a dock, ships, some sort of water? You don’t know?’
Finally, one man let us out of our misery.
‘Ah, yes! Go along this path, take the subway under the main road. That will take you to the shops by the water.’
To this day, I’m not sure whether they were mocking us, or they didn’t care, or they had a vocabulary problem. When the steam had stopped coming out of my ears, we reached a pleasant port-side area.
Tourist OpulenceClick thumbnail to view full-size
This was the Port Louis most visitors would see. Indeed, I’d be surprised if many took a look beyond the designer shops, souvenir stalls, cafés and restaurants. A cruise ship was docked nearby. Those cruising the pavements of gold bore no resemblance to those we’d been mingling with on the backstreets, or should I say main streets.
The punters here strolled in young groups, couples or families, dressed up to the nines and their languages intertwined as we passed, still mostly French or English but a spattering of German, Afrikaans or Dutch.
I wonder how many travellers bother to look at the ‘real’ country and its inhabitants, their homes, their shacks and their attempts to earn a living. Which do you think had the happiest faces, the widest smiles, the loudest laughs, the most sparkling eyes? Not the well-off pedestrians round these shops. I couldn’t wait to get back on the bus.
Happily, the laid back atmosphere of some of the residents is infectious, making us relax, enjoy their way of life, blend in a little in accepting that others’ lives are different, that one can live with less and still be happy, or even happier.
Girl on the Bus
On our return journey, a girl of about four or five sat behind us with her mother. She wore a pretty, colourful dress, had her dark tresses disciplined in an intricate style and wore a bright, mischievous smile. Her laughter tinkled just like my granddaughter’s and she sang songs obviously learnt at a nursery school, for the entertainment of her mother, but we benefited from it too, as no doubt did others close enough to hear above the general hubbub.
One song, in French, followed the tune of ‘Twinkle, twinkle little Star’ and a couple of others were familiar. I turned to smile at her and her mother, saying how clever she was to remember all the words and sing so well. Both beamed their pleasure in response.
Cyclists, Fishermen & Addicts
We were standing at the bus stop another day, debating whether it would be a couple of minutes or half an hour before the bus appeared, announced by its clattering engine. It was raining so we sheltered under a minuscule tree. Taxi drivers plied for trade but we stuck it out for the bus; much more entertaining. The rain teemed, determined to negate our beliefs that it wouldn’t last for long.
Two cyclists went by, one on the wrong side of the road, the other dicing with death by pulling out in front of a car but neither the cyclist nor the driver seemed to notice. Both cyclists were singing at the tops of their voices, full of life, beaming at everyone, bare footed and soaked through.
Two fishermen walked past, the first singing and smiling, the second also singing, managing to interrupt his vocal talents with a nod and a ‘bonjour’ for each of us before continuing his entertainment. Laid back, good humoured, these people, obviously poor, have no grudges towards anyone. We responded with smiles and bonjours.
Back from town on the same day, we walked up from the bus, round a different way this time just to look at the multi-styled houses. On the right, an empty plot, covered in high grass and litter, was waiting to welcome a building. Two girls (teenage - twenties?) approached the plot. I was surprised how stressed and troubled they looked. On the plot were two young men, armed with syringes and wary eyes. The girls met them and we continued walking, unable to see what we assumed would happen next. A place of contrasts. That image remains with me, a blot on the happy atmosphere of this vibrant society.
Sea Urchin Samples
Whilst by the sea wall one day, a middle-aged man approached with smiles and ‘g’days’. He claimed to be a fisherman, out of work because of the weather and poor fish stocks. From his pocket came a variety of jewellery, all made from sea urchin or small shells. Pretty bracelets and necklaces but nothing I wanted to buy. I felt guilty saying no but he smiled pleasantly and left having tried to ply his trade though with no pressure. I felt sorry for the sea urchin.
Poverty, riches. Tourists and locals. Residents who laugh and smile and provide colour and a huge welcome. Police who parade with vicious dogs and make sure they show you control (in the tourist sector). Merchants who are always pleasant whether or not you buy. Scenery from coast to mountain, sunshine to tropical storm. Vibrant colours to crystal cool waters. Local buses to community taxis. Colour, colour, colour. Noise, noise, noise. Drugs, misery and fear. Community spirit and friendship to all. Beaches and bustle. Speed and relaxation. Shacks and villas.
This is one fascinating country to visit but make sure you see the real people and countryside as well as relaxing by the pool and sipping your wine on the beach.
It was time to leave and our taxi took us back to the airport. There are only two flights to France out of Mauritius each week. We had booked the first since we arrived and flew with Air France to Paris, Charles de Gaulle, before flying on a short hop to Bristol, England; an overnight flight of twelve hours followed by a much smaller plane taking just over an hour to take us home.
We had been away for 10 weeks in all and how good it was to see the reliable green of the English countryside beneath our gaze. But it was so cold; one more contrast that awaited us, coming from the high humidity of 30+ degrees to the contact humidity of a rainy, early Spring. I smiled and settled back to normality.
Do you like visiting out of the way places?
© 2018 Ann Carr