The African country of Mauritius deals up a wonderful recipe of cultures and landscapes. Like a complicated dish, it’s hard to put your finger exactly on the specific ingredient that makes it so special. Call it alchemy. The result is delicious. Because of several changes in (let’s call it) ’ownership’ and some fairly huge cultural shifts, like the abolition of slavery for example, this gorgeous island has a bad case of multiple personality disorder. In a very good way. You can see and feel the colourful mingling of French, Dutch (who brought sugar and killed the Dodo), African, Creole and Indian influences in the people along with their Hinduism, Christianity and Muslim faiths. The remarkable thing is that everyone seems to get along peacefully like it’s no big deal. Take note world! This ethnic margarita makes for some very interesting food, history and people. The varied terrain makes for some outstanding outdoor exploration. After the storm we were itching to get out and have a look around this ruggedly beautiful tropical island.
*note: Speaking of itching, mosquitos chase us inside each evening at dusk in a cloud of bug spray but the itchiness never lasts longer than an hour or so. For this reason, I like Mauritian mosquitos way better than Canadian ones.
Because Mauritius is a volcanic island the chain of jagged peaks that dot her midline stand to attention screaming ‘look at me!’ That’s the first thing you notice when crossing the Island, after the endless green of the sugar cane fields. In some places the volcanic activity has left behind a combination of minerals that were discovered only when the area was being cultivated for crops. Just like people, some minerals repel each other and some attract. The result resembles a huge roll of lifesavers in the soil. One place to have a good look at the phenomena is called “Seven Coloured Earth” near a village called Chamarel. Not to be outdone, another touristy spot has opened called “Twenty-Three Coloured Earth” (take that!) which also dishes up zip lines and ATV riding throughout he jungle. These are very expensive activities aimed at the 2 week blitz vacationer so we just tried one zip and called it quits. Plus, the woman ahead of us who whizzed through the jungle holding her baby in her arms (not kidding, wish I were) didn’t give us much confidence in the overall safety standards. Oh, and good luck finding it, Mauritians don’t seem too fond of roadsigns. Of any kind. There are never street signs and rarely directional ones. Basically, you’re on your own. “Just stop and ask” has become our mantra and it has led us down some interestingly windings paths. Mauritians love their mobile phones and want you to “call me when you are close”.
“Le Morne” is both a village and a long white sandy beach at the south west corner of the island, famous for it’s kite surfing. The area inside the reef, called the lagoon, is the most brilliant shade of blue/green. I’m not even going to try describe it. Van Gogh would have had a hard time replicating it. On weekends and holidays the beach here is crowded with huge multigenerational families sitting on little multi-coloured plastic stools picnicking … and drinking. Some of the men prefer to swim in their undies and the women in long pants and saris. Well, they don’t actually swim, it seems most don’t know how which I found strange for an island country, they just kind of bob up and down in the current laughing their heads off. We have come to prefer the droopy cotton underpants swimming over the European men and their speedos. What is the deal with that? A little mystery would be nice, thanks.
From our apartment on the hillside in Rivière Noire we could see Le Morne Mountain in the distance. This is where escaped slaves would hide in the dense jungle and legend has it some even jumped to their deaths from the top with their whole families to avoid the terrors of the slave ships. February 1 is a national holiday in Mauritius marking the date, 180 years ago, that slavery was abolished. After that workers came from India to harvest the cane fields. Not sure that their conditions were much better. This helps to explain the African/Indian mix of cultures and faces. There are 8th generation Mauritians who speak French and Creole but not English, even though English is the second official language. Creole is a pidgin form of French that originated with the slaves from Africa. It sounds like music to me.
One day we met a guide named Jay Tannoo who took us for a hike to ‘Les Sept Cascades’ or ‘The Seven Waterfalls.’ Without Jay we never would have found or stayed on the trail. Steep and slippery with mud after all the heavy rain of the cyclone spin off we were delayed a few days before we could set out. When we did it was worth it. We met Jay at the Henrietta bus exchange and the first thing he did was provide us with a thick layer of bug repellant. I liked him already. As Jay lead us down to the bottom of the lowest falls he told us all about the birds and plants we were seeing.
He showed us how to drink fresh rain water stored in the trunk of the fan palm, gathered fresh pepper corns and wild eucalyptus. We discovered tiny frogs so small we could hardly see them, blue tailed lizards and a mama hedgehogs with her 12 babies. Much squealing was heard when that happened…from our daughter. We swam in cool pools and giggled when Jay showed us how to put our feet in a small pond where the tiny fish come and nibble on your toes. People spend big bucks for this kind of pedicure treatment, we got it free and wild while being served home-made veggie samosas, a local snack called ‘gateaux piment’ or chili cakes and fresh bananas. We climbed up and showered under the different falls as the water crashed heavily on our heads. We jumped off the rocks into the pools like kids. Jay brought us lunch too which we enjoyed while waiting out another rain storm in a cave behind a 55meter waterfall. The last and tallest of the seven. It was one of our favourite days.
Another village + lovely long beach on the west coast is “Flic en Flac.” Go ahead and say that a few times fast. It’s the best name ever. Flic en Flac, Flic en Flac, Flic en Flac! See? The beach is loaded with very brown string bikini clad French retirees (I’m sure you can imagine) enjoying the sun in the off season. It is also home to the best roti shack we found. Roti Aka Vinoda. For about $1.50 you can enjoy freshly baked ‘roti’ or flat bread with curried chicken, sweet tamarind sauce, stewed broad beans, mango salad and hot chili. We ate waaaay too many of these.
Flic en Flac was also where we found our fave dive centre The “Sea Urchin”. We had to wait about two weeks for the Indian Ocean to clear after Cyclone Bansi before we could dive. Owned by the kind, sweet and German, Katharina and managed by funny, capable and French Perrin we enjoyed 4 safe and fun dives at different locations on the West side. Dive sites always have such exotic names. Cathedral, Klondike, Swiss Drop and even Lyla’s first wreck dive at Tug #2. We saw a lot of big flashy marine life including scorpion fish, giant triggers, clown fish, eels, rays, and even surfaced in the middle of a school of dolphins! What a thrill, they swam right under us!!
One curious benefit of the shorter visibility was that we had to move more slowly and look more closely. Rather than the big trophy sightings we began to notice smaller more interesting creatures like the nudibranches (colourful sea slugs) that have become one of our favourite items to spot. The more dives we did the clearer the waters became. It’s amazing how scuba diving can create a bond and make you feel like close friends very quickly. Could be something to do with the tight quarters or the fact that you depend on each other for survival. Bonjour Perrin and Pierre! Guten Tag Katharina! Hi Andrew! Hope to see you all again one day.
Out in nature, on or under the sea is where we seem to be happiest as a family. When we are moving and discovering we are smiling. We have sailed twice so far on catamarans out of the local fishing club in Rivière Noire where a huge 1,100 pound marlin is mounted on the wall. It’s hard not to appreciate January days spent drifting quietly in and out of turquoise lagoons, gliding over leaping dolphins with the warm breeze and a cool Phoenix (Mauritian beer). We snorkelled and sunbathed and visited small charming islands while the crew grilled fresh fish and prawns for our lunch. Another day, in the north, we took a speed boat through rough seas and 3 meter waves (daughter NOT happy) to reach some quiet outer islands. Again we snorkelled, enjoyed the sun, white sand and the fresh sea air. We also met many people from other countries who were happy to send the day telling us about their part of the world. We are not getting sick of this. Every time we hear from home about the rain, cold and shitty ski season we are more and more grateful for this warm blue experience.
So much more to tell you about. Like the amazing museum of 8,000 shells. The Tamil festival where the devoted pierce their faces and the bizarre house built in the shape of a huge dove, but must wait until next time.
Love from Mauritius,