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Sunday, 28 February 2016

Lost in Paradise - VOTES & VIEWS #41

Lost in Paradise

We land in Mauritius almost simultaneously with another brace of planes. The airport looks very much like most such places, but noticeably larger than on my last visit in 1970. The formalities are short; we seniors are luckily treated preferentially along with families travelling with children, whereas the hoi polloi have to stand in a long queue. The heat envelops us like a warm and stifling hug. Every pore sheds its load in the unaccustomed humidity. A hiccup: our hire car is nowhere to be seen – or more correctly, the firm is nowhere visible and to our consternation, no other car firm seems to have heard of them. One of the taxi drivers tries to assuage our fears. Perhaps they will come looking for us if we just wait in front of the arrivals building. He is so right. After a while a dapper man arrives bearing a sheet of paper with my mangled name printed on it. He was attending to another customer first. Then a lengthy wait in the parking area while his colleague sorts out aforementioned client and finally we are on our way.

The road to our new home had been gone over so many times on Google Earth that it was really a doddle to find our abode – after overshooting the entrance and having to reverse back against the traffic. No problem on this gentle island. Allowances are made for idiots and other tourists. Our landlady is awaiting us in the street; though we didn’t notice her until she comes down the drive after us. We introduce ourselves to this slim, middle-aged lass, clad in short-shorts and singlet (the correct attire here) and she gives us the Cook’s Tour of the premises. The studio Tecoma is enchanting; perched atop another two apartments on the ground floor, looking over a tropical garden shaded by big mango and Indian Almond trees. A blue pool winks. Inside, everything is where it should be, as it should be – faultless. A bowl of fruit awaits, milk & ice-cubes in the fridge, complimentary soft drinks, a couple of beers… we are overwhelmed with hospitality.

What a life !
 But we must see the beach. Diagonally across the Route Royal, down past the side of the main house and we have our first view of our ‘plage privee’. A sea-wall of dark basalt blocks raises the level of the garden, where you can sit under casuarina trees and watch the breakers on the reef a kilometre away, foaming over a wreck; a lighthouse towers above a low island to the north. The lagoon is a beautiful blue with darker patches of coral. A light easterly breeze wafts in; one or two people laze within view – for the rest, our only company are a few doves, mynahs and bishop birds in their scarlet plumage. We promise ourselves a sunrise dip.

Meanwhile we have to go shopping. Just a few minutes up the coastal road towards Mahebourg, a small supermarket with attendant butcher, boutiques and various other small shops. There are a wide variety of products – almost entirely imported from South Africa and Europe, as far as we can see; the prices carry a lot of air miles. We dawdle along doing frantic conversions. Meat and fish are packed in miserly frozen portions for two people; prices start at about R80 and spiral into the stratosphere. Pallid chicken sausages seemingly feed a large proportion of the population. We buy a few dispirited vegetables, some staples, the inevitable baguette and lots of liquids and flee back to our studio to relish the cool blast from the air-conditioning, toast slit baguette and spread it generously with a fine Danish pork pate for supper after a sundowner.

An early morning swim; we try out our snorkelling gear. Neither of us are water-babies but fortunately the corals are less than ten metres from the beach, and the main concern is not to trample and break them, as well as to avoid the numerous sea urchins’ menacing spines. Shoals of little striped fish sample our skins and butt us pugnaciously. Pity so much of the reef is in poor condition due to rising sea levels, global warming, pollution and human disturbance. Still, there is a Marine Reserve at Blue Bay, just round the corner of the headland which we visit on another occasion. That time we take a ride in a glass-bottomed boat, which all too quickly glides over clumps of staghorn, table-top, mushroom and brain-coral among some thirty-six species to be found. Metre-long trumpet fishes hang like static sword blades in the clear waters, while shoals
Schools of brightly coloured fish
of gaily striped fish school around the snorkeler splashing fearfully around the boats. All very picturesque and ‘David Attenboroughish’. There are no seashells to be seen – an enormous difference from my previous visit. On the other hand, none of the ubiquitous seashell-sellers standing on each street corner hawking their wares, either. It looks as if this industry has stopped dead; there is a blanket prohibition on collecting and possessing live shells in force, and even washed up dead shells are limited to ten per person. Still, in 1970 it was possible for even an amateur like myself to grab a few souvenirs off the reef and ocean floor without any great effort, so I was part of the problem then and the bare reefs are the result. Hopefully this will now be given a chance to repair itself.

Our host tells us that there is a market every day at Mahebourg, so we drive in even though it is Sunday. Most dispiriting; everything looks limp and tired but the promise is of better things to come on the main market day, Monday. On a whim, we carry on through the warren of lanes, without more than a general idea where we are heading, up the coast, towards the North. The road is incredibly tortuous, in places no more 

Up the East cost on the Road to Flaq
than five metres wide for both lanes, winding between shabby houses, embayments with mangrove swamps, lagoons and canefields. The settlements almost blend into each other. The views out to sea are framed in lush tropical trees and inland a spectacular mountain group overlooks this part of the coast, while flat islets pop up out of the still waters inside the reef.

We somehow arrive in Centre de Flaq – not that we intended to. Left turn, right turn, another into what looks like a main thoroughfare, but proves to be a one-way against us. Oncoming traffic flashes lights, hoots briefly, but nobody gets aggravated – there is no place for road rage in paradise. Anybody can make a mistake, as we do. Out of town and as it clouds over, we think we are heading north. We meander mainly through
canefields, but startlingly every now and then a spire of rock protrudes out of the plain covered in endless sugar cane. These unreal spikes are remnants of basalt plugs as the whole island is an eroded volcano, long extinct. Before long we are completely lost. We stop to consult our map as we had decided not to go for GPS – the wise web had declared it to be unreliable on the island, and we later see why. A face looms and a knock at the window; a helpful pedestrian. Small problem – he doesn’t know where he is on the map either. We debate the matter, and a second man joins in. He waves vaguely in a direction and declares that Port Louis is thataway. We are reassured by this, but none the wiser. We proceed. Our two maps don’t seem to coincide, but we soldier on until a hamlet with the name of Montrose is reached and after much map-searching, we establish where we actually are.

By this time we are starving and call a halt at an unprepossessing little wayside café. A lovely Indian lady greets us, nods at our request for food, and offers noodles or rice. We opt for the latter. Plain fried rice with a few specks of shrimp, chicken and innominate vegetables, but it fills the void. No matter that the plastic tablecloth edge is stained with what looks like blood (we discover it is my own and hastily bandage the bumped elbow and clean the table). We exchange a few companionable words with our hostess as we find that she speaks excellent English, having spent four years in London. She, in turn, is surprised that we come from South Africa, as we are obviously European, not black of hue. Once more we are on our way and triumphantly return well satisfied from our initial foray and have a quick dip in the pool before cooking up a tasty stir-fry, complete with lashings of local prawns.

Mahebourg Monday Market
 Monday is market day in Mahebourg. This time the place is a hive of activity. Stalls are heaped with a melange of greenery, leaves, stalks, fruits, cucurbits and legumes – many unfamiliar. There is Jackfruit, both lusciously ripe and green as a vegetable, stuffed with edible pips the size of Brazil nuts; longans, similar to lychees, zat, a type of custard apple, exotic dragon fruit, with its exotic looks and little flavour and the acid carambol or star fruit, as well as all the subtropical and deciduous fruits that  we know and of which many come from our homeland. The preponderant vegetable seems to be the gourd family. All shapes and sizes, with exotic names like pipangaye, patole, galbase, margoze and chou-chou, as well as huge green marbled pumpkins and loofahs. In summer temperatures of 34 degrees almost every day, salad greens are almost non-existent, but the Mauritians do love their greens and middens of various ‘bredes’ are available; stuff that we would call bok choy, Napa cabbage, turnip greens, Taro leaves and stalks, pumpkin vines and leaves, water spinach and a host of herbs that are an integral part of Indian and Creole cuisine. People are serious about their shopping. Veg are prodded, turned, sniffed and discussed before approval. Amazingly almost everything is labelled with a price, often per quantities of 100 g or half a kilo; most confusing. Vociferous bargaining seems to have gone out of the window – an entirely different situation from half a century ago, when it was the rule. We gladden the hearts of several vendors and an old lady selling incredibly tough balls of deep-fried dough. Our car, and later the apartment, reeks of jackfruit – pleasant to us, but I believe it is banned in taxis, like durian further east.

It is easy to slide into this lazy, lotus-eating existence. Only a week later the journeys all over the island, the sights, the meals, the experiences – all blend into a warm, hazy, tropical blur, interspersed with hours of inactivity sitting in deckchairs under the ragged shade of soughing casuarinas; cooled by the breeze and the odd bottle of cold sparkling wine. Some days we are lazy, visiting maybe the museum in Mahebourg; a staid, square, Dutch ‘herehuis’ set in a small forest on the banks of a river. Cannon peer over the balustrade and the fattest, biggest mortar guards the entrance to the gardens. I can’t resist comparing its rotundity to my
Who's got the biggest?
own. Inside it is cool; a blessing on another energy-sapping day. The exhibits are varied and interesting, though not imaginatively displayed. The captions are adequate and mostly in French and English. Both floors of the building have the walls plastered with paintings, illustrations from books, maps and documents. One gets a good sense of the span of human occupation of this remote island of the dodo, whose only indigenous mammal was the huge fruit bat, the flying fox, which we observed at Blue Bay, flapping like an ancient pterosaur between the tall trees of the promenade.

The island is only about sixty-five by forty kilometres in extent. It should be possible to explore it all in a day or two. So I had thought in 1970, and failed miserably in that I barely managed to explore the southern and western part of the island during my two-week honeymoon. This time we set out determinedly towards the north. A fine new double highway promised easy access to the tourist playground of Grand Baie with its myriad resorts and hotels. In no time we were alongside the impressive mountains dominated by the improbable profile of Pieter Both, a mountain with an afterthought of a very large pebble poised precariously on top. Like Mukorob, the ‘Finger of God’ in Namibia, this piece of real estate #mustfall one of these days. I would hate to be in the vicinity when a few hundred tons of basalt comes crashing down some six hundred 

Pieter Both Mountain - 2nd highest on the Island
metres. A narrow gorge cuts through the flanks of the mountains and we are spewed out onto a featureless plain, covered in waving sugar cane. With the exception of the mountains behind us – a most uninteresting prospect -which persists until we reach the conurbation of the northern tourist zone. Suddenly we are surrounded by multi-storeyed concrete boxes. Lavish portals graced with the best names the marketeers could come up with – Beachcomber, Coconut, Sugar Beach, La Cannonier, Intercontinental, Le Prince, Four Seasons, Long Beach, and the like. Just off the beach you could be stepping into the cosmopolitan world of Millionaire’s Mile shopping. Bars, restaurants and boutiques vie for your attention. It’s the off-season, so ‘specials’ abound, but prices are still in the stratosphere – tailored to suit a Euro-funded clientele. We grope our way along the beachfront, barely able to snatch glimpses of Grand Baie and its turquoise seas. We eschew the hedonism of the resorts and opt for the unfamiliar north-east coast.

At Cap Malheureux a fleeting view of the Coin de Mire island sets us searching for a parking place. Roads on Mauritius are very often a narrow raised strip, with no verges whatsoever, and a sheer drop of between
Coin de Mire Island off the North Coast
ten centimetres to a metre down to the surrounding countryside. Either one stops in the driving lane and blocks half the road, or you have to find a place where you can veer off between the trees or into someone’s driveway. We do the latter and spend some time dabbling our toes in the water in a tiny bay and enjoying the rugged cliffs of the offshore islands. Adventure calls, and off we are again, along a shady avenue, flanked by
A Dog's Life
high walls of the estates of the wealthy, contrasted at intervals with modest, shabby houses and even shacks, where the inhabitants go about their daily tasks and hundreds of depressed, skeletal curs lie in the sun or slink about with drooping heads and tails. The phrase ‘a dog’s life’ could have been coined in Mauritius – in contrast to the generally happy demeanour of the human inhabitants.

From Grand Gaube onwards the proliferation of tourist amenities gradually lessens.  At a little hamlet, called Roche Terre, we are suddenly famished and decide to stop at the very next place that promises to have some form of nourishment available. We spot a patisserie, and we investigate. Nothing but garishly coloured sweet pastries and cakes – but we are directed to a ‘hole in the wall’ across the road, where a man holds
Hole-in-the-Wall Snacks
sway over a gigantic wok glowing over a roaring gas flame. In no time at all we have some bajis and a bunch of samoosas cooking. As is the custom, hereabouts, our car blocks half the street as we wait for lunch. Just to be companionable, a battered bakkie comes from the other side and decides this is as good a place to stop as any for no reason at all – blocking the entire main road. As the tailback increases on both sides, I start feeling distinctly uncomfortable and so reverse my car up a side-road; traffic moves once more around the bakkie and harmony reigns.

Our lunch is tasty as well as being a bargain, but a stretch further on we spot another little stall, sporting a glass-sided display cabinet full of these little fried Indian snacks called Gajak. These consist of gateau aubergine (eggplant fritters), manioc goujons (cassava chips) and gateau patat (potato fritters), roti and other nameless, but toothsome delicacies. I negotiate us a brace of each on offer from a pleasant lady and we continue our odyssey, well-provisioned. During our stay we find as a pleasant surprise that lunch on the island does not always have to cost $25-60 for two people, the adventurous diner can do as well for a tenth of that price – drinks excluded. On the other hand, fruit, which should be available in profusion, is rather expensive by our standards, as are vegetables. One wonders what the poor get to eat, since the reefs around the island have almost been fished out and we only saw tired fish the size of pilchards, or a little larger, being offered for sale at the roadside.

On through the settlements of Goodlands and Poudre d’Or, where true to our ambition, we get lost in a maze of parallel roads, circles and shortcuts (not displayed on our maps), courtesy of faded road-signage which is often partially obscured by luxuriant herbiage. My navigatrix has no easy task, as I continually demand directions which she is frantically trying to find. Still, we emerge triumphant and our next point of reference is Roche Noires, where, I find out much later, there are extensive lava tubes which geologically minded tourists should go and visit. For once the Tripadvisors of the world have let me down as there was no mention of this when I researched the island for places we might visit. We wind our way through the Bras d’Eau forests along the coast; a National Park, full of birdlife but oddly made up almost entirely of exotic trees such as casuarinas, teak, eucalyptus, blackwood, mango and litchis. If nothing else, it is a soothing drive through the dappled shade, with the odd glimpse of sea. All over the island magnificent trees abound; clumps of banyans with cloaks of aerial roots, ficus trees with buttress roots encroaching onto the road edges, where they are
Ensnared by Roots in Pamplemousse
clipped by passing traffic, huge mango and breadfruit trees, and hundreds more species imported from other tropical latitudes. For the botanically inclined a visit to Pamplemousse Botanic gardens is a given. We spent an incandescent couple of hours there, earlier during mid-morning, wandering along the network of paths, from bench to bench, trying to exact the maximum benefit of every spot of shade we can find. A lovely sylvan atmosphere with much birdsong; an island of tranquility among the surrounding settlement that has consolidated during the past fifty years. One circuit, taking in the main features of animals, water and plants, was as much as we could manage. After viewing the impressive giant waterlilies, we opt for the air-conditioned interior of the car.

The triple embayments between Poste Lafayette and Poste  de Flaq are breathtakingly beautiful. Inland fields of inominate crops curve over the landscape, tended by women draped in vivid sari’s and houses are dribbled haphazardly along the roads. Every few hundred metres one seems to be crossing an estuary; fetid dark waters fringed with mangrove, spill out into the shallow reef-encircled sea. A Hindu temple pokes its pink, almost floral cupola out of the greenery. This rural scene is soon displaced by further encrustations of gleaming tourist nirvanas which are reaching hungry fingers northwards up the eastern coast. In the past fifty years the population of the island has grown by 50% to over 1,2 million. The only economic solution was to attract a flood of sun-seekers to this paradise to provide work and funds for the locals’ existence. Regrettably, coupled with that is the inevitable degradation of the fragile environment and the increasing necessity of importing huge quantities of consumer goods and food. The price of growth is that the visitors indirectly destroy that which they come to enjoy.

Having travelled for most of the day, we discover that we have in reality only covered some one hundred and sixty kilometres while spending the whole day crossing the island from southeast to northwest and back again. Dusk is falling with tropical suddenness as we re-enter Mahebourg, where the population at large is out on the streets, enjoying the slight respite from the day’s roasting. We have a little trouble negotiating through the maze of narrow roads between shops, residences, all very much out of the same foursquare mould, many in the process of alteration, with another storey or two under construction to house the next generation – a zig-zag outside staircase tacked on, precariously supported by a single pillar. Everything is full of reinforcing steel and concrete grey; there are no bricks on this island. Windows are often an afterthought. In this balmy climate the occupants are quite comfortable without them – as long as they don’t mind the mosquitoes, which are ubiquitous and aggressive.

We make an effort to find a place which sells fresh fish. Our hostess has gone to great lengths to try to explain its whereabouts. The name of the street: unknown, but it is just past the supermarket, if you go so… and then just so…and then so – she describes with her hands. Then there is a school; the house is a yellow house, two storeys – no, three storeys high – no… wait the school is after the house – she’s sure we’ll find it. She also obliges us with a lengthy, incoherent word-map to another house, a blue house – you can’t miss it - where we might be able to find some tuna. People are so helpful here. We set off without great expectations after having consulted the great Google Earth satellite photo of the area in question. We decide to approach from the museum side, take the third road as we have gleaned from modern technology, get into a whole sub-structure of single car-width alleys (which don’t show up from space) and after finding that these tend to end suddenly at a garbage heap or another structure, we extricate ourselves. Finally we seem to be on the right road. There are a number of yellow house. Some two storeys, others three storeys high; but no school
Difficult to get used to this Lifestyle !
in sight anywhere. We decide our eyesight must be getting defective, or our hearing is not what it used to be. So we return home fishless and spend the rest of the day replenishing our bodily reserves of vitamin D in the light shade of the casuarina tree on the beach front, reading a few paragraphs here and there, taking a sip of a cool beverage in between short immersions in the limpid sea, while birds serenade us and a heavy jasmine-like scent wafts over on the zephyr. One could get used to this mode of existence – with a little effort.

But the rest of the island calls. The entire southern side is terra incognita, so with the aid of two maps and the World Wide Web, we plan our campaign. This time my navigatrix takes notes: third circle, nine o’clock turnoff; T-junction left onto A9, then first right into B88… and the like. Pages of instructions, since she’s determined not to get lost again. We’re off and the best laid plans come to naught at the second intersection, since the T-junction has become a circle with five exits, and from there it gets even more complicated. Thank goodness the sun is shining and we navigate by guess and by compass, with only an occasional perusal of the charts. After a pleasant drive up into the highlands (600 m above sea level) we come to a great temple complex. There are acres of building (empty) some ablution blocks (thankfully) and numbers of taxis and buses spewing pilgrims who either wander down towards the Hanuman shrine at the edge of Grand Bassin lake, or make the short climb up a stubby hill where flags and a white dome proclaim another sacred site.
We take a quick look at what is happening, but don’t wish to intrude in the crowds’ devotions. A short distance further on, we encounter a massive statue of Shiva in all his bronze- covered glory, and on the opposite side of the road his equally large wife, complete with pet lion, is under construction, surrounded by a crow’s nest of scaffolding.

Shiva Statue at Grand Bassin
The Black River Gorges, which are our immediate destination, are not obvious from the road. One drives through plantations and clumps of strange trees (Australian paperbark myrtles) and the first stop is Alexandra Falls. A pretty little double rapid on a small stream a few hundred metres off the main road, but there is a vantage point from which one gets a wonderful view down a valley, all the way to the southern coast. The main viewsite, which faces northwest, comes complete with a scattering of ice-cream trucks jangling irritating ditties, as well as a string of stalls selling memorabilia made in China, India and Africa – but sadly lacking in Mauritian handcrafts. We walk down towards the viewpoint, which has a breathtaking vista of the densely wooded gorges below; a waterfall or two as well as two white tropicbirds disporting themselves in the updraughts. In the distance the outskirts of Tamarin and possibly Port Louis are visible, as well as the northwestern coast. Very scenic, but for once rather dirty and full of litter. A gaunt cat and her two kittens scrounge for discarded chips. They are the only cats we saw on the island, with the exception of one other in a restaurant. One wonders if the omnipresent dogs have anything to do with that.

The best part of the trip ‘out west’ is the winding road down towards Chamarel and Case Noyale. Exceedingly steep, full of short, nasty hairpin bends as well as narrow. Not to be taken lightly or under the influence; neither with poor brakes. The ancient monumental bulk of La Morne Brabant looms up, isolated on its little peninsula, which has been entirely taken over by a golf course and shoulder to shoulder gated
La Morne Brabant Mountain
luxury establishments. A far cry from when I stayed there forty-six years ago. There is still a public beach under the looming cliffs, where a monument stands to commemorate the fate of escaped slaves, who used to lurk in the crevices and caves some two hundred years ago, and we stop a while to spectate the well-off doing their thing on all forms of wind-powered and motorised watersport gear imaginable.

The road along the rocky south coast of the island passes through the heart of sugarcane country. The reefs disappear by the time you reach Souillac and instead beaches are short, often black and gravelly, or non-existent. As everywhere on Mauritius, village succeeds village. Most of these are peopled by Creole workers on the great sugar estates of the region. They look less affluent; if anything, the dogs are thinner, mangier. We attempt to find a geological wonder: the Pont Naturel, although the wise Web has warned that the roads are impassable, and the canefields nigh impenetrable. We had researched the route fully and noted down in fine detail such trivia as ‘ turn left after the second block of sugar cane; turn right at pump house; left again at large tree’ etc – all to no avail. Since the satellite photo had been taken, some hurried construction had occurred. Where the edge of the village of Trois Boutiques was supposed to be, there were houses; in a stretch of unadulterated canefield, an entire ‘morcellement’ or gated community was in progress. We made half a dozen U-turns, consulted unsuspecting pedestrians in mangled French, to which they replied in unintelligible Creole with broad smiles and in good humour, so we soldier on, either ‘gauche’ or ‘droit’ – which are about the only words we understand. In the midst of waving green stalks, we encounter a black taxi. There could only be one reason – he was going to Pont Naturel. We ‘follow that cab’ in best thriller tradition and sure enough, he finally gets us there over a painfully rocky and tree-root studded track. We walk to the cliff’s edge and savour the awesome spectacle of the towering swells from the deep south near Antarctica dashing themselves under two black lava arches and thundering into a basin behind it, on into a deep sea-cave. My navigatrix takes a picture of yours truly on the bridge, after which it almost becomes another story as my injured leg gives way in a tricky situation. Still, we make it out of there in one piece and return home flushed with success.

La Pont Naturel dwarfs a Visitor
While we had prepared an impressive list of all the places and venues we could visit during our stay in Mauritius, we actually found that apart from the adventurous forays we made into the countryside, enjoying the scenery and meeting a few people along the way, interspersed with long, lazy hours sitting in the shade on the beach, was much more to our liking. It was mostly too hot and humid to attempt any physical exertion, so what better way to savour the passing scene on a tropical island than from the seat of an air-conditioned car, or a deck-chair in the shade of a tree. Yes, we did pop in to a Chinese restaurant in Mahebourg – twice. Run by a stern-faced auntie, two lovely Indian lasses who waited on us, and an unknown number of cooks, we were confronted by an enormous menu, offering European (French & Mauritian), Indian, Creole and Cantonese dishes. We had the most tender Szechuan venison I could have wished for, a sizzling plate of prawns, and on the second occasion a typical Chinese noodle dish to take away and eat on the beach. All perfectly delicious and very good value for money, though any drinks were pricey – and don’t bring your own, as they would charge you more in corkage than the bottle would cost in South Africa. A restaurant in Case Noyale was at the other end of the spectrum. A tiny blob of heart of palm salad with a few scraps of smoked swordfish, and an ordinary fish salad, though with a delicious dressing would set you back what a full meal would cost you back home.

Mauritius is a place I remembered fondly after my first visit; we’ll remember it fondly after the second visit too. It’s a great place to get lost in; the natives are friendly – there is no road rage; even the rain is warm – not to speak of the sea; the scenery is magnificent. Apparently Mark Twain wrote “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius”. Sounds like a pretty good theory.
Mahebourg Swimming Pier