The Ankle Deep Sea – Goodbye Rodrigues…. Goodbye Mum

My fellow passengers were a mix of intrepid tourists, government officials and Rodriguans heading across the gap between the two islands.  The little prop plane lifted out over the wide blue expanse of the lagoon, the reef, the sand, the fringing islands and then the deep blue Indian Ocean below me.  Another project colleague Paul, picked me up from the airport and I spent a difficult night at the project house in Calodyne.  At this stage I just wanted to get back to my family.  Every hour I was in the wrong place was painful.   I drove us to the airport the next morning, narrowly avoiding a speeding ticket from a cop on the motorway near Curepipe once I explained the circumstances.

As the plane pulled out over the Grand Port lagoon, turned left over the eastern part of Mauritius and set its course for the UK, I still felt numb.   I was so grateful at the understanding from Mike and Jeremy, from the consulting firm I was working for, and later I got so many messages of condolence from the people in the Mauritian government with whom I had been working – the incident over the visa issue totally forgotten.   The next couple of weeks would be intense, but in fact the whole of life would now be different.

The Ankle Deep Sea – Call in the night

The call came around 2 am.  I awoke with a start and fumbled to put the bedside light on, but by the time I lifted the receiver I already knew what it was.  My brother Christopher calmly told me “Hello mate, she’s gone”.

Equally calmly I told him I would be back as soon as I could.  Then rather pathetically stated that I hoped he was OK.  Of course he wasn’t but I could not think of anything more useful to say.

I lay numb in bed for most of the night – I can’t remember if I slept at all.  I certainly was moving by day break and took a long walk along the sandy beach to the limestone headland, watched the waves breaking for a while then ambled slowly back to the hotel.  I sat at the restaurant table long before the staff arrived, and waited patiently for Mike to emerge.  He came across with his usual ebullient mood, but he could see on my face that this was going to be a different day.  I told him about the conversation I had had with my brother the night before, almost able not to break my voice in the telling.  Mike was brilliant at this moment.  We would head into Port Mathurin first thing to try and make the travel arrangements.

We needed to get me on the earliest flight to Plaisance and then I needed to rebook my final return flight with BA back to the UK.  Cotton Bay in those days had no reliable email, but Mike had stayed at a hotel in town that had some internet connection so we headed over the hill.  First we visited a travel agent and arranged a flight back to Mauritius.  Then we sat in this hotel, the TV blaring out Obama’s election to the US presidency, while I tried to get online to the BA website to rearrange my ticket home.  The ticket agent in Port Mathurin had found a space on the 2pm flight.  We had little time to get back over to Cotton Bay for me to throw my belongings in the case.  I knocked on Jeremy’s hotel room door and apologized for leaving him in the lurch, but would support him from back home.  Mike and I exchanged few words as we crossed the island – I kinda felt sorry for the guy – what do you say to someone who just lost his mother.  At the airport as he shook my hand and thanked me for what I had done, I had to say “ I won’t be coming back” .

The Ankle Deep Sea – Out in to the lagoon

The next day, Jeremy and I worked with SHOALS to show them how to survey the marine resources.  We met them at their shed in Port Mathurin and drove back close to Cotton Bay where we hooked up with a fisherman who was to provide his boat to look at the northern part of our area.  He had arrived on his moped to meet us and continued to wear his helmet while he readied out boat.  His little blue pirogue contained two SHOALS guys, a couple of students from the University of Mauritius, Jeremy, myself and this little man in his helmet.  We managed to work around the choppy Baie De L’Est for about half an hour, then the outboard motor gave out.  As we drifted towards some ominous rocks the captain pulled out an oar and dug deep down.  He found some purchase and pushed us back.  There was no way we could continue our survey under these conditions so suffered the ignominy of being punted back to our port of embarkation.

Next day we travelled to Port Sud Est – a fairly sizeable community that relied on fishing in the lagoon and as a fairly high class residential area.  With another boat we were able to access the southern part of the pressure zone.  The problem was that the boat was over a kilometre from the main land.  The solution was provided by the nature of the lagoon; water is never that deep in Rodrigues so we started to wade.  And wade, and wade and wade and wade.  After about fifteen minutes we hauled ourselves into the boat, but the water was still only knee deep.  We managed to reach out across the lagoon very quickly and to be honest , it was pretty boring.  Yes it was crystal clear water and every natural habitat was amazing.  But there were no issues, it was a perfect, undisturbed natural environment.  Shh, don’t tell anyone, but Rodrigues was perfect.

Jeremy and I returned to Cotton Bay to report to Mike, who had had a busy day in Port Mathurin with the relevant agencies of the Rodrigues Regional Assembly.  He had also had a call from the Department of Environment staff wondering why I had been in the UK the week before, given I was supposed to spend the whole time in this country.  Mike had apparently put them straight, but the idea of quietly letting me visit my mum had dangerously backfired as it crossed this 90 day period limit.   As it was now sorted out, we spent a happy evening exchanging stories , sitting back in this tropical paradise and seeing how this was an example to the rest of Mauritius as to how to manage their coastal resources.  After several beers and a load of apocryphal stories, most of which both of my colleagues had already heard, I retired to bed, the windows open to let the Indian Ocean breezes in and the sound of the breaking waves send me to sleep.

The Ankle Deep Sea – Cotton Bay and the Priority Zone

The meals at Cotton Bay were not brilliant, though they did have some signature seafood dishes, and I was glad of a cold Phoenix after the rollercoaster travels I had come through in the last couple of days. We discussed our plans.  I had to visit the government departments in Port Mathurin and see what data existed.  Like on many islands, the mapping of Rodrigues was not great – part of the problem is no-one had ever really worked out a good map projection of the island and now everything was going digital, you could not fit one map over another easily.  I also was to sit in with SHOALS, our key collaborators in Rodrigues.  As opposed to the Ministry of Environment on the mainland, SHOALS of Rodrigues are a small  NGO trying to look after the huge lagoon that surrounds the island; they do an incredible amount of research with support from UK universities, as well as community outreach and education.  They were to be our partners for the marine and land surveys that Jeremy and I were to manage. They were based in a small shed adjacent to the little estuary where many fishing and other boats moored up in Port Mathurin.  Because of the lagoons, we could not always use the SHOALS equipment, but had to hire fishermen from our launch sites.

Our Priority Zone for this area was the east coast.  Several new hotel developments were planned along the cliffs.  The reef was limited as it was on the more exposed side of the island – I was a little surprise it had been chosen. It was an area where less research had been done by others, so we were balancing out areas of focus for SHOALS, I suppose, but it did not really move our work forward much.

Mike, Jeremy and I wandered along part of the coastline; not as part of the formal survey but to gauge some of the issues along here.  There really were none.  The coastline here was predominantly a hard limestone rock falling as a cliff into crystal clear waters full of coral and fish and other life.  Yes the coastal vegetation was degraded by overgrazing and the drought, but this was by no means irreversible.  There was no pollution to speak of, and if there were any it was quickly broken up by the energy of the sea.  No developments had compromised either the land or the sea.

The resulting landscape had probably not changed for generations and was a fabulous mix of small sandy coves in amongst the hard rock bluffs, and a well developed reef that was pummelled by natural forces but had learnt to survive them.  The local population obviously revelled in these locations – we saw a bunch of fishermen stripped down to their briefs trying to trap large pelagic fish in one beach.  Another bay was perfectly fan shaped – its narrow entrance managed to deflect most of the ocean’s energy away and only a diluted diffusion of waves spread between the two high limestone cliffs.  I snorkelled in here quite safely, although with the energy of the sea and the sandiness of the bay there were only a few shoals of fish to observe.  The waves undercut the cliffs and formed small caverns.  It was perfection.  If it were almost anywhere else it would be a highly prized touristic site, but this was Rodrigues where such natural beauty was almost taken for granted.

We walked back to the beach where we had left our rented pick up and, next to an enormous spider’s web, managed to assimilate this wonderful coastline and start thinking how it could be protected, and yes, exploited, for the good of Rodrigues.  Exploitation is a dirty word amongst conservationists, but we needed to find a way where people would healthily conserve this pristine environment and showing them a form of exploitation for them was the only way forward we could find, sustainable exploitation.  We had to persuade them that by keeping it almost the same as it is – with a little ecotouristic enhancement  – they could exploit people who came to experience the same life enhancing  moments we had for free.

The Ankle Deep Sea – Finally arrived

The ferry to Rodrigues takes 36 hours from Port Louis to the capital, Port Mathurin and goes a couple of times a week.  The plane takes ninety minutes and with only 50 seats each time there are only three, maybe four flights a day.  Considering these are the links between the two major islands, there is not a huge capacity for movement.  In fact the Rodriguans had long complained about this; there are no other flights from Rodrigues to other destinations.  And the Air Mauritius flight was incredibly expensive for a quick hop.


Arrival in Rodrigues

I landed in blistering heat of mid afternoon at Sir Gaetan Duval Airport at the western tip of the island.  The sun was blinding , the vegetation around me parched, and the peace and quiet audible.  It was the total opposite of the cold, dark, noisy environment of the UK that I had left behind only some eighteen hours before.

Jeremy and Mike were there.  They allowed me a cursory summary of my week in the north and the problems at Plaisance Airport, before spieling out their assessment of the island, the characters they had met and what our job was for the next five days.

Given it was Saturday, the island was almost deserted; we saw a few bodies under the shade of the few trees in back yards, the periodic vehicle heading along the road.  We took a circuitous route to our hotel, along the northern coast road, and the two of them pointed out various features.  We passed through the centre of Port Mathurin, almost deserted, and then drove over a big hill to the eastern flank of the island.  Livestock grazing is a massive part of Rodrigues life so, unlike the dense plantation fields of Mauritius, much of the island was taken up with huge open grasslands. Due to an ongoing drought the land was devoid of anything but the most hardy shrubs.  We descended towards the coast to a remarkable bay, the white sand fringed by palm trees and perfect size waves rolling in from the east.  Along a small sandy track we passed through an open gate in a high stone wall and we were at Cotton Bay Hotel. I was settled in to a first floor room overlooking a beach covered in filao and palm trees.

The Ankle Deep Sea – Trouble at Immigration

I drove back to Kent the next morning and took the next evening’s flight to Mauritius.  In theory I had about four hours before my Rodrigues flight, plenty of time to get through the queues at immigration.  As ever the jumbo jet from London was very full, mainly with holidaymakers, and the immigration room was packed.  I was near the back of one queue and as I got to the desk smiled as usual, and let the officer read my official letters of introduction as a government contractor and stamp my passport.  He did the first, but not the second.

He asked me to stand aside a moment and got his supervisor.  While the first officer continued to process the remaining queue behind me, I was asked to wait on some chairs at the back of the room.  I sat there for over half an hour watching the room empty.  I had no real idea of the delay until the supervisor returned and very pleasantly and very firmly told me that I was not allowed to stay in Mauritius.  I showed him the letter once more, and that I had been given right to be a consultant for the government here for longer than the usual tourist visa.

Unfortunately, this was no good.  The supervisor explained that I was allowed on this visa only to stay in Mauritius for 90 days maximum in one year, and with the two months I had been here in the spring, and the two months in the autumn, I had now more than exceeded that limit.   I explained that I was working for government and was due on a flight to Rodrigues  in under two hours time.  They tried to ring the Ministry of Environment but of course it was a Saturday.  It turned out that my clients should have filled in some paperwork when I arrived to allow me to visit the Immigration Department in Port Louis so I could get a proper visa, that would have allowed me to have an unlimited visa period.  With a lot of careful negotiation and patience, I eventually was given dispensation to travel to Rodrigues, with the promise that when I returned in five days time I went to the Immigration Department.  In the meantime, they would inform the Ministry of Environment to get them to start processing the paperwork.

With barely an hour to go I finally headed down to the baggage hall; fortunately my bag had been set to one side and I was able to retrieve it easily and dash round to the Internal departures check in.  It was barely ten minutes before I was aboard the ATR prop plane and heading east.


Plaisance Airport behind Mahebourg

The Ankle Deep Sea – See you in a few weeks.

Between hospital visits I was able to set myself up on the dining table (now in the living room) and work on mapping the lagoons around the Morne in Mauritius.  I also took a couple of drives and walks around childhood haunts in Liverpool.  Mum improved considerably over those few days, she had taken to eating again, for a few days she had been solely on a drip.  Her colour had come back into the cheeks.  We all knew she would not get better, but we thought she could be discharged from hospital and receive palliative care from home for at least a few more weeks.  I only had three more weeks of work to do in Mauritius before the end of my contract, and, as had happened several times when I had a large chunk of work for months on end, no immediate contracts to get going on immediately afterwards.  I could come back from Mauritius and move up to Liverpool for a few weeks to help look after mum at home.  With everything looking relatively positive, I confirmed my return flight to Mauritius and rebooked the Air Mauritius flight straight on to Rodrigues a few hours after I landed.


St George’s Hall

That last evening I was in Liverpool, Christopher had something else he needed to do, so I went to the hospital alone.  To avoid the high charges of the car park, I parked over in the terrace streets of the Kensington district, and walked down to the main entrance, up in the lift and found mum snoozing in her bed.  In that hour she slept more than she was awake, and when conscious, we dealt with just routine things like giving her some mouthwash to clear her palate.  I held her hand throughout. We briefly talked about my plan to go back to work then come up to Liverpool to look after her in November.  As I left the hospital, I tried to be cheerful to the staff in the ward, but could not hold back the tears as I walked back to the car.  For some reason I didn’t go straight home, but drove round the city centre; past the St George’s Hall, then down Leeds Street to the waterfront and passed the Pier Head and Albert Dock, then, with the floodlit Anglican Cathedral looming down, turned south back to the old family home.


Liverpool’s waterfront – impressive day and night

The Ankle Deep Sea -The View from the Hospital

Twice a day I would go in to the hospital to visit mum.  Occasionally she was her old lucid self, but she slept such a lot or was too much in discomfort to be able to concentrate on conversation.  I’d bought her a coffee table book of Mauritius but she was too weak to hold it in her own hands.  I held it for her as she tried to take in the pictures.

The routine of the hospital was ceaseless and how she was meant to get rest I had no idea – so many tests, cleaners, disturbance from other parts of the ward.  Fortunately it was a fairly small room with only three or four other patients at any one time.  And she was high in the building; the huge picture window next to her bed looked out over the city’s university quarter, the Roman Catholic Cathedral with its wigwam style reaching the central crown, and further away, the massive Anglican Cathedral, a huge sandstone block with enormous tower.  To the right of this you looked down on the city centre itself, glimpses of the Mersey, the Wirral and the Clwydian Hills in the distance.  The early cold snap had left snow across the tallest hills.  At night the city was lit up, the floodlights on the cathedrals complimented by a green laser light between the two towers as part of the City of Culture events that year.


Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral from the river – the Hospital is a mile to the north of the cathedral

Although she had difficulty propping up to see it, it made for a comforting view – my mum’s life had been played out so much in this area.  Although she was originally from the north of the city, this view to the south was where so much of her last 40 years had been conducted, where we lived, where she taught in several schools, where we shopped , got entertainment or walked dogs and friends.  Excursions across the river, trips out.  And all in all it was an expansive view and a lot of Mum’s later life had been taken up with seeing new views and travelling to lots of new places, often starting her journeys alone but coming back with a bookful of new contacts.

The Ankle Deep Sea – A complete change of priorities

Despite the speed of long haul aircraft, those 12 hours heading back to the UK seemed to drag and drag.  I think we just do not realise still how much of the earth is a huge empty space, particularly the oceans.  It takes nearly four hours before you hit Africa proper near Mombasa.  Then you have the interminable stretch over the Sahara before crossing into the Mediterranean at Benghazi.  And then even parts of Europe – heading up the Italian peninsula and crossing rural France, seems to take longer that it should.  When you have a reason to get home as fast as possible, those distances are plain cruel.


Crossing the Nile on the way back from Mauritius – on a happier trip home

It was early evening when my landlady and good friend Vicky picked me up from Heathrow’s Terminal 5, a cold, dark, October evening so contrasting from the hot balmy weather in Mauritius.  She’d cooked a meal for me and I went to bed early.  Next morning the same suitcase I had brought with me was bunged in the back of my  car and I drove up to Liverpool.  My brother Robert had been there a couple of days already; we both went in later that afternoon to the Royal Hospital above the centre of the city.  Although Mum had told David to ask me to come, she had not been told I was on my way, so there was a mixture of surprise, joy and a realisation in her face when she saw me there.  Even in the first couple of hours of my first visit, several of her closest friends turned up and tried to act normally.  But the woman in the bed was hardly my mother.  Robert had warned me but it was still a deep shock to see how much weight she had lost, the lines on her face deep, her hair a ghostly white.

There were a series of practicalities do deal with during the week which helped to deal with the tiredness from travel and the emotions of the situation.  The forecast was that this was just a bad incident – mum had swollen up once more with excess fluid on the abdomen causing all sorts of complications with her digestive system, but now this was drained the plan was to send her home again in a week or so.  To make her comfortable,  we had to convert the dining room to a bedroom for her; she was not going to be able to tackle the stairs.  This meant ordering a hospital bed that could be easily adjusted into different positions (currently mum was most comfortable perched up to about 45 degrees).  A commode was also needed.  Robert had to go back to his work in Norwich for at least a few days, and my brother Christopher who lived with mum in Liverpool also had his work to go to.  So I was in the best position those few days to help sort out these issues; we moved the dining room table into the Living room, which meant a rearrangement there too,  an NHS van turned up one day and a man assembled the bed and ensured it would work.  I went out and bought a freestanding lamp – due to the curious arrangement of our house, the only light switch for the dining room was in the adjoining kitchen.  We tried to turn the dining room in to as comfortable a bedroom as we could – at least she would be able to see out the window into the garden she had perfected over the years and watch the myriad species of birds play on the various feeders.

The Ankle Deep Sea – Change of Plans

When I had been back in the UK in the summer, my mother had been diagnosed with cancer.  It seemed to take an age for the doctors to decide how to tackle it, but she remained relatively healthy for a month or two.  Sometimes she had suffered bilious attacks and a painful swelling in the abdomen that could only really be relieved by draining the fluid out.  The clinic decided to give her a course of chemotherapy but the drugs made her very weak and ill.  However, we decided together that I should return to Mauritius for my work, and that if anything went seriously wrong, I could be on the next plane home.  I’d had conversations with my brothers at various intervals and they gave me updates; I don’t think I ever saw the full horrors of how mum deteriorated so quickly in the autumn.  She had been into hospital a couple of times, but had been discharged soon after.  The doctors had decided to halt the chemotherapy for the time being, to allow mum to recover from it.  But the cancer continued to vigorously attack her and she was very much weakened.   One of my brothers, David, rang that night and told me that Mum had been taken into hospital and had specifically had asked to see me.

The decision was instantaneous.  Mum was one who was never liked to be seen to be fussing; she wanted everyone to carry on as normal.  For her to ask to see me meant it was truly critical.

I’d warned Mike in the summer that mum had cancer and that I might have to change my plans at any moment.  This made things easy on his side and I am so grateful to the support I got from him and Jeremy, and from the consulting firm back in the UK.  Mike and I drove into Grand Baie and I found a travel agent.  They booked me on the next BA flight the following day.  Mike dropped me off at the airport, saying that he and Jeremy would head off to Rodrigues at the end of the week, and that I could rearrange my ticket when I wanted to catch them up after I had seen mum.  Nobody had mentioned the word “if”.


Grand Baie – to find a travel agent