Martin and I did a couple of these early morning walks; the Black River Gorges being by far the longest. We enjoyed another one in the south east of the island. This area always held special place for me. A sizeable bay bit into the shape of Mauritius and was scattered with a backdrop of mountains. The main motorway came over the central massif and as it dropped height gave an extensive view down another of these volcanic plains to this bay. At the end of the motorway, near the small town of Plaine Maignien, was the international airport, so it was a regular spot not only to end or start my own travels, but also when picking up or dropping off other members of the team during the project. Beyond, via another of those big tree avenues in amongst cane fields, you entered the bustling town of Mahebourg. The town was compact and, unlike many on the coast, not overly touristy. It had another national museum, this time devoted to more of Mauritian history. Mahebourg had been the capital of Mauritius as the harbour was deep and easy to access through gaps in the barrier reef. However it suffered badly from the SE trade winds which made it incredibly difficult to defend. It was tricky to tack out of the harbour while you were under fire whereas approaching rivals could sail quickly and straight at your targets.
Across a picturesque bridge over the River Le Chaux, the eastern coast road skirts this bay and on the northern side, towering above the village of Vieux Grand Port, was a single hill, not particularly tall, but in the shape of a lion. It had steep sides up to a ridge which formed the back of the lion, indeed a stylised sphinx, and then a further sharp rise to the mane and the peak which made the lion face inland. My Lonely Planet Guide had said there was an easy to follow walk to get to the summit. Martin and I parked up alongside the local police station at first light, put on our walking boots and ensured we had enough water. When the sun did get up high, we would need to hydrate regularly here in the tropics. The first part was easy, we followed a well maintained track past a couple of houses. It soon ended up between cane fields, which were in full growth and not far off harvesting. The track took a turn to the right and dipped down to cross a river by a low bridge. Our Lonely Planet Guide said that there was a fork in the tracks here and you took the left hand one to reach the foot of the mountain. The trouble was there were three tracks ahead of us. And the two left hand ones did appear to lead up to the mountain. We decided to take the left hand one as it seemed to reach the mountain earlier. The track started off promisingly heading towards the woodland, but then turned a sharp right and went parallel to the field boundary. It was difficult to see a way through the cane to get to the forest itself. We walked along the track for some time and I began to wonder whether we had missed the turn off. In the guide it told us that there was a path which led to a set of concrete steps up the first part of the hill. We took the plunge and headed off the track and over to the fence. We wandered up and down for a few minutes trying to see if there was an entrance. We had no idea how frequently this trail was used and whether we were looking for a bushwhacker or a metalled road. Time was starting to move on so we decided to take a risk, enter the woodland and climb hoping at some stage that we would inevitably reach the path.
Even from the first few steps we realised this was not going to be easy. The undergrowth gave a deceptive picture of the ground; from a distance you saw that with the closed canopy above, the tangle of weeds below was minimal. Then you realised the slope was not solid, but a steep scree of rubbly volcanic boulders. With every step, you either displaced a rock or dropped your ankle into a gap. Sometimes the rocks would lock together under you weight, other times, one would loosen from the vines and roll down below us. And boy was it steep. We started out just using our feet, but within a few yards, we were holding on to branches or trunks, or even fingering into the crevices in the rock to try and find a place to haul ourselves up. We both laughed at our predicament to start with, but we both realised we had been very rash to even start the climb. Looking down, though, I could not contemplate giving up and descending again. One or other of us, or maybe both, would make one bad step and be sent tumbling downwards, being ripped apart by the vegetation and rocks before becoming snagged somewhere where no one would ever reach us.
So upwards we had to go. We tried to talk to us to keep our morale up. We could hear the roar of the sea, and the odd plane landing or taking off from the airport. Apart from that we were cut off from the world and only together could we save ourselves. Every time we looked up, all we could see was more of the same, thin trunks, a thick canopy shielding us from the sun, and loose rocks at a very steep incline. We paused a few times to drink and regain our breath. I do not have a massive upper body strength and the exertion trying to haul myself up this slope was starting to eat in to my stamina. Martin was suffering more. He was older than I, stocky and fit, but carrying more weight than me made him less agile. I started to go ahead of him, more out of a hope that at some stage we should reach the top of the ridge and keep my metaphorical fingers crossed that there was a good path up there. There was no other alternative but to keep going upwards.
Then I spotted something on the ground off to one side of me. I shouted down to Martin, some thirty feet below “I think we are nearly there!” I had spotted an empty water bottle. I was never more pleased to see a piece of litter. If that bottle were there, it must have been thrown down by someone, and that someone would have been standing not too many yards above me. At least I hoped. I doubled my efforts to scramble up, lost my footing a couple of times and calmed down. No point in killing yourself when you were so close to the top of the slope.
And sure enough, I found the vegetation thickening in front of me, a sure sign that more sunlight was reaching this area, and then there I was standing on a trail barely two feet across. But it was well trodden, and extended as far as the eye could see both up and down. A minute or two later, Martin’s head appeared through the undergrowth; I reached down and helped haul him up to the safety of the path.