The Other Mauritius -Beyond the tourist image

Although at first sight the island looked like a dense uniform xerophytic scrub with a few footpaths, it was in fact subtly diverse.  The western side seemed more lush, possibly not so windblown.  In here, amongst the trees, were a number of wide glades, and huge feeders were slung up between trunks.  I saw about a dozen pink pigeons feeding from these -once you were that close you got the idea just how huge these birds were, and the vibrant colorations put all other pigeons to shame.

They had three distinctive plumages, as well as bright pink feet.  Their heads were a creamy colour with just a hint of rose; the tail feathers a vibrant orange with again a soupcon of pink running through them, and their wings were a brown colour but with dark pinkish highlights.  They happily posed for photographs – as long as they were able to access the feeders.  We saw more off in the bushes having a snooze,  and occasionally fluttering around.  You got the impression they were a bit bored of flying.  It was so much effort and they are big birds.  You can see how some of these island species might decide it is not worth investing in any more and start to evolve to walk only.  Maybe in a few million years MWF can evolve pink pigeons into their dodo cousins.

We walked past a whole host of nursery beds and saw how the MWF are rehabilitating the island’s vegetation.  We were shown areas where invasive species had once taken over and it had now been cleared by volunteers allowing natural vegetation to regenerate.  This was helping the endemic animal species and as we were walking down the path we heard some chomping in the undergrowth.  About four feet in from the path we could just make out the shell of one of the giant tortoise.  Nothing was going to disturb him from his feed of the newly restored vegetation and we could never quite get him to turn his head enough to get a good photograph.  But you could not mistake the rasping noise.

We finished off our tour at one of the highest points of the island and saw again the extensive views back to Mahebourg, Lion Mountain and further up the east coast.  In the gazebo shading us from the sun we saw two of the protected skink species which still reside.  Although nowhere near the size of the giant Mauritian skink, the telfair is still quite bulky and we snapped away and listened to more stories from our informative guide.

Ile Aux Aigrettes truly is an ark, and so amazing to see the successes, many hard fought, to repopulate areas with the original animals of Mauritius.  The main island still has many threats – it is hard to stop the populations of rats and domestic animals from ransacking the eggs of the birds and reptiles, but at least here, although in some ways a prison, it is also a fortress against invasion of those threats, and a base population can be established.  And the rewards are many – so many beautiful, exotic and, of course, unique creatures.

It just was another example of how unique Mauritius is.  And while it markets strongly on the beaches, the coral reef, the watersports and high class resorts, I found some of my weekends off where I explored the lesser known byways of the country some of the most refreshing and rewarding myself.

The Other Mauritius – Lessons in Island niches

We gently negotiated the shallows close to the island and pulled up against a wooden jetty.  We disembarked and stretched our legs, and of course the first thing we did was look back to the mainland from where we had come.  We were taken by the tall slim guy to a collection of huts inland from the jetty.  In a small room that he called a museum, we were given an introduction to the foundation and its work.  He was very eloquent, speaking in both French and English to the mixed group.  The foundation had been set up in the 1970s to restore populations of various animals and plants that were on the verge of extinction.  The museum was devoted partly to those that had got away – those species who were already extinct before the foundation was able to do any good.  But they were rightly proud of their success stories.  After all I had seen for myself the released populations of Mauritian kestrels and pink pigeons in the Black River Gorges National Park. One of the most fascinating exhibits in the museum was a model of the Giant Skink, and animal that has been estimated to have been extinct since the 1650s.

It looked like any skink I have seen, the neat little lines of scales along its back, its slightly rounded but sleek looking head and the beady black eyes.  But the model, a life size, is nearly a metre long.  This would have been more like an iguana than the little friendly lizards that run up and down the walls of many a tropical house.  We also learnt of the Rodrigues and Mauritius Tortoises, with the most enormous necks to reach up to the fruits in the shrubs around.  Another magnificent sculpture gives an idea of what incredible creatures these must have been , before they too became extinct once man colonised the Mascarenes.

Sober to reflect on the losses but we also wanted to see the success stories, so we started our tour of the island.  First of all, our meticulous guide wanted to explain the importance of the vegetation.  He had a good reason too:  He was trying to make us understand a little as to why animals on Mauritius had become endemic species.  He showed us all manner of plants whose seeds had washed up on the shores and they had colonised the difficult volcanic and limestone rocks.  Many travelled in coconuts, hence the palms, some may have come by wind or inside birds guts or stuck to their exteriors.  Then the animals have arrived somehow – perverse in some cases.  Maybe it was plate tectonics which had separated species from their continental brothers, or perhaps bizarre cast away stories of animals stuck to branches, seeds or whatever.  But once on their own little island kingdoms they could become masters of both their environment and fellow creatures.  Each tried to find a niche.  The vegetation was dry and scrubby but quite thick.  The ground cover was available to a large number of creatures, but if by evolution you could breed in longer necks, some animals gained an advantage in reaching the further branches and have more food just for themselves.  This explained the anatomy of the tortoises.

There was evidence that some plants had evolved to take advantage of their relationships with the tortoises.  Some plants ensured their succulent leaves, flowers and fruits were at the tops of their structures; only reachable by one tortoise.  Fruits in particular could be passed through the tortoises’ digestive systems and excreted with all the other rich manure – a perfect place for a new plant to get a grip in a difficult rocky environment.

Then came a difficultly for some of these plants.  When species went extinct, the symbiotic relationship was broken, and the plants found it difficult to reproduce.  MWF are trying to overcome this now by introducing species which fit certain ecosystem niches.  In the case of the old tortoises they have introduced the only giant tortoise that still exist in the Indian Ocean, the Aldabara Giant Tortoise from the Seychelles.  They have long necks (not quite as giraffe-like as the Mauritian ones they replace), and are starting to assist in restoring the vegetation on the island back to how it might have been in the old days.

The Other Mauritius – A visit to the ark

When you take off for London you also get an amazing view – the plane almost always takes off north to south so shoots off the coast and across the reef before turning sharply to the left to run up the east coast.

As it turns you can see the whole scope of Grand Port Bay, including Lion Mountain that I had climbed,  and a series of little islands, and one larger one.  This larger island was one I made an expedition one Saturday towards the end of my first visit via a booked tour.  The Durrell Foundation supported the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation to keep Ile Aux Aigrettes as an ark for the endemic and highly endangered species from the mainland.  The arrangements seemed a little loose and despite my experience of timekeeping on small islands, I travelled down to Mahebourg early as no way did I want to miss the chance to see this spectacle.  I had been told to go to a small car park on the coast just south of the town centre.  It was metalled with shockingly white stones and at lunch time it was roasting hot to sit in the car, so I strolled around trying to find some shade or take a chance to peer off a low wall into the lagoon.  There was a small boat tied up against this wall bobbing about in the water and I could see the low profile of my destination out in the lagoon, barely a kilometre from where I stood.  But there was no office here, and no staff or other tourists at the appointed time.  I stayed around but started kicking the stones  in the car par and cursing how bad arrangements often go in these instances.

Then a jeep roared into the car park with a couple of young people and a family on holiday.  A very tall Creole guy introduced himself, reaching down to shake my hand and he went over to the boat to prepare the ropes for casting off.  Another guy from the jeep got in the boat and started it up.  A third young lady produced a clipboard, took my money and ticked a list.  It all suddenly became very active.  I was invited to sit in the boat; although it was not going to be a long crossing I sat up front to avoid the worst of the splash.  The boat gently chugged out from the jetty then roared into life across the lagoon.  The water was so turquoise, the sun so hot; it was perfection.  It was also nice to get away from the mainland.  For all I was working on a coastal zone project, on this first time to the country I had not managed to get out in a boat till now.  The Ile Aux Aigrettes, our destination, revealed more detail as we got closer and closer.  It seemed almost completely covered in a low dense scrub.  It is formed of coral reef itself, a relic reef that has become raised above the sea level, and hardened into a pitted but very solid piece of limestone.  I could see where waves in the lagoon constantly abraded away at the rock, but only up to where the highest tide came a metre or so above the current water level.  The waves had deeply undercut the limestone but such is the hardness of that rock that it easily supported these huge overhangs.

The Other Mauritius – Vignettes around the island

Still it was a major adventure.  Over the weeks, and particularly the weekends, I realised I had traversed so many of the main roads of Mauritius, criss-crossing the island and overlapping routes I had taken before.  I took to filling in the gaps; visited other sites such as some of the major waterfalls like Rochester, Chamarel, Alexander.

  I saw the coloured earths; not the famous ones again at Chamarel but an interesting imitation near Bassin Bleu.  Removing the vegetation from  a sugar cane field, and smoothing the clay underneath in the shape of the island of Mauritius itself, people who owned the old estate had revealed over 23 different coloured soils; the effects caused by different balances of chemicals in the soil.  I must admit I found it difficult to discern all 23 different ones, but I used to have problems distinguishing vermillion and scarlet so I believed the experts.  All in all it was a pleasant little tourist attraction, a great walk around the edge of this bare earth with different aspects, including a high viewpoint which not only looked over the site but down the hill to the south coast as well.

Despite all my excursions through the lesser known lanes of the island’s interior, I still would find myself on the coast from time to time, and staring out at the ocean.  One of my favourite of these points was at Albion. Not very far west of Port Louis, I had been to Albion village  for the first time to talk with people at the Fisheries Institute just behind the beach, but for recreation I would drive to the lighthouse.  Probably the most spectacular and tallest of the lighthouses in all of Mauritius, it stood proud on a set of impressive cliffs.  Striped red and white, it was noticeable for miles around.  Most importantly for me, when you came flying in from London, this was often the first Mauritian feature you would see out the window.  I say, often, as sometimes the clouds would be swirling around the aircraft so much you would see very little, but if they cleared long enough you saw the top of the lighthouse as you crossed the coast.  I always found the approach the airport impressive.  Once over land, the plane would negotiate a valley between two small mountain ranges and pass above the centre of the Plaines Wilhelms’ towns.  It then came over a forest at a very low altitude – i.e. it was passing over the high ground near Midlands and then the land gently sloped away to the coast and the plane almost drops in parallel to the ground; gradually getting closer and closer to the land,  but running out of island to stop on.

The Other Mauritius – Worth the climb

We rested there for a while, both exhausted from the efforts.  We realised we were equally drained from the adrenalin and a kind of fear of what we had got ourselves into.  Then we both smiled at each other and burst out laughing.

We had emerged about half way along the lions back and the pathway formed the ridge.  We got glimpses down the far side of the hill, and the roar of the ocean bashing against the barrier reef was prevalent.  This ridge was relatively level for a few hundred metres, but then it started to rise again.  The pathway became more exposed and as we reached the lion’s neck we were once more clambering rather than walking.  There was no shelter up here and the wind ripped across the bay onto the path.  We found a little nook where the pathway negotiated a boulder and we dropped down behind it to have some snacks and water.  The wind was too strong to stand up and look at the 360 view, but we could see looking back down the lion’s back that there was a squall of rain rushing straight towards us.  We realised the pathway above us was open to the elements and we would be blown off or drenched off the hillside.  We’d had enough wild experiences that day already.  So we decided we would crouch down as best we could behind the rock, let the shower past and then descend the traditional route.

It was only a short shower, but it was cold and penetrating.  It chilled my skin and made me sneeze, and the following wind cooled me further.  We had to move to stop me getting hyperthermia so started down. The pathway was now made more difficult by being wet and slimy.  I don’t remember seeing the actual place where we had first emerged on to the path; Martin and I kept trying to remember whether we had walked on some sections to gauge where we turned off.  It was obviously a longer way down than we thought; indeed it must have been only just before you turn over the lower haunches of the lion and start the steep descent.  We found the concrete steps; not in perfect condition but very firm and walkable.  The white strip of concrete was laid out in front of us in a straight line right down the ridge.  We should have thought this is how the pathway could be easily placed rather than try and scramble up a side scree.  The last step fell short of the ground and we had to jump down, but it was right on the fence and below us was the sugar cane fields.  We could see the course of the river that we had followed on the way up marked by large trees over to our right, and saw a cane track that led straight over there.  indeed if we had taken the second of the forks ,it would have been a very short walk over to the mountain bottom and we would have avoided all the stress of scrambling up the scree.  And to rub salt in it when we looked back to where we climbed up was only a couple of hundred metres away from the proper pathway.    Just goes to show how disorientated you can be in cane fields.

The Other Mauritius – Going off the trail

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.

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Lion Mountain

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.

The Other Mauritius – Dead as a national emblem

This was not the first endemic animal I had seen in Mauritius.  When we had been on the grassy bank on the other side of the gorge, we had spotted a small bird of prey sitting on a dead tree trunk not 30m away.  It was a Mauritian kestrel, smaller than the ones I am used to in Europe.  Dwarfism is peculiar in a way – many of the birds which become endemic in a small island have a tendency to be larger; the pink pigeon is a good example.  And the dodo was another.

A lot is written about the dodo as a prime example of a very special creature becoming extinct.  What I did not realise was that it is supposed that the dodo was just another pigeon at one time, but lack of predators and a pretty good life had meant it had evolved into a very large flightless walker.  All the evidence says it was made extinct early on in Mauritius’ colonisation.  But I kept looking up at some of the mountain bluffs and looking at the isolated well wooded clefts and wondered if up there was a small community of dodos hiding away from man.  Of course it was baloney.  Even if man could not reach them, the aggressive species we introduced including the rats, tenrecs and cane dogs would have feasted off any eggs a long time ago.  I did see two dodos though while I was in Mauritius.  One was the celebrated stuffed one in the National History Museum.  This slightly decaying building was only a step away from my office in central Port Louis and I thought one lunch time I should take a look around.  The second was a wooden carving in Eureka plantation house.  Their curious shape, the pot belly covered in feathers, the long fat neck and the huge beak, was mesmerizing – how could such a creature have ever evolved.  And I tried to imagine what it would be like to come across a family bathing in a small river, or waddling across one of these glades.  Of course, it was not to be.

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The closest you will come to a real dodo