When I was working I would generally approach the south west from the coast road through Tamarin. But if I were looking to hike, I would generally head this way through the towns of Plaines Wilhelms. I would drive through Vacoas town centre, but keep going up the hill and eventually ended up at the little village of La Marie. Beyond here first the settlements disappeared, then the cane fields, and I was driving through a scrubby terrain. This was one of the hunting grounds of this area; a whole belt of land from west to east, apart from a few tea estates, that were extensive deer parks.
So different a view from the usual
As the road continues to gently climb, a large lake comes into view, indeed the largest lake in the whole of Mauritius. Mare Aux Vacoas may only be 2km across but for a small island that is a sea, as the French suggests. I loved being up here and would park up for a snack or just to absorb in the view from one of the car parks above the main road. The view was not particularly extensive or beautiful. Below my car were pine trees, they gave way to a rocky shoreline on which little foamy waves would break. The lake extended out to the other shore where more pine trees could be seen. But it was not beauty or the wow factor I was seeking on these trips. All I was after was something different. This was not the filau tree dominated coastline. This was not the busy bustling town and cityscape full of Mauritians of Indian, Creole, Chinese or Franco backgrounds. It was not the vast fields of sugar cane or tea. And that is what makes it so special. I felt most Mauritians did not appreciate many of the landscapes of this south west corner of the island, and for that I was truly grateful. It was one of the few parts of the island where you were not in serious traffic or jostling elbows in a crowd.
I’d wondered why Mauritius had these very steep mountainous areas that gave way to flat or at least uniformly sloping plains. And why were the mountains so often topped by jagged peaks. Now I could see it. The mountain ranges more or less circled the perimeter of the island, a few miles inland from the coast. They formed the most massive volcanic crater, over 25km across.
Where is the highest?
How many eruptions of lava over the years had gradually filled up the main crater space I do not know, but it must have been hundreds. The mountains had formed and eroded, forming that characteristic jaggedness. And the lava once it had filled up the crater had spilled through the weaknesses to make a series of lava plains, each one gently dipping down to the sea. The southern one was wide and short; the larger longer ones to the north where I lived, and from Moka into Flacq, and from the central valley down past the airport to Mahebourg produced these bulging lobes of coastline which gave Mauritius such an interesting geographical shape. And yet another spilled out between several little mountainous outcrops to form the western plain. At one time the crater edge must have been at a pretty similar height.
Pieter Both looks like it should win
That was possibly why one of the tallest mountain, Pieter Both at the northern end of the crater, was almost the same height as the tallest point, Piton de le Petit Riviere Noire, at 828m. The difference is that the Piton is surrounded by a massif of mountains that means it never looks that striking, whereas Pieter Both rises solitarily almost from sea level without a break.
The actual highest point is less impressive
Mauritius is known from the outside for its tourist resorts and beaches; nationally it is inextricably linked with sugar, but it does get a bit sickly after a while. I craved a different scenery. To the south of Moka, I eventually found this. Instead of taking the main motorway south from Curepipe I would head off from Valetta on a quiet back road. I remember the cross roads where I would turn off well ,it was in amongst a small wooded grove. As soon as you left the main road you could see an industrial complex on the right. It was quite modern. Indeed I had seen several of these dotted around the island. It was an attempt in the 1960s to diversify Mauritius’ dependency on the sugar. Incentives were given to build garment factories and women, yes it was mainly women, were encouraged to sit at row after row of sewing machines and looms. It was all quite modern for the time, but as usual with small islands, they were eventually undercut by much larger factories in south and south east Asia. Now only a few remain, and the rest are industrial relics, albeit more modern than the old sugar factories.
Centre of the island
The mountains fringing the central plain
The scenery changes to the south into a scrubby woodland. I realised this was not the natural vegetation but a sprawling regrowth over what had once been tea plantation. I could spy the odd tea plant sitting in amongst the weeds. As I went further south, I saw active tea plantations. There were always people in these fields as I went by, tending carefully to the small dark green trees, or weeding in amongst them, or occasionally I would see the ladies with baskets on their backs nipping the new tips off and tossing them behind them.
I passed through this area a few times, but once I noted from my map that in amongst the plantation was a small village called Dubreil. Curiosity got the better of me once and I turned off. I was always a little cautious about heading off the main roads; for one thing the maps never made it quite clear whether these were public roads. But I passed by a lot of people walking the road in their different colour overalls. I entered this rather drab little village; I think again the drabness was more the constant battle against the cool moist air in these upland areas than the motivation of the locals. But this village had a quietness that most of Mauritius lacked. People were going about their business but there were few bright colours in their clothes, the children were not playing around in the streets and there was a distinct lack of vendors on the main road. I realised this was really a corporate village. The houses all looked similar; many detached with their own gardens but all so similar and plain that it was like all life and individuality had been sucked out of them.
The village was set behind the offices and complex of the tea factory; whose gardens were the best tended and most colourful around. The village was there to house just the people who worked in the fields or the factory. Who would live at the end of this cul de sac, miles from the nearest town with nothing more than tea plants to look at. I felt uneasy and quite melancholic to spend any more time there so turned the car straight around and headed back.
Several of these are no longer privately owned and a few are open to the public. On my first weekend alone I went to one of these; Eureka in Moka. I should mention about Moka first. It is a small place, if you drive up the motorway out of Port Louis you could almost miss it as you get close to the conurbation on Plaines Wilhelm. But it holds a special place in Mauritius; it houses the campus for the University of Mauritius, as well as the Presidential Palace or State House. And sheltered in the lee of the northern mountains, it has attracted a number of high end villas. The streets are paved with gold in parts of Moka, or at least with the profits from the sugar trade. Nearby a new development was being built next to the motorway. Ebene was once just another sugar cane plantation but high rise gleaming tower blocks were already starting to appear on my first visit, and they were joined by hotels and high class shops over the few years that I visited.
It was being marketed as Cybercity, and was developing a big push to get technology in government up to date, and reach out to development, marketing, call centres and other internet dependent businesses to congregate there. Funny how use of a technology that should not be geographically dependent was being concentrated in one area.
Eureka was a hark back to a different era, but at its height was as much at the cutting edge as Cybercity was striving for now. The house itself looked very simple from the outside. It was a two storey building, the upper floor integrated within a high roof. The lower floor was almost completely surrounded by a wide veranda. The rooms were well appointed with both practical and ornamental artefacts, all of good quality. The dining room had a heavy oak table and almost medieval chairs, which was surrounded by an array of glass cabinets. The wooden floors creaked with every step frighteningly shaking the crockery in the cabinets.
Eureka – Dodo
Eureka – modern facilities
In the grounds
Side of Eureka
As I say the practical elements were once the height of technology. In the bathroom, instead of just the metal bath there was a gantry from which the bather could add more hot water. The sink was set in a sumptuous slab of marble.
I walked round the small lawns and down a footpath into a gorge where the River Moka gurgled across the rocks and fell over ten feet in a powerful force. It was a world away from the small villages hidden at the foot of the cane fields. I’ve visited a couple of other plantation houses over the trips; the same picture emerges from all. You wonder at the opulence and see it as the height of tropical living, but you can’t help to also wonder at the sacrifices and injustices at the huge number of slaves or indentured workers who strived to let these owners live this way.
Falls below Eureka
Falls below Eureka
The gorge below Eureka
Even the growing of the cane was an act which dominated the life of the island. So often when we were driving around letting the air circulate in the car with the windows down, someone would spot one of the huge irrigators in the distance. In Mauritius most of them were a metal framework that could be up to 1/3 mile long supporting. More often than not they were not activated but if they were, they were none too accurate. As you raced along the road, you had to rapidly hit the window switches and slam on the brakes not to be drenched in water as you passed underneath. It was not so bad if you were on a straight road but a couple of times you came round a corner, the irrigators would be hidden by the canes and no way could you close the windows in time.
The overall magnificence of the cane fields stretching for miles never ceased to take my breath away when you had the full vista, but the monotony of the detail when the canes were in full growth could also overwhelm. When the canes were in flower, though, you could marvel again at the individual plants. Huge pampas like florets extended high in the air, and gently waved in the wind. They turned whole fields a greyish white. In the late afternoon , as the sun dropped towards the horizon, they could go golden then red. They seemed to refract the light in all directions.
Cane in flower
The sugar cane dominates the culture of Mauritius too. Not just the sugar itself, but all the other products. I’m not as big a fan of Mauritian rum as the brown Caribbean sort, but the rums flavoured with vanilla and other spices had their charms. The whole societal structure had been managed around the plantation culture. The Frenchies were the owners and the key workers, the Indians replaced the Creoles in the fields, the Chinese were merchants supplying essential ironmongery and groceries. As I said many of the field workers lived hidden away from the main thoroughfares. The plantation owners generally did too, but the announcement of where they lived was as bold as anything. Massive gateways, long avenues of trees leaving to a wooded hilltop where if you caught the right angle you might get a glimpse of the white paint of an estate house.
Where orders were made
There were three or four roads that led out of the northern plains from here, all crossed a rough rocky plain that could hardly sustain cane fields, indeed in some places they never bothered and it was a dark scrubby dry woodland. Beyond though was a massive plain, predominantly in the district of Flacq. The main town here is Centre de Flacq; again not much more than a service centre for the villages and plantations of the district. It did have a couple of colonial buildings of note in the town centre.
Poudre D’Or church
On the east coast
Centre Du Flacq
The extent of the plain was surprising. Considering this was a small island, I always felt the road leading west from Centre De Flacq was heading out into prairie lands – the views were extensive – a breath holding amount of sugar cane blowing in the wind leading the eye to a series of small mountain ranges that gradually tapered together in the west. But they never touched, the Flacq plain merged with the plain in Moka and on to the conurbations of Plaines Willhelm. But all the time you were rising, steadily but noticeably from near sea level in Centre de Flacq to over 400m in Moka.
With so many little mountain ranges around the island, there were pinch points where roads converged One of these was at the top of the Flacq cane fields. All traffic had to pass through a small town called Quartier Militaire – another wonderfully evocatively historical name for a place. But I can find no reason why it might have been called that. The only thing I can think of was that the town is about the dead centre of the whole island, and the most remote place from the coast. Maybe this area was set up as an area to marshal the military, maybe the area where they trained. It certainly was a good location to have an army to protect the whole island. If any foreign troops tried to invade from any angle, soldiers could be trooped (downhill) with little effort in almost all directions to face battle.
West of Quartier Militaire was a small rural area of Moka which contained a few villages. It was still full of sugar cane but was more windswept than many cane fields; it was at an altitude of over 450 m. As well as a couple of old railway tracks and stations, and the paraphernalia of storing and transporting cane to the refineries, it was marked by a pretty little lake at Valetta. The main road between Curepipe and Flacq skirted its northern side and pine trees provided little picnic sites around it. I found these little inland picnic sites all over the island; a match for the parkland at the public beaches. While they were nice little spots and it was good the government were making facilities for people to use, they always appeared rather heavy handed. Picnic tables would be huge clunky concrete structures on a hard surface. Fences were solid concrete posts with at best whole tree trunks forming the barrier. Footpaths were tarmacced or concrete again. Any naturalness had been stomped on by the need to produce services for hundreds of people to use them. But Valetta’s little reservoir here was still a pleasant relief amongst the incessant cane fields.
I’ll talk more of this southern part of the island soon, but let’s return to Calodyne. I said the northern plain was cut off from the rest of the island by Port Louis and a range of mountains. That is not quite true. If you headed along the coast there was a narrow plain that continued down to yet another big sugar production area, Flacq. Again I could not drive directly to this area, the arrangement of roads meant a lot of dog legs and turns. First you went past Goodlands, the nearest town to Calodyne, but one we always avoided as it was a congested, dirty, slightly seedy looking town. The only reason we would head down this way for shopping was to drop in at an incredible chocolate retailer. In a small modern house with a shop front next to the main road, the most delicate, intricate and delectable sweets were being made. We would make a slight diversion on the way home from work on a Friday and drop in to get a very expensive pick and mix. Starting with simple dark and light chocolate slabs, there were coffee and caramel infusions, maybe a little cream here or there, chocolates stuffed full of the essences of oranges, lemons, strawberries, cherries, the odd spice, even a hint of chilli, nuts and mints, and even exotic marmalade flavours, all in a myriad of different shapes and textures. She made larger blocks and incredible sculptures but we could only afford a small box of individual chocs. They would be carefully placed in the fridge when we returned home and we were allowed one treat after each main meal over the weekend.
But Goodlands itself was somewhere to avoid or get through as fast as possible. Beyond here you would see the first stream. It took me a few weeks to realise but there were no flowing streams in the north of the island. When I looked at the geological map I realised that the northern plain was made up of incredibly permeable volcanic rocks which soaked up all the surface water. The other plains were less recent and hence more consolidated deposits and river valleys had formed. So only when we reached the next village of Poudre d’Or did we cross our first bridge. The next town was Rivière du Rempart. It gave its name to the district within which we lived, but was tucked away in this corner of the island. Compared to most of the towns it had a very low profile, but I used to enjoy driving slowly through and watching the bustle of the little shops. It was difficult for me to see what nuance made this town nice and Goodlands a dump, but there was that gut feeling that could not be denied.
On the north east side of Mauritius
The existence of this mass of towns just west of the centre of the island always confused me somewhat. In many countries the capital absolutely dominates the life of a country; it has by far the largest population, it would be the centre of business, culture and sports. Port Louis had elements of this, but its core population was dropping, and because it was wedged between a narrow lagoon and the mountains that included La Pouce and Pieter Both, there was not a lot of room for expansion. A spine of towns head up from the coast just west of Port Louis, starting at the mouth of the largest river in Mauritius, the Grand River North West (often abbreviated to GRNW).
Although not the longest, it drains a big chunk of the central plain. From Rose Hill and Beau Bassin in the north, which I found like Port Louis was slightly claustrophobic – wedged as they were between the gorge of GRNW and Corps de Gardes Mountains. The next town, Quatre Bornes, was more handsome to me. You entered it from a bend in the M1 and this main thoroughfare runs through the centre of the town for over a mile, rising steadily all the way. The middle opened out to a bustling bus station and a massive market place; the stalls dotted around formal gardens near where the old railway ran through.
The towns got more interesting the further up the hill you went. The next two, Vacoas and Phoenix were parallel to each other. While Phoenix was not much more than a settlement surrounding a major industrial estate, including the island’s biggest brewery with the same name, Vacoas was a grid of suburban streets. I’d had a couple of meetings up here, the country’s meteorological office was in Vacoas, and also on a remote road way out of town was the National Remote Sensing Centre at the back of the next town up called Curepipe. When I first went here I thought I had been sent on a wild goose chase. In an agricultural zone noted for growing a wide range of vegetables (the climate being so much cooler than the coast), I saw a sign to the NRSC but the tarmacced track led off into what looked like a derelict military base. There were old Nissan huts, large concrete areas which looked like parade grounds, and then finally I saw some satellite receiving dishes and a modern building in which the NRSC was housed.
The Met Office, Vacoas
Schoolkids explore the kit at the met office
At the end of the forest the scene opened up to the most dramatic hillscape. I was looking at the second highest range of hills in Mauritius and the most impressive. Although you could see these mountains from all over the north of the island, it was awe inspiring to be in the lee of these huge grotesquely shaped mountains. In the distance was Le Pouce, or the Thumb in English. Which if you put your digit in the thumbs up position looked remarkably like the saddle shape of the mountain before you. The nearer one, Pieter Both, was even more impressive. It rose sharply as a series of arêtes, making a pointed peak but balanced on the apex appeared to be a massive boulder; its base was certainly narrower than the centre. I never managed to climb it; it was by all accounts quite a tough ask at the top, but what you saw was almost an optical illusion. The top of the mountain is firmly affixed to the rest and although there are a couple of overhangs, this is not a boulder that is about to topple down onto Port Louis at the next earthquake. Pieter Both should be the highest mountain in Mauritius – its unique shape and prominence on the skyline was enough to give it the title, but in fact the highest location was at the other end of the island.
The peak appears to be loose
A large and somewhat dilapidated village lay in the valley beneath Pieter Both. Many fields outside Nouvelle Découverte were abandoned and a vicious vine had sprawled over the ground, the walls, the broken down sheds and barns and almost onto the road. The village looked dowdy; most probably the humid climate in amongst the clouds made maintenance of the houses a never ending battle against the moss, fungus and weathering.
By the time I came down to the little group of villages near the small town of Moka, the air had usually cleared and I was back in sunlight and more familiar Mauritanian terrain. I usually had a few choices here. Sometimes I would head south on back roads parallel to the motorway, other times I might veer round to the east and head back up that coast. Or I might want to explore the conurbation in the centre of the island.
So when I had leisure time, the thought of battling through the centre of Port Louis was not my idea of fun. Fortunately I found some interesting back roads to avoid the jams.
The shady main roads in amongst plantation fields
To the north east from the mountains
One route was to head south past a little reservoir called La Nicolière. There was no direct route from our house – the layout of the roads followed the alignment of the cane plantations and I would take one of two alternatives through villages like Mapou, Poudre D’Or and Piton. The roads steadily rose up to the main A2. The A2 was one of those magnificent cane plantation roads; to shade the travellers avenues of trees had been planted and these had grown to have thick trunks like the pillars in a cathedral nave. After rising still further I turned off through some more cane fields and eventually reaching a dam wall. At the far end of this the road turned sharply up some hairpins, but I would usually stop to take in the cooler air and view from this point. The lake was tucked under a set of wooded mountains but still perched high up amongst them and looking north the whole northern plain was laid out before you. Mostly it was sugar cane fields, but it was pockmarked with villages and small wooded areas; often the old plantation houses. The sea shimmered in the far distance and if it were clear enough you could see the islands; the ones which loomed so large at Calodyne were specs on the horizon from here.
Heading up the hairpins was a hair raising experience, mainly due to mad young teenagers on scooters or people with cars too large for them to handle swinging out in front of you on the bend. Once up on the mountain themselves you were in thick forest, with occasional glorious vistas hinted at through clearings to your left. This was the Rubicon for me, the views were different now from my home area; I had passed across to the “rest” of the island.
More often than not when I passed this way, the cloud base was low and I drove through a cool soggy forest, the reeds and mosses on either side thriving in this environment. It was almost like being in a Scottish forest in midsummer. I loved it, it was the closest place to our house which I could call a wilderness. A few people did come up here to picnic but the climate was not really to Mauritian tastes. The odd vehicle passed through and there was some work on the forests. But it was so quiet compare to the hustle and bustle of the villages.