Walking the Beaches -Not a tourist trail…..

We inadvertently sent some of the world of La Gaullette into the sheltered world of the Mauritian tourist.  We completed the walk at a long concrete jetty near Case Noyale and caught a local bus back to where we had left the vehicle.  The survey had only taken a couple of hours and it was around mid morning, so we decided to treat ourselves to a bit of a touristy afternoon ourselves.  We drove up the hill at the back of le Morne, past the gorgeous village of Chamarel to one of the high class restaurants perched on the side of the mountain, with incredible views of the banana and sugar plantations down to the south coast.  We wandered in and asked whether we could just get a coffee.  The Maitre De looked at us in our ragged clothes and thought – hey ho , they are white so they must just be eccentric millionaires.  He wanted to put us on a small table near the kitchens but we insisted on a terrace view – it was only morning and they were not yet busy, but a coach party had just turned up for an early lunch.  He ensured we were down the other end from their tables.  We really only wanted  a nice cup of coffee, a glass of water and then we would be on our way.  We were so used to each other looking like a pair of tramps it hadn’t really crossed our minds that anyone else might find it us a bit odd.  As we sat there sipping our cappuccinos, I sniffed.  I sniffed harder.  Jeremy could smell it too.  Our feet were still covered in hard baked sewage and when we looked across their cool dark tiles, you could see our footprints right across the floor.

We quickly paid and left and then roared with laughter as we head up the hills.  The rest of the day we acted just like the tourists,  we looked at the sights from the top of Black River Falls, visited the Alexandria Falls, the temples at Grand Bassin, and drove back through the little lanes of the tea estates and sugar plantations to Calodyne.  Where I promptly got a bucket, filled it with warm water and toilet duck and doused my trainers overnight.

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Aftermath of walking through the sludge

Walking the Beaches – The other side of Le Morne

We broke off for the day when we hit the main road – there was not much left to do but we were not going to get it done in one session.  We waited quite a while for Keith to arrive (he had apparently taken a leisurely lunch at an Indian restaurant along the coast), and he drove us back to Calodyne.  It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me in Mauritius.  Keith talked and talked normally, but I had never experienced him driving  – we had tried to avoid him taking the wheel.  We now knew why – he continued to talk  (and look at us while he was talking)  and we had several near misses on the road back to Port Louis.  The worst was when he tried to slip into the traffic on the M2 heading into the city centre, right in front of a petrol tanker.  The screech of brakes and rubber on tarmac as the tanker swerved past us on the other lane, only just managing to find a gap between two cars, was too much.  We were glad to get to the office in one piece and we never let him drive us again.

Jeremy and I headed back to the Morne the next day to complete the survey.  We knew it would not take too long, but it was still an hour’s drive down there and we wanted to avoid the Port Louis traffic.  But once in le Morne area we decided we could take it a little easier.  We had worked bloody hard over the last couple of weeks, the sheer physical exertion of conducting both the sea and land surveys was sapping, so we started with a coffee in a little cafe in Black River before heading to pick up the survey route.

This section started with us traversing a hard pan of volcanic pebbles revealed by the low tide – like tamped hard core, and was remarkably easy to walk across.  A few drains and the occasional mangrove stand was all we saw.  Eventually we reached the village of Gaullette.  I’d driven down the main road next to Gaullette many times and seen the usual mix of half constructed villas, family homes, little shops and a couple of bars and restaurants, as well as the odd institution – the school , the police post.  It looked the typical Mauritian village.  But I had noticed  as you sped past on the tarmac that there were pathways into the trees and you go a glimpse of washing hanging out by tin shacks and children playing outside.

Now we were walking the coastline slowly we had time to see more detail.  While not the impoverishment of some African villages or city suburbs, this was at the bottom of the scale for Mauritius.  In most cases people were living in concrete buildings, but there were some that were roughly made and packed with people.  They were also built below the main village, right on the fringes of the coast.  Indeed because they were often spilled out onto this hard pebbly core, the tide would relentlessly come in and flood their compounds.  Some had attempted to build their own rudimentary defences.  Even the best ones, made of concrete walls, had gaps in that the water would just flood over.   The worst defences were made of brushwood and palm leaves and did little more than mark out the space.

People used the coastline as a refuse dump, not just for household waste but also fly tipping larger items, and, worst of all, their sewage flowed out of pipes at the edge of their plots onto the pan of the lagoon.  We had to pick our way carefully through several hundred metres of this, and once or twice we slipped in our steps and our trainers sank deep into the mud, the slime oozing over our uppers.

Despite this, there was some industry down here, fishing boats every so often, a boatyard or two (unfortunately their waste products also spilled into the lagoon).  I could not help but glance across the wide open stretch of the lagoon to the exclusive peninsula we were on the day before, and its sumptuous excess.  So many tourists would never see even a hint of the world we were exploring around the coastline of Mauritius.  Their experience of the Creole way of life was a highly sanitised one of people in highly coloured clean costumes dancing Sega, the local custom, of curious little artefacts that they can purchase in the foyers of their hotels without once stepping out on to the road or leaving the company of talkative tourist guides who will keep cheerful and informative but never be controversial.

Walking the Beaches -Negotiating the resorts

The resorts along the Morne’s beaches varied in levels of taste and subtlety.  Although many were very discerning resorts with flawlessly clipped vegetation and newly painted infrastructure, others were in a state of flux.  One resort had been used as a tax dodge, seemingly, and embroiled in arguments over which source of foreign funding was to be used to refurbish it.  As a result a string of half completed chalets littered the beach, and because there was no activity, the beach was being eroded severely.  Part of our role was to identify bad practice in beachside development.  One of the worst transgressions was the construction of solid concrete jetties and ramps.  Sand naturally is circulated around coastal systems, either within lagoons, out to offshore sandbanks and back or with longshore drift.  These flows are often not permanent, but cyclical according to seasonal affects such as tidal ranges or prevalent currents during different times of the year.  To restrict the flow with one of these solid structures is to both cause enhanced deposition and erosion.  It disrupts the sandflows to your neighbours’ beaches, and can eventually mean costly coastal defence measures are needed to be put in place.  These jetties and ramps can be easily built ensuring a gap below them to allow the flow of sand, and actually look much more aesthetically pleasing to the tourist eye.

We made fast progress on our walk; compared to the terrain of the south coast this was a doddle.  Only in one place were we nearly scuppered.  We kept to the beach as much as possible and had been suspiciously watched by resort security guards and some hotel staff (although many were very pleasant and said hello – they might have even offered us a drink if they thought we had any money on us), but at one place the beach was broken in two by a channel.  A hotel had built a small marina and an artificial lake in a golf course emptied into it.  The channel was deep enough for sizeable sea going cruisers, so we could not wade across to the beach on the other side.  We traced the stone wall lining the channel to the road bridge near the golf course.  As we tried to regain the beach we were almost instantly approached to a security guard.  He told us that we were on private property.  We tried to make out that we were on the beach (we were still standing on the stone wall and not the neatly clipped grass).  He smiled in the way that shows he knows how pathetic you are being, and said that we were in private property.  So we tried another tack, to point out how the hotel had restricted access to the beach by driving a deep channel through the sand, and were we expected to wade through that?  Again by the look on the face, he definitely thought that was the logical course of action.  So we tried our final card, that we were doing a survey on behalf of the government.  Eventually an uneasy truce was reached, we promised we were just passing through, he hesitated and before he could change his mind we headed back to the beach through the resort.  I was glad we did, as there were several features along this stretch , groynes protecting water sports areas for examples, that I was keen to take a closer look at.  This little peninsula at the head of the Morne was dominated by this most exclusive of all resorts, and we were definitely perceived as riff raff by the staff, let alone the owners or residents.  Well appointed chalets littered the beach front, the sports facilities were unequalled but hardly used, there must have been one staff to every two guests.  A night here would be 250 pounds a day, no doubt, and that would be just for the room.

We skirted the interior of this little peninsula next to the back nine of the golf course and headed back to the real world along the short stretch of coast back to the main road.  We saw little apart from a few fishermen angling off the rocks.

Walking the Beaches – Fishing and Surfin

The spit of land extended about half a kilometre into the lagoon, and we had to double back a long distance to traverse the muddy inlet behind.  The water at this time of day was just too deep to walk across, although as we walked around several branches of the lagoon, the tide fell away to reveal large sandy banks.

We heard some splashing and giggling nearby.  Five teenage girls and one slightly younger boy with two dogs emerged from the wood.  One was carrying a white bucket (which probably held paint at some point in its history) and two more were carrying a large green net.  They waded straight into the water then spread out, unravelling the net between them as they went.  We watched them trawl through this shallow inlet, heading upstream to the shallowest part.  As they reached the exposed sand at the end, the net was alive with silvery fish battling to escape its clutches.  Still laughing and chatting, the girls set about picking away at the net and dropping the fish into the bucket.  They then reversed their walk and trawled out to a sandy bank and out of our view.

As we took the next headland the Morne revealed itself in all its glory.  We could see ahead for the next five kilometres of our walk – the kite surfers in the far distance looking like little sand flies biting at the ankles of the World Heritage Site.  We noticed that despite the lagoon being expansive here, wave energy across the shallow rubble platform must at some times be very high as here and there along the high water mark was evidence of erosion, or of trees being brought down and ripping up the sand as their roots disengage.  These events must be short in duration but severe and targetted as most of the beach was accreting sand.

 As we approached the first of the resorts that day, the kite surfers were racing up and down close to the beach.  Kite surfing at that time had just reached IN status.  Users were revelling in the flexibility in the water of being on a surf board, not at the total mercy of the rollers that an ordinary board would be, nor weighed down by a sail, but still plenty of control to move around on the water and perform tricks.  I’d once taken a lesson in windsurfing in BVI and completely exhausted myself hauling myself out of the water every time I tried to turn a corner.  I’ve never had the upper body strength to lift my own soggy weight.  Kite surfing looked similarly difficult to one who had had very little sporting coordination since the days of tripping over his football boot laces in primary school.

On various windy beaches around Mauritius, it was the South Africans who seemed to be the most experienced kite surfers.  Some tourists giving it a go for the first time at best looked nervous and hesitant to build up speed, at worst they were gung ho and I saw several examples of people being blown by the wind up on to the beach and into the nearest coconut tree.  In the hands of an expert, though,  the artistry as superb.  As Jeremy and I walked along the Morne’s beaches, a teenager passed us, kicked his board high in the air, looped himself round, turned his kite 180 degrees and forge ahead at exactly the same speed, all in one smooth and impeccable movement.  “Show off” we said simultaneously but in fact we were just plain jealous.

Walking the Beaches – Shrines

More than anywhere else in Mauritius, the Morne is a corner of the coastline, moving from the calm protected lagoons of the west coast to the harsher but more ruggedly beautiful south coast.  As it is backed by the Black River Gorge mountains, the highest in the island, the landscape is quite overpowering and feels cut off from the regular landscapes to the north and east.

Le Morne is another long drive from Calodyne in the north but this time we came with our colleague, Keith, who was a coastal engineer.  He left us by the filao trees at the south end of Le Morne Village and headed off to look at some of the engineering issues around the peninsula we were to walk.  We arranged to meet him at a road junction later in the afternoon.  I was sorry in a way we were not getting to walk the opposite direction.  The coast down to Souillac from here was a gorgeous mix of sand dunes and small lagoons, not as dynamic as the previous walk, but with the roaring sea only half a kilometre away on the fringing reef.  With the mountains behind and a series of sleepy Creole villages and old sugar plantations, it was an interesting mix.

We would head west, though, and the walk ahead was still going to be stunning  – even from the beach at the village of the Morne, the bluff looked magnificent against  the early morning sun.   We dealt with the minimal issues along the village front – a couple of storm drains that might cause pollution but nothing serious, and headed out on to a long spit of sandy land.  The lagoons around the Morne are the shallowest of any around the island, and at low tide large expanses of coral rubble and rocky fragments are exposed.

In the middle of the lagoon here, a couple of catholic shrines had been set up.  Taking religious ownership of the water was a strong trend in Mauritius – the Hindus in particular were not averse to setting up huge temples in lagoons, on small islands or low rocky headlands.  At best these looked functional, at worst the most horrible excesses of gaudiness, with badly painted , badly cast concrete or plastic representations of their deities being plonked unsympathetically in the environment.  Don’t get me wrong, a well designed and sculptured Hindu temple can be a delight, the detail mesmerizing and its colours vivid statements against the drabness of human routine.  But so many examples I saw were not of high quality, and spoilt for me what could be an incredibly aesthetic view, as spiritual in its own right as much as any group of icons.  The use of clay pots in various religious ceremonies close to the water’s edge has left a significant debris layer around many a bay.  Some religious tensions have grown up around these practices and especially the building of temples or placing of statues on what should be common land.  The Catholic response has been to set up statues and crosses in various parts of the lagoon and this is what we could see – with binoculars we could see there was a white Virgin Mary statuette.  Why there was felt the need to have somewhere to have a pilgrimage to on Assumption Day, I could never find out.

Walking the Beaches – The iconic Morne

The last area I walked as part of this study was the south western corner of Mauritius.  For reasons I shall explain later, I never got to walk the coast round Ile D’Ambre.  If Pont  Naturel and le Souffleur were unexpected landscapes here, Le Morne Brabant is the iconic feature of all tourist brochures.  A large cubic bluff of land sticking out beyond the main island, enclosed by two large lagoons, it has long been surrounded by a cluster of exclusive resorts.  The western side has some of the best beaches on the island, and the south western tip had one of the few locations where surfing works, but the southern lagoon was popular with all kinds of active sports from dinghies and jet skis to kite surfs and diving.

le Morne is not just a recent global tourist symbol, but has always held a special part in Mauritian history and is of almost spiritual importance to the Creole community.  It was here that Creole slaves would escape to from the harshness of a sugar plantation.  The geology of the Morne allowed the mountain to be used like a fortress.  On the only side where an approach is truly feasible, a huge gully splits the massif.  The Slaves were able to use a plank across this gap and pull it up like a drawbridge when anyone tried to get close.  They then lived in the caves around the central block.  Life must have been harsh here in what became known as the Maroon Republic, the freshwater limited to what the clouds condensed or could be caught in the limited rainfall of this part of the island.  Food had to be scavenged or foraged for from the sparse vegetation or forays back across the plank.

The end of the maroon period was also tragic – when the authorities tried to communicate to the occupants of le Morne that slavery had been abolished, the former slaves misinterpreted the approach as an act to capture them, and threw themselves over the edge of the cliffs to escape; threw themselves to their death.  In amongst Mauritius’ beauty and opulence, it seems there has been a lot of heartbreak and misfortune in its history.

Ever since, the Morne has become a focus of the search for the Mauritian identity.  Like many formerly colonised territories, history was often forged, built and written by the occupiers, whereas the vast majority of inhabitants were seen as bit part players.  Mauritius had both the slavery period and the indentured period, and the sources of populations from both these parts now form the dominant communities.  For the Creoles, they came from slave ships forcing them here from Africa; for the Indian community, both Hindu and Muslim, it was the promise of better lives that brought them to the island, only to be indentured into a lifestyle that was little better than a slave’s.  A symbolic part of that journey into indenture was the gateway at Port Louis where they disembarked from the ships from India.  Although now it looks little more than a series of much altered stone warehouses tucked behind the main road through Port Louis, Aapravasi Ghat, or the Immigration Depot, holds a symbolic place in Mauritian Indians culture, and was awarded a World Heritage Site status in 2006.  The Indian population, and in particular the government majority, want to highlight its importance both nationally and to visitors, so much so that in 2008 a series of road signs were created pointing to Aapravasi Ghat from almost every corner of the island.

The Creole population were put out that this Indian site was put forward as representative of cultural identity, and it heightened the activities to get the Morne better recognised, and it duly became the island’s second World Heritage Site in 2008.

Walking the Beaches – Calming down Mike

Mike arrived in the pickup, fuming at some politics at the office in Port Louis and also at not being able to find the road to the beach in Le Bouchon.  To me the off the beaten track nature of the beach was part of its magic – Mauritius had so many corners that seemed a world away from the busy active island elsewhere – but to Mike right now this was a huge cause of irritation.

We tried to calm him down by promising to show him the most marvellous view.  We navigated him back around the cane fields and into the Pays geometrique, past some of the cattle fields and high stone walls till we opened out at Pont Naturel.  We walked him up to the rocks and we sat next to the arch and drank some Phoenix Beer.  It was still grey and cloudy but the sheer energy of this coastline was infectious, a uniquely important landscape to the whole republic.   However, it was  tragedy-tinged that day.  We spoke with a local guy still searching the headlands.  Two young adults were lost here and it was thought they had committed suicide at Pont Naturel; the search parties were looking for the bodies in the water, as was the helicopter from the airport.  Regrettably this kind of occurrence was all too common, and Pont Naturel was a favoured spot as a lovers’ leap.  Having strong communities of Muslim and Hindu means arranged marriages are a norm, and lovers who have affairs without the families’ sanction are destined to be isolated.  Suicide could seem the only way, and the south east coastline was the spot.  What a desolate last journey those kids must have gone on, from whatever part of the island they came from, through the cane fields and woodland, out to this clifftop where others picnic, play and come to see the beauty and force of nature, only to use that force for themselves to wipe out their existence.

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Stormy waters calm severed nerves