The Other Mauritius – A walk from Black River

This whole massif, containing the highest point on the island, was gouged out in the middle by a series of short rivers that had created the gorges.  Most people visiting Black River Gorges will enter through this valley, driving up a narrow road from the coast at Grand Riviere Noire.  After a mile or two of agricultural land which seems to be made up mainly of cane and horse paddocks, you enter the forest and head deeper into the gorges themselves.  As ever with Mauritian tourism facilities, the main car park is an overkill of concrete picnic sites, vast toilets and shower buildings but fortunately when you start walking, the natural world takes over very quickly.  The main path follows along the wide Black River itself, which bubbles over huge boulders and gravel beds.  You have to cross it at one point, but the ford and stepping stones are not primed for humans and you are likely to  end up getting wet feet.  The walk starts on the level but quickly becomes very steep.  Martin and I had vowed to walk on weekend mornings and decided one day to do the full circuit round Black River Gorges.  We had got up very early and travelled the hour or so from our homes in the north.  The dawn was just beginning to take shape as we got out the car.   As we tromped along the path next to the river, we saw giant fruit bats lazily fly back to their roosts.  Their huge size and the slow flapping of their wings made me wonder how they stayed in the sky, but they looked supremely at ease in their environments as they navigated through the top canopy.  The pathway splits at the head of the deep valley – this is the confluence of several large streams which form the Grand Rivier Noire or Big Black River.  Our initial route was up the north side which proved to be a long series of hairpins on a narrow path.  We rose nearly 400m over a punishing half hour’s walking, but the rewards were great.  The pathway opens up from the guava thicket to a forest track, and on a steep grassy bank you turn around and are given the widest vista.  The forest clothed valleys of the Black River Gorges both descend into the deeps below you, and rise up to the plateau above.  Those rivulets that I had seen at the weather post formed waterfalls which toppled over the plateau edge and although not powerful, the sheer drop of a couple of hundred metres was impressive.  They came from all angles and you could see that in a short distance, the gorges formed a large catchment that gathered a sizeable volume of water to push on down to the sea at Grand Rivier Noire.

And if we looked the other way you saw most of the west coast of Mauritius.  Most impressive in front of us was Le Morne, possibly the most iconic tourist vista in the island; adorning every travel brochure, website, or information leaflet you could find.  It is a massive solid block of granite, but from up here it was dwarfed.  The vast bay to the north was visible with the wispy filao tree-covered Ile Au Benetiers.  And then a series of bays, bluffs and mountains, including the Tamarin Mountain sticking out into the sea, all the way up to Flic-en-Flac and the north.  and like the best of views there was constant activity.  We could see a swarm of kite surfers off one of the points, the wakes of small pleasure boats played around the lagoon, and there were cars on the road, tractors in the fields.  And yet up here we felt detached from the rest of Mauritius – a mountain high paradise of the natural world.

 

The Other Mauritius – Lost in the forest

There were two ways in to this forest.  I preferred this one coming up this back road to Le Petrin.  A car park sits in amongst the pines at the edge of the forest.  The air is always fresh and often cool up here and a track heads off westwards.  Again if it were in Europe of North America it would be just an ordinary forest track, but in Mauritius it was something different from the norm, and that made it special.  While the pine trees themselves were plantation style – long straight ranks of trees disappearing off in to the gloom, on the forest edge where more light penetrated the vegetation was richer.  Prolific on the margins and climbing up the other shrubs was Chinese Guava.  Having been introduced to gardens in Mauritius it had found a niche and exploded as an invasive weed.  Like all the best invaders, they are so attractive to the local fauna; the berries become red ripe and are greedily picked by the birds and rodents…. and people.  With a friend of mine, Martin,  I picked a couple of bagsful and he made guava jam; a bit gritty but it tasted good.

The pathway divided the forest park on the south with a hunting range on the north.  They were managed in completely different ways.  For timber the trees were grown uniformly to the same height before being chopped down to restart the process.  The other side was allowed to ramble and some management of open spaces, scrubby areas and dark shade were introduced to set up the environment for the hunting “game”.  At one junction,  the main track headed northwards.  I went this way to find another small reservoir, the Mare Longue.  Several small valleys were dammed up here to provide fresh water for the central plains towns and the surrounding areas managed mainly with natural vegetation or hunting grounds.

The rainfall here was higher than almost anywhere in Mauritius.  Once I tried to cut through the forest itself, but soon regretted it.  Although it was a recognised forest trail, there were deep, thick tracks from the logging machinery that passed through from time to time.  The trail did not get sun for long each day, and it was perched on the top of the ridge between Grand Bassin and Black River Gorges.  The wind blowing up from the Indian Ocean from the south east was constantly condensing the thick humid air and forming clouds.  If it was not pouring down with rain, you were often caught up in the dense, penetrating drizzle within the clouds.  The mists blew in and out every second of the day and several plants took full advantage of that.  Thick carpets of moss covered the floor –  which was like a two foot deep sponge that oozed as you walked on it.  The moss and lichens trailed from the pine branches.  Little rivulets flowed down every crease in the landscape, forming standing pools in each depression and gradually working their way to the sheer sides of the Black River Gorges themselves which lay below these forests.