Beating off the waves – Death of an old companion

We started out survey by walking clockwise round the island.  By my calculations the coast was no more than 3km but it was not all Bounty adverts and beauty calendars.  There were some nice sandy stretches true, but the first part in particular was sharp knobbly coral rock and rubble.  We logged all the features we could see.  Any jetties (that might potentially clog up the natural dynamics of the sand on the beach), bits of sea defence, walls, sewage pipes.

As we started moving away from the eastern shore the beach was more settled.  We saw a lot more sand and the water itself was calmer and less damaging.  Not only were the palm trees protected, but other trees hung down into the water, or grew in the sand itself.  We started to see some mangroves.  In front of us was a long stand of mangroves then a substantial channel on the sand, with a small coral island beyond, covered in vegetation.  I was going to be the good surveyor and make sure I walked the entire coastline, so I decided to wade through the channel.  I took off my shoes and socks and placed them in my bag, then I carefully unzipped my trousers.  Let me explain.  I was wearing long field trousers, partly since I knew with the meeting we had to be semi-formally dressed.  But they had zips just above the knees where I could take off the lower legs and convert them to shorts.  I placed these leg-ins in my bag then took my wallet, handkerchief, hotel room key and placed them deep in my knapsack.  I patted these top pockets to make sure they were empty, then zipped up my bag and placed it high on my back.  With GPS in hand I wandered round the mangrove, leaving my colleagues and the village heads walking round the back.

At first the water was shallow, but my feet sank slightly into the soft sand.  But then as I came around into the channel itself the water level hit my knees.  I realised that there was deeper to come and even my shorts would get wet, but hey ho, this is a warm climate – they will soon dry.

So I took one more step and sank up to the top of my thighs.  I tried to keep my bag, notepad and GPS high above the water and was realising there was little to note here that I would not have seen from the bank, when I realised my left thigh was vibrating vigorously.  I knew immediately what was causing it and I ran to the bank.  I say ran, what it was really was a violent wade.  Once out I dumped my bag on the dry sand and dug into the leg pocket of my shorts, retrieving a very wet looking mobile phone.  It was still vibrating and making pitiful noises at me.  I flipped it open and water trapped inside flushed out.  The screen flashed a couple of times then went dark.  I tried to turn it off but the vibrating went on.  It was like watching the death throes of a small mammal.   In a last ditch attempt to save it I ripped the back cover off and took out the battery.  The vibration stopped.  I reached into my bag for my handkerchief and wiped the battery down, then dabbed inside the phone casement and all round the screen and buttons.  Maybe it was just the contacts that had got wet and now it would be OK.  I gingerly put the battery back in and closed up the cover.  With a deep breath I depressed the on button.  Two seconds later the horrible vibration started over again.  Then it stopped.  Silence.  My phone was dead.

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On the beach – the phone died round the next corner….

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 – A Frustrating End to the walk

In the centre of the lagoon was an island, on the seaward side a large pan of seagrass, on the interior thick mud fringed by mangroves.  I was able to stand in amongst the seagrass, over 50 metres from the water’s edge, and be barely up to my knees in water.  We followed the strand line and paddled across to the little island.  This revealed itself as yet another rich man’s retreat, a set of bungalows in carefully manicured lawns under shady trees. We kept to the beach and skirted round the island, hoping to wade across the other side.  But this proved impossible, the water had a deep channel in the centre and was full of soft mud.  It was frustrating to see our final destination across the way but still not able to reach it.  We ended up almost doubling back on ourselves to reach a short causeway to cross back to the mainland.  Our frustrations were not at an end.  There were no hard surfaces to speak of, just a fringe of mangrove trees and fine mud making a hazy coastline so we abandoned our quest and walked along the track to the main road, only to find that the entrance gate was firmly locked, and being over three metres high of metal railings, unclimbable.

Our hearts sank – the route back would wind us all round the island again and back past the stone wall before being able to circumnavigate the plot’s fence from the other side.  We decided to work along the fence till we could find a point we could climb.  Being wire it was not easy to get a good foothold and we were grateful we did not break our ankles at this late stage.

Relieved to be out on the open road again we trudged the last half kilometre to the Public Beach at La Bouchon.  The village strewed northwards into the cane fields rather than be close to the lagoon, so there was barely a house on this beautiful little park.  Little grassy knolls, occasionally topped by shelters, dropped down to a placid beach with the shallow lagoon beyond.