Walking the Beaches – A secret world

Our team leader, Mike, and I had visited Gris Gris a couple of months before.  The administrative centre for Savanne District, the most southerly of the island’s ten districts, is a charming little town called Souillac.  The town itself is tucked in to one of the more sizeable river estuaries – a narrow steep sided valley with fringing mangroves at its mouth.  You can see why the town was founded in the valley as the river mouth is buffeted by rolling waves coming in from Antarctica.  Now in modern times people flock down a narrow road out of town that leads to the clifftops at the southernmost tip of the whole island.  It is described as a public beach but the majority is a well trampled grassy knoll some 40m above sea level.  The view is breathtaking – you see a line of cliff headlands stretching away to the east within which nestles tiny coves of pristine sand unblemished by sun loungers.  A mixed woodland frames the clifftops and as far as the eye can see, no building sullies the vista.  The majority of people who visit here are Mauritian with the odd adventurous tourist being shown the island on a taxi ride.  Most stay within this little parkland, maybe long enough to have an ice cream.  A few will explore down to the first beach below the cliffs and a number in the know go as far as the first headland.  Mike and I followed a few of these to see what the fuss is about.  We found a taxi driver speaking of “La Roche qui Pleure”, describing some fable of a woman left on the rocks by some jilting lover, forever weeping.  He tried to describe the face of the woman, although if it was what I was seeing, I could see why the guy ran away.  The waves crash against this face relentlessly .  Mike and I continued on along a track past a convent and well into the woodland at the top of the cliff.  Now we were alone save for the odd local guy marching back with a fishing rod and some potfish, or some child either up to no good or just ending an amazingly imaginative adventure.  The further we got away from the car, the more we realised just what an enchanting coastline this was, and far away from the heavily pedalled touristic beaches elsewhere on the island.

We decided to see where else we could get down to this area.  It proved very difficult , the main coast road turns inland at Souillac, and the slopes down to the sea were some of the largest sugar estates  in Mauritius.  We found a way in which looked legitimate – in fact it was signposted several times to “the Beach”.  This was very useful as cane tracks, as I have said before, are notoriously difficult to navigate through at all times of year except when the ground is bare. As we reached the end of the road, it was obvious that there was still woodland along the entire clifftop.  My original thought was that the cane fields reached almost as far as the cliffs with them dropping rather unceremoniously into the sea.

I was not expecting what we saw.  A track wound steeply down the cliff and it was thick with a red mud , so we decided to save our new pickup truck the bother.  Even with all the 4 wheel drive and gadgetry that could have made it cope, we didn’t think it worth the risk not knowing whether the track petered out at the edge of the cliff with nowhere to turn.  As it was we shouldn’t have worried.  On each side of the track were an assortment of exotic trees – exotic to Mauritius you understand –  fruit and timber trees of the highest quality.  We noticed that much of the ground level was well tended too – smallholder plots of peppers, onions, herbs and spices, with the odd cereal crop like maize thrown in.  We even saw a couple of women weeding away amongst their crops.  Our original track descended to meet a more level one, beautifully grassy and obviously clipped.  We could hear the sea roaring away below us but only occasionally got glimpses of it.  Instead we walked through a paradise parkland, ending up at a small cottage set amongst some dark pine trees.  It appeared unoccupied but incredibly well kept.  At the cottage’s entrance was a huge lump of volcanic rock that resembled the shape of a turtle.  We realised this was some kind of holiday home, or maybe a retreat for the plantation owners.  Yet there was evidence that we were not trespassing – that others were commonly using this area for barbecues and parties.  There were a couple of small concrete shelters in amongst the trees and people had obviously used them recently.

We were quite perplexed as to why such a well maintained yet almost secret parkland existed here.  It certainly looked like the plantation owners were responsible for this part of, what was still after all, pas geometrique.  But it seemed to have open access at least to locals, and we were not stopped or questioned here.

Walking the Beaches – Pressure on the coast

Field working geographers will always tell you there is no substitute for getting yourself in the thick of your subject material – the land, the soil, the rocks, the water and the air.  They scorn the armchair geographers who theorize , speculate or just read other people’s work.  They will check under the fingernails of students to ensure they are dirty – dirty with the grime of the earth if you are a physical geographer, dirty with the dust of houses and settlement and grease from industry if you are a human geographer.

There is certainly something to be said for it.  Too many times I have been involved with projects where I have been thrown a satellite image and told to “interpret that”, and then wonder why there is disappointment when you did not manage to accurately tell everything  there was to know about a piece of land instantaneously.   I far rather have at least one field trip into the place I am working on, and if possible get completely immersed in the habitat.  One of the vital parts of the process is that spending a while wandering around a location gives an impressive sense of the whole  – how the structure of the land is formed, how the soil sits, the vegetation grows, the animals inhabit; and how humans interact in this environment in terms of what they build, what they cultivate, how they mark out and claim, and how they move around in that landscape.  Without that immersion, you end up focusing just on the one thing you have to work on – a Cartesian, narrow minded, perfectly logical process, but lacking both richness and insight.

The chance to really understand a landscape has only come rarely in my career – so often it has been that one quick “look see”, pseudo-scientifically called Rapid Rural Appraisal in some circles, but more likely a jolly day trip where you look serious and ask clever questions.

One time the right type of field work occurred was my second trip to Mauritius.  After a two month break, I was back in the Mascarenes.  I had another three month period and whereas the first trip was to set up the GIS for the whole project, this time I was to concentrate on five “Pressure Zones”.  After much deliberation, scientific analysis, political back and forth and considered reflection, some people pointed to five areas of the map and said – they are the pressure zones.  Pressured because Mauritius has a limited coastline, and its tourist product relies very much on it – the usual tropical idyll of palm trees, white sand, coral reef, and hot sun.  Trouble is the whole Mauritius coast is not like that , and what comes under that category is pretty much either developed to the highest extent, or is public beach not available to developers (fortunately).  This has meant that development of resorts have now taken a  novel angle.  About half of Mauritius’ coastline is rocky or cliff like, or lagoonal silts with mangrove and other mosquito ridden habitat. That does not stop the developers from marketing the idyll.  I was taken by the head of the Government’s beach authority to a new development north east of Port Louis city one wet afternoon.  The site was at the end of a series of cane fields (not a rarity) on a low lying rocky headland.  My knowledge of physical geography made me know that sandy beaches rarely form at this point – the area is rocky because the sea erodes any loose material away from this point.  Sand forms in more sheltered bays or lagoonal areas, not areas of hard rock pointing out into the rough seas.  This had not deterred the developers who were building a huge berm of rocks and backfilling with sand imported from elsewhere on the island.  Even while the development was being built, you could see nature fighting against the changes – the sea water going round the back of the berm and biting into the sandfill from the rear.  Also it seemed such a compromise on the part of the tourists – yes they would have the chlorine filled pool in the hotel complex, and a sandy beach to look out over the Indian Ocean, but isn’t part of the joy of these places to be able to lumber out of your room, amble slowly down the sandy beach till the warm tropical waters overtake you – without having to clamber over a bunch of large granite rocks?