Walking the Beaches – More surprises

While the day was more of the same; the job itself was very easy.  Where I could I would peer into the water to determine what was going on.  It was mainly rocks with the occasional scraps of reef; hardly any seagrasses.  Here or there white sand had become trapped but often as not the wave energy was too strong for any deposits to stay fixed.  And in other areas the waves were so intense that both on the satellite imagery and in reality, you could not see below the water for all the foam and spray. Similarly on the landward side, there was very little to monitor.  There were no coastal protection features; the cliffs did a good enough job anyway, and for the most part there were no pollution problems.  The worst pollution we saw came from a fast flowing stream coming down from one of the cane factories on the hillside way inland which was black and thick with charcoal residues from where burning had taken place.  It flowed into the coastal woodland and settled in a gloopy swamp before the stream disappeared into the rocks and fell off the cliffs.  We could see the small plume of black discharge out in the sea but the high energy waves soon dispersed it.

We approached an area where there was more human activity again, but it was what we could term artisanal.  There was evidence that people came down to fish off the rocks, or borrow sand, hold barbecues and leave litter.  There were even more open areas of pasture in amongst the wood and cattle grazing.  We passed very close by a rudimentary farm – at least accommodation for a stock watcher, and associated barns to store some feed and allow the cattle to shelter from the worst of the weather.  Outdoor grazing in Mauritius is a rarity, most being held in enclosed pens and barns and it was a shock to smell the long forgotten odour you get from manure and livestock after so many months of living next to sugar cane.  Even this enterprise seemed half hearted.  At one time there had been a series of paddocks divided by thick tall stone walls, but now many of these walls were broken down, only the tracery of their course discernible in the undergrowth.  How long this area had been wooded was difficult to determine.  The trees looked small but given the buffeting they received from the south eastern winds hitting the coast, it was likely they were partly dwarfed and very slow growing, so could have been there for over a century.

The quiet, slightly decayed beauty of this whole coastline was also faintly disturbing, and I never felt at ease in it.  That feeling was amplified when we heard not one or two but a whole pack of dogs barking, a hundred metres or so to one side of us.  We were used to cane dogs, they were frequently seen in the cane tracks around Calodyne.  Most of them were timid feral mongrels, half starved and disease ridden, but if they occurred in packs they gained significant courage.  As I’ve said, I always carried a few stones in my pockets in case one or two of them thought they would have a go at me.  Here we jumped up onto one of the more complete wide stone walls and picked up a few of the loose pebbles from the top.  We heard the dogs crashing through the undergrowth, but never saw them and eventually felt secure enough to move on.

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A rare piece of grazing land near the coast

Walking the Beaches – On safer ground

After what seemed like an age and with the adrenalin still pumping hard around our bodies, we saw a fence.  We worked our way back towards the track and saw an open gate.  It was a bit of an anticlimax – I was thinking we would be scaling walls or cutting our way out, but here was an open gate.

We were still nervous that we were in the wrong place, but to have put some distance from the houses helped.  It was still concerning that we did not really know what was ahead, and there was the horrible chance we might have to double back and face this area again.  Although I was carrying print outs of the satellite image, I had worked them to show the features in the sea strongly, and the shapes on the landward side were all dark and low contrast.  I had never picked out all these amazing features beforehand; my assumptions were that we were going to be in just wildwood.

East of the menagerie of animals, the ornamental ponds and the perfect little holiday houses, the land returned to a more open parkland, still well kept, but more natural.  There were a couple of interesting hilltop ponds capturing the freshwater from the cane fields above before allowing it to trickle over into the sea.  The cliffs were higher again, but the vegetation much more tangled than earlier on.  Then we hit yet another large gorge.  This time we were determined to cross it close to the beach; time was going on and we had some distance to cover yet and few options for short cutting inland back to the main road.  We found it easier than we had expected; there were a couple of trails where animals had zigzagged down the side, and we found the stream shallow and covered in rocks rather than mud, so fording was an easy task.  We were then able to scramble up the other side and regain our track – a fifteen minute crossing instead of an hour’s diversion.  This was very useful as both our energy levels were sapping and our feet were very sore.

Walking the Beaches – Slow progress

Just to show how useful it is to look-see again, we were surprised by the little headland that separates the bay into two places- making the water look like a pair of tonsils on the map.  Rather than the expected smattering of high price villas, there was a tightly packed community with narrow streets running down to the seafront and one or two jetties which contained artisanal fishing boats instead of the big plastic dinghies in front of the resorts.  This was a predominantly Creole community, no doubt housing just those people who were to service the richer residents and tourists.  When the coast tucked back against the main road another small public beach marked the end of this district and the more expected high status villas returned.

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The end of a tough walk round the bay

One problem with walking a coastline is that if it takes more than a couple of hours you will necessarily run into tidal issues.  Mauritian tides are not huge as they are in greater latitudes, but they still fluctuate and when you are using your GPS and noting down all the facts on your survey notebook, you might not notice the water lapping round your feet.  Towards the end of our day on Grand Baie this proved a challenge as to complement the incoming tide, the next stretch of coast consisted of the high class villas with their extensive dividing walls coming right up to the water’s edge.  We had to carefully negotiate the hard concreting , assorted gabions, piles of rocks and walls.  The water had relentlessly climbed up and in some places was splashing well over the areas we had to walk through.  I worked out this was not just due to simple tidal issues.  This west side of the bay was far more exposed to the narrow opening and tide, wind and waves bashed in here regularly.  Any sand that had existed had long been washed away and if nature had been left to its own devices a much more incised lobe would have been carved out.  Instead people had done their best to protect their coastline and the hardest forms of  protection had been bought in.  Unfortunately this now had caused the energy of the waves to be stronger – with nothing to drag and lessen their impact even the smallest wave seemed to bash against the defences, and when it found a weakness it mercilessly exploited it.  We saw so many broken down walls or  rusted gabion cages, and behind the plots of land scoured out even more vigorously  by the water.

Eventually we reached a rocky headland and completed our survey on a short stretch of public beach at the very north of Grand Baie.

We headed back to our car – as the crow flies not so far away but on the other side of this incised bay and thought – this was our smallest pressure zone.  Would we be able to complete the others in the allotted time – both the sea and the land sides?  Well, we had committed to them so we just had to take the plunge; and we also realised that although much of it was easy observational work and walking, when something difficult cropped up like a tide, fenced off areas or deep mud  and jagged rocks, it would slow us down significantly.  We consoled ourselves that the Grand Baie Pressure Zone was the most built up, busiest and most complex from a human perspective, but it was still a tough task.

Walking the Beaches – Grand Baie

Much of the rock around Mauritius’ coast is black, volcanic and almost impossible to touch in the middle of the day with all the heat it had absorbed.  Exposed to the rain and washed by high tides, the outcrops are rounded but deeply pitted but rarely covered in algal growth.  White limpet like shellfish clamp on to the sides, and winkles amble across the wetter portions.  The contrast between the black rocks and the white sand could hardly be greater.

As we passed the resorts, the sand became cluttered with their paraphernalia; large palm leaf sunshades, line after line of loungers and small glass tables for your drinks, a volleyball court here, assorted watersport equipment there, and from time to time a beach bar blaring out music.  Although the beach is public, these resorts de facto own just by occupying the space with their bric-a-brac.

Then there were the boat ramps – huge concrete slabs descending gently into the water.  The main fault with these was that sand would be trapped on one side and prevented from moving onwards around the bay; the longshore drift of schoolboy geography powering the process.  On the downdrift side the sand would continue to be moved away but nothing replenished causing holes in the beach, exposed rock and threatening the coastline behind from accelerated erosion.

The distance around the east side of the bay into town was barely a kilometre, but noting down all these features took time.  Eventually we met what we expected to call the centre of town, where a rather ugly shopping mall had been constructed by Grand Baie’s main road junction and traffic lights.  It was dominated by high class boutiques selling essential items like handbags, silk wraps, Persian carpets and hifis.  Beyond this point we had to scramble over the waste pipes of a couple of establishments on the sea front, more boat ramps and then a strip of more formal institutional type buildings.  We realised our skewed perception of Grand Baie was wrong – we had been passing through the tourist centre up to now, here was the true town centre, if indeed you could say Grand Baie had one at all.  Religious constructions of various types, police station, town council building and some normal shops selling things you might actually need.  What was still missing from Grand Baie was anything old.  Even the mosque and Catholic church were modern in construction; no earlier than the 1950’s.  And indeed that is Grand Baie’s history.  Despite one of the most extensive and sheltered bays on the whole island, its shallow and difficult entrance made it unsuitable in sailing ship times, and the small fishing village was just at the end of the huge sugar plantations for most of the last three centuries.  As tourism started to develop in the 1950s the village grew both with people who found the area attractive to live in, and for those to service the growing population.  The next stretch of the walk revealed just that activity,

Walking the Beaches – Pas Geometriques

The marine survey was only part of the picture, we had to also work out what was happening on the coast itself.  The only way we felt we could do this effectively was to walk the whole length of the pressure zone coast and document what we saw.  In principle this sounds OK – you have these images of long sandy beaches, the palm trees swaying gently in the breeze.  Like in many island nations the coast are public property so you have the right to walk on any piece of beach but that does not make it easy.  People still build right down to the high water mark and although their properties may open out onto the beach, the boundary wall can be built high and strong and may meet the sea itself.  Walking out into the water is hard work, as is clambering up and over rocks, slushing through muddy sections and crossing rivers, drains or sewers.

Grand Baie proved the most built up of all the areas we surveyed.  Apart from three small sections of public beach, including the main strip in town dotted with fish market stalls, boats for hire and litter, most of the land behind the coast was built on with resort hotels, yacht clubs, restaurants, bars and residences.  Grand Baie is rare in Mauritius, a touristic town on the coast.  Mostly tourists are whisked from the airport to their exclusive and all inclusive resorts tucked away at the end of gated small lanes or grand avenues.  Here in Grand Baie, although surrounded by resorts,  there were also mixtures of holiday rentals, holiday homes and boutique hotels.  The coastline altered every few metres.  We started at the eastern side of the bay by a large resort.  There were a number of sandy stretches here but often backed by large low bungalows, part of the Pas Geometrique (often pronounced Pay).

The Pas Geometrique is a complex concept in Mauritius.  The idea of reserving the land behind the coast from development is a well practised feature of both Anglophone and Francophone countries around the world, and the modern equivalent of setback is a feature of many an integrated Coastal Zone management strategy.   In one island in the Caribbean, Tobago, there was the Three Chains Act which meant no-one could build up to three chains from the high water mark – in theory to allow the army to build forts and emplacements anywhere they wanted around the island.  In France, the idea of pas géométriques , or “not geometric “was often prefixed with a distance ; in Mauritius this was set to around 80 metres.  In practice there is a well mapped zone around the island which fluctuates between just a few metres to over half a kilometre.  The state own this land and can lease it on a 30 years basis to whoever it wants.  People can build and do activities on this land but are under theoretical threat of eviction at the end of the lease, with the possibility of the constructions being demolished.  Over the last century long strips of the coastline especially in the north and east were given over to high price developments, but with little control of environmental damage or aesthetic considerations (either of the constructions or the impact on the surrounding landscape).  Other sections were handed over to the hotel chains, but long stretches were given over to what was called Public Beach and remain well used and valued open spaces in a very densely populated and farmed island.

Here in Grand Baie the huge bungalows were set well back from the beach and a sandy grassy lawn  gently undulated down to the beach, with the odd planted palm tree, bougainvillea or salt tolerant shrub here or there, and maybe a hint of entertaining from last night’s barbecue, or bunga bunga party.  You saw how easy it would just be to step onto that lawn and feel part of this relaxed opulent life but the invisible barrier, and gulf between your own life and theirs kept you on the beach.