To our left we could see a complex of low buildings. Our track fortunately dropped into the woods before reaching them and we were back near the sea on the clifftops. I say fortunately as we were not entirely clear on our legitimacy at this point. Two things were in our favour; we were working for the Mauritian Government, and we knew that if you were on the beach you were on public land. This walk up the valley and back, though, had placed us firmly in private plantation land. Many Mauritians seemed to use the cane tracks as public rights of way across the island, but we were also heading into the woodland that was pays geometrique and we had no idea who was leasing these lands.
The complex of buildings turned out to surround a sizeable fish farm, the lowest of its ponds we walked past on the cliff edge. We entered the familiar parkland that Mike and I had explored a few weekends before and I was back on firmer ground again, knowing that locals were using this area for recreation and farming. As we passed the holiday chalet with the turtle rock in the pine trees the track turned inland once more and below us we could hear the gushing of a furious river deep in another gorge.
This time we were not so lucky; the gorge was deep and covered in a thick brush including bamboo and other tall grasses. We kept walking inland, knowing every step this way meant another step the other to return to our work task. On our way we noticed an open mausoleum ; a series of graves, one topped by a tall column with an outsize urn, no doubt for one of the plantation owner’s family in the late 1800s.
On we trod. Eventually we saw a well metalled canetrack; it was in fact the course of the old railway line down to Souillac. As we approached we spied several trucks thunder along spitting up a dusty trail behind them. When we reached we realised the track crossed the gorge by an enormous iron girder railway bridge. The view was spectacular on both sides, the lively little river gushing down a series of cascades. Sitting precariously on a huge bamboo shoot was a monkey, preening itself and generally taking in the view for himself. At the foot of the bridge was a rather untidily dressed man, a tall Creole guy with a beard, washing his CD collection. He seemed oblivious to us watching him from above, but he was meticulously emptying a bag of CDs and dropping them into a pool of clear river water, then brushing them down before laying them on a sun drenched rock to dry.
We could not stay long, so crossed the remainder of the bridge and turned right. The cane track, like its parallel one on the other side of the gorge, was far from straight and this just added to the frustration about the amount of time we were taking just reaching our study area. In amongst the fields and hard up against our boundary track was a securely fenced compound. Again we were a little nervous approaching it but it was fairly obvious we were at the rear and would not be confronted by any gatekeepers. It was hard to make out what it was; we could see various things inside the chain fence with its barbed wire securely affixed atop. There seemed to be brightly coloured play areas and we wondered if it were a facility for children, in some way. But surely having barbed wire around the outside would be both dangerous and a bad image for any child facility. There were single storey buildings, difficult to tell what they were for although some were obviously offices. Then we saw something which solved the riddle. A lady in a white coat emerged from one of these anonymous buildings and was leading a monkey on a leash to the play area, which we realised was securely caged in. It twigged in my mind that this was a facility I had read about, which was keeping wild monkeys captive. Caught from the wild in this southern part of the island, they were eventually sold to research labs, mainly in Europe but also in North America. Mauritius remains the second largest exporter of monkeys for research in the world. I had heard of the trade and knew there was a centre; now I had seen the location with my own eyes. I have mixed feelings about the use of animals in research; mostly I believe that there is merit in their use in the whole cycle of medical science, but no for other purposes. I am human centric in my view – well after all, I am only human… But I see no reason for unduly harming animals (or for that matter plants) when alternatives can be used. And the idea of shipping off populations of monkeys half way round the world seems ludicrous.
It was over an hour from when we had left the coast that we found ourselves close to it again – again able to see our original track barely 300m away across the gorge. We realised that we could not afford another diversion like this and next time, we should aim to try and get down on to the beach and ford the river. Now another challenge emerged. As we approached the pas geometrique, we noticed a large pickup truck pulling away – we were not alone. We were not spotted but we cautiously approached the wooded area. It was firmly fenced in, and the fence was at least three metres high. There were tracks going in but they were blocked by locked gates the same height. We could not see the sea. There was nothing for it but to continue eastwards and hope we could get through. With luck, it was not too long before we saw a gap in the fence and we clambered in. We really felt like breaking and entering now, but once inside we calmed down as we were in yet another enchanting parkland with thick lush grass.