Now at last I was able to visit, but I was to work for another incredible conservation organisation, the Durrell Foundation. As a teenager I had read all the Gerald Durrell books; my favourites being of the expeditions, and of his philosophy of how to build a zoo (the Stationary Ark). I had long wanted to visit Jersey Zoo as one of the places that specialised in the less well known animals. In Africa I had tired very quickly of hunting for the big five for that photo that everyone else already had – and was more keen to see the wider spread of other animals. When I started working in small islands, the rate of speciation from isolated populations had formed myriad biodiversities, fragile and unique on these plots, and it only endeared me to that pioneering attitude of the Durrells. Montserrat was a perfect example of that fragility, especially since the volcanic eruptions had begun.
Alas I was still not to get to Jersey Zoo. My first encounter with Durrell occurred in Bath on a frozen winter’s day; I met with one of the project coordinators who was resident at Bath University. We discussed the project and agreed to establish a visit in the summer, between my two trips to Mauritius. I actually prefaced my time in Montserrat with a couple of weeks touring the northern islands, visiting friends in Antigua, Culebra off Puerto Rico, and St John in the US Virgin Islands. After a further night in Antigua, it was a leisurely drive to the airport on a Saturday afternoon, a simple check in (mixing with the lobster red tourists gathering for the transatlantic services back to London) and then boarding a small prop plane for the barely twenty minute hop to Montserrat. The service is an odd one as they only had a few seats =, and if there were more passengers they did a second shuttle. Fortunately I was on the first out (I’ve never been keen to spend too much time in Antigua’s old departure lounge with the overcrowding and the interminable announcements calling out the destinations more like a bus route than a flight – “calling at St Kitts, St Maarten and Beef Island, Tortola”….. “Calling at Melville Hall, Dominica, Vigie St Lucia, Barbados with onward connections to Grenada, Tobago and Georgetown Guyana”).
When you take off for London you also get an amazing view – the plane almost always takes off north to south so shoots off the coast and across the reef before turning sharply to the left to run up the east coast.
Ile aux Aigrettes
Old Grand Port
Cane fields and rocks in Flaqc
Strips of rocks in the cane fields
north east side
Butte a L’herbe
As it turns you can see the whole scope of Grand Port Bay, including Lion Mountain that I had climbed, and a series of little islands, and one larger one. This larger island was one I made an expedition one Saturday towards the end of my first visit via a booked tour. The Durrell Foundation supported the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation to keep Ile Aux Aigrettes as an ark for the endemic and highly endangered species from the mainland. The arrangements seemed a little loose and despite my experience of timekeeping on small islands, I travelled down to Mahebourg early as no way did I want to miss the chance to see this spectacle. I had been told to go to a small car park on the coast just south of the town centre. It was metalled with shockingly white stones and at lunch time it was roasting hot to sit in the car, so I strolled around trying to find some shade or take a chance to peer off a low wall into the lagoon. There was a small boat tied up against this wall bobbing about in the water and I could see the low profile of my destination out in the lagoon, barely a kilometre from where I stood. But there was no office here, and no staff or other tourists at the appointed time. I stayed around but started kicking the stones in the car par and cursing how bad arrangements often go in these instances.
where the waves undercut the coral
Tying up the boat
Then a jeep roared into the car park with a couple of young people and a family on holiday. A very tall Creole guy introduced himself, reaching down to shake my hand and he went over to the boat to prepare the ropes for casting off. Another guy from the jeep got in the boat and started it up. A third young lady produced a clipboard, took my money and ticked a list. It all suddenly became very active. I was invited to sit in the boat; although it was not going to be a long crossing I sat up front to avoid the worst of the splash. The boat gently chugged out from the jetty then roared into life across the lagoon. The water was so turquoise, the sun so hot; it was perfection. It was also nice to get away from the mainland. For all I was working on a coastal zone project, on this first time to the country I had not managed to get out in a boat till now. The Ile Aux Aigrettes, our destination, revealed more detail as we got closer and closer. It seemed almost completely covered in a low dense scrub. It is formed of coral reef itself, a relic reef that has become raised above the sea level, and hardened into a pitted but very solid piece of limestone. I could see where waves in the lagoon constantly abraded away at the rock, but only up to where the highest tide came a metre or so above the current water level. The waves had deeply undercut the limestone but such is the hardness of that rock that it easily supported these huge overhangs.