Beating off the waves – Manhattan in the ocean

I sprawled in the back and looked around me.  I now got to see the interface between water and land from another angle.  As we gently pulled out and turned to head north, I could see the modern office blocks backing the harbour and a long row of these bus boats along the harbour.  I keep saying harbour, but in fact all this was a long pool protected from the open sea by sea defences.  and I could see how boats of various types occupied different parts of it.



Once out in the open water, our captain opened up the throttle and the cruiser tilted to about 30 degrees and pushed hard against the sea.  As we accelerated, I kept glancing back and saw the bizarreness of Male further and further revealed.  It was like Manhattan in the ocean – every inch crammed with tall apartment and office blocks.  Its inshore waters were divided up into the different activities to keep such a maritime city running – I could see a larger container ship on the north west corner of the island.

As we pulled out I could see both ends of the main island and the obviousness of its limited landmass.  Nearby I could see several other islands, the one holding the airport of course, but also several others which seemed to have larger populations too.  Not just were there evidence of rooftops and the occasional higher rise flats, but also the various masts for communication and entertainment.




Beating off the waves – No room for an airport

It was here that I spent a week helping the Maldivian government look at one of the most critical issues for their nation, how to engineer the islands to resist the relentless onslaught of sea level rise.  I’d been invited to join a consortium of consultants by Jeremy Hills, with whom I had walked the Mauritian coast a couple of years beforehand.

A flight to Dubai and then on to Male brought me there overnight.  The capital is both small and packed with buildings, so the main International Airport for the Maldives is on the nearby Hulhule Island, which itself is largely reclaimed to make the runway large enough for long haul aircraft.  And most bizarrely, as we landed in one direction on the tarmac runway, a small seaplane coming from one of the other islands was dropping into the sea next to the airport.

After the formalities in the airport I was collected by someone from the ministry I was working for.  But instead of heading to a car, we walked across a quiet road and on to a wooden jetty.  In a small protected harbour there were a series of small docks. Ferries were coming in and out at all angles and at frequent intervals.  We only had to wait a short time for our ferry to fill up, many passengers’ suitcases, including mine , piled up at the front end of the boat.

Our trip to Male was barely 15 minutes.  Once out in the open water we wove our way between a mixture of different vessels – more ferries like ours, yachts and cruisers, cargo boats, fishing boats, boats carrying oil supplies, even one naval ship complete with helicopter on the aft deck..


Male from the airport

We were heading south westwards to a dramatic skyline of tall office blocks, apartments and hotels that fronted Male’ northern coast.  As we drew closer, the detail of the front became clearer.  the buildings were set back and it appeared the whole coast was protected by a high concrete wall.  With a few breaks in these defences, boats were able to access the city itself.  Ferries were congregating to a gap at the eastern end.  Behind the wall was extensive sheltered water running the length of the coast.  We came ashore and I waited for my suitcase to be offloaded, then we clambered  into a small taxi on the main tree lined thoroughfare beside the sea wall.

The Ankle Deep Sea – The hidden parts of “Mauritius”

Many people who visit Mauritius are unaware that it is just one of the islands in the republic.  Nearly 500 km north east of the island is a long thin archipelago called St Brandon, where around 60 fishermen live.  Over a thousand kilometres north are two sausage shaped islands collectively known as Agaléga, where about 300 people live cultivating coconuts and fishing in a narrow lagoon.  It has an airstrip and rudimentary social institutions, but no running water and secondary education has to occur off island.  A third island, Tromelin, is also claimed by Mauritius, which is little more than an airstrip on a coral platform, barely 1500 m long.  As with many small rocks in the ocean, the claims on its possession are more about the rights that gives countries over the sea and what is under it.  No wonder both the French and the Seychelles also claim Tromelin given it has no other land for 200km around, and so gives a nation an enormous  Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ.  All that fuss just for a colony of booby birds.  Mauritius even lays a claim to Diego Garcia – a contentious part of the British Indian Ocean Territory.

By far the largest sister island to Mauritius, though, is Rodrigues.  For most people it would be a distantly recalled name, and many I would guess place it as a former Spanish colony in the Caribbean Sea.  No, it is about 500km east of the main island of Mauritius.  If the twelve hour flight from the UK to Mauritius has made you feel like you have dropped off the edge of the earth, the extra hour and a half on a prop plane to Rodrigues would make you think you were now in a different solar system. East of Rodrigues, the next land is 5000km away in Western Australia. Apart from a couple of scraps of land the French claim, there is no dry land going south till you reach Antarctica.

My project manager, Mike, had made a visit there early on in the project and come back waxing lyrical about how different the island was from Mauritius – so much more relaxed, so pristine – and armed with a pack of the strongest pickles, the local delicacy, that  you could ever wish for, or not as the case may be.

So I was looking forward to my own chance to visit Rodrigues in the October of 2008.  We were to spend around a week there, work with the different agencies to build a similar plan to the main island, and conduct both boat and land surveys in the same manner too.  The tickets were bought, the hotel planned.  Then I got a phone call late one night.  It was a call I knew might have happened any time in the last two months.


Rodrigues (copyright Google Earth, Digital Globe)

Walking the Beaches -Bridge over the ocean

We set off again along the coast – the sea continued to be lively; waves striking every stack, rock and cliff it could find.  We reached Pont Naturel , or the natural bridge; a solid granite slab over open water, enclosing a roughly rectangular pool where waves boiled.  We decided to have our lunch here but we were not alone.  After the solitude of the previous day, it felt quite an affront to have company.  The weather was sultry now; dark grey clouds and occasional mizzle mixed with spray from the sea.  As we sat there more and more people seemed to turn up.  At first we thought it was some sort of sightseeing trip, but why would a troop of Mauritians be visiting Pont Naturel in the middle of the week, and what is more many had arrived on pushbike, and there were also a couple of tourists.  Some peered out to see quite intently, others gathered in a group.  A police car turned up and the officers started talking to people there, and there was a lot of standing around and pointing.  It became apparent that someone was lost here and this was the search party.

We could not, or really wanted to, wait for the outcome of the search.  Beyond the natural arch, the path dropped to sea level almost immediately and curiously, at a long stone wall, the entire landscape changed.  It was hard to believe that we were leaving this active dangerous coastline behind.  Ahead of us a few sand dunes protected the most benign lagoon, shallow and muddy, the only change a slight swell rippled across every time a breaker smashed against the reef at its entrance.  A flock of waders searched for food on the flats.  As we searched for a route through the lagoon, we heard a helicopter fly over head and aim for the Pont Naturel.

Walking the Beaches – The most exposed part of Mauritius

One thing struck us.  A couple of kilometres in we saw this incredible bay, a sweep of dark sand with a strandline of pebbles and detritus from the ocean backed by low overgrown sand dunes and a pine forest beyond.  We could have been on the California coast, South Island New Zealand, or even Scotland, but not in the Indian Ocean.  At the far end a white holiday chalet, the perfect hideaway.


Wild coast – it really is Mauritius

 As we went along, the trees became more stunted, and less lush vegetation took over – stone crops, devils baby toes, more lichens and mosses, fewer flowering plants.  The roar of the sea was stronger today; although the weather too was not so calm with clouds building up from the south.  It was all not so pleasant.  Yet the parkland itself seemed more used –there were plenty more footpaths heading off in all directions.  And the terrain was rising gradually to a horizon which seemed full of thick vertical posts.

By the time we reached these posts, there were few trees, mostly dwarfed by the incessant wind.  The bare rock, worn away by many people as well as the elements, seemed artificial, like someone had built a badly made car park on top of the cliffs.  When we arrived at the peak of the cliffs, a low stone wall had been placed in our way, the first such structure we had seen on this coastline since Gris Gris itself.  And more than that, the vertical posts made up an ugly fence to stop people venturing near the edge.

We were at Le Souffleur, the blowhole.  A hole in the cliff face through which the waves would be bashed and compressed and come jetting out the other side in a noisy wet rush.  I actually found it a difficult thing to observe; the hole was tucked right in against the cliffs and all the protection stopped you from leaning far enough to get a good view.  Also the whole sea was a tumult of boiling spray and foam, washing in different directions, bouncing and rebouncing off each other, every rock, the cliff face.  It was hard to pick out what was spray from the blowhole and what wasn’t.

Despite the crude safety barriers and the disappointment of Le Souffleur itself, both the land and the sea at this point were spectacular and engrossing.  The clouds had come low and the sky was a leaden grey, the noise from the ocean was almost deafening, the landscape on top of the cliffs a barely habitable lunarscape.  We were no longer on Mauritius; nothing here fitted the clichés of the tourist brochures.  And yet this was as wonderful a place as you could ever be expected to see; the most exposed part of the island facing the full force of the ocean that reached as far as Antarctica.  I was used to Caribbean islands having their lee and windward sides and the coastline east and west would be dramatically different, but in Mauritius, I had never really appreciated that there was one very exposed coast.  This was it and in fact it was extremely narrow, the worst of the ocean rollers focused on just about 10 kilometres.  And Le Souffleur was the where the nadir of that energy was fixed.

Somehow people had drive to this point, the first public access road we had seen since Gris Gris too.  Even on a week day we saw a couple of fishermen on bikes and a family picnicking in the trees.

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.

The Other Mauritius – Tiring of sun, sea and sand

Far out in the outer rim of the continent called Africa, beyond the magical mythical land of lemurs, volcanoes formed.  The movement of the continental plates  moved the cone of the volcano away from the erupting magma.  New volcanoes formed where the magma continued to bubble up, the old cones eroded in the waves.  Three times this happened and now erupting magma is still forming Reunion Island, a huge volcanic caldera is gradually eroding away as Mauritius, another is gradually eroding away so Rodrigues will eventually fall below the surface of the sea, and another has already disappeared below the waves. Together they form a loose archipelago called the Mascarenes.  Beyond them lie huge empty oceans – the southern part of the Indian Ocean and the cold, turbulent waters of the Southern Ocean – the next land of any size to the south is Antarctica.

I headed out for my first ever time in this part of the world in May 2008.  The long overnight flight meant my first interaction and my would be project manager for the next few months, Mike Smith,  was groggy – I fell asleep as he drove the length of the island from the airport in the south, past the capital, Port Louis, and out beyond to the northern end of the island and the house he had rented for the project period.

The job we were to do entailed proposing activities needed for full integrated management  of the coastal zone.  To Mauritius this was prime land – the majority of tourist hotels were here, the image of Mauritius was the long stretches of sandy beach, and many residents either lived near the beach or visited one of the public amenities on the coast at least once a month.  Away from the shipping activity at Port Louis, the rest of the coastline was an important fishery to local people, and there was as a strong cultural and historical identity with the coast.

I know I might sound like a spoilt brat tired of eating ice cream, but to be honest working for nearly five months on coastal issues made me sick to death of the sight of the sea.  When I had free time, I tried to find out about the other Mauritius, the inland areas of sugar, tea, forest, deer, rivers and waterfalls, historic houses, and to be frank where a good proportion of the population lived.  So in this chapter, here is a bit of a geography of those areas rather than what most tourist blogs of Mauritius spew out.