Walking the Beaches -Not a tourist trail…..

We inadvertently sent some of the world of La Gaullette into the sheltered world of the Mauritian tourist.  We completed the walk at a long concrete jetty near Case Noyale and caught a local bus back to where we had left the vehicle.  The survey had only taken a couple of hours and it was around mid morning, so we decided to treat ourselves to a bit of a touristy afternoon ourselves.  We drove up the hill at the back of le Morne, past the gorgeous village of Chamarel to one of the high class restaurants perched on the side of the mountain, with incredible views of the banana and sugar plantations down to the south coast.  We wandered in and asked whether we could just get a coffee.  The Maitre De looked at us in our ragged clothes and thought – hey ho , they are white so they must just be eccentric millionaires.  He wanted to put us on a small table near the kitchens but we insisted on a terrace view – it was only morning and they were not yet busy, but a coach party had just turned up for an early lunch.  He ensured we were down the other end from their tables.  We really only wanted  a nice cup of coffee, a glass of water and then we would be on our way.  We were so used to each other looking like a pair of tramps it hadn’t really crossed our minds that anyone else might find it us a bit odd.  As we sat there sipping our cappuccinos, I sniffed.  I sniffed harder.  Jeremy could smell it too.  Our feet were still covered in hard baked sewage and when we looked across their cool dark tiles, you could see our footprints right across the floor.

We quickly paid and left and then roared with laughter as we head up the hills.  The rest of the day we acted just like the tourists,  we looked at the sights from the top of Black River Falls, visited the Alexandria Falls, the temples at Grand Bassin, and drove back through the little lanes of the tea estates and sugar plantations to Calodyne.  Where I promptly got a bucket, filled it with warm water and toilet duck and doused my trainers overnight.

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Aftermath of walking through the sludge

Walking the Beaches -Negotiating the resorts

The resorts along the Morne’s beaches varied in levels of taste and subtlety.  Although many were very discerning resorts with flawlessly clipped vegetation and newly painted infrastructure, others were in a state of flux.  One resort had been used as a tax dodge, seemingly, and embroiled in arguments over which source of foreign funding was to be used to refurbish it.  As a result a string of half completed chalets littered the beach, and because there was no activity, the beach was being eroded severely.  Part of our role was to identify bad practice in beachside development.  One of the worst transgressions was the construction of solid concrete jetties and ramps.  Sand naturally is circulated around coastal systems, either within lagoons, out to offshore sandbanks and back or with longshore drift.  These flows are often not permanent, but cyclical according to seasonal affects such as tidal ranges or prevalent currents during different times of the year.  To restrict the flow with one of these solid structures is to both cause enhanced deposition and erosion.  It disrupts the sandflows to your neighbours’ beaches, and can eventually mean costly coastal defence measures are needed to be put in place.  These jetties and ramps can be easily built ensuring a gap below them to allow the flow of sand, and actually look much more aesthetically pleasing to the tourist eye.

We made fast progress on our walk; compared to the terrain of the south coast this was a doddle.  Only in one place were we nearly scuppered.  We kept to the beach as much as possible and had been suspiciously watched by resort security guards and some hotel staff (although many were very pleasant and said hello – they might have even offered us a drink if they thought we had any money on us), but at one place the beach was broken in two by a channel.  A hotel had built a small marina and an artificial lake in a golf course emptied into it.  The channel was deep enough for sizeable sea going cruisers, so we could not wade across to the beach on the other side.  We traced the stone wall lining the channel to the road bridge near the golf course.  As we tried to regain the beach we were almost instantly approached to a security guard.  He told us that we were on private property.  We tried to make out that we were on the beach (we were still standing on the stone wall and not the neatly clipped grass).  He smiled in the way that shows he knows how pathetic you are being, and said that we were in private property.  So we tried another tack, to point out how the hotel had restricted access to the beach by driving a deep channel through the sand, and were we expected to wade through that?  Again by the look on the face, he definitely thought that was the logical course of action.  So we tried our final card, that we were doing a survey on behalf of the government.  Eventually an uneasy truce was reached, we promised we were just passing through, he hesitated and before he could change his mind we headed back to the beach through the resort.  I was glad we did, as there were several features along this stretch , groynes protecting water sports areas for examples, that I was keen to take a closer look at.  This little peninsula at the head of the Morne was dominated by this most exclusive of all resorts, and we were definitely perceived as riff raff by the staff, let alone the owners or residents.  Well appointed chalets littered the beach front, the sports facilities were unequalled but hardly used, there must have been one staff to every two guests.  A night here would be 250 pounds a day, no doubt, and that would be just for the room.

We skirted the interior of this little peninsula next to the back nine of the golf course and headed back to the real world along the short stretch of coast back to the main road.  We saw little apart from a few fishermen angling off the rocks.

Walking the Beaches – The iconic Morne

The last area I walked as part of this study was the south western corner of Mauritius.  For reasons I shall explain later, I never got to walk the coast round Ile D’Ambre.  If Pont  Naturel and le Souffleur were unexpected landscapes here, Le Morne Brabant is the iconic feature of all tourist brochures.  A large cubic bluff of land sticking out beyond the main island, enclosed by two large lagoons, it has long been surrounded by a cluster of exclusive resorts.  The western side has some of the best beaches on the island, and the south western tip had one of the few locations where surfing works, but the southern lagoon was popular with all kinds of active sports from dinghies and jet skis to kite surfs and diving.

le Morne is not just a recent global tourist symbol, but has always held a special part in Mauritian history and is of almost spiritual importance to the Creole community.  It was here that Creole slaves would escape to from the harshness of a sugar plantation.  The geology of the Morne allowed the mountain to be used like a fortress.  On the only side where an approach is truly feasible, a huge gully splits the massif.  The Slaves were able to use a plank across this gap and pull it up like a drawbridge when anyone tried to get close.  They then lived in the caves around the central block.  Life must have been harsh here in what became known as the Maroon Republic, the freshwater limited to what the clouds condensed or could be caught in the limited rainfall of this part of the island.  Food had to be scavenged or foraged for from the sparse vegetation or forays back across the plank.

The end of the maroon period was also tragic – when the authorities tried to communicate to the occupants of le Morne that slavery had been abolished, the former slaves misinterpreted the approach as an act to capture them, and threw themselves over the edge of the cliffs to escape; threw themselves to their death.  In amongst Mauritius’ beauty and opulence, it seems there has been a lot of heartbreak and misfortune in its history.

Ever since, the Morne has become a focus of the search for the Mauritian identity.  Like many formerly colonised territories, history was often forged, built and written by the occupiers, whereas the vast majority of inhabitants were seen as bit part players.  Mauritius had both the slavery period and the indentured period, and the sources of populations from both these parts now form the dominant communities.  For the Creoles, they came from slave ships forcing them here from Africa; for the Indian community, both Hindu and Muslim, it was the promise of better lives that brought them to the island, only to be indentured into a lifestyle that was little better than a slave’s.  A symbolic part of that journey into indenture was the gateway at Port Louis where they disembarked from the ships from India.  Although now it looks little more than a series of much altered stone warehouses tucked behind the main road through Port Louis, Aapravasi Ghat, or the Immigration Depot, holds a symbolic place in Mauritian Indians culture, and was awarded a World Heritage Site status in 2006.  The Indian population, and in particular the government majority, want to highlight its importance both nationally and to visitors, so much so that in 2008 a series of road signs were created pointing to Aapravasi Ghat from almost every corner of the island.

The Creole population were put out that this Indian site was put forward as representative of cultural identity, and it heightened the activities to get the Morne better recognised, and it duly became the island’s second World Heritage Site in 2008.