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.