We detoured a couple of times off the main road taking us up amongst the buttresses and higher elevations. The air clarity meant we saw for miles. We distinguished areas of bare ground, some of which were due to poor fertility and thin soils, but others reputedly from massive ammunitions fires from the Boers that scorched the earth and basically killed it.
Few trees grow here in the Golden Gate, but a few protea clung to the hillsides. These weird plants are common place in gardens across the world, but in their native habitats are restricted to Southern Africa and mainly South Africa itself. Its thick leathery leaves are well suited to the dramatic changes in temperature in these high elevations.
At one location we got a picture of just how fragile the rocky escarpments are; a fresh rock fall, so clean and bright, may have only possibly dropped in the last week, and you could see the brand new scar in the rock face too. Gradually the mountains here are being worn away, but from the scale and quantity of them, the Park is safe for a few more millennia.
The main road dropped down onto a wider green plain. A small herd of zebra were grazing nonchalantly a hundred metres from the road, an ostrich or two were glancing around. Sometimes South Africa’s landscapes seems more like the USA or New Zealand, and then a sighting like that will put you right back on its own continent.
And then back in Africa
There were two ways in to this forest. I preferred this one coming up this back road to Le Petrin. A car park sits in amongst the pines at the edge of the forest. The air is always fresh and often cool up here and a track heads off westwards. Again if it were in Europe of North America it would be just an ordinary forest track, but in Mauritius it was something different from the norm, and that made it special. While the pine trees themselves were plantation style – long straight ranks of trees disappearing off in to the gloom, on the forest edge where more light penetrated the vegetation was richer. Prolific on the margins and climbing up the other shrubs was Chinese Guava. Having been introduced to gardens in Mauritius it had found a niche and exploded as an invasive weed. Like all the best invaders, they are so attractive to the local fauna; the berries become red ripe and are greedily picked by the birds and rodents…. and people. With a friend of mine, Martin, I picked a couple of bagsful and he made guava jam; a bit gritty but it tasted good.
Guava trees on the edge of the gorge
The pathway divided the forest park on the south with a hunting range on the north. They were managed in completely different ways. For timber the trees were grown uniformly to the same height before being chopped down to restart the process. The other side was allowed to ramble and some management of open spaces, scrubby areas and dark shade were introduced to set up the environment for the hunting “game”. At one junction, the main track headed northwards. I went this way to find another small reservoir, the Mare Longue. Several small valleys were dammed up here to provide fresh water for the central plains towns and the surrounding areas managed mainly with natural vegetation or hunting grounds.
The rainfall here was higher than almost anywhere in Mauritius. Once I tried to cut through the forest itself, but soon regretted it. Although it was a recognised forest trail, there were deep, thick tracks from the logging machinery that passed through from time to time. The trail did not get sun for long each day, and it was perched on the top of the ridge between Grand Bassin and Black River Gorges. The wind blowing up from the Indian Ocean from the south east was constantly condensing the thick humid air and forming clouds. If it was not pouring down with rain, you were often caught up in the dense, penetrating drizzle within the clouds. The mists blew in and out every second of the day and several plants took full advantage of that. Thick carpets of moss covered the floor – which was like a two foot deep sponge that oozed as you walked on it. The moss and lichens trailed from the pine branches. Little rivulets flowed down every crease in the landscape, forming standing pools in each depression and gradually working their way to the sheer sides of the Black River Gorges themselves which lay below these forests.
I’d wondered why Mauritius had these very steep mountainous areas that gave way to flat or at least uniformly sloping plains. And why were the mountains so often topped by jagged peaks. Now I could see it. The mountain ranges more or less circled the perimeter of the island, a few miles inland from the coast. They formed the most massive volcanic crater, over 25km across.
Where is the highest?
How many eruptions of lava over the years had gradually filled up the main crater space I do not know, but it must have been hundreds. The mountains had formed and eroded, forming that characteristic jaggedness. And the lava once it had filled up the crater had spilled through the weaknesses to make a series of lava plains, each one gently dipping down to the sea. The southern one was wide and short; the larger longer ones to the north where I lived, and from Moka into Flacq, and from the central valley down past the airport to Mahebourg produced these bulging lobes of coastline which gave Mauritius such an interesting geographical shape. And yet another spilled out between several little mountainous outcrops to form the western plain. At one time the crater edge must have been at a pretty similar height.
Pieter Both looks like it should win
That was possibly why one of the tallest mountain, Pieter Both at the northern end of the crater, was almost the same height as the tallest point, Piton de le Petit Riviere Noire, at 828m. The difference is that the Piton is surrounded by a massif of mountains that means it never looks that striking, whereas Pieter Both rises solitarily almost from sea level without a break.
The actual highest point is less impressive
The crater lake is deep, and it quivers with activity. The offerings which fall off the concrete slabs are gobbled up by monster sized eels. Birds drop in and take what they can, and troops of monkeys patrol the area – they know a good feed when they see one.
High above the south side of the lake are a couple more temples; always interesting to take your shoes off and observe the colourful statuary, marvel at the worshipping of the penis through lingams of various lengths and thicknesses, absorb the aromas of different incense and spices. But to me, my geographical passion was sated more by the extreme views up here. You are close the highest point on the island, and at this location alone can you look down on over half the island. And it all comes together.
The mountains in the distance
You have to have the right day to do it. I have been to Grand Bassin several times when the cloud base was low, or the haze made it difficult to see beyond the local forest but come up here on a sunny day soon after rain and you will be treated to this panorama. The forests and reservoirs of the south west dominate the near scene, but to the south east and further out you could see the cane fields stretching away. All the little mountain ranges around the island could be picked out from this point.
The long road for pilgrims
At the end of the forest the scene opened up to the most dramatic hillscape. I was looking at the second highest range of hills in Mauritius and the most impressive. Although you could see these mountains from all over the north of the island, it was awe inspiring to be in the lee of these huge grotesquely shaped mountains. In the distance was Le Pouce, or the Thumb in English. Which if you put your digit in the thumbs up position looked remarkably like the saddle shape of the mountain before you. The nearer one, Pieter Both, was even more impressive. It rose sharply as a series of arêtes, making a pointed peak but balanced on the apex appeared to be a massive boulder; its base was certainly narrower than the centre. I never managed to climb it; it was by all accounts quite a tough ask at the top, but what you saw was almost an optical illusion. The top of the mountain is firmly affixed to the rest and although there are a couple of overhangs, this is not a boulder that is about to topple down onto Port Louis at the next earthquake. Pieter Both should be the highest mountain in Mauritius – its unique shape and prominence on the skyline was enough to give it the title, but in fact the highest location was at the other end of the island.
The peak appears to be loose
A large and somewhat dilapidated village lay in the valley beneath Pieter Both. Many fields outside Nouvelle Découverte were abandoned and a vicious vine had sprawled over the ground, the walls, the broken down sheds and barns and almost onto the road. The village looked dowdy; most probably the humid climate in amongst the clouds made maintenance of the houses a never ending battle against the moss, fungus and weathering.
By the time I came down to the little group of villages near the small town of Moka, the air had usually cleared and I was back in sunlight and more familiar Mauritanian terrain. I usually had a few choices here. Sometimes I would head south on back roads parallel to the motorway, other times I might veer round to the east and head back up that coast. Or I might want to explore the conurbation in the centre of the island.
Edsel and I walked up beyond this planting site on our first trip, taking along Greggy from the Environmental Health Department. One path, called the Dew Pond, reached the very summit of Green Mountain. It’s a relatively short path but steep in places, and made difficult by the humidity and general sogginess. The thick vegetation of trees and bamboo trap the cloud, condensing the droplets that then run along branches, drip of trees, down trunks and settle in a sodden mossy mess on the ground. Even the boardwalk put down here is little improvement over the muddy ground, and you have to watch out for slips and slides. The Dew Pond itself was another ingenious device of the early settlers who wanted to farm up here. The water captured by the vegetation up here was funnelled into the pond and taken down in a series of small pipes and storage tanks to water the crops below, although the creation of the water catchments was successful on a far larger scale and largely superseded the Dew Pond. The pond itself is almost completed surrounded by huge bamboo stands, and is laced with water lilies and guarded by a plastic green alligator.
The Dew Pond
At the Dew Pond
Layers of vegetation
Water storage for the dew capture
The windswept ridge
The misty view from beyond the peak
The Dew Pond is where the local Letterbox is sited, the destination of a one of a series of walks publicised as tourist attractions on the island. You can go higher, but the walk to the peak is a bit of a disappointment, there are no amazing views as the tree cover is thicker than ever, indeed even if it were not the top of the mountain spends so much time in swirling cloud and piercing winds you probably would see nothing anyway. The peak is obvious – the path drops gently down on the far side, but just in case you miss it, someone has put a piece of anchor chain up there – some macho runner who has gone from sea level to peak in twenty minutes with it around his shoulders, no doubt. The path does continue onwards to a break in slope, and the scene opens up to reveal the eastern part of the island.