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.

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Rodrigues (copyright Google Earth, Digital Globe)

As far as you can go – The Oldest Resident

This was not the only time I came up to Plantation House.  Other times I had an appointment with a much more aged inhabitant than the governor.  Out on the grassy meadow below Plantation House live three tortoises.  the oldest of which was Jonathan, at the time over 175 years old, or so it was believed.  Photographs taken in the late 1800s show him already at full size, and it is estimated to take about 50 years to reach that stage.  The tortoises came from the Seychelles, and the reason why Jonathan and his friends ended up here are lost in the mist of time.  Tortoises at one time were kept on board ships to be used as fresh meat – same as sea turtles.  But others were given as gifts.  I parked up on the roadside and crossed a stile to enter their paddock.  They are hard not to miss and I could see them pottering around in some rough grass over the far side of the field.  Treading carefully between the enormous piles of tortoise poo I reached the three of them – all within 20 feet of each other.  Jonathan is easy to spot, he looks more weatherworn and pockmarked than the younger two.  He was obviously aware of my presence but was not fazed by it – I was the latest in a steady stream of visitors he had dealt with over the centuries.  He munched away at the grass in front of him while I took a few photos and, without much though, started talking to him.  I thought about the things he must have seen, all the governors and parties, the festivals, the visitors gawping at him just like me.  What a noble beast, what a rock of tradition and history. With that he let out an enormous fart and plopped his manure behind him as he moved on to another patch of grass.

Never rely on animals to give you metaphors for human culture.