Several of these are no longer privately owned and a few are open to the public. On my first weekend alone I went to one of these; Eureka in Moka. I should mention about Moka first. It is a small place, if you drive up the motorway out of Port Louis you could almost miss it as you get close to the conurbation on Plaines Wilhelm. But it holds a special place in Mauritius; it houses the campus for the University of Mauritius, as well as the Presidential Palace or State House. And sheltered in the lee of the northern mountains, it has attracted a number of high end villas. The streets are paved with gold in parts of Moka, or at least with the profits from the sugar trade. Nearby a new development was being built next to the motorway. Ebene was once just another sugar cane plantation but high rise gleaming tower blocks were already starting to appear on my first visit, and they were joined by hotels and high class shops over the few years that I visited.
It was being marketed as Cybercity, and was developing a big push to get technology in government up to date, and reach out to development, marketing, call centres and other internet dependent businesses to congregate there. Funny how use of a technology that should not be geographically dependent was being concentrated in one area.
Eureka was a hark back to a different era, but at its height was as much at the cutting edge as Cybercity was striving for now. The house itself looked very simple from the outside. It was a two storey building, the upper floor integrated within a high roof. The lower floor was almost completely surrounded by a wide veranda. The rooms were well appointed with both practical and ornamental artefacts, all of good quality. The dining room had a heavy oak table and almost medieval chairs, which was surrounded by an array of glass cabinets. The wooden floors creaked with every step frighteningly shaking the crockery in the cabinets.
Eureka – Dodo
Eureka – modern facilities
In the grounds
Side of Eureka
As I say the practical elements were once the height of technology. In the bathroom, instead of just the metal bath there was a gantry from which the bather could add more hot water. The sink was set in a sumptuous slab of marble.
I walked round the small lawns and down a footpath into a gorge where the River Moka gurgled across the rocks and fell over ten feet in a powerful force. It was a world away from the small villages hidden at the foot of the cane fields. I’ve visited a couple of other plantation houses over the trips; the same picture emerges from all. You wonder at the opulence and see it as the height of tropical living, but you can’t help to also wonder at the sacrifices and injustices at the huge number of slaves or indentured workers who strived to let these owners live this way.
Falls below Eureka
Falls below Eureka
The gorge below Eureka
Even the growing of the cane was an act which dominated the life of the island. So often when we were driving around letting the air circulate in the car with the windows down, someone would spot one of the huge irrigators in the distance. In Mauritius most of them were a metal framework that could be up to 1/3 mile long supporting. More often than not they were not activated but if they were, they were none too accurate. As you raced along the road, you had to rapidly hit the window switches and slam on the brakes not to be drenched in water as you passed underneath. It was not so bad if you were on a straight road but a couple of times you came round a corner, the irrigators would be hidden by the canes and no way could you close the windows in time.
The overall magnificence of the cane fields stretching for miles never ceased to take my breath away when you had the full vista, but the monotony of the detail when the canes were in full growth could also overwhelm. When the canes were in flower, though, you could marvel again at the individual plants. Huge pampas like florets extended high in the air, and gently waved in the wind. They turned whole fields a greyish white. In the late afternoon , as the sun dropped towards the horizon, they could go golden then red. They seemed to refract the light in all directions.
Cane in flower
The sugar cane dominates the culture of Mauritius too. Not just the sugar itself, but all the other products. I’m not as big a fan of Mauritian rum as the brown Caribbean sort, but the rums flavoured with vanilla and other spices had their charms. The whole societal structure had been managed around the plantation culture. The Frenchies were the owners and the key workers, the Indians replaced the Creoles in the fields, the Chinese were merchants supplying essential ironmongery and groceries. As I said many of the field workers lived hidden away from the main thoroughfares. The plantation owners generally did too, but the announcement of where they lived was as bold as anything. Massive gateways, long avenues of trees leaving to a wooded hilltop where if you caught the right angle you might get a glimpse of the white paint of an estate house.
Where orders were made
The sugar industry was so dominant on the landscape of over 2/3 of the island. I’ve already mentioned the cane tracks which go at right angles across much of the landscape. It dictates the pattern of the roads. The villages themselves were planned around the plantations, not vice versa. I found several villages were not served by any main road – they would be down a cul de sac behind a sugar factory, or in the midst of the cane fields themselves. I rarely went down there as it seemed an intrusion on the locals. Many of these villages were still dominated by the families of sugar industry workers the houses modest, the services focused purely on the basics of life. This was no place for an inquisitive traveller, let alone an average tourist.
Sugar Cane as far as the eye can see – Northern Plain
At one time each plantation would refine its own sugar, and some of the most magnificent monuments to industrial heritage can be found in the old water or steam run factories. Economies of scale, as well as a faltering export market for sugar, has reduced the number of factories down to eleven. These are huge structures set aside from towns in the middle of the cane fields. For much of the year, these giants stay silent but once the harvest starts they awaken and become very hungry. From every part of the island the cane cutters are out – mostly mechanised; often huge harvesters – chomping down the ten foot high grass, crunching off these huge blades of grass and stacking the canes themselves in supporting trailers. These massive open cages would then be transported along the main roads to the factories. At this time of year you realise once again just how much the sugar industry dominates the country. Woe betide you if you end up driving behind one of these smoke belching snails. The queues go back for a hundred vehicles, and with the humps and bumps in the road and the dangerous driving of the people coming the other way, there are rarely any opportunities to pass these beasts. If they are going up hill, you would be faster to abandon your car on the verge and walk past it.
Sugar cane piled up ready for refining
On one weekend I ended up at FUEL. I’d wondered what this was on the map for weeks and was determined to find out what this was. It was an enormous sugar factory, built from an amalgamation of several plantations in the area, and stood for the Flacq United Estates Limited. I parked the car up close to the entrance and in five minutes saw ten fully laden cane trucks enter.