Walking the Beaches – Shrines

More than anywhere else in Mauritius, the Morne is a corner of the coastline, moving from the calm protected lagoons of the west coast to the harsher but more ruggedly beautiful south coast.  As it is backed by the Black River Gorge mountains, the highest in the island, the landscape is quite overpowering and feels cut off from the regular landscapes to the north and east.

Le Morne is another long drive from Calodyne in the north but this time we came with our colleague, Keith, who was a coastal engineer.  He left us by the filao trees at the south end of Le Morne Village and headed off to look at some of the engineering issues around the peninsula we were to walk.  We arranged to meet him at a road junction later in the afternoon.  I was sorry in a way we were not getting to walk the opposite direction.  The coast down to Souillac from here was a gorgeous mix of sand dunes and small lagoons, not as dynamic as the previous walk, but with the roaring sea only half a kilometre away on the fringing reef.  With the mountains behind and a series of sleepy Creole villages and old sugar plantations, it was an interesting mix.

We would head west, though, and the walk ahead was still going to be stunning  – even from the beach at the village of the Morne, the bluff looked magnificent against  the early morning sun.   We dealt with the minimal issues along the village front – a couple of storm drains that might cause pollution but nothing serious, and headed out on to a long spit of sandy land.  The lagoons around the Morne are the shallowest of any around the island, and at low tide large expanses of coral rubble and rocky fragments are exposed.

In the middle of the lagoon here, a couple of catholic shrines had been set up.  Taking religious ownership of the water was a strong trend in Mauritius – the Hindus in particular were not averse to setting up huge temples in lagoons, on small islands or low rocky headlands.  At best these looked functional, at worst the most horrible excesses of gaudiness, with badly painted , badly cast concrete or plastic representations of their deities being plonked unsympathetically in the environment.  Don’t get me wrong, a well designed and sculptured Hindu temple can be a delight, the detail mesmerizing and its colours vivid statements against the drabness of human routine.  But so many examples I saw were not of high quality, and spoilt for me what could be an incredibly aesthetic view, as spiritual in its own right as much as any group of icons.  The use of clay pots in various religious ceremonies close to the water’s edge has left a significant debris layer around many a bay.  Some religious tensions have grown up around these practices and especially the building of temples or placing of statues on what should be common land.  The Catholic response has been to set up statues and crosses in various parts of the lagoon and this is what we could see – with binoculars we could see there was a white Virgin Mary statuette.  Why there was felt the need to have somewhere to have a pilgrimage to on Assumption Day, I could never find out.

The Other Mauritius – A walk from Black River

This whole massif, containing the highest point on the island, was gouged out in the middle by a series of short rivers that had created the gorges.  Most people visiting Black River Gorges will enter through this valley, driving up a narrow road from the coast at Grand Riviere Noire.  After a mile or two of agricultural land which seems to be made up mainly of cane and horse paddocks, you enter the forest and head deeper into the gorges themselves.  As ever with Mauritian tourism facilities, the main car park is an overkill of concrete picnic sites, vast toilets and shower buildings but fortunately when you start walking, the natural world takes over very quickly.  The main path follows along the wide Black River itself, which bubbles over huge boulders and gravel beds.  You have to cross it at one point, but the ford and stepping stones are not primed for humans and you are likely to  end up getting wet feet.  The walk starts on the level but quickly becomes very steep.  Martin and I had vowed to walk on weekend mornings and decided one day to do the full circuit round Black River Gorges.  We had got up very early and travelled the hour or so from our homes in the north.  The dawn was just beginning to take shape as we got out the car.   As we tromped along the path next to the river, we saw giant fruit bats lazily fly back to their roosts.  Their huge size and the slow flapping of their wings made me wonder how they stayed in the sky, but they looked supremely at ease in their environments as they navigated through the top canopy.  The pathway splits at the head of the deep valley – this is the confluence of several large streams which form the Grand Rivier Noire or Big Black River.  Our initial route was up the north side which proved to be a long series of hairpins on a narrow path.  We rose nearly 400m over a punishing half hour’s walking, but the rewards were great.  The pathway opens up from the guava thicket to a forest track, and on a steep grassy bank you turn around and are given the widest vista.  The forest clothed valleys of the Black River Gorges both descend into the deeps below you, and rise up to the plateau above.  Those rivulets that I had seen at the weather post formed waterfalls which toppled over the plateau edge and although not powerful, the sheer drop of a couple of hundred metres was impressive.  They came from all angles and you could see that in a short distance, the gorges formed a large catchment that gathered a sizeable volume of water to push on down to the sea at Grand Rivier Noire.

And if we looked the other way you saw most of the west coast of Mauritius.  Most impressive in front of us was Le Morne, possibly the most iconic tourist vista in the island; adorning every travel brochure, website, or information leaflet you could find.  It is a massive solid block of granite, but from up here it was dwarfed.  The vast bay to the north was visible with the wispy filao tree-covered Ile Au Benetiers.  And then a series of bays, bluffs and mountains, including the Tamarin Mountain sticking out into the sea, all the way up to Flic-en-Flac and the north.  and like the best of views there was constant activity.  We could see a swarm of kite surfers off one of the points, the wakes of small pleasure boats played around the lagoon, and there were cars on the road, tractors in the fields.  And yet up here we felt detached from the rest of Mauritius – a mountain high paradise of the natural world.