Walking the Beaches – Planning the walks

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Typical S Coast scenery

The push was to continue the expansion of Mauritius’ prime export product, high quality resort hotels.  The traditional resorts had already filled up the prime spots – the coast between Port Louis and Grand Baie in the north, the area around Le Morne, then the Bel Mare and Palmar coasts, a few in the far south east and finally the stretch in the west around the bizarrely named Flic-en-Flac.  Once these areas were filled up the new developments skirted round the fringes on marginally picturesque coastline (even inland areas in some cases) and most recently turned to the rocky, harsh currents of the south coast.

Surprisingly some exquisite coastline remained undeveloped – one stretch between the most southerly point on the island, Gris Gris, and the lagoons west of the airport was the largest.  The five areas that were identified as pressure points were as follows:

Grand Baie – an obvious one since this was about as heavily developed as the coastline got and closer to a holiday town than the other resort orientated locations.

Belle Mare and Palmar – on the east coast dominated by some huge resorts.

Ile D’Ambre – a potential hot spot in the north east which was mostly mangrove lined lagoons

Le Morne – another cherry in the tourism dessert , including a world heritage site

The South Coast – enigmatic choice since it has no development at all so not easy to see how it was pressured.

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More developed North coast scenery

What surprised us was that several other hot spot areas were ignored – the well developed coastline between Port Louis and Grand Baie, Flic en Flac , Mahebourg near the airport, the coastline south west of Port Louis.  But as you may have realised we were not necessarily party to the final decision and any attempt at scientific reasoning was never going to work, so in the time honoured way a consultant bites his tongue and gets on with it we started to analyze these five areas.

We had a whole series of things to do; we had to see what the current resources on land and sea were, we needed to see what activities were there and what the “stakeholders’” visions of what they wanted would be, discuss options, management methods and a roadplan.  I was quite happy my role was limited to the documentation of what was there, and for that I worked with our survey expert, Jeremy Hills, to design a methodology.

Walking the Beaches – Pressure on the coast

Field working geographers will always tell you there is no substitute for getting yourself in the thick of your subject material – the land, the soil, the rocks, the water and the air.  They scorn the armchair geographers who theorize , speculate or just read other people’s work.  They will check under the fingernails of students to ensure they are dirty – dirty with the grime of the earth if you are a physical geographer, dirty with the dust of houses and settlement and grease from industry if you are a human geographer.

There is certainly something to be said for it.  Too many times I have been involved with projects where I have been thrown a satellite image and told to “interpret that”, and then wonder why there is disappointment when you did not manage to accurately tell everything  there was to know about a piece of land instantaneously.   I far rather have at least one field trip into the place I am working on, and if possible get completely immersed in the habitat.  One of the vital parts of the process is that spending a while wandering around a location gives an impressive sense of the whole  – how the structure of the land is formed, how the soil sits, the vegetation grows, the animals inhabit; and how humans interact in this environment in terms of what they build, what they cultivate, how they mark out and claim, and how they move around in that landscape.  Without that immersion, you end up focusing just on the one thing you have to work on – a Cartesian, narrow minded, perfectly logical process, but lacking both richness and insight.

The chance to really understand a landscape has only come rarely in my career – so often it has been that one quick “look see”, pseudo-scientifically called Rapid Rural Appraisal in some circles, but more likely a jolly day trip where you look serious and ask clever questions.

One time the right type of field work occurred was my second trip to Mauritius.  After a two month break, I was back in the Mascarenes.  I had another three month period and whereas the first trip was to set up the GIS for the whole project, this time I was to concentrate on five “Pressure Zones”.  After much deliberation, scientific analysis, political back and forth and considered reflection, some people pointed to five areas of the map and said – they are the pressure zones.  Pressured because Mauritius has a limited coastline, and its tourist product relies very much on it – the usual tropical idyll of palm trees, white sand, coral reef, and hot sun.  Trouble is the whole Mauritius coast is not like that , and what comes under that category is pretty much either developed to the highest extent, or is public beach not available to developers (fortunately).  This has meant that development of resorts have now taken a  novel angle.  About half of Mauritius’ coastline is rocky or cliff like, or lagoonal silts with mangrove and other mosquito ridden habitat. That does not stop the developers from marketing the idyll.  I was taken by the head of the Government’s beach authority to a new development north east of Port Louis city one wet afternoon.  The site was at the end of a series of cane fields (not a rarity) on a low lying rocky headland.  My knowledge of physical geography made me know that sandy beaches rarely form at this point – the area is rocky because the sea erodes any loose material away from this point.  Sand forms in more sheltered bays or lagoonal areas, not areas of hard rock pointing out into the rough seas.  This had not deterred the developers who were building a huge berm of rocks and backfilling with sand imported from elsewhere on the island.  Even while the development was being built, you could see nature fighting against the changes – the sea water going round the back of the berm and biting into the sandfill from the rear.  Also it seemed such a compromise on the part of the tourists – yes they would have the chlorine filled pool in the hotel complex, and a sandy beach to look out over the Indian Ocean, but isn’t part of the joy of these places to be able to lumber out of your room, amble slowly down the sandy beach till the warm tropical waters overtake you – without having to clamber over a bunch of large granite rocks?

The Other Mauritius – Tiring of sun, sea and sand

Far out in the outer rim of the continent called Africa, beyond the magical mythical land of lemurs, volcanoes formed.  The movement of the continental plates  moved the cone of the volcano away from the erupting magma.  New volcanoes formed where the magma continued to bubble up, the old cones eroded in the waves.  Three times this happened and now erupting magma is still forming Reunion Island, a huge volcanic caldera is gradually eroding away as Mauritius, another is gradually eroding away so Rodrigues will eventually fall below the surface of the sea, and another has already disappeared below the waves. Together they form a loose archipelago called the Mascarenes.  Beyond them lie huge empty oceans – the southern part of the Indian Ocean and the cold, turbulent waters of the Southern Ocean – the next land of any size to the south is Antarctica.

I headed out for my first ever time in this part of the world in May 2008.  The long overnight flight meant my first interaction and my would be project manager for the next few months, Mike Smith,  was groggy – I fell asleep as he drove the length of the island from the airport in the south, past the capital, Port Louis, and out beyond to the northern end of the island and the house he had rented for the project period.

The job we were to do entailed proposing activities needed for full integrated management  of the coastal zone.  To Mauritius this was prime land – the majority of tourist hotels were here, the image of Mauritius was the long stretches of sandy beach, and many residents either lived near the beach or visited one of the public amenities on the coast at least once a month.  Away from the shipping activity at Port Louis, the rest of the coastline was an important fishery to local people, and there was as a strong cultural and historical identity with the coast.

I know I might sound like a spoilt brat tired of eating ice cream, but to be honest working for nearly five months on coastal issues made me sick to death of the sight of the sea.  When I had free time, I tried to find out about the other Mauritius, the inland areas of sugar, tea, forest, deer, rivers and waterfalls, historic houses, and to be frank where a good proportion of the population lived.  So in this chapter, here is a bit of a geography of those areas rather than what most tourist blogs of Mauritius spew out.

The Adopted Dog – Spice

After lunch we had time for one more stop at a waterfall.  I’ve seen some impressive falls in the Windward Islands and was hoping it was a trek up in to the forest amongst the parrots and agouti to see a Bounty advert type scene.  But these falls were in a small maintained parkland right next to the Leeward Highway.  We dropped down to the river, well stream, and saw a cascade with barely a three metre drop.  We made the best of it, took a couple of photos of it, Edsel sat on one of the large rocks but you could tell by his expression he was completely underwhelmed.  It was a bit of an anticlimax to our trip up the leeward coast.

Fortunately it was redeemed on the way back to the car.  Edsel spotted a tree right on the roadside and started foraging about on the floor.  He held up a small nut, covered in a red lattice like coating.  It was a nutmeg surrounded in mace.  There were more covering the ground and they were all huge.  And there were hundreds on the tree above our heads.  The sight of a whole nutmeg is beautiful, even when it has been drying in a larder in the UK for six months.  To see the fresh fruits packaged up in this vibrant rubbery mace coat, is incredible.  We took to rubbing the mace in our fingers and scratching the nutmeg against the rocks to release the most wonderful rich aromas into the atmosphere.  That is smelt so much of Christmas reminding you of snow, crackling fires and hot food and drink was such a juxtaposition here on a tropical July day in the Caribbean was no matter.

We foraged for as much as we could carry home – it would keep me in nutmeg spice for over a year.  And reluctantly got back in the car and headed back to Kingstown.

As far as you can go – Napoleon’s Tomb

Napoleon died on the 5th May, 1821, and there are plenty of conspiracy theories as to the method of the demise.  Some blame the arsenic used to make the wallpaper in his rooms.  Others wonder whether he was poisoned by one of the staff.  Or maybe it was the bad weather.  Or was his spirit just broken.  Officially it was recorded as stomach cancer, which could certainly have accounted for his death at the age of only 51.  Whatever the situation, a tomb was created in the forest and he was buried with minimal ceremony.  On my return to Jamestown, I stopped off on the road and went to take a look at the tomb.  The spot is in a valley, called Sane Valley, and is well marked by one of the ubiquitous white fingerposts in both English and French.  I descended a stony path through the pine forests till I reached a grassy clearing.  In the centre, the tomb is railed off, and an arrangement of flowers and endemic plants of St Helena for a picturesque little garden.  Of all the Napoleon sites, this is the most pleasant.

The tomb itself is empty.  In 1840, France negotiated a return of Napoleon’s body to Paris and he was given a hero’s welcome and state funeral.  While on a much smaller scale, I did find the reverence given to Napoleon on St Helena a bit duplicitous.  As I’ve said, he was public enemy number one, St Helena was his prison, he was a reviled figure in the British Isles.  In many circles in France he was also seen as a villain, both in domestic policies and international bungling that killed thousands of his soldiers.  But undoubtedly he is a figure of both historical and international importance, almost to a state of legend.  And for St Helena he is a rare and valuable portal for the world to know about the island.  All the tourists who had travelled on the RMS were making it a priority to visit the sites.  And many people make pilgrimages to see the place where he died.  But there still is that uneasiness within me that this was a prisoner, someone brought down, and yet he is revered in this way.

I think he also distracts from the island’s natural features and other history; the sailing ships, the other exiles, the submarine cabling and of course the lovely people.  But, I suppose, if it gets the punters in and the island noticed, it was worth preserving.