The Other Mauritius – A sea on an island

When I was working I would generally approach the south west from the coast road through Tamarin.  But if I were looking to hike, I would generally head this way through the towns of Plaines Wilhelms.  I would drive through Vacoas town centre, but keep going up the hill and eventually ended up at the little village of La Marie.  Beyond here first the settlements disappeared, then the cane fields, and I was driving through a scrubby terrain.  This was one of the hunting grounds of this area; a whole belt of land from west to east, apart from a few tea estates, that were extensive deer parks.

As the road continues to gently climb, a large lake comes into view, indeed the largest lake in the whole of Mauritius.  Mare Aux Vacoas may only be 2km across but for a small island that is a sea, as the French suggests.  I loved being up here and would park up for a snack or just to absorb in the view from one of the car parks above the main road.  The view was not particularly extensive or beautiful.  Below my car were pine trees, they gave way to a rocky shoreline on which little foamy waves would break.  The lake extended out to the other shore where more pine trees could be seen.  But it was not beauty or the wow factor I was seeking on these trips.  All I was after was something different.  This was not the filau tree dominated coastline.  This was not the busy bustling town and cityscape full of Mauritians of Indian, Creole, Chinese or Franco backgrounds.  It was not the vast fields of sugar cane or tea.  And that is what makes it so special.  I felt most Mauritians did not appreciate many of the landscapes of this south west corner of the island, and for that I was truly grateful.  It was one of the few parts of the island where you were not in serious traffic or jostling elbows in a crowd.

The Other Mauritius – The Central Towns (2)

The meteorological office was in a much more salubrious location.  To get there you passed by one of the most exclusive golf courses on the island, and many high class villas.  Indeed the Prime Minister had his residence up in this district.  Given the love for most tourists to have their beach side properties with the views of the ocean and access to all the restaurants down there, I wondered why Vacoas, and, to some extent, Curepipe had some of the most desirable property on the whole island.  Country clubs, golf courses and some of the more fashionable retail stores had clustered around these people’s residences.  Why indeed did over a quarter of a million people, more than double the population of Port Louis, live in this cluster or towns?  The answer lie in the 1800s when during the industrialisation of the island, both the sugar industry and other commodities, the working population suffered a series of epidemics.  It was also the period following the end of slavery and the period of indentured labour.  Many Indians had only turned up in the previous twenty years and were not acclimatised to deal with local diseases. The worst epidemic was malaria; the mosquitoes festered in the mangrove swamps, barachois and dank woodlands in the lowlands.  Much of Plaines Wilhelm is out of reach of their breeding grounds and life was much healthier here.  Unfortunately that meant that the Indian population in particular, although a couple of generations removed from their ancestral Bihar home, were always complaining of the bad weather.  Curepipe was often spurned by many Mauritians for being too cold and miserable.  Certainly on my first trip, I found the town centre constantly shrouded in cloud and often raining; the moss and dirt on the buildings in the shopping streets made it look particularly drab.  But on the second trip I had several trips through the town during sunny weather and I felt it had a strong late spring fresh feel that was rare in Mauritius.

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Curepipe Botanic Gardens

Curepipe held the national stadium, several prestigious buildings and an intimate but pretty little botanic gardens.  It was a busy city and seemed a world away from Port Louis, although only about 15 miles from the centre of the capital.

Heading further south you felt even more distant from the metropolitan part of the island, and a world away from Calodyne.  The old road out of Curepipe soon skirted out towards the largest forest on the island, some of which was privately held by rich landowners in hunting grounds called Domains.

The Other Mauritius – The Central Towns (1)

The existence of this mass of towns just west of the centre of the island always confused me somewhat.  In many countries the capital absolutely dominates the life of a country; it has by far the largest population, it would be the centre of business, culture and sports.  Port Louis had elements of this, but its core population was dropping, and because it was wedged between a narrow lagoon and the mountains that included La Pouce and Pieter Both, there was not a lot of room for expansion.  A spine of towns head up from the coast just west of Port Louis, starting at the mouth of the largest river in Mauritius, the Grand River North West (often abbreviated to GRNW).

Although not the longest, it drains a big chunk of the central plain.  From Rose Hill and Beau Bassin in the north, which I found like Port Louis was slightly claustrophobic – wedged as they were between the gorge of GRNW and Corps de Gardes Mountains.  The next town, Quatre Bornes, was more handsome to me.  You entered it from a bend in the M1 and this main thoroughfare runs through the centre of the town for over a mile, rising steadily all the way.  The middle opened out to a bustling bus station and a massive market place; the stalls dotted around formal gardens near where the old railway ran through.

The towns got more interesting the further up the hill you went.  The next two, Vacoas and Phoenix were parallel to each other.  While Phoenix was not much more than a settlement surrounding a major industrial estate, including the island’s biggest brewery with the same name, Vacoas was a grid of suburban streets.  I’d had a couple of meetings up here, the country’s meteorological office was in Vacoas, and also on a remote road way out of town was the National Remote Sensing Centre at the back of the next town up called Curepipe.  When I first went here I thought I had been sent on a wild goose chase.  In an agricultural zone noted for growing a wide range of vegetables (the climate being so much cooler than the coast), I saw a sign to the NRSC but the tarmacced track led off into what looked like a derelict military base.  There were old Nissan huts, large concrete areas which looked like parade grounds, and then finally I saw some satellite receiving dishes and a modern building in which the NRSC was housed.