Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Looking down on the city

It is curious in consultancy to come in cold to a project and meet your collaborators for the first time.  When I was with NRI it was common to work with outside agencies, but you often had a team of in house people supporting you.  As an independent, I am often thrown together as the GIS expert in a team of other specialists.  In this case, although Christophe lived in Brighton he was an economist from France, and Jean Pierre was from Quebec and a fisheries expert – we had to very quickly build our personal relationships, understand each other’s technical backgrounds, and throw ourselves in to having a  united front with our clients and donors to meet the requirements of the project.

To turn up at the donor’s office for that initial meeting with my team was quite a challenge in itself – especially since I had come direct from the airport after many hours of travelling.  But I managed to hold it together while we talked with the EU delegation and then I was driven off to the hotel.  The Ibo Lele Hotel was up a long winding steep road above Petionville.  It seemed to be common in Haiti to drive in the back of the hotel, against the hillside. The functional areas were all hidden away here including reception, and the rooms, the restaurants and the pools were out front, hanging on the edge of the hill with stupendous views across the city.

The Ibo Lele Hotel had a kind of Spanish feel to it, hacienda style, but with a Haitian twist and the poor construction of many a hotel I had visited.  My room had several routes to it, all of which means going down and up stairs.  Maybe it was the lie of the land that had stopped them building  a single storey across the whole plot; more likely it was just jerry-building and ad hoc extensions that led to the maze of corridors and alleyways.

I spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from the travel in my room.  Towards dusk I got a call from Jean-Luc, he and Chris had got back from their meetings and would meet me in the restaurant in half an hour.  I went out to grab a beer and wait and look out over the valley from the terrace.

The huge throbbing metropolis was laid before me, from the sea in the west to a large salty lake to the east.  A mass of houses interspersed with occasional industrial units, intensive farm activities, fuel storage tanks, and in the centre the long green strip of the airport where occasionally I could see planes landing or taking off – the silvery American Airlines plane in particular glinting in the low angle sunshine.  The noise of traffic, a few boom boxes and heavy thuds from building sites or dumper trucks somewhere out in the suburbs, drifted up to my hilltop viewpoint.

Behind the city a wall of mountain reached as far as the eye could pan.  In some places houses clung to the hillsides, in others great landslip scars were clearly visible with the naked eye.  A covering of grasses was discernible on these hills, but so few trees.

Directly below heavily walled compounds shielded the villas of the Haitian rich, glimpses of swimming pools and tennis courts in amongst the thick lush ornamental trees.  To my left, the distinctive steeple of a yellow church in Petionville – in the central square – poked out above the other buildings and trees.

The Other Mauritius – Worth the climb

We rested there for a while, both exhausted from the efforts.  We realised we were equally drained from the adrenalin and a kind of fear of what we had got ourselves into.  Then we both smiled at each other and burst out laughing.

We had emerged about half way along the lions back and the pathway formed the ridge.  We got glimpses down the far side of the hill, and the roar of the ocean bashing against the barrier reef was prevalent.  This ridge was relatively level for a few hundred metres, but then it started to rise again.  The pathway became more exposed and as we reached the lion’s neck we were once more clambering rather than walking.  There was no shelter up here and the wind ripped across the bay onto the path.  We found a little nook where the pathway negotiated a boulder and we dropped down behind it to have some snacks and water.  The wind was too strong to stand up and look at the 360 view, but we could see looking back down the lion’s back that there was a squall of rain rushing straight towards us.  We realised the pathway above us was open to the elements and we would be blown off or drenched off the hillside.  We’d had enough wild experiences that day already.  So we decided we would crouch down as best we could behind the rock, let the shower past and then descend the traditional route.

It was only a short shower, but it was cold and penetrating.  It chilled my skin and made me sneeze, and the following wind cooled me further.  We had to move to stop me getting hyperthermia so started down. The pathway was now made more difficult by being wet and slimy.  I don’t remember seeing the actual place where we had first emerged on to the path; Martin and I kept trying to remember whether we had walked on some sections to gauge where we turned off.  It was obviously a longer way down than we thought; indeed it must have been only just before you turn over the lower haunches of the lion and start the steep descent.  We found the concrete steps; not in perfect condition but very firm and walkable.  The white strip of concrete was laid out in front of us in a straight line right down the ridge.  We should have thought this is how the pathway could be easily placed rather than try and scramble up a side scree.  The last step fell short of the ground and we had to jump down, but it was right on the fence and below us was the sugar cane fields.  We could see the course of the river that we had followed on the way up marked by large trees over to our right, and saw a cane track that led straight over there.  indeed if we had taken the second of the forks ,it would have been a very short walk over to the mountain bottom and we would have avoided all the stress of scrambling up the scree.  And to rub salt in it when we looked back to where we climbed up was only a couple of hundred metres away from the proper pathway.    Just goes to show how disorientated you can be in cane fields.

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.


The Other Mauritius – the view from Grand Bassin

The crater lake is deep, and it quivers with activity.  The offerings which fall off the concrete slabs are gobbled up by monster sized eels.  Birds drop in and take what they can, and troops of monkeys patrol the area – they know a good feed when they see one.

High above the south side of the lake are a couple more temples; always interesting to take your shoes off and observe the colourful statuary, marvel at the worshipping of the penis through lingams of various lengths and thicknesses, absorb the aromas of different incense and spices.  But to me, my geographical passion was sated more by the extreme views up here.  You are close the highest point on the island, and at this location alone can you look down on over half the island.  And it all comes together.

You have to have the right day to do it.  I have been to Grand Bassin several times when the cloud base was low, or the haze made it difficult to see beyond the local forest but come up here on a sunny day soon after rain and you will be treated to this panorama.   The forests and reservoirs of the south west dominate the near scene, but to the south east and further out you could see the cane fields stretching away.  All the little mountain ranges around the island could be picked out from this point.

As far as you can go – from the redoubt

Even at these lookout locations you only saw part of the island.  And from the tops of Diana’s Peaks you were so high up and the valley’s so steep that you could only make out some of the key features.  The one place in the island where you really got a sense of the tiny rock you were on and how close all the villages and valleys were was on the redoubt.   I had left visiting this castle, called High Knoll Fort, till the end of my first visit, despite it being an ever present part of my life on the island.  From some windows in my house I could see its dark walls high above me.  I drove past it several times on the road from Jamestown to Scotland, and it was visible from most places on the island.  That meant that when I finally did decide to go and see it for myself, coming off the main road and up a steep track past a couple of Half Tree Hollow’s houses through a scrubby woodland to the small gravelly car park, I knew I was going to get a wide panorama.  At the time the site was open all year round and you could just wander in.  A redoubt is a place where people and soldiers will retreat to when every other area is under threat.  Maybe that explained its position.  It sits at the back of the more populated areas of Jamestown and Half Tree Hollow and St Pauls and Alarm Forest were not so far away – basically even in historical times most of the population could get there relatively quickly.  It sits on a small rocky outcrop, and on the side up which you drive the access is relatively easy, but the eastern side drops precipitously away to the valley containing the Heart Shaped Waterfall and ultimately, Jamestown.  It is supremely defendable.

The fort is large but has a fairly simple structure.  A long almost cigar shaped curtain wall contains an open area – the assumption being it could store useful quantities of supplies to live out a long siege.  The front end contained the main defences, a round fortress – on the lines of Martello Towers used in the south east of the UK against St Helena’s most famous prisoner.  The rest of the wall was solid stone, save for a line of small square holes that made the whole place look like a giant zoetrope.  The insides of the fort had few artefacts and not a massive amount of form, but to me that was not important.  What was vital was to walk as much of the perimeter and see out.  Give this location it managed to overlook half the island, from the Barn in the east, past Flagstaff Hill, Donkey Plain, the edges of Longwood Village, Rupert’s Valley, Alarm Forest and down to my house, Jamestown itself and Half Tree Hollow down towards Ladder Hill Fort, and then out to Horse Pasture, and to the south St Pauls and Scotland, down to the secondary School and the playing fields of Francis Plain.  And in the distance High Peak and the Diana’s Peaks.  The only parts of the island missing were Levelwood, the further reaches of Longwood and Prosperous Bay Plain, Sandy Bay and Blue Hills.  I was so glad I had left it till now as so many of the surprising twists and turns of the roads and pathways, the hidden gems of buildings and the forests and open rock I had grown to love would have been revealed too quickly; and with my usual wanderlust I would have tired quickly of “the rock” and wanted to leave too early.

But now was the perfect time, I saw how all the elements of St Helena linked together, how some places as the crow flies were closer together than others.  Longwood in particular always felt like a trek of drive from Jamestown, but now I saw how Longwood Gate was only a few miles from the centre of Jamestown, just the huge Rupert’s Valley meant you had to detour right down to the south before coming back up again.