Days and Nights of Freetown – The villagers join us on the beach

An impromptu market spring up on the shore as several of the big mammas who were catching the fish in their bowls were passing them on to others on the shore lines.  It was not clear but it looked like several of these women were managing the sales of the fishermen and ensuring that they got their cut even though many were still out in their boats.  But there was the odd opportunistic guy who dipped a single bucket into the water to get enough food for his week.

The concentration of fish in this little area had caught the attention of much of the bird life in the environs and they were swooping in on the catch, or  stealing the odd fish from the periphery of the market place.  Some of the fish were being cleaned right on the beach there and the entrails were picked up by birds and by the lucky crabs who lived just where we were standing.

We watched for a while as the final stragglers of the catch were brought up and the remaining net tidied up into one huge pile ready to be loaded on to a cart and taken back to the village to be repaired and prepared for the next haul.

We bade our farewells to this village, privileged to have been included in a huge community ritual and started to walk back to our resort.  At this point I realised just how far we had travelled and it took over 30 minutes to get back.  We’d been away a couple of hours but it did not seem to bother the rest of the group who had been reading, drinking and doing a bit of pottering of their own.

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The tide was completely out now and only a trickle came from the lagoons and the river.  Laziness had taken over the whole world, whether it was the sun, the beer or the palm wine.  Kids who had been playing now leant on a nearby wall and said a seldom word to each other.  Dogs had half buried themselves in the sand to cool down and probably relieve the tics or fleas.  The sun was setting over the ocean and turned the bay a distinct purple grey hue.  Reluctantly we packed up our belongings and headed back to Freetown and work.

Walking the Beaches – A Frustrating End to the walk

In the centre of the lagoon was an island, on the seaward side a large pan of seagrass, on the interior thick mud fringed by mangroves.  I was able to stand in amongst the seagrass, over 50 metres from the water’s edge, and be barely up to my knees in water.  We followed the strand line and paddled across to the little island.  This revealed itself as yet another rich man’s retreat, a set of bungalows in carefully manicured lawns under shady trees. We kept to the beach and skirted round the island, hoping to wade across the other side.  But this proved impossible, the water had a deep channel in the centre and was full of soft mud.  It was frustrating to see our final destination across the way but still not able to reach it.  We ended up almost doubling back on ourselves to reach a short causeway to cross back to the mainland.  Our frustrations were not at an end.  There were no hard surfaces to speak of, just a fringe of mangrove trees and fine mud making a hazy coastline so we abandoned our quest and walked along the track to the main road, only to find that the entrance gate was firmly locked, and being over three metres high of metal railings, unclimbable.

Our hearts sank – the route back would wind us all round the island again and back past the stone wall before being able to circumnavigate the plot’s fence from the other side.  We decided to work along the fence till we could find a point we could climb.  Being wire it was not easy to get a good foothold and we were grateful we did not break our ankles at this late stage.

Relieved to be out on the open road again we trudged the last half kilometre to the Public Beach at La Bouchon.  The village strewed northwards into the cane fields rather than be close to the lagoon, so there was barely a house on this beautiful little park.  Little grassy knolls, occasionally topped by shelters, dropped down to a placid beach with the shallow lagoon beyond.

The Other Mauritius – new walks

I found  a couple of other similar beaches not far from the house.  My favourite was Butte A’L’Herbe.  It was hardly a mile from the house on the other side of Calodyne village.  You dropped off the main coast road onto a rubbly track which passed between a few house plots before opening up onto a stone causeway to the Butte – or small island.

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Although the island was a public beach, I discovered the first time I went over that it was not uninhabited.  There were three or four well appointed houses set in their own grounds.  The centre was the usual car park, toilet and shower facilities that were a feature of all the more popular public beaches.  Of course there were the filau trees everywhere, but the coastline was the most interesting part.  The island is shaped like a spiders web with needle wide points reaching out into the lagoon.  In between were little fragments of sand and the rocks were numerous and jagged where the water did not reach them frequently.  So I would scramble round the perimeter of the island looking at the views.  those were most spectacular at the far end, where you had reached out far enough to see the small islands to the north and a decent bit of the north east coastline, including back to our compound.

But as I said at the start of this chapter, I was working on the beaches and coastline all day long; I wanted to see more of the interior of the island.  I’d noticed as we drove back from the office in Port Louis when we turned off the M2, which was not really a motorway at that time but a single lane highway, and bounced over the plain of cane fields, there was a long strip of woodland to the north of us.  I looked on the map and saw a long thin rectangle of plantation.  Once on my own, I decided to go and investigate more closely, turned off the main road, passed through one field, and then plunged into the forest.  A sign proclaimed it was managed by the Government of Mauritius as part of the Forestry Department.  I passed some government housing deep under the canopy and then slowed to see if there was a place I could walk in.  Every hundred metres a track went off the road in either direction perpendicular to the tarmac.  It was difficult to park as the road was elevated and set on a bed or very vicious looking volcanic rocks, but I managed to find a wide enough part of the verge where I could get most of the car off the road.

At first I thought this would be a boring walk through a monocrop of pine trees.  I headed west to start with and apart from the lushness of the vegetation round the track where some light did get in, most of the woodland was empty save for the trunks of the pines.

But then I saw it did change – not just the species of the timber trees, but there were fruit trees and other ornamentals which had either been planted or had escaped from gardens in villages nearby.  At first I was uncertain whether I was allowed in here, but then I saw a few joggers, the odd dog walker.  I could walk for about fifteen minutes in either direction before reaching the cane fields, but the plot was barely 1/2 km width-wise.  There were only two main tracks lengthways to walk on, but I chose different cross tracks each time.  You had to be careful.  The Forestry Department were obviously underfunded as they did not have the resources to maintain all the tracks properly, and given they were in the shade for so long, many had become waterlogged and muddy.  The western end was a stone’s throw from the M1, the eastern end opened out at the edges of  Petit Raffray, the next village inland from our own.  I’ve learnt since that the forest is called Dufray, but it was not marked on maps when I was there and was unique in being the only patch of inland forest in the entire northern plain.

The Other Mauritius – A perfect bay

For the final month of my first trip to Mauritius I was left on my own in the house.  Mike had gone home to his wife for a well deserved month’s holiday midway through his ten month stint.   None of the other consultants were to come through.  I had sole use of the house, and, more usefully, the car.  I really wanted to explore the island some more on my own.  It also gave me the chance to walk in new places in the evenings.  One of the first locations Mike had taken to me when I arrived was Anse le Raye but given his bad knees we had not got far.

Big chunks of the Mauritius coastline, particularly in the north and east, were public beaches run by a government body and an open park for Mauritians to picnic, exercise or slip off in to the quieter points to have a tête á tête with your lover.  There was variation but the park was often a grassy lawn on a sandy base, littered with filau trees.  There would be a sandy beach and black volcanic rocks smoothed round by the water.  The bay itself would be calm and shallow often with a muddy bottom.  The wilds of the Indian Ocean were kept at bay by an almost fortress wall of barrier reef that could be few yards away or maybe a few miles.

Anse le Raye was just a few miles from the house at Calodyne, and had an enchantment about it that set it apart from many of the other public beaches.  For one, it gently revealed its charm from the road as you swept beyond the high class houses that dominate the coastal strip and past a track that curved up above the beach to the  entrance of a small resort at the far end.  The bay itself was deeper and more shapely than many, it was indeed the end of a creek.  The road crossed this creek on a single track bridge which trapped in an inner pool that almost completely dried up when the tide went out.  The sand was so hard here I regularly saw people playing football on it.  This inlet obviously went further in but had been blocked off by a dam, called a barachois in Mauritius.  There were many of these around, holding in brackish water and supporting massive nurseries of fish.  At one time they were all managed carefully to release fish into the coastal lagoon or provide a place for aquaculture within a controlled lake.  Some had fallen in to disrepair, others had become conservation areas or private pools for rich landowners.  They were often hidden away in thick mangrove woodland.

The beach itself swept round in a glorious arc interrupted only by little grassy headlands punctuated with rocks at various points.  Rather spoiling the view were a bunch of concrete platforms on which were gaudy statues in vibrant colours.  Mauritius has a large Hindu population and temples are scattered far and wide over the island, from the smallest village to the busiest suburbs.  Some are in the middle of cane fields, and more specialist ones are in sacred locations.  Water and oceans in particular have special meaning in Hinduism and some of the most revered temples are placed on these beaches.  Various statues are also here, and people come and adorn them with garlands, light candles and incense.  Flags flutter in the wind as standards or as bunting.  In some ways they look striking and a charming outward expression of a religion.  Unfortunately both the sensitivity to other elements of the world (e.g. the natural world) and the aesthetics are sadly lacking.  Here in Anse le Raye the statues are quite grotesque, not even naive.  The faces are misshapen, the painting is sloppy, the proportions are wrong.

But this was only a small blot on the landscape and from a distance could look planned and beautiful.

I took to walking the extent of the bay; there were a few paths running through the undergrowth to the headlands on either side.  I learnt they were primarily made by locals who went out to the lagoon to fish off the rocks.  Out here you got a different perspective on  Round Island, Flat Island and Coin De Mire and the roar of the ocean as it crashed against the barrier reef was palpable.

It was not a huge patch of parkland but many people passed hours here.  After a busy day in Port Louis working in a high rise office block, and having tackled the nightmarish traffic there and back – sometimes over 90 minutes to do the 15 miles, to stroll around this quiet lagoon, only the noise of the wind through the filau trees to be heard, soothed out any stresses from my day.

The Other Mauritius – Lost in the cane fields

The logic of the fields were that they formed a regular grid.  I could walk one direction, turn left, later turn left again.  One more left and I would eventually intersect my path and be able to head for home.  Mostly this worked well and every time I headed out this direction I would get more adventurous.  If I went east I would cross the Port Louis Rd and more fields would open up.  And I started to learn that each block of fields was not so monotonous.  Particularly close to the coast road, the fields had been taken out of production; some were wastelands of weedy vegetation but others were being built on, and ever more grand mansions were being constructed here.  But I also found out that the cane tracks themselves were not as regular as I had thought.  Once I had set out a little later than usual and as the tropical sunset was only an hour away I wanted to get as much in as possible, so I walked faster.  I went over the Port Louis Rd and continued east.  I knew if I turned north again I would end up in Calodyne and could make my way back along the road or shore path to the house.  I did so and found the track descending below the fields.  I was entering an abandoned quarry.  Beside the track were piles of rocks similar to the cairns out in the fields themselves, but I was getting deeper and deeper into a gully from which people had obviously excavated the faces.  Worse still, when I turned a slight corner, which itself was a surprising anomaly on the tracks in these fields, I found my way barred by a wall of volcanic rubble covered in creepers and shrubs.  There was no more track.  Even if I had been wearing better clothing, I doubt I would have made it over the pile of rocks without sustaining flesh wounds.  There was no alternative but to head back.  I realised some of the cane tracks not only were cul-de-sacs, but some did turn 90 degrees with no junctions.  On a short walk this could seriously lengthen your hike and with the sun setting and dogs howling in the distance, and my platypus water container in a landfill 30km away; I was not really ready to survive a night out in the fields.

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When the cane is high it is easy to get lost

The Other Mauritius – Walking the cane tracks

I sauntered up and down the beach a couple of times but progress across these irregular pock holed black rocks was difficult.  At one end was a very nice private house whose garden of grass and filau trees came right to these rocks.  Beyond that was a small resort hotel.  In the other direction was a fish landing site.  That was a rather glorious name for a small harbour in amongst the rocks backed by a grassy beach onto which  local fishermen dragged their boats.  The fishers were often down there in the evenings chatting, smoking and drinking.  They would grunt their “bonzours” at me as I went past, but I was put off going much further as they would watch my struggles to make progress on the rocks beyond.

So instead I took to walking inland.  At first I thought this was going to be pretty boring.  After all so much of the plains of Mauritius are covered in sugar cane fields.  I would wave at the security guards as I left the compound gate and head off down the short track to the main coast road, in a little village called St Francis. It was not more than a bread shop, a couple of apartment blocks and a few villas on the road side.  Instead of chancing it on the long straight road on which every type of transport would hurtle along no matter what was on either side, I would cross straight over onto one of the many cane tracks.  Cane tracks is the official name for these.  Most are still in good condition as they have to support the huge trucks which carry the cane from the fields to the refinery.  They separate out the square blocks of sugar swaying in the wind; because of this they are at regular intervals, at 90 degrees to each other and dead straight.  You see why a walk in these might be boring.

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Sugar cane fields cover most of the country

They tended to be raised up above the fields in some areas, at least by a couple of feet.  Often they were built on volcanic rocks, a ready material that is strewn across the island.  How anyone had the courage to decide to have extensive agriculture on this island I do not know.  Although volcanic soils are fertile, the liberal distribution of volcanic boulders would offput most people.  But of course, the early settlers had access to free labour from their slaves and set them to work to clear the fields of all the huge boulders.  Some went into cane track construction, others were used as wall and building material.  But this still left literally thousands of rocks in the fields.  The slaves were forced to pile them up in the centre of each cane field.  Over the years some have eroded a little, others have been borrowed from for more building material, but hundreds of these cairns, nay, pyramids are scattered across the plantations.  In one area, possibly because there were even more of these boulders than elsewhere, a whole strip of a cane field was used to pile these rocks high.  On a satellite image or when flying over the island, these features look like curious natural phenomena, only their regularity hint at the huge amount of blood, sweat and tears which much have gone in to their construction.  Many of the boulders were several feet across and, although volcanic, weighed a huge amount, as well as being jagged edged.  Think of those sharp edges cutting deep into a slave’s hands as he tried to grapple with them.

Vegetation has taken some of these mounds over, making mini hills in amongst the flat plain where wildlife congregate.  You would often see mongoose scurrying from rock to rock, and birds nesting, maybe the odd snake.  None of these were threatening to a lone walker like me.  But there was one animal that you had to take great care for in these fields.

The Other Mauritius – Pondering the life of birds

It was Mike that noticed something astonishing about the fody.  We noticed over a week or two that our fody was becoming ill.  It’s beautiful strident plumage was weakening, the red feathers were loosening and brown plumage was poking through from underneath.  He went missing for several days.  I thought we had lost him forever.

Mike, who spent many more months on the island than anyone else, was the one that worked it out.  One day I was munching on flakes and he pointed out an oddly shaped sparrow in amongst the rest of the flock.  He was thinner of body and the beak was a different colour.  Mike said – that is our fody and he looks healthy.   Apparently the males only have this wonderful cardinal red colour when they are breeding.  Once they lost it they looked like an ordinary dull brown bird.  And the females are that colour all year round.  It was quite possible that a couple of females had been in amongst the sparrows feeding all the time but we had never noticed it.  Towards the end of my time in Mauritius, I noticed our pet fody was starting to colour up once more ready for a new season of breeding.

It was a rare privilege to be so close to birds, albeit the slightly artificial surroundings of our starchy feeding station.  While I had always lived near gardens that contained bird feeders, we did not set them up within an arms distance of our observation posts.  Here the birds were flitting around at our feet, flying right past our noses.  You get to notice some things that you would generally not consider.  OK true, the life in our little compound was more boring than in some parts of the world, so you started to focus on minutiae, but I did discover something I had never considered before.

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Fody

It was really a question I posed to myself.  How big does a bird have to be to stop hopping and start walking?  That is, when does the action of moving on the ground stop being a simultaneous action for two legs, and turns into our more familiar gait of one foot in front of the other.  The little sparrows were like clockwork toys.  On the ground they hop hop hopped everywhere.  If they wanted to turn, they gave a twitch of their wings, maybe a flutter here, but the legs just hopped up and down and could never change direction.  The fody did the same.  I was not so sure of the weaver birds, they did seem to hop occasionally but they also seemed large enough to be able to manage their legs separately.  The mynah walked like a lord in mourning suit, and the pigeons waddled their fat body so much from one side to the other ever time they lifted a step.  Which species did what?

The other things we noticed was that birds don’t mind crapping where they eat, and this became a big bugbear with the cleaner when she came round every Saturday.  More about here anon.

As far as you can go – Dropping down to the sea

Just beyond this area, the most bizarre piece of landscape opened up.  Along the side of the mountain was a sand dune – but it was nearly vertical against the side of the hill.  The kids too great fun in climbing up it and surfing down.  It was perplexing to work out how a patch of wind borne sand had ended up here.

Paths in St Helena do not run smoothly, particularly out here on the very edge of the island.  Just before we reached our destination, the path ran out completely.  A metal spike marked its termination and route now involved heading down a gnarled old piece of rope attached to the spike.  One by one we dropped down about 50 meters on a loose scree.  Small knots were tied in the rope to hold onto.  You were able to just about stand upright but no way could you walk straight down without the aid of this rope.  It was easier to face the land and come down backwards. The last few metres dropped straight down a small cliff face to the beach below and you were climbing down, not walking.

But when you reached the bottom, boy was it worth it.  We had entered a magical rocky garden, called Lot’s Wife’s Ponds.  It was another of these wave cut platforms, but bigger than any other I ever saw on St Helena.  A couple of hard pieces of rock, again probably residual  metamorphic rocks left over from the pummelling of the ocean’s force, stood proud like chimneys, and worn away into the platform were several pools of clear ocean water.  These pools were at different levels, and after scouting round the whole site, I worked out that ocean were refreshing the easternmost pools with every wave, the influx of water caused little tsunamis in that pond which then washed over as temporary waterfalls every 8-10 seconds into the next pool along and so on to a little rocky bay where it was eventually sucked out again to join the great mass of Atlantic.

It meant that the water was constantly being moved through the system, but the deeper pools in particular contained much warmer water than the ocean, and were amongst the calmest water I had seen in the whole South Atlantic.  In each pool coral was thriving.  The water was perfectly clear and without man made pollutants. Those pieces of reef were the basis for a thriving community of invertebrates and fish, safe from bigger predators from being in their own open fish tanks.

As far as you can go – Up through the Gates of Chaos

Our walk started by us passing through the Gates of Chaos.  It conjures up all sorts of Hieronymus Bosch style visions, but in fact was a different interpretation of hell.  It was one which was devoid of vegetation or water, and simply rock after rock stretching across steep sided valleys, jagged peaks and long ridges.  The weather was not the best and we rose up into a mizzly cloud, but as we reached the pass, blue sky started to break through and soon it was a hot sunny day.  We descended the far side in full sunshine and was able to see right along the coast to the south western tip of St Helena.  We were heading for the shore, but all I could see were deep ravenous valleys and sharply pointed ridges, and no sign of where the path was heading.  It drew a thin line across the scree in front of us, barely  a child’s foot’s width and was another of those famous St Helena pathways that not even total concentration of one foot after another could guarantee your safety.

The path started to become lower in elevation.  Above us to our right , we were now almost below Lot’s Wife; its top still obscured by swirling cloud.  It could have been mistaken for a live giant watching our progress and ready to pick off the juicier walkers when the others had gone by.

As I said, the route was devoid of vegetation; well almost.  A few lichens managed to cling on, battered by the salty winds; they stuck close to the rocks and gave them orangey or red hues. And one little plant hid away in any shelter it could find, a beautiful succulent called Devils Baby Toes.  The particular species is endemic to St Helena.  It has green fleshy and bulbous protuberances which could almost be baby toes apart from the colour, but their ends are reddened, which is why one of the common names added Devil on the front.  Everything around this part of the island seems to have more to do with Hell, or at least God’s vengeance.  In some places the baby toes had formed an extensive carpet several metres across but they were very endangered.  More common species of baby toes were prevalent elsewhere in the island but here, isolated on the south west corner was the largest known habitat of these special endemic forms.

As far as you can go – Lot and Lot’s Wife

The most dramatic of the walks, with the most enchanting destination, was the very first I did, which introduced me to the Conservation Group and the walkers who made my weekends so pleasurable on St Helena on all my trips.  It was organized by Rebecca herself and she had reached out quite widely and obtained a good turnout.  It included several tourists of the ship down, a few kids, and the governor himself, Michael Clancy.  Rebecca had organized the rendezvous to be the car park at Sandy Bay. Along with Rupert’s Bay and the wharf at Jamestown itself, this was the third and final place where you could drive an ordinary car to the beach.  Having circled round the back of the Diana’s Peak on to the ring road, you entered the small community of Sandy Bay, some three miles from the beach itself.  You turned off the main road and it steeply descended in a series of hairpins, past the community’s little church.

One spot was particularly precarious for cars with low chassis and I heard a grating noise as I dropped round a very sharp bend and the nose of the car appeared to drop vertically for a second. Although the main part of the village is up near the main road, there are a bunch of isolated farmsteads most of the way down the valley.  But the climate becomes more arid and dry as you drop down and few would want to eke out a living down in the rubble here.  But it was a popular place to come down for picnics. Rebecca had shown me round the Sandy Bay area very early in my trip; she had been trying to ensure the embattlement at the bay was properly conserved and had been having arguments with a couple of government departments on how it was being treated.  Sandy Bay is a bit of a misnomer, apart from a few pebbly bits of sand it is predominantly a rocky beach.

Despite this turtles had been known to nest here.  The waves came crashing in like anywhere in St Helena despite the bay being better protected by headlands than most.  On the day of the walk, we parked a little way up the hill – off the tarmacced road on a very hostile ridge.  It took a while for everyone to arrive (there being no mobile phone network on St Helena at the time you just had to wait and see who turned up).  I took the chance to look up the valley.  It was dominated by an amazing rock feature. A plug had formed when there had been volcanic activity on the island; the rock formed was metamorphic in that it had melted and reformed with the intense heat, and hence was a lot more dense and robust than the surrounding igneous rocks.  When those softer rocks had eroded away over the centuries, the massive plug was left high in the sky.  It had been given the name Lot by the first settlers.  Behind it in the distance was a similarly formed plug but it had eroded in to a much more slender and jagged shape; this had been labelled Lot’s Wife.

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Lot and in the distance, Lot’s wife