Into the Jungle – Ambushed!

We had come to a halt, still in open water but only a few yards from the right bank.  We could observe the hippo activity completely now and we watched them yawn, those huge gaping jaws showing off the chunky tusks on each corner.  A low laugh would come from different individuals; it really did sound like a slow and deliberate guffaw and its echoes vibrated around the riverbank and into the forest.

We grew aware that the bull was not all together happy with our presence.   He would gently raise his head, maybe to get a better look at us, maybe to show how big he was, and it would be associated with a blast of air through his nose which would send a spray several metres across the water.

All together with some young as well, we counted eleven hippos.  The young had now gathered close to their mothers.  We asked the warden whether it was safe to remain here.  He seemed pretty relaxed so we continued to watch, although I did glance up at the bank to my right to see if there was an escape route if I needed it.  In theory hippos are safer in water than on land.  They feel calmer as they know they can submerge and move along the bottom, and as long as we did not directly confront them they would continue to wallow.  They felt nervous and vulnerable on land. And at least in water if they came for you you might get a glancing blow and the water would take you away, on land the weight of a couple of ton of sausage would give you some nasty injuries… or so I rationalised.

Their behaviour continued to worry everyone but the warden.  The bull had found a rock or sandbank in the river and was now raising himself out of the water past the shoulders while flapping his ears menacingly at us and continuing the snorts from his nostrils.  Without us being aware of it happening, the rest of the family were now stretched up and down the left bank in a line about 100m long.  A couple of the younger hippos were also mimicking the dominant bull; facing us and doing the same manoeuvres.

It was when the bull submerged and then re-emerged about 20m closer to us that the four tourists decided that enough was enough – nice to get so close but no need to aggravate them further.  The river was wide at this point but a couple of the hippos were now upstream of us and in theory could cut off any attempt to retrace our cruise.  There were still several hippos below us too and we were steadily being ambushed.  So we told, did not ask, the guide that we would go.  I put away my camera and quietly picked up the second oar and we turned the canoe round as gently as possible to face upstream and without making a ripple, pushed off… literally.  Hugo and Gray had come to the same conclusion and also made off with as little disturbance as possible.

Whether the ambush was us just being paranoid, whether they were blustering or were just moving around their patch, we shall never know, but our gentle exit from their pool seemed to diffuse any tensions and they never followed us further upstream.

Into the Jungle – An afternoon paddle

We’d arrived back at the camp earlier than expected because we had missed the final village stop.  The sun had broken out and the air was lighter than it had been all day, a slight breeze taking the worst of the humidity away. We had some options; relax in our accommodations, go for a walk, or, as one of the forest wardens was keen for us to do, take a trip in a canoe down the river.  I could do the other two any time; I was not going to miss a canoe trip for the world.

The scene in the camp was as tranquil as could be, only the ladies preparing our evening meal gave any hint at activity, and they worked slowly and methodically at their tasks.  After all, they still had three hours to go before dinner time.  I went and changed out of my formal field clothes (long trousers and a polo shirt) and put on some swimming shorts and a t shirt and we followed the tall gangly warden, carrying a paddle, down to the waterfront.  Adjoining the washing area we had used in the morning, two canoes were wedged onto the mud beside the river, a red fibreglass one and a wider metal one.  Myself and Anne, from USAID in Ghana, took the metal one with the warden paddling, and Hugo and my US Geological Survey colleague, Gray, took sole charge of the other one.  We gently eased out into the channel and for the first time I looked at the small cataract upriver from the camp.  I had heard the gushing in the night but now I saw the full extent.  Although the drop was only about 5m over a succession of boulders, the width of the river here was significant so the overall effect was impressive even thought the wet season had only just commenced.

I decided I would help the warden to paddle back, to help me get some exercise as much as anything, but I wanted free hands to take photographs as we headed down.  To start with it was just nice to get used to the motion of the canoe, gently going with the flow, and looking at the thick green forest either side.  It was interesting to note that this dense forest is never wide, even before humans starting hacking away at it, but probably only extended in a handful of trees before the amount of water in the ground was insufficient to supply huge trees.   The land beyond is a less dense scrubby woody savannah.

The afternoon was growing old and as we progressed we started to detect more activity.  The flies were always with us when we got close to the shore, but they were less prevalent out in the water, although you saw a few butterflies struggling to get across this open space without tiring or being caught.We saw some plops in the water as fish started jumping for the flies that were out on the river.  Birds were moving about in the shadows of the trees.

In theory the park was on our left and should have been pristine, but early on at several points we could see a dugout canoe moored in the mud, and here and there on the banks some vegetable crops or the odd manmade fence.  No doubt people were nibbling away at the park’s resources.  In some places the clearings were blatant as instead of the thickly vegetated fringes, the trees hanging low over the water’s edge, we could see the bank and exposed soil, and maybe here or there the odd large tree chopped down.

The Other Mauritius – The sea at the bottom of the garden

So much for domestic life.  This was one of those projects that are actually quite rare in my line of work – long periods away, living amongst people with whom you work.  I knew one of the people from before, Paul.  He had worked at NRI for a time and its sister organisation NRInternational, and we had once met up in Dar Es Salaam and spent a very pleasant weekend in Zanzibar.  He is a gentle soul, very good company and his conversation rambles around a million topics in an afternoon.  But as for the others we were working out each other’s characters, foibles and, worst of all, domestic habits.  Even in the best of environments, where you get on all the time and have a good laugh, the truth is that you are with these people 24/7.  And it does get claustrophobic.  In a place like Mauritius, which is a relatively benign community welcoming to strangers, there is no need to be constantly keeping watch on each other.  It does from time to time get a little stifling.

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Our pool

At first I did swim with Mike and the others, but as I say, I started to find going up and down the same pool with the mosquitoes biting at your shoulders every time you rested, a bit wearing.  I preferred to walk – a bit of exercise and a chance to explore the neighbourhood.

The compound in which our house sat was right on the coast; there was a low fence beyond the swimming pool, and through a gate you could access a large expanse of rocky pools.  The view from here was enchanting.  Mauritius has a fringing reef with a few small islets of significance, but there are no really substantial sister islands – the second island of the nation, Rodrigues, is over 200km away to the east; well over the horizon.  Only to the north are there a number of islands beyond the reef, and we could see several of these from our beach.  Round Island is one.  Mike scoffed that this was a misnomer, the shape of the island was like an inverted comma on the map.  But I gave him some logic back to stop that scoffing.  Round Island was named during an era when there were ships but no aeroplanes.  No explorer would have seen the island from above in that era; they would observe it side on, and from a distance it looked like a perfect semicircle.  It rose steeply from the sea to a bulging plateau on top.  Bound to look “round” from the side.  Mike would not climb down on this one but I think he grudgingly accepted my reasoning.  Behind Round Island was a smaller blob of land, Serpent Island, and to the left and much closer to us was Flat Island.  Again some may say this was a misnomer, but although not at sea level, much of the island was at the same altitude, hence flat.  And to the left of there, only visible by heading out to the rocks where the lagoonal tide lapped, you could see Coin de Mire or Gunner’s Coin.  A gunner’s coin is the carriage in which a cannon or other gun can be placed.  If you look out from the mainland this island’s profile perfectly matches the sculpted shape of a gun carriage.  Again if the early explorers had been in balloons they may have called it butterfish island – a bit fat central blob with two floppy fins either side.  But they weren’t so they didn’t.

The other Mauritius – Wild battle in tame surroundings

It was a grim thought as we watched it disappear under a croton in the garden.  But it was not the only case.  Even in our nicely clipped suburban garden in amongst these perfect little houses with different colour roofs, the harsh back and forth of the natural world would play out.  We came back from a meal out one night, having driven from the nearby village of Pereybere through a storm of rain and wind, sugar cane fronds, leaves and the occasional branch strewn across the coast road.  We turned into the relative calm of our compound and as the car swung into our driveway the headlights caught a bird perched on one of our chairs in the car port.  It was only an ordinary pigeon.  It made no attempt to move as the three of us approached it, its wing feathers were ruffled badly, its neck was exposed and its eyes looked fatigued.  It basically looked like a bird on its last legs.  Mike, often one of the most abrasive souls around, took an unusual pity on the poor creature.  He retrieved some peanuts and placed them on a table close to the chair on which the bird was perched.  He said “this wretch probably won’t get through the night”.    It must have been flying out in the storm, maybe got lost, maybe not able to land, possibly even battered by twigs and rain as it tossed and turned in the squally weather.  It looked like it had been fighting the wind for hours.  If anyone could ever show complete exhaustion, this was it.  We went to bed feeling rather sober.

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The pool

Next morning we came down.  No pigeon in sight.  We all thought it had gone off into the bushes and died.  We’d started feeding the birds bits of leftover bread and birdseed and they were all waiting expectantly for us.  As we had breakfast a pigeon flew in.  It was bright and bouncy, fighting the other birds over the morsels of food scattered across the car port.  We noticed that its neck was straggly in the same way as the bird the night before.  It couldn’t be?  Really?  It looked very similar to be sure.  But this bird was as energetic as a six year old child at a birthday party.  How could it have recovered so much in so little time?  Mike was incensed.  He’d wasted a load of his sparing sympathy on this bird, not to mention a tin of nuts.  “I’ll wring the little bastard’s neck for taking me for granted” he shouted, but we were all relieved to see a happy outcome.