Saturday was going to be my main travel day to experience the sights of Mauritius; my friend Dave Kissoondoyal of the Mauritius Internet Society had offered to pick me up at the hotel in the morning to take me around to some of the island’s best known attractions. We met up just before 10am; Dave had planned a full-day itinerary focusing on the island’s natural attractions. Our first stop, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden, was just a few kilometers from the hotel, in the charmingly named town of Pamplemousses.
Pamplemousses, French for “pineapples,” is one of a number of places across Mauritius with a produce-inspired name. Elsewhere on the island, you can also find Plaine Des Papayas (Papaya Plain), Riviere Citrons (Lemon River), Butte a L’Herbe (Herb Butte), Rose Belle (Pretty Rose) and last but not least, Pointe Aux Piments, Pepper Point, the location of my hotel. In addition to the abundance of fruit and vegetable points on the map, let’s not forget the playful town names of Flic-en-Flac and Curepipe, or the more ominous locations of Cap Malheureux (Cape Sadness) and Baie du Tombeau (Tomb Bay), both known for their perilous shipwreck-prone waters, and Le Morne Brabant (The Mournful One), a mountain with cliffs so steep that no one could climb it without dooming themselves.
SO, for a little more time than the amount it took you to read that paragraph, Dave and I found ourselves driving back and forth along a country road, not exactly sure where to find the botanical gardens. Dave is from the southern part of the island, and apart from visiting the gardens when he was young, he hadn’t been up here in many years. Fortunately, a couple of men standing at a bus stop were able to get us heading in the right direction.
Founded by French governor Mahe de la Bourdonnais as his private park in 1735, the gardens eventually became an important tool for French horticultural espionage, as French spies got their hands on seeds of precious spice plants that were cultivated by other empires, using the gardens as an incubator, both literally and figuratively, for the French to launch new agricultural industries. Even today, the gardens remain a botanical research center, with a fine collection of medicinal plants. But for the majority of visitors, Mauritians and tourists alike, the gardens are the island’s finest collection of exotic flora.
Pamplemousses’ gardens are perhaps best known for two things: palm trees and water lilies. There are royal palms, talipot palms (which flower only once over a 40-year lifetime), bottle palms, raffia palms, toddy palms, fever palms, sugar palms, fan palms – if it’s a palm tree and it grows in Mauritius, you’re bound to find it here. As for the water lilies, they’re a geographic anomaly, since they’re actually originally from the Amazon – not that any of the visitors ever complain.
After parking the car, Dave and I strolled around the gardens for about an hour. My first reaction was how familiar it all seemed -- the variety of palms, the collections of bougainvillea, hibiscus, magnolia, even the temperature and humidity – I felt like I was visiting a formal garden somewhere in Florida or perhaps Georgia. If it weren’t for the families on Indo-Mauritians, with most of the women wearing fine saris, I might have mistaken the gardens for the deep South.
Not far from the entrance, we stumbled upon a small deer park, a collection of Java deer enclosed in a large pen. A Mauritian man and his grandson gleefully fed some of the deer a large French baguette, the deer gathered along the side of the pen, sticking their snouts through the fat chicken wire to enjoy a starchy snack. Like most other mammals on the island, the Java deer aren’t indigenous to Mauritius; as their name would suggest, the Dutch brought the deer from Java several centuries ago. Whether you come across deer, monkeys, dogs, wild boars, you name it, there’s a strong likelihood they’re relatively recent immigrants. Even people are new to this particular corner of the globe – Mauritius was an unpopulated island for millennia until the Dutch and French decided to stake out permanent settlements on it. The French, in turn, brought African slaves from Mozambique and other parts of southeast Africa; later, as the island became a British colony and slavery was banned, wealthy sugar plantation owners brought in large numbers of Indians from Bihar and Tamil Nadu as field laborers, whose descendents form the majority of the population today.
Using the map in my Lonely Planet Mauritius book, Dave and I wandered the gardens, exploring the many fish ponds and avenues lined with ancient royal palms. Near the center of the gardens we reached the fine collection of Queen Victoria water lilies. Floating in a long, thin pool, the water lily pads were enormous, almost a meter across. The lilies also produce beautiful white flowers that open and close on a periodic cycle; on this particular day only one flower was showing off for the tourists.
There were many people at the gardens this morning, but they were generally quiteinconspicuous. Because the park was so large, visitors could easily get lost in the bevy of palms, flowers, ponds and shrubs. You were more likely to come across one of the local dogs, lounging in the gardens in the hopes of getting picnic scraps. We even came across two adorable golden retriever puppies, but soon figured out they were actually a young Mauritian’s pets, going out on a morning stroll together.
Leaving the gardens, Dave suggested I get a drink for the road – we’d have about an hour’s drive to the central highlands. After getting a couple of bottles of soda, we returned to the car and began heading south, first through the capital of Port Louis, then to the village of Vacoas (pronounced vah-KWAH). Dave said he wasn’t fond of Port Louis – big, modern, crowded and smoggy, the capital was a far cry from the rural beauty that still holds sway over much of the island. Perhaps we’d stop there briefly on the way back to the hotel later this afternoon; otherwise I’d spend a few hours in Port Louis on my own later in the weekend so Dave and I could concentrate on the natural wonders of the island.
As we passed through Vacoas, I was struck at how Caribbean the town looked – the style of the architecture, the local Creoles, the humidity – take it all together and you could have almost found yourself in Haiti or Jamaica.
“It looks very much like Costa Rica, doesn’t it?” Dave said.
“I imagine it does,” I replied, “but I haven’t been there yet.”
“I visited it once, for business,” he continued. “It felt like home except they spoke Spanish.”
Beyond Vacoas, the population thinned out considerably, and we found ourselves amongst acres of sugar cane along the perimeter of private estates. Near the entrance to the Black River Gorges National Park, we veered to the left, over a hillside with several radio towers. Soon, we reached what looked like an enormous fair grounds – empty space with small white buildings that appeared to be set up to support huge throngs of visitors. We’d arrived at Grand Bassin, a small lake known to Hindus from Mauritius and elsewhere as Ganga Talao, or Lake Ganges.
According to Hindu legend, the God Shiva and his wife Parvati were circling the earth, with the sacred river Ganges balanced on Shiva’s head. Shiva noticed a beautiful, deserted island and decided to land, but in the course of touching down there, he spilled a few drops of the Ganges onto the island, creating a small lake. The Ganges, to no surprise, wasn’t thrilled with having some of her precious water left behind on the island, but Shiva replied by saying that some day the people who resided along her riverbanks in India would settle on this deserted island and come to worship her there.
And so was born the sacred Ganga Talao, now home to the biggest annual pilgrimage of Hindus outside of India. Each winter, hundreds of thousands of Hindus descend upon the lake, some coming from as far away as South Africa, to give offerings to Shiva and this distant “tributary” of the Ganges. It’s one of the most important events on the Mauritius calendar. Unfortunately, I was about four months too late to participate in the festival itself, but that wouldn’t stop us from paying our respects during the off-season.
We descended to the lake shore and a temple dedicated to Shiva. Outside the temple stood a statue of the god, facing away from the lake. A family of pilgrims was standing in front of Shiva, giving puja (offerings) in the form of coconuts and incense. As the women tended to the incense, a man ceremoniously cracked the coconuts, one by one, spilling their milk at the foot of the Shiva statue. Several other Hindu families stood to the side, some of them with video cameras, capturing the private ceremony.
The location of the lake was quite pretty, with several families strolling along its edges and up towards another hill. Some people were throwing bits of food into the lake, pleasing a school of fish nearby. I even spotted an enormous eel, perhaps two meters along, joining in on the feeding, grabbing a few choice bits of bread for itself.
At this point, I desperately needed to find a restroom, having polished off most of the Diet Sprite that Dave got for me back at the gardens. Fortunately, one of the fairground pavilions still had an operational bathroom. I ran inside while Dave waited in the car. “I don’t like Mauritius bathrooms much,” he said, giving me a moment to ponder a pending sanitation nightmare before heading inside. Fortunately, the facilities were no worse than what you’d typically find at a US national park, so I was quite relieved, as it were.
We backtracked past the radio towers and ventured into the Black Gorges River National Park. The largest area of protected lands on the island, the national park is home to stunning vistas, waterfalls, exotic plants and a number of animals, including macaques and wild boar. Dave suggested we try to find Alexandra Falls, somewhere along the southern edge of the park. My map suggested it was off a dirt road not far from where we were, so we drove a few minutes into the park and veered onto a side road. The pavement, what there was of it, was in extremely poor shape; Dave drove the car in idle, carefully maneuvering the craters and cliffs in miniature, somehow managing to not get us stuck. Heading in the opposite direction, a family of Indian tourists inspected one of their tires on their car, apparently damaged during the short, perilous drive.
“This is typical of Mauritius roads,” Dave lamented. “They build a road, then it gets worse and worse and they do nothing until it is too late…. They talk about bringing in bringing in more tourists, eco-tourists; first they must make the roads work.”
Eventually, we managed to traverse the 200 meters to the parking lot without blowing out his car’s alignment. Stepping out of the car, we could hear water rushing downhill; indeed, a furious stream was just ahead of us, with a small bridge across it. Beyond the bridge was a hillside with a magnificent view of a valley leading all the way down to the southern coast of Mauritius. Mountains stood to the left and right of the valley; at its center you could see the surf of the Indian Ocean, many miles away. To the far left, we had an obstructed view of Alexandra Falls, partially because the water was descending a cliff from the very stream we’d just crossed. Due to the location of the vista, you couldn’t get a clear look at the falls; however, you could certainly hear it, even feel it, as water cascaded rapidly down towards the valley.
I was a little disappointed we didn’t get an unobstructed view of the falls, but I knew we had several more opportunities to see waterfalls today, so I wasn’t going to lose sleep over it. So we returned to the car and retraced our way down the pockmarked road from hell towards the main road. Heading west, we started to climb higher and higher through the national park, eventually reaching a pass over 2000 feet above sea level, a remarkable height considering how close we actual were to the sea.
Weaving up, then down the road, we passed a group of Mauritians who had parked their car along the curb and were foraging through the shrubs.
“What are they looking for?” I asked.
“I do not know how to say it in English,” Dave said. “We call them guavas.”
“Sure, I know guavas,” I replied, “but aren’t they fairly large fruit? I can’t even see what they’re picking off the bushes.”
“It is a special kind of guava,” Dave explained. “Chinese guavas. They are very small, very tart. Mauritian children like to pick them after school when they are ripe.”
Dave then veered off the road and parked near a row of bushes. “We can find some,” he said. “It should be very easy.”
“What exactly am I looking for?” I asked, carefully stepping into a bush, shoving aside its branches in search of phantom fruit.
“Here are some,” Dave said, just as I was completing the sentence. I heard a popping sound and a rush of leaves as he plucked the fruit off the bush. It wasn’t much bigger than a large red grape, and almost looked like a miniature pomegranate. “Taste it.”
“Should I just bite into it?” I asked.
“Yes, just bite it.”
I took a bite out of the small red fruit; it was rather tart, but not unpleasant, with a texture similar to an apple. I discovered some seeds as well, but they had a nice flavor as well.
“Here are some more,” Dave said as I finished my first Chinese guava. I looked down into his cupped hands; he’d already found at least 10 more.
I popped another guava into my mouth, this one a little greener; big mistake. Apparently the smaller, dark red ones are the best. Meanwhile, I finally spotted a few of them about half an arm’s length into a bush. I picked off two red ones and turned to show them proudly to Dave. Meanwhile, Dave’s hands were overflowing with them. He reached out and dumped them into my hands until they spilled onto the side of the road. Dave went into the car and found a white sheet of paper; he folded it to make a crude little envelope to keep my new collection of guavas.
“Perhaps I should make a chutney out of them,” I said.
“Good idea – they are very good for chutney.”
As we got ready to climb back into the car, a family of British tourists pulled over their car and hailed us. “What exactly are you picking?” the wife asked me.
“They’re a type of guavas, Chinese guavas,” I replied, proud of my new agricultural knowledge. “Have one.”
I gave her a small red guava and she bit into it. She pursed her lips tightly and tried to smile. “Thank you,” she said, soon followed by her husband driving off. Must have given her a tart one.
Back in the car with our fruitful plunder, we drove a little while until reaching Plaine Champagne, one of the park’s most famous hiking areas. Dave parked the car near a tree-lined path that was crowded with visitors. Apparently whatever was down the path was attracting more people than we’d seen anywhere else, so I was curious to see what the fuss was all about.
“Have you been here before?” I asked Dave.
“First time,” he said. “So you are turning me into a tourist too.”
Weaving through a crowd of French and Italian tourists, we soon reached a ledge with a long railing. Beyond us I saw what was perhaps the most incredible vista I’ve ever experienced: a wide, beautiful gorge, curving dramatically down and to the left between a series of mountains that intersected with each other like a giant tectonic zipper until the gorge reached the sea. To the right I spotted a waterfall scampering down the hillside; it was probably more than a half a kilometer away but was still quite dramatic.
I decided to make a little video of the vista with my digital camera, panning from the left to right. As I began to shoot the video, I heard a crowd of people behind me speaking quickly in French. In the corner of my eye I saw Dave pointing behind me as well. I turned around and saw a macaque monkey and its toddler scampering up the railing. Several French tourists were getting rather close to it, as if they actually planned to pet them. The mother macaque gave the tourists the evil eye and made some clicking noises, which kept the tourists at bay for a few minutes. One of them was still determined to get close to the macaques; only when mama monkey grabbed the woman’s blouse and gave it a hard tug did she realize it was probably a stupid idea.
Meanwhile, a whole troupe of macaques descended along the ledge from the far side of the railing. I walked over to take some pictures but maintained what I thought was a safe distance, until I saw through my camera’s view finder that the alpha male of the group was actually charging me, teeth in a full snarl. I scampered backwards around 15 feet, which seemed to satisfy the macaque.
Since it appeared the monkeys just wanted to be left alone to enjoy the view, I decided it was best to follow their lead, and spent a while marveling at the vista.
“Do you have places like this in America?” Dave asked me.
“Not exactly,” I replied. “In the west there are some beautiful vistas, but they aren’t lush like this. There are probably a few places in Hawaii that might be comparable, but not on a canyon-like scale as this is.”
Eventually, the ledge became thick with tourists. What a paradox -- feeling claustrophobic along the edge of a gorge. We hiked back along the path as more tourists seemed to appear out of thin air. By now it was approaching 2pm;Dave suggested we try to find some lunch before restaurants stopped serving until dinner time. We weaved through the rest of the park and started making our descent to the west, winding down a hillside towards Chamarel. Soon we reached a large gate with several nice cars parked out front. We pulled over and discovered a villa perched on the edge of the hill, with spectacular views of the valley below; it was a Creole restaurant.
Dave and I went inside to check out the menu; while I found several entrees that sounded good, Dave’s choices were more limited given the fact he’s vegetarian. I suggested we head back to the car and try to find another restaurant, but Dave said he’d manage, ordering a grilled Creole vegetable platter. Meanwhile, I chose the Creole chicken, which turned out to be the best meal I had in Mauritius: a platter of diced chicken in a spicy tomato sauce, a cross between a masala curry and blackened Cajun chicken. As side dishes they served a fine collection of Creole condiments and salads: basmati rice with broad beans in an aromatic sauce, steamed leafy greens with a hint of olive oil, peanut chutney, apple chutney and spiced pumpkin. I was overwhelmed by the flavors and smells, the freshness of the herbs and spices used in the preparation. I could taste cumin, cloves, thyme, cinnamon, pepper and a hint of cardamom; I think I also smelled mint, but I can’t be sure.
Dave and I enjoyed our lunches, admiring the view of the valley and the restaurant itself. The restaurant was built out of teak wood, almost alpine in design, with a reoccurring maritime theme: statues of sailors and model ships decorated the walls. It was extraordinarily charming; I was extremely glad to be having a meal out of the confines of the hotel, particularly a good Creole meal. I’d have to find a book of Mauritian recipes so I could try making it myself.
Leaving the restaurant, we continued to follow the winding road to Chamarel. Dave wanted to take me to see the colored sands of Chamarel, a local geological wonder in which seven different colors of dirt are found in swirling layers, creating an earthen rainbow. My ears popped several times as we drove downhill to Chamarel, a small village located halfway between the highlands and the sea. The village appeared to be populated almost exclusively by African Creoles, with most of the men sporting dreadlocks and bushy beards.
“They are Rastafarian, many of them,” Dave said as we drove through the village. “The people here are from Mozambique; they came here as slaves a long time ago and still live on their own, like a little piece of continental Africa.”
Beyond the village, we reached the entrance of the park. We paid an entrance fee of120 rupees for the two of us, then drove our car along a tight, winding road that led us through beautiful sugar can fields. The cane stalks towered high above the car, each one topped with a flourish of gray flowers billowing in the wind, like ripples in a sea of powdered sugar. We drove for what felt like a long time, not quite sure if we’d know when to park and get out of the car. Eventually, though, we reached a small parking lot dotted with taxis and several minibuses.
“Is this where the colored earths are?” I asked.
“No, I think this is the falls,” Dave replied.
We followed a small group of French tourists up a steep, muddy hillside, careful not to slip and crash through the bushes, as it was impossible to tell how far the drop would be – a fateful fall no matter what, I’m sure. Soon we reached a railed platform, with another group of tourists pointing far across the valley.
Squeezing in between them, I spotted the most amazing waterfall I’d ever seen – a magnificent flood of water cascading hundreds and hundreds of feet down the side of a cliff. It was the type of watery precipice I thought existed only in Kauai or the far reaches of Venezuela.
“That’s amazing,” I said to Dave. “How tall is it?”
“Very tall,” he said, clearly as captivated by the view as I was.
We appreciated the falls for several minutes until the next wave of tourists arrived, each patiently waiting for a chance to pose for a photo along the railing. Dave and I climbed down the hillside, even more carefully than on our ascent, now that we knew how far of a drop it actually was. Back near the car, Dave chatted with a taxi driver to confirm how to get to the colored earths while I admired the fields of sugar cane scattered to the west. The colored earths were another five minutes’ drive, apparently, so we followed a minibus of tourists to the site.
We arrived at a very large parking lot, currently hosting at least a dozen buses of various shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, for the first time all day I noticed the heat. Perhaps it was because we were standing in an unshaded parking lot; perhaps it was the fact we’d just left the highlands, which were at least five degrees cooler. I started to break a sweat as we went through the ticket inspection booth.
“The heat is worse when you have had a big lunch,” Dave said, smiling and wiping the sweat from his forehead.
Dave and I followed a wood plank path dotted with palms and banana trees. Descending several steps, we arrived at a hillside that had been cleared of all vegetation, the earth exposed to the elements. Or more accurately, the earths exposed to the elements. For here in Chamarel were the famous multi-colored sands of Mauritius. Eons ago, when Mauritius was a cauldron of volcanic activity, various types of lava cooled at different rates, creating rocks of different chemical patterns and colors. Over the millennia, the rocks were pulverized into sands which have the amazing property of settling into distinct layers: if you take a handful of each of the seven different colors of dirt and mix them together, they’d eventually separate into a colorful spectrum, each dot of sand rejoining its color caste.
Since the earth was first exposed, rains had carved beautiful patterns into the hillside, creating an effect of earthen meringue. At first I thought I noticed shadows on the hills, creating the illusion of different colors, but soon I realized that the colors were real and the shadows ere the illusion.
We followed the path around the exposed hillside as a large number of tourists spread themselves out over the park, visiting the tortoise pen, admiring the 50-foot aloe tree, or encouraging their kids to enjoy a small playground. The colored earths were quite curious, following in straight lines in some places while swirling in others, depending on the curve of the hillside and the amount of water erosion. “Do Not Enter” signs discouraged visitors from climbing over the rail onto the exposed earth. Several anonymous animals had scampered their way across it, though, clearly paying no heed to the admonishments, leaving tell-tale paw prints in their wake.
Dave and I walked counterclockwise around the hillside, admiring the patterns of colors until the sun got to be too much for either of us. It was now around 4pm, and both of us were running out of steam. We decided to start making our way back to Port Louis, perhaps for a quick stop along the city’s waterfront. Leaving Chamarel, we continued our descent to the coast, with each curve around a bend in the road revealing yet another incredible vista. The shores of southwest Mauritius are surrounded by beautiful, jagged mountains rising up from the beach. Some day this area would be prime real estate for some entrepreneurial resort developer.
We followed the main coastal road towards Port Louis, through the beach towns of Tamarin and Flic-en-Flac. Tamarin appeared to be the local surfer’s mecca, with surf shops and blond-haired dudes walking their boards along the road to the beach. Along the way we passed the highest mountain in Mauritius, Piton de la Petite Riviere Noire, a jagged peak that looked like a tropical version of the Matterhorn.
Traffic picked up as we continued northward until we reached the outskirts of Port Louis. Dave offered to stop along the Caudan Waterfront, the new shopping arcade near the capital’s port. It sounded touristy, but interesting, and perhaps I’d be able to find a bookstore to get that cookbook I wanted. Soon we arrived at the waterfront, a thoroughly modern complex that was oddly reminiscent of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, with a fine collection of upmarket restaurants and shops. It seemed like a fine place to relax at sunset and have a beer, but after spending the day amongst the island’s natural wonders, the waterfront seemed particularly unnatural and awkward. However, we did spot a bookstore, so we went inside to look at the cookbooks. As I found the book I wanted, I bumped into my friend Maung from the ICT conference; he’d been spending the afternoon exploring the local market. The two of us made plans for dinner later in the evening.
Meanwhile, I bought my book while Dave finally found a restroom that was to his liking. We then decided to call it a day, particularly since it was beginning to rain. We’d squeezed a lot of touring into one day; I felt like I’d gotten to know the island a bit better, but still had enough left to see to figure out a return visit, hopefully with Susanne joining me next time. Back at the hotel, Dave and I said our goodbyes, then I returned to the room for a brief nap and a shower. Maung and I met for dinner at Shells, one of the hotel restaurants, where we both enjoyed a tasty tandoori dinner. As for tomorrow, I had nothing in particular planned for the day; considering I was staying along one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, this suited me just fine.