Journey To Beauty & Chaos In Paradise Islands

Mauritius I : Fishing Villages , Sugar Ocean and Ganges of the Isle


July 2003

Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore

Black River National Park Indian lady praying Grand Bassin Sugar Cane
Lion Mountain and the Dutch Landing Monument Lone Coconut Sugar Plantation workers Another Day On The Ocean


Mauritius I : Fishing Villages , Sugar Ocean and Ganges of the Isle



Enough of work, work, work – and I got onto a rented car with a Dutch traveler I got to know on the Lonely Planet bulletin board while discussing about Madagascar .  We hit it off right away after meeting for drinks on a Friday night – two nomads bumping into each other in the middle of nowhere, and we rolled off place names like Burkina Faso, Mogadishu, Transdniestria and Ulaanbaatar as though they were neighbourhood lanes - and he invited to join him in his rented car to explore the south and southeast of this country. 


On Sat morning, Arian picked me up in Port Louis and we drove to the quiet fishing town of Mahébourg .  This is the oldest political centre in the country, near where the Dutch first landed in 1598, and within a few decades they had eaten all the dodo's, a slow large and fat flightless bird with a strange curving beak truly unique to this island, destroyed all the forests and planted sugar cane all over.  We strolled along the fading streets of this town of wooden houses under the shadow of coconut and palm trees, and had coffee and a no-frills eggs and butter cake in a small Indian shop.  Mahébourg is simple and thoroughly sleepy - apart from a Chinese takeaway shop and a Chinese casino half-constructed, it is anything but cosmopolitan - in fact, with all the flowing exuberance of the Indian saris and the aromatic smell of incense from smallish Hindu shrines, this place looks like a provincial Indian village, with English and occasionally French signboards. 


It was also here in the Vieux Grand Port ( Great Old Port ), under the soaring heights of the Lion Mountain , that the French Navy scored their only naval victory against the British in the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Mahébourg, which was inscribed on the marble walls of the Triumphant Arch in Paris .  Now, only the gentle sails of fishing boats break the silence of this bay of small islets.   We drove on the coastal road, past rows of huge casuarinas – where you can almost imagine Bollywood musicals been enacted - and endless acres of sugar cane plantations.  We past small fishing villages along the coastal fringes of the lion-headed Lion Mountain, with name such as Ville Noire, Riviere des Creoles, Vieux Grand Port, Boix des Amourettes and Providence.


We bashed through the narrow, sometimes muddy tracks of deep sugar plantations, testing the suspension limits of our pathetic little Peugeot.  Up and down small hills and we found ourselves in a ylang ylang estate.  The ylang ylang is a leafy plant whose strong, aromatic extracts are a critical foundation of perfume and fragrances.  In the shaded restaurant of the estate overlooking a green valley of sugar cane and ylang ylang, we had Creole Chicken and Prawn for lunch.  The proprietors, unfortunately, had run out of venison, the specialty of these parts.  Deers were first introduced by the French governors anxious to bring to this island the fine traditions of hunting at Royal Court of Versailles.  The dodo were long dead by then and introduced species like goats, dogs, cats and cows were rapidly transforming the eco-environment of this island.


Onwards to Domaine du Chasseur, an even more distinguished estate once ruled by the French sugar barons.  Here one can still go for boar and deer hunting, feasting in venison cooked in chasseur aka fresh deer blood, or jungle walking while living in elaborate lodges built by entrepreneurial descendants of the sugar kings who realized that they could more money from tourism than good old sugar.  A drive around the dirt tracks and then a thirty minutes’ climb up a hill with beautiful palm-trees ravaged by the strange but equally pretty nests of weaving birds such that they looked like jesters’ hats.  On the top of the hill was the estate bar, with an incredibly panoramic view of the hills and deep sugar cane valleys of the eastern part of this island.  This is the place to bring someone special and watch magnificent sunsets over the Indian Ocean .


On Sunday, we sped southwards through deep sugar cane plantations.  We dropped by an old French sugar baron’s pretty palatial Creole mansion.  It’s Sunday, day of rest, when the baron’s family had gone to church.  Outside the iron gates of fleur-de-lips grills, we could almost imagine the baron having a mid morning tryst with his pretty black slave girl from Madagascar , with the loud passionate moaning in subtropical heat.  As usual, when her dress became too large to fit, the baroness would send the girl to a remote corner of the estate, a place full of girls of a similar fate, with their mixed blood children, forgotten but forerunners of a new race, the Creoles of the paradise isles of Indian Ocean, the by-products of global cultural exchange and trading servitude.  Of course, the baroness wasn’t happy but a new tailored evening gown delivered on the latest boat from London , and a diamond ring from Antwerp would help.  So, life went on in this timeless, isolated isle at the far southern end of the Indian Ocean .


The Indian Ocean… huge waves beat the wild rugged cliffs – including one named in honour of black magic - on the southern coast of this island.  Families picnicked on viewpoints while lovers hugged each other at quieter pathways along the precarious cliff sides.  Brave fishermen trying their luck on boulders barely meters from the giant waves.  Nothing lies between here and Antarctica .  Can you hear the cry of penguins beyond the great ocean?


We tried looking for the Rochester Falls but got lost in an enormous sugar cane plantation instead.  (Perhaps we were near The Thames, with Dover nearby, and  The Hague should be nearby, just across the drain.)  We drove along the coast, passing dilapidated villages and quaint towns where shops are sometimes known simply as The General Store.  We past Hindu temples, a Muslim funeral, Catholic churches, secret coves of white sand and rows of coconut trees leading to paradise.  Yes, and a quiet Muslim town named Surinam (- oh, where is the Guyana border?), boasts a loud Hindi video shop, a Patisserie Iran with nice Dutch cakes, and where we had wonderful fried rice in a cafe which served nothing but fried rice.  Satisfied, we turned inland to the greenish-black mountains of the interior. 


Land of Coloured Earth – that’s the first tourist trap of the day, a forest clearing with soil of shades of red, brown and orange.  I bet that’s what you would get if you excavate Trafalgar Square with a caterpillar.  More worthy was the Chamarel Falls nearby, the tallest in this country.  The flat central plateau plunged 100 meters here, a spectacular sight in that sea of endless greenery. 


Heading further inland, we entered the Black River Gorges National Park , a well forested area with panoramic views of misty mountains, deep river valleys and the bright blue ocean at the very horizon.  The park was full of visitors in their convoys of cars – urbanites looking for a weekend of family fun not so much admiring the natural scenery, but more participating in the national sport – plucking the reddish China guavas, like Russians going for mushroom picks.  I don’t know which I disliked more – excited locals destroying their own nature plucking the fruits, or partying with loud Hindi music in nature’s gift to this island? 


We drove towards the national motorway and enjoyed sunset at a sacred Hindu lake – the Indians believe that Shiva was cruising around in heavens with River Ganges on his head, when he sprayed a few water droplets of the holy river onto this island by mistake, thus creating a crater lake.  The Ganges protested the loss of such holy water but Shiva assured that in years to come, devotees of the river will pay homage to the gods from this lake, faraway it might be from Mother India.  Indeed, the Indians here have built a temple on the banks of this tiny lake, which they believed to be the equivalent of the Holy River , worship their gods and protect the sacred fish here.  As sun set over this strange temple next to a strange lake on a strange island, we wondered about peace and spiritual harmony in this increasingly chaotic world where the large fish swallowed the small ones. 


And with that, we drove towards Port Louis .  Another day on this beautiful island in the middle of nowhere.



Wee Cheng

Port Louis , Mauritius


Mauritius II: Globalization, Life And Death In Land Of The Dodo


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