Ahead of its 46th independence day, we learn there’s more to the island than meets the eye
Ahead of its 46th independence day, we learn there’s more to Mauritius than meets the eye. Words Hazel Plush.
As expats go, Domino is a bit of a closed book. He keeps to himself, rarely poking his head from his modest home, except to discourage visitors with a leathery scowl. He’s enjoying some solitude in his twilight years. Last year he turned 90, or was it 95? He’s long since lost count of birthdays. For giant Aldabra tortoises like Domino – or anyone, really – there are worse places than Mauritius to ease into a slower pace of life. He pokes his head out of his low wooden hut, eyes us suspiciously, then plods off in search of his next grassy tuft.
We’re right in the animal equivalent of a rather lavish expat community, La Vanille Crocodile Park, one of Mauritius’ top tourist attractions, and a centre for Indian Ocean wildlife conservation. But the animals on the island haven’t always had such an idyllic existence. Everyone knows the story of the bumbling, fat-beaked dodos, hunted to extinction in the 1600s, and Mauritian giant tortoises met the same sticky end not long after.
Seychelles-born Domino – whose genetics are similar to his ill-fated predecessors – was among the animals brought over by the park’s founders to help bolster waning numbers, and right some of the wrongs of the past. We’re not too sure if his keeper got the memo though. ‘Domino is Mauritian,’ he says, his gold front tooth flashing in the rosy afternoon sun. We’re bewildered, but decide to let it slide, and we dip through the low-slung coconut fronds in search of rare and wonderful-looking species of iguanas, geckos and chameleons.
Once ensconced in our accommodation, the heavenly Shanti Maurice resort, it is clear that the island has personality to match its dashing physique. In the wild south, sandwiched between long-extinct volcanoes and coral-trimmed coast, Shanti Maurice is a five-star bolthole that champions local produce and expertise. Here, you can spy fishermen setting lobster traps in the morning and then feast on their catch by night, or pluck a garnish for your aperitif as you wander through the chef’s herb garden. They’ll even set up a private dinner in the local village, cooked to succulent perfection and hosted by your housekeeper’s granny.
Suddenly, the infinity poolside sunlounger loses its appeal: if a resort could conjure up so many locally grown surprises, who knows what the rest of the island has in store? We enlist the expertise of Mautourco – Mauritius’s longest-standing tour company – and set off for a day in those volcanic hills.
Far away from the coast, the landscape isn’t just regular green – it is rich with the lush, zesty tones that only regular tropical downpours and mineral-rich soil can cultivate. And it isn’t just forest, either: the fields were dense with tea bushes, coconut palms, and spiky sugar cane fronds, while orange and fuchsia blooms spill over garden fences. As we navigate the first hairpin bends, macaque monkeys peer out from the undergrowth, their hairy faces screwed up against the sun. But the clouds gather during our 20-minute journey inland, and as we arrive at Bois Chéri tea plantation we are applauded by the slaps of raindrops.
A white, flat-roofed factory sits atop Mauritius’s oldest tea estate, a quaint remnant of the island’s colonial days. Bois Chéri was established in 1892 by British settlers who were desperate for a taste of home – it’s one of three plantations that now cover 700 acres of the island. We duck into the factory, its air sweet with the grassy tang of fermenting tea leaves, and shelter from the rain amid roasters and industrial sieves.
Tea production is big business in Mauritius – the leaves are exported to South Africa and France – but there’s more than just an economic interest in its production. No social gathering is complete without a pot, says local guide Wellena over a steaming vanilla and coconut-infused brew in Bois Chéri’s cafe. The menu promises cardamom, ginger and passion fruit blends. ‘It’s as eclectic as Mauritians themselves – we come in all different flavours,’ says Wellena. ‘Everybody is a descendant of settlers and slaves; the island is volcanic, so it has no indigenous population – everyone came by boat.’
We’re sure we’re not the first to underestimate Mauritius’ complexities: like most of the island’s one million annual visitors, most sign up for a beach holiday. The Dutch arrived in 1598, explains Wellena, but until then Mauritius had been home to just a unique cocktail of flora and fauna and hardly anything else. The land was inhospitable, so when the supply of dodos and tortoises ran out 100 years later, the Dutch retreated; the ravaged wildlife was left to its own devices until the French tried their luck in 1715.
The island was under Gallic rule for almost a century – which explains Wellena’s Francophone lilt. Mauritius, or Ile de France, became a military base, but the British invaded in 1810, bringing slaves from Madagascar and Mozambique to work on tea and sugar plantations. When slavery was abolished in 1834, many stayed, and a new – paid – workforce arrived: 400,000 Indians and Pakistanis.
It hasn’t always been an easy alliance, but today Mauritius’ myriad nationalities get along just fine. On March 12 1968 the island gained independence from Britain, and on the same date in 1992 it became a republic. It has since been labelled one of Africa’s most politically stable countries, with French, English and Creole as its main languages. Its 1.2 million-strong population revels in its diversity, and marks each nationality’s religious festivals with 17 public holidays every year. No matter what their beliefs, everybody on the island gets a day off.
While we digest this history lesson, Mauritius reveals more of its colours. We drive to Chamarel, home of the ‘Seven-Coloured Earths’, a patch of small hills streaked with copper, bronze and gold volcanic soils. It’s an eerie clearing – the only one of its kind in the world – fringed by acres of thick forest. Black River Gorges National Park, another wildlife conservation hub, sprawls out to the west. As the clouds clear, we try to spot pink pigeons and apple-green echo parakeets in the bushy black ebony trees. The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation has saved both endemic species from extinction, as well as the white paille-en-queue birds that fly lazy aerobatics over our cliff top viewpoint while waterfalls roar at our feet below.
A ten-minute drive to the west, yet more bright plumage flashes in the sun. Grand Bassin lake, a sacred spot for the local Indian population, is flanked by six-foot orange, scarlet and baby-blue Hindu icons. The pilgrims’ saris billow in the breeze, while the Mauritian national flag flaps overhead.
We conclude the day with our visit to Domino, that geriatric herbivore of hazy nationality, and as we make our way back along the hairpins we sympathise with his aching old limbs. We joke to Wellena that this Seychelles-born expat is now a Mauritian national treasure, and she shoots another wry smirk. ‘None of us belong to the island, so who are we to decide? We’re Indians, Asians, Africans, Europeans – he’s really more Mauritian than the rest of us.’
We peer out over the pillowy plantation bushes, silver now in the moonlight, and have to marvel at how we’d underestimated this tropical idyll.
Need to know
Getting there Emirates flies direct to Mauritius from Dhs4,736 return. www.emirates.com