Away from the tourist beaches, Royston Ellis discovers the real Mauritius, and uncovers a vibrant people and varied history
Scarlet powder scarred my cheek and stained my shirt a carnival hue. The dancers circling in the centre of the road tossed more of the dye over us, filling the air with a drizzle of crimson dust. To the jangle of bells on their ankles, the crack of sticks being banged together, the clash of cymbals and the steady beat of drums, teams of young men and women escorting effigies, shuffled past. People from the crowd of onlookers darted forward to take turns to bear the tiny tables supporting pink, elephant-nosed images above their heads.
We came upon this extraordinary procession in the village of Baie du Cap during a quiet afternoon’s drive in the south of Mauritius. We stopped our car and were immediately embraced by the enthusiasm of the crowd and carried along with the gaiety and rhythm of their worship. At a crossroads in the centre of the village, other groups of dancers, each bearing effigies, were waiting. They joined the main procession and it flowed down the road under a purple cloud to the sea.
The occasion, we discovered later, was the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi. A public holiday in Mauritius, it is celebrated on the fourth day of the lunar month of August-September by Hindus of the Marathi faith, as the birthday of Ganesh, god of wisdom and the remover of all obstacles. It is one of the 13 official and 18 unofficial holidays celebrated by the Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist population of Mauritius.
Actually there are 87 different religions observed by the 1.2 million people who live in the 720-square-mile island in the Indian Ocean. Mauritians enjoy the festivals of all religions, including those not of their own faith. It is this wonderful blend without rancour of religions, races and cultures, that makes Mauritius unique. Mauritians have descended from European, African, Indian or Chinese settlers, and frequently from a mixture of all. Creole is the lingua franca used in every day conversation and it unites the island. The official language is English, but the daily newspapers are in French and while at home Mauritians speak the language of their parents, and grandparents.
Mauritians are delighted to speak to strangers, although visitors may have to start up the conversation themselves because only obvious tourists look like strangers. The cosmopolitan melting pot enables a traveller to seem like a local. When a Mauritian does open the conversation, it is usually with an offer of help or hospitality, not a ploy to sell something.
There is full employment in Mauritius; it is a prosperous island with a good standard of living due to diversification in the 1970s away from sugar as its one-crop economy. The main earner of foreign exchange now is the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) which produces goods for export. Financial services (off-shore banking) is also helping the island’s prosperity, while the other important foreign exchange earner, along with agriculture, is tourism.
Because of the nature of the island, with dream-like, isolated beaches girdling its shores, the 400,000 sun-worshipping tourists who descend from Europe and South Africa each year, are easily avoided. They prefer the exclusivity of their beach resorts, making forays in air-conditioned coaches to visit the duty-free diamond showroom at Floreal or to crocodile through the capital’s market place escorted by giggling girl guides. The ordinary Mauritian has his own work to do and takes no notice of them.
This means that the independent visitor can blend in and not feel like an outsider. While tourist Mauritius has a reputation for being expensive, the island itself is not, especially if you stay in inland boarding houses and explore by bus. Port Louis is one of the few capital cities in the world without a hotel. Instead it has Chinese and Indian guest houses, and closes its shutters at dusk when commuters head back to their homes in the central plateau towns of Rose Hill, Auatre Bornes and Curepipe.
That is the time to walk the city streets, some of which are still cobbled, and discover the few remaining Creole houses with tall wooden doors, shutters and wrought-iron balconies. In an old Victorian granite-block mansion in Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Street, a Muslim eatery serves golden brown gateaux piments, a mildly spiced split pea croquette, until long after everywhere is closed.
In Royal Road, opposite the Chinese casino, street vendors sell Chinese soup on one corner while on the other, African-inspired Creole chicken is on sale. At lunch-time office workers queue at the intersection of Bourbon and Ollier streets to snack on dholl purees sold by a man on a bicycle. These are delicious lentil flour pancakes filled with a spoonful of rougaille, a tomato chutney, or bredes (greens).
The cuisine of Mauritius is a delicious mix of the best from Asia, Africa, the Orient and Europe. If you can’t get home cooking, typical food can be sampled on street corners or in village grocery stores. Goat, chicken, venison and hare are served either as carri (curry), daube (stewed with potato and peas) or as kalya (cooked with saffron, ginger and garlic) and eaten with crusty French bread. The freshest range of vegetables are to be seen in the town’s market where pommes d’amour, tiny cherry tomatoes, and watercress are a speciality.
The market dates from Victorian days, although it has burned down several times since then. The main section is a souk of souvenirs stacked up alongside farming and household implements – such as coconut husks used for floors – herbs for medicinal teas, and cheap export quality clothing from the EPZ garment factories.
While modernisation has come to Port Louis with its high-rise bank buildings, if you peer into dimly lit shops you can still glimpse the past on shelves filled with pith helmets. In the countryside, houses with walls of wooden shingles and steepled roofs retain a rustic, Creole charm; their residents still pause to pass the time of day with neighbours.
Port Louis and the Isle of France, as it was known under the French, owe their development to a French aristocrat, Mahe de Labourdonnais. His statue stands in the capital, staring out to sea with its back to the statue of a matronly Queen Victoria glowering from the entrance to Government House.
Labourdonnais arrived in 1735, 97 years after the Dutch – the first settlers – who introduced sugar cane and African slaves and tried to colonize the island. They failed and Mauritius became French in 1715 with a motley crew of buccaneers, slaves and French adventurers as inhabitants.
There were 190 whites and 648 blacks when Labourdonnais became governor. He transformed the island, introducing pioneering settlers, discipline and civilisation, and a well-run sugar industry. The British invaded in 1810, changed the name back to Mauritius and invited the French to stay. They also added indentured labourers from India and Chinese migrants who became merchants. In 1968, the island became independent and a republic within the Commonwealth in 1992.
Mauritius seems safe, almost middle-class in its respectability, as people go about their day to day work. However, on Sundays and at festival times Mauritians give way to the exuberance of their heritage, responding to the dramatic, rugged beauty of a landscape of craggy mountains towering like gothic spires from lowland plains smothered in sugar cane. Rain forests and gorges, lakes and waterfalls volcanic craters and botanical gardens, are all carefully preserved. Much of Mauritius remains as it was when the dodo trusted man so much that it was an easy target to pick up and pop into the cooking pot.
The Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus) seemed destined to follow the dodo down memory lane to extinction. Man and monkey had caused havoc to its existence; pesticides were destroying its food and habitat, and monkeys were eating its eggs. At the last minute, when there were only four kestrels left in the wild (fortunately including one breeding pair), conservationists gave nature a helping hand. They took eggs from the pair and hatched them artificially. In time the hatchlings bred and eventually their progeny was released back to the wild. Now there are over 120 kestrels in the forests of Mauritius.
To see the kestrel, the third-rarest bird in the world, we took a bus to the south of the island to visit Domaine Du Chasseur, a private game park and nature reserve in the Bamboo Mountains. Hiking up a track through the sugar cane and pineapple gardens, we came to a plateau where we met Sylvain Quevauvilliers.
For six years, Sylvain has been feeding a pair of kestrels with a daily ration of mice to supplement their diet. As we watched, he raised his head to the sky and whistled. After a few minutes we saw a fawn-coloured, bespeckled bird soaring over the crest of a nearby hill. It circled downwards and perched on a branch, eyeing Sylvain. He held out his hand, a mouse on his palm, and whistled again.
The kestrel swooped low, its wings almost brushing Sylvain’s head. It seemed to brake with its head to the wind, hovering for a split second as it seized the mouse in its talons and flew away.
In the forests of the Domaine there are over 1500 Javanese deer as well as wild boar, flying foxes, monkeys and many of the rare birds of Mauritius. The owner of the Domaine, Alain O’Reilly, is of French and Irish ancestry. He has created nature trails for hikers and mountain bikers through the hills and organizes “Back to Nature” walks and waterfall bathing for visitors. There are six log cabins where nature lovers can stay in the forest, with views across the canefields far below to the bay where the British and French fought.
Nearby is the small town of Mahebourg, only ten minutes drive from the airport, and yet undisturbed by visitors. It is in the small towns and villages with their festivals, in the streets and corner grocery stores, and in the canefields, forests and mountains, that a stranger can discover more of Mauritius than most people ever see.
Royston Ellis lives in Sri Lanka and is author of the Bradt Guide to Mauritius