. . . being the question one is most asked having been to Mauritius. It is usually the only question and is taken as pre-empting all others. We went to Mauritius for no reason. It wasn’t a lifetime ambition and it wasn’t on any kind of tick list for either of us. The question was something like, “Which tropical island shall we go to after the skiing?” If this seems a very “first world” or privileged kind of question one should add that, sitting here in “lockdown”, it also seems a world away from where we are now. We got back a month ago and we haven’t left Warwick District since; nor, for the moment, can we even contemplate travel plans. Arguably, we were lucky to get back. On three successive days – the 13th, 14th and 15th of March 2020 – we were in three international airports on three different continents (Mauritius, Dubai and Birmingham). Looking back, we would not have chosen this because the day after our return the great Coronavirus lockdown began. So Mauritius may turn out to be the last place we go for some time – or even ever.
Lacking any great motivation to go means that our expectations were very limited, which allows for a kind of objectivity. There’s a sad paradox about Mauritius which is that it’s best known feature isn’t there. I mean the dodo which has entered the world’s languages in a proverbial kind of way. Dodos
have been extinct from about the mid-seventeenth century. But the bird’s history is a revealing clue to the nature of the island. Actually, we don’t really know what they looked like, but Sir John Tenniel’s sketch for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, drawn in 1865, has established itself as the definitive image. All the evidence suggests that they were fat, slow, flightless, defenseless and extremely edible. They could only survive in an isolated environment where there were no predators. Mauritius had no mammals except possibly some fruit bats – and no large birds or reptiles. This includes human beings: unlike North America or Australia this really was terra nulla, meaning that there are no “first nations” or ancient cultures in Mauritius.
As a result the most curious thing about the island is its demography. The period of Dutch domination (1598 – 1710) left little in this regard – though there are the ruins of forts. The French century (1710-1810) introduced African slaves and the British (1810-1968) indentured Indian labourers. Despite English being the official language and unlike some places with similar histories, such as St. Lucia, French – or patois variations of the language – has remained the normal language. Thus the island has many French tourists. It is surely the only place in the world where the normal spoken language is French and the commonest religion is Hinduism. For the tourist driving round the island this gives varied answers to the traditional parachute question about where you would think you are if you didn’t know. In many small towns and villages you would say India, though the answer would be Africa in some places. In the largest resort, Grand Baie, we felt we were in France and in the capital, Port Louis, in England. All that in a place smaller than Warwickshire.
I always enjoy botanical gardens in the tropics and the Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam gardens were good. The giant water lilies provided the most striking image, but we sheltered in a heavy downpour in the former governor-general’s palace which was intact, but essentially unused, a shell which gave the sheltering a strange, desultory atmosphere. Our guide was good, a man of my own age quite happy to alternate between English and French to suit the group he had with him. I enjoyed his explaining to the slightly incredulous French majority in his party that there were very good curries to be had in England. (I’m not sure how the subject came up.) The Black River Gorges National Park in the south west of the island was also worth driving to, a mountainous tropical landscape with torrential waterfalls. And in third place on our travels we liked Grand Port, the site of the battle between the British and French navies in 1810. Unusually, a squadron of French frigates saw off what seems to have been a rather badly commanded British squadron. However, “we” came back mob-handed and the French victory meant little in the end. Paradoxically, it seemed a very peaceful place and is overlooked by Lion Mountain, which resembles, very roughly, a reclining lion.
The second part of the parachute question, once you know where you are, is what are the surprises?
What did they (the guidebooks and websites) not tell you? I have two main answers. The first is the prevalence of the French language. You drive on the left and see road arrangements and signs that are exactly as they would be in the United Kingdom, but if you have to stop and ask the way it’s far more effective to do it in French. The second is sugar cane; it is a crop and commodity that has struggled on the global market and acreages have reduced in most countries, but here most land that can be cultivated is growing sugar cane. Third and last, the bats: they are huge (two foot wingspans) and come out in the afternoon, flying slowly around, especially over the tennis courts. Ann commented that for the first time in her life she had seen bats that looked like the ones in Hammer films. In fact they are like elephants in the Kruger in that globally they are rare and considered endangered but locally there are two many. They eat an awful lot of fruit.
So – the scores are in for Mauritus:
ARCHITECTURE 3 - unless you actually like gaudy, fussy Hindu temples the hotels are the most interesting buildings.
LANDSCAPE 7 - good variety as you would expect on a volcanic island.
WEATHER 4 - there was an awful lot of rain given that the rainy season was supposed to be ending, but the temperature in the sunny periods was lovely and we wouldn’t have wanted constant sunshine.
CULTURE 5 - interesting combination, but nothing you’d go for specifically.
FOOD & DRINK 7 - so far as I am concerned if there’s lots of curry and fresh tropical fruit you get the tick, but booze is expensive.
BEACHES 9 – the coral reef which rings most of the island means that the swimming in the lagoons is warm and calm but also interesting, as good as it gets.
If those scores are good enough to justify fifteen hours each way in the air . . . We didn’t regret going, but we wouldn’t go again. We very nearly regretted going, but that wasn’t the fault of the island.
Lincoln Allison April 2020