Back To Nature
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|January 2022 / Issue 218
Over the centuries Mauritius has lost many of its native species. But travellers who return post-pandemic will find not only an incredibly warm welcome but an Indian Ocean paradise trying to do better
By Lyn Hughes

It was an assault on the senses, albeit a gentle one. I had landed in a world of vivid greens and blues, of chattering birds and new, intoxicating scents. The previous 18 months now seemed a monochrome blur from which I had emerged into an enchanted land of dazzling light.

Walking to my hotel room, colourful birds played in the lush vegetation, almost close enough to touch. Looking towards the sea, the beach was a dreamy sweep of white sand, dotted with shade-giving palm trees. The turquoise-blue water was invitingly calm, with a white line of breaking surf offshore marking where the reef formed a defensive barrier. A glass-bottom boat had just returned from an excursion and discharged a clutch of grinning snorkellers who excitedly swapped tales as they clambered out.

I was visiting Mauritius just ten days after it reopened to tourism, and visitors were being welcomed back with huge – and relieved – smiles. “Welcome, welcome,” one beaming hotel worker said to me. “If you’re happy then I’m happy.”

That night I fell asleep to the sounds of crashing surf and trade winds brushing the palms. And I woke to sombre skies and pouring rain… But, taking an open boat to the nature reserve island of Ile aux Aigrettes, Rose Marie Pierre of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation made it clear the rain was welcome: “We’re happy to have it.”

Within minutes of landing and walking through dripping forest, I had to pinch myself again to check I wasn’t in some alternate fantasy world as we bumped into a lumbering giant tortoise. And then another. A small bird in crimson breeding plumage landed in a tree right next to us: an endangered Mauritius fody, Rose exclaimed with glee. Then, just as she started talking about pink pigeons and how numbers had crashed to just nine in the 1990s, one landed on a high branch just ahead. All we were missing was a dodo.

When Mauritius was visited by Portuguese and then Dutch sailors in the 16th and 17th centuries, they found no human population. Rather, they discovered a large, flightless, curious and naive bird that had no fear of them at all. Dodos made an easy food source; they were also affected by introduced species such as rats and monkeys, which ate their eggs and young. The last confirmed dodo sighting was in 1662.

Many other endemic species became extinct after the arrival of humans. Mauritius once had two species of giant tortoise, Rose explained, but they suffered the same fate as the dodos. The tortoises played an important role in dispersing the seeds of endemic trees, such as ebony, so it was decided to reintroduce tortoises from Aldabra in the Seychelles. Ile aux Aigrettes now has a breeding centre, and they are found in reserves and other spots throughout Mauritius.

Rose crouched by one particular female tortoise known to be over 80 years old; she scratched her head and stroked her shell. The tortoise seemed to be enjoying the attention, just as a dog would. “See how sensitive their shells are? Come and stroke her.” If the tortoise had been a cat she would have been purring.

MAROONS’ MOUNTAIN

Back on the mainland, it was time to explore the interior, where dramatic basalt outcrops, formed by volcanic eruptions, soar above vast fields of sugarcane. While the scenery was beautiful in its own way, my visit to Ile aux Aigrettes had taught me that Mauritius had not only lost much of its native wildlife but had also been cleared of most of its native forest: trees were felled for boat-building, to be exported for furniture-making and to make way for the planting of sugarcane.

The French took over from the Dutch in the early 18th century and slaves were brought in from parts of Africa to work the land. The British took the island in 1810 and also used slaves until slavery was abolished; they then switched to using indentured labour from India and other parts of Asia. This chequered history has led to the rich mix of cultures that are found on the island today.

Rugged Le Morne Brabant mountain commands the skyline on the south-west of the island, standing sentinel over sweeping white beaches and sheltered coves, as well as a legendary wave, One Eye, which attracts surfers from around the world. But it is also where large numbers of escaped slaves, known as maroons, once hid, sheltering in the small caves that pockmark its sides. Legend has it that on 1 February 1835, the day that slavery was abolished, a number of police and soldiers went to the mountain to tell the maroons they were now free; however, seeing the authorities approach, the former slaves feared they were to be attacked and chose to end their own lives by jumping from the mountain.

While no one is sure whether the tale is true, this was certainly the maroons’ stronghold. Some visitors hike up Le Morne Brabant’s sides, the more intrepid climbing to the top. But I found I just wanted to stand at the bottom of the mountain, at the Slave Route Monument, and contemplate the hardships the maroons endured.

GOING GREENER

While sugarcane may still dominate the Mauritian landscape, there are a growing number of dedicated individuals and organisations working to conserve the remaining native species, protect the environment and rewild and reforest the country. I was travelling with Darren Taylor, the half-Mauritian director of tour company Pure Breaks. He has bought a plot of land here, which he is currently rewilding.

We paid a visit to Ebony Forest, a reserve dedicated to protecting the island’s flora and fauna. Jean-Francois, a young local man working as a guide, spoke with passion about the importance of restoring the natural ecosystem of Mauritius before we planted a native tree. After admiring a pen of giant tortoises, soon to be introduced here, we took a 4WD up through the endemic forest and strolled along a raised walkway to Sublime Point, where we had a panoramic view of the plateau below, the dazzling coastline and poignant Le Morne Brabant.

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