Mauritius: Made of sugar and spice

By Heather Ramsay

Does this sound familiar? Long ago, an island group was formed in the southern reaches of one of the world's great oceans, far away from other land masses. The coastline was a mixture of attractive beaches and wild, rocky shores, and the mountainous interior was cloaked in dense forest that supported a variety of unique birdlife. There were no humans and no mammalian predators, and over millennia some of the birds lost the ability to fly, instead foraging on the forest floor in safety.

Then disaster struck. Humans discovered this isolated paradise and because the ground-dwelling birds had no knowledge or fear of people,
they were easy prey for hunters who sought their meat and feathers. Their habitat was destroyed for fuel, building materials and agriculture, and invasive pests were introduced.

The birds had no chance of survival and within an evolutionary heartbeat, an entire species was dead. Dead as a dodo in fact, because the place I'm referring to is not New Zealand, but Mauritius, which was home to the ungainly bird that has become a catchphrase for something that is totally beyond resurrection.

Mauritius is the oldest island in the Mascarene archipelago in the Indian Ocean, about 900km east of Madagascar and 2000km off the African mainland. Its ecological history makes interesting but sorry reading, and bears many resemblances to New Zealand, as does its history of human discovery and settlement.

Regional seafarers noted its existence as early as the 9th century, and from the 16th century Dutch, French and British explorers arrived, all seeking to expand their interests in the Southern Hemisphere.

In 1642 Abel Tasman called at Mauritius on his way to "discovering"
Tasmania and New Zealand, but despite these parallels, it doesn't take us long to realise that Mauritius isn't an Indian Ocean version of home.

Like most visitors we're headed for the beach, and the drive to our resort takes us through vast plantations of swaying sugar cane, which sweep up the flanks of the jagged volcanic spine that dominates the island's landscape.

On one side, threatening clouds wreath the tallest peaks, while on the other the tropical sun glitters on a brilliant blue lagoon stretching away to a fringing reef.

It's not just the landscape that's foreign. Signs point to places such as Belle Mare, Trou d'Eau Douce and Quatre Bornes, and in the tidy, European-looking towns we see statuesque Indian women in vibrant saris shopping in markets, and African fishermen mending their nets under a baobab tree.

Mauritius has gorgeous white sand beaches and warm, clear water. But our problem is finding enough time to spend on them. For a small island (it's slightly bigger than Stewart Island) there's a lot of exploring to be done.

If a single element can be given credit for the island's heady cultural cocktail, it's sugar, so we head to L'Aventure du Sucre, an extensive museum housed in the former Beau Plan sugar factory.

The interactive exhibits give an insight into the workings of a sugar factory and a comprehensive history of the world's fascination with sugar throughout the ages. Displays also trace the cultural, ecological,
economic and political development of Mauritius, much of which is intertwined with the sugar industry.

The Dutch established the first permanent settlement in 1638, but many setbacks saw them abandon the island in 1710. During their short reign they wiped out the dodo and several other species, released deer and pigs, decimated the ebony forests, and introduced sugarcane, bringing slaves from Africa to work in the forests and cane fields.

In 1715 Mauritius became a French colony, with the first settlers arriving in 1722. The sugarcane industry was expanded and the French embarked on a public building programme, developed a ship-building industry and diversified agricultural production. More slaves were brought from Madagascar and the African mainland, as well as a smattering from India.

The French turned Mauritius into a busy trading port, and it also became a safe harbour for corsairs, state-backed pirates who attacked ships of enemy countries, notably Britain. Angered by the raids, the British retaliated, and the French ceded the island to them in 1810.

Many stayed on, and French institutions such as the Napoleonic legal system were retained. English became - and still is - the official language, but even today French and Creole remain the lingua franca of the nation.

The British abolished slavery in 1835, but then brought indentured
labourers from India to work in the cane fields, as well as Chinese workers. Independence was granted in 1968 and Mauritius became a republic in 1992.

It's a lively history and we find physical evidence of it everywhere, whether it's abandoned French cannons pointing out to sea as if ready to bombard an enemy ship, the imposing British citadel that overlooks the capital Port Louis, elaborate Hindu and Chinese temples, or the evocative World Heritage site at the Immigration Depot, also known as Aapravasi Ghat.

After slavery was abolished, the British still needed labour in the colonies, and Mauritius was the first country where they implemented their indentured workers scheme. Almost half a million souls passed through Aapravasi Ghat, either to remain in Mauritius or be relocated to other parts of the empire.

For these new arrivals, the 14 wharf steps were the gateway to the island, and the short climb between sea and shore came to symbolise the end of the old life and the start of the new.

It's not a spectacular site, but the echoes of hardship and promise, hope and apprehension make it a particularly moving place.

Today more than half the locals can link their heritage to these steps, with Indo-Mauritians making up about 65 per cent of the population of 1.2 million.

There are mosques and temples throughout the country, but the adaptability and endurance of the Indian spirit is encapsulated at Grand Bassin, which we visit on our way to the strange geological aberration known as the "Seven-Coloured Earths of Chamarel".

Grand Bassin also goes by the name Ganga Talao, or Lake Ganges. Since Indians arrived in Mauritius, many myths have sprung up around this
small highland lake, and in the late 1890s a Hindu priest made the first pilgrimage after having a vision of Ganges water springing from the depths.

Today it is an important sacred site and even on a chilly winter's morning we see people partially immersed in the water making offerings to the gods, while incense curls from myriad shrines, its cloying perfume dissipating in the fresh highland air.

Once a year during the Mahashivaratri Festival, hundreds of thousands of
Mauritians of all cultures trek to Grand Bassin, making it the largest pilgrimage to a Hindu site outside India.

The population balance is made up mainly of Creoles, followed by Chinese, French and English. To the visitor, there seems to be an enviable degree of religious and cultural tolerance and the Mauritians we speak to embrace each others' celebrations with gusto, whether it's a Muslim or Hindu festival, Chinese New Year, or dancing the flamboyant sega to the rhythm of African drums.

Strangely, the longest-serving and most recent colonial power, Britain, seems to have had minimal influence on popular culture. Another significant cross-cultural event is the Père Laval pilgrimage, when thousands of Mauritians of all faiths visit the shrine of Father Jacques Désiré Laval.

Popularly known as Père Laval, this 19th-century French missionary captured the hearts of the people with his selfless dedication to the sick and poor, especially the freed slaves. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1979, and although he hasn't been bestowed with sainthood yet, many believe his shrine is the site of miracles.

Not far from the shrine, we admired the bust of another much-loved Frenchman, which overlooks a pond of giant Amazonian water lilies in Pamplemousses Botanical Gardens. The aptly named Pierre Poivre (poivre means pepper) was an administrator and an early conservationist. In the mid-1700s he aimed to break the Dutch stronghold on the spice trade by smuggling seeds into Mauritius.

Pamplemousses became his nursery, and his passion for flora saw him establish a garden that incorporated plants from all over the world, as well as many threatened indigenous species. Today the extensive garden could almost be a metaphor for Mauritius itself - peaceful, exotic, multi-faceted and very beautiful.

Heather Ramsay was a guest of Air Mauritius and Naiade Resorts.

On the web: www.airmauritius.com, www.naiaderesorts.com.

GETTING THERE
Air Mauritius flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. There are many
trans-Tasman connections, and a new interline agreement with Virgin Blue
will mean smoother ticketing and transitions. See www.airmauritius.com.

Where to stay
The Mauritian-owned group Naiade has six attractive resorts around
the island. See www.naiaderesorts.com.

Getting around
Local company Solis provides tailor-made tours with a knowledgeable
driver-guide. They can also arrange accommodation, transfers and self-drive car rental. See www.solis-io.com

When to go
Peak tourist time is December and January, but that's also the hot, rainy season. July & August are generally mild, but be prepared for some cooler days and occasional rain. Locals recommend September and October.

Further information
See the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority website at www.tourism-mauritius.mu.

- NZ Herald

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