We sit outside basking in the afternoon sun. We are at a local Indo-Mauritian’s home on the auspicious day of Sankranti - an important Hindu festival for harvest. We listen to Mauritian versions of the Hindu legends I grew up learning, and in typical Indian hospitality, they let us join in the celebrations.
I look around at the familiar sights of Ganesh, Gujarati woodwork and the sacred red string tied around the man’s wrist - a symbol of luck and blessings. I try to wrap my head around the sights and sounds. The obvious images that one might expect to see on a trip to Mauritius are all here: the classic white sandy beaches, turquoise seas and swaying palm trees.
But in addition, my mind is bemused by the sight of women dressed in saris and men in kurtas. They are speaking Mauritian Creole, which is a French-based language, but they mix in some Hindi and Bhojpuri – a dialect specific to Bihar, the northern state of my parents' hometown. Thanks to my background in all three languages, I am thrilled to be able to grasp the gist of what seem to be fascinating tales.
SEE: Tropical island stays to suit your South African budget
There are Hindu temples, Chinese pagodas and Muslim mosques next to French cafés playing Bollywood tunes and serving Halal dim sum. Indo-Mauritians dance Séga, Franco-Mauritians learn Bharatnatyam, Sino-Mauritians play the djembe and everyone is eating rotis and samosas, biryani and ladoos (dishes served every Sunday in my childhood), and (just for good measure), shopping at Pick n’ Pay.
For someone born in Canada, schooled in French, raised by Indian parents and living in South Africa, it felt like I had fallen down a rabbit hole into the Alice in Wonderland of cultures (sadly, minus Dodgson the dodo), and I felt oddly at home.
Not a honeymoon package
I’ve learned from experience that the best way to see a place and feel its essence is through the eyes of the locals, and thanks to my hosts, I was going to experience Mauritius as only Mauritians know how.
Travel by car is the most effective way of exploring the country. The entire island can be traversed in only a few hours and each locality has something unique to offer. The names alone inspire curiousity. Districts are named after fruits or vegetables like Pamplemousses – named by the French for the pomelo trees abundant in the area, or Pointe the Piments (area of chillies) and Plaines des Papayes (field of papayas).
Capes are given emotions (Cap Malheureux) and towns named after the whistling wind from rough seas (Souffleur). Rivière Noire or Black River is named due to the black rocks that lay in the riverbed and along the banks, and Arsenal is so named because the Governor Labourdonnais constructed an arsenal at the bay in which he stored ammunition.
SEE: 20 must-do events during your 2017 Mauritius escape
The places are also as colourful as the names they have been given. Mountains decorate the island and are some of the most unique ranges I’ve ever seen. They are jagged and craggy and are so distinctive that you can determine your location based on their shapes. They haven’t escaped being given imaginative names and have been labelled according to certain (some not so) obvious characteristics.
Le Pouce, French for ‘the thumb’, is the third highest mountain and is named for its apparent thumb-shaped peak. There’s also a range named Les Trois Mamelles which translates as ‘the three breasts’ – much less apparent.
The second highest mountain in Mauritius is probably the most unique and can be recognized from all around the island. Pieter Both is named after the first Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies and resembles a human head that might topple and roll down the island and into the sea. It sits high up overlooking the Vallée des Prêtres, a valley given its name during French colonization when the government donated the land to the resident priests.
Paradise in the hills
We stay at the Mon Choix guesthouse, the only accommodation in the area. After a day of diving or lounging at the beach, the cool mountain air and sunset on the surrounding ranges is a nice change of pace. At night the stars above and city lights from below are ablaze, and at sunrise a rainbow of birds come to feed on the veranda. There are easy hikes from the guesthouse into the surrounding hills and sugarcane fields.
The area has been the source of inspiration for many Mauritian poets, and the leading Mauritian philosopher, poet and painter, Malcolm de Chazal spent time here writing his famous Petrusmok, an insight into the legends of the shapes of the mountains. He writes about how a race of giants carved out sculptures into the mountains and are part of a mythical past.
The guesthouse's close proximity to the capital of Port Louis makes this a worthwhile alternative for accommodation on the island. I go on an exploration of the city centre, which is small enough to navigate by foot, and land at some interesting sights.
Poetry in the streets and Bollywood in the park
La Rue du Vieux Conseil is an ancient cobblestone road home to a photographic museum that houses some of the oldest daguerreotypes in the world. There is also a quaint little café here and if you don’t stop to smell the frangipanes, you’d miss the beautiful poems by Malcolm de Chazal posted on lampposts that line the road. My favourite one is, “L’oeil est la plus belle salle de rendez-vous", which translates to “The eye is the most beautiful place of meeting.”
Nearby is a park filled with giant banyan trees and hundreds of locals catching a rest at lunchtime. A food market nearby sells the local delicacies and I buy a roti and tamarind juice and join the group of people enjoying the afternoon sun.
Suddenly, a loud noise breaks the silence and I notice the enormous speakers installed in the massive trees. The latest Bollywood tune blares through the park and it comes alive. I feel certain that a sari-clad woman was about to pop up from behind a banyan tree to woo her lover nearby. I spot a cinema playing the latest Bollywood film nearby and decide to find such a scene on screen instead.
The central market is a tourist attraction and is filled with magic. They sell everything you can imagine from curios to everyday items and it is an extremely lively affair. I am definitely getting into the thick of it all, but I find myself feeling a little claustrophobic and start gasping for compressed air.
Deep down the barrel
Diving in Mauritius offers sites as diverse as the people that live around them. From the north off Grande Gaube, Coin de Mire (Gunner’s Coin) is hard to beat. The island alone is attractive and is home to many rare species of birds like the red-tailed tropicbird. It was given its name because it resembles the wedge used to aim a cannon. The visibility here almost always reaches past 40 meters and the wall drops down into breathtaking scenery. Reaching the sandy bottom, we enter into an underwater valley and sunbeams shine through the crevices from above. The smooth towering walls on either side run perfectly parallel to one another and the water is so clean and clear, it's as if the water isn't there and I’m breathing air on a bright sunny day with clear blue skies.
SEE: Gypsetting: Mauritius from a different perspective...
Late night octopus wraps
Grande Baie, the popular tourist destination, is not far and is a great jumping off point for diving in this area. You’ll find anything from luxury hotels, spas, and tourist shops to supermarkets, pharmacies, doctors and banks. This is where the nightlife is and we set out for a night on the town.
Night turns to morning and on our way back home we stop to grab a snack at a store around the corner. I figure that it’s the only place that’s open because there are people lined up all the way down the road. It is only when I bite into my sumptuous roti that I understand why everyone is here.
Apparently, this treat can only be purchased at this hour of the morning for those hardy enough to still be awake. It’s not really a breakfast-type snack so don’t try waking up early to get one. It’s called ourite; a curry made with octopus and tastes much better than it looks.
Flying past underwater temples
Diving in the east side of the island is like simultaneously going to an amusement park and a temple at once. The Belle Mare pass is a 2km long and 1.5km wide natural pass in the barrier reef. There are several dive sites and no matter where you jump in, you are sent soaring. The strong tidal currents provide a feeding ground for many different species of fish and the site presents some interesting views along the way. I fly past fallen statues of Hindu deities and before I get the chance to give thanks and ask for blessings, I am tossed into another underwater world. I battle to remain at a large statue of Ganesh when I see a ray hover effortlessly beside me. This side of the island offers coral canyons, elaborate channels, and large fish like barracuda, bull and grey sharks.
A photographer's playground
The north-west coast is much more sheltered and is therefore the chosen location to have intentionally sunk wrecks to create artificial reefs. The Mauritius Marine Conservation Society sunk the first wreck, Water Lily, in 1980 and since then many more were sunk. The two barges, Water Lily and Emily, lay at 26 meters and are only 30 meters apart. The visibility is often clear here and you can easily travel between both wrecks. It is a photographer’s paradise.
There are juvenile spotfin lionfish, devil lionfish and clownfish. The bluelined snapper pose in groups next to the wrecks and their yellow bodies contrast the blue background perfectly. The fish are so curious that often my shots were spoiled thanks to a friendly port-inspection. There’s a resident eel that’s claimed one of the tires as its home and seems to enjoy the occasional stroke under the chin.
Next, I am brought to a site that has yet to even be named. My host stumbled upon it during an underwater exploration. This place is an underwater oasis. It is just one tiny patch of coral that exists as a self-sustaining community of fish. I’ve never seen so much life in one place. This place was like an underwater daycare with juvenile snapper, the tiniest clownfish, and miniscule lionfish. The site lies only 18 meters deep and is about 20 meters long and 8 meters wide, so you can happily explore as long as your air lasts. For photographers, it’s an underwater haven.
A wild adventure in the south
The south of Mauritius is a wild and rugged scene. Le Morne Brabant has a turbulent past to match its wild surroundings. Located at the southwest tip of the island, escaped slaves would take shelter in the caves on the mountain. When slavery was abolished, legend has it that residents misunderstood the arrival of messengers of peace and jumped to their deaths to avoid being captured.
In this part of the island the flora grows wildly, the buildings are dilapidated and even the divemasters make you carry your own tanks and gear; a contrast to the pampered treatment in the rest of the island. The boat dive is from an inflatable raft through rough seas and is a thrilling ride out.
Holding on to the ropes, I look out at the landscape. It is wild and plentiful and refreshingly free of resorts. I wonder about the world beneath the waves. We are diving at the St Jacques pass, a dive that starts at about 8 meters through a narrow pass with cliffs on either side and ends at 25 meters. We jump out and head down. As an underwater photographer, I cannot leave my camera behind when I dive. However, and it is with great trepidation that I state this, but I might suggest leaving your camera at home for this one.
Within seconds of reaching the bottom, we are sucked into a vortex. We need to hang on to anything we can grab and once we manage to, we are like flags flapping fiercely in the wind. When you only have one hand to hold on with (and even that I use reluctantly – in attempt to both protect and capture), things can get a little tricky on a drift dive. But the divemaster was a pro and I am not his first foolish photographer. I don't even know how it happened, but suddenly, I am poised over a ridge, suspended in mid-sea. The divemaster and my host are holding on to me by my BCD (buoyancy control device), one on each arm, leaving my hands free to shoot.
Then, as if rehearsed, a procession began. First came the giant silver trevallys, then a ray, followed by a shark. Then another ray, and another shark. We are now surrounded by 5 rays hovering above and 4 sharks circling around us. We scramble to the ocean floor and try to secure a seat for the show. The huge pelagics soar over us and glide past us. I look up from the viewfinder at my fellow divers.The current is so fierce that our bubbles blow past in a diagonal and it is a comical sight. We resurface somewhat bruised and battered, dry off, and head out for a drive through the hills.
Colourful people, colourful land
We visit Chamarel’s Coloured Earths – a geological formation of sand dunes displaying seven colours of sand caused by the cooling of volcanic rock. When you mix the sands together, eventually, they will always separate. We leave here to view the nearby waterfall and end the day kicked back at La Rhumeraie (a rum distillery) sipping on fruit-infused rums.
As is the case in every country I've visited, the tastiest and most exciting food are always found at roadside stalls. 'Gatêaux piments' are fried chilly cakes and they can be found at almost every corner store and some local homes who've set up a make-shift store with a stove and deep fryer. We find the latter and treat ourselves to these delectable snacks and wash them down with a cold beer.
In addition to being the perfect island getaway, Mauritius has a rich and thriving culture. Mauritians embrace diversity, which has resulted in a harmonization of cultures into one that is unique to them alone. The Kreol language became the common thread that tied it all together. This gave new generations a sense of community; they saw themselves as being Kreol by virtue of speaking Kreol instead of belonging to one of the specific Asian or European communities. Kreol Morisien is a complex language. The majority of words are of French origin, but it is also comprised of words borrowed from English, several Indian languages, as well as from Chinese and Arabic.
Sugar and spice and everything nice
My final day arrives and my send off is true to the local theme. Sugarcane fields have played an important social and economical role in Mauritius and still remain the pillars of Mauritian economy. They cover fifty-percent of the island, and thanks to my local guides, I discover that they are also a great source of fun and adventure.
Taking a walk through the fields with the wind rustling the leaves is a wistful and dreamy experience. As we stroll, I am told of childhood stories of when they would play under the massive irrigation sprinklers. We arrive as the sun is setting, and after collecting some local brew and grabbing a guitar, we sit high up on an abandoned fort and watch the sun stretch its final rays; fulfilling another day in paradise.
A place where mangoes fall at your doorstep for breakfast and pineapples are eaten dipped in the sea, tu dimunn pu vini kreol (anyone can become Kreol).
Follow Shalini Tewari on Instagram
What to read next on Traveller24:
- Quick Guide: Mauritius
- Mauritius: A Foodie's Paradise!
- Tee-off in the tropics: 3 golf courses and what you can expect