‘Mauritius was made first, and then heaven;
and heaven was copied after Mauritius.’
— Mark Twain
April 6, 2019, Port Louis, Mauritius — I’d heard of Mauritius, but before landing here, I didn’t know it’s a group of five coral-reef-surrounded, ebony-forested islands in the Mascarene archipelago, created by a volcanic explosion 8 to 15 million years ago. It’s 500 miles east of the island of Madagascar and 1200 miles from mainland Africa. The main island, Mauritius, is only 28 miles wide.
History in a Large Nutshell: The first recorded sighting of the uninhabited islands was by Arab traders in the 10th century. Then in 1507, Portuguese traders en route to India discovered but never settled them. Along came the Dutch, who’d spotted the islands in 1598 but didn’t colonize until 1638. They named the large island Mauritius after Prince Maurice van Nassau (so that’s where Nassau got its name!). They introduced sugar cane, which they brought from their holdings in Java, and slaves, bringing successive shiploads from Madagascar. But after decades of cyclones, drought, crop failures, pests and a series of bad governors, the Dutch abandoned the colony in 1710.
Mauritius is the only known habitat of the now-extinct Dodo bird. This one was in the house I visited. Doesn’t he remind you of Rumpole of the Bailey?
The Dodo had no natural predators, so they didn’t need to fly, and they weren’t afraid of anything. When the Dutch arrived, they didn’t waste a bullet — they wrung the bird’s neck and put it in the Dutch oven. Europeans also introduced rats, pigs and monkeys to the neighborhood... and they loved to breakfast on Dodo eggs. End of Dodo. The last one was killed (so we were told) in 1681.
In 1715, five years after the Dutch left, the French East India Company (yes, they had one, too) arrived, cleverly renamed it Isle de France, and made the island a supply base for their trading vessels headed to the East. The French Navy and corsairs (aka pirates) attacked British ships in the area, which didn’t go down well with Britain, who sent a naval force to capture the island. This they accomplished in 1810, taking control of it by the Treaty of Paris, under whose terms the Brits had to let the French settlers keep their land, property, language, customs and their civil laws (the Napoleonic Code, devised in 1804).
The French also saw the sugar cane potential. When you have sugar cane plantations, you need labor — i.e, you need slaves, who they brought from Madagascar. After slavery was abolished in 1835, the slaves were replaced with indentured servants, many from India, China, Madagascar and other parts of Africa.
Mauritius became an independent state in 1968, and in 1992 became a republic within the British Commonwealth, though not without several riots. Despite 200 years under Britain, French is still the official language. Most people speak ‘Creole French’ — but almost every sign I saw in Port Louis or along the road was in English with, peut-être, a smaller translation into French underneath.
After 400 years of colonization and immigration (forced or not), Mauritius is an international melting pot. You’ll find Hindu temples down the block from Christian churches down the block from mosques. Also synagogues: In the 1940s, a British ship loaded with Jewish refugees from Poland, en route to Palestine, was forced to stop and spend the entire war here.
With an agricultural economy based on sugar cane, rum (where there is sugar cane, there is rum), tea, vanilla, pineapples, mangoes, to name a few, it’s now building its ecotourism industry, backed by preservation and conservation efforts. The capital of Port Louis is home to the southern hemisphere’s oldest (18th-century) botanical garden, which is a tourist draw. There are 5-star resorts around the island offering snorkeling, scuba diving, catamaranning and other nautical pursuits. Or you can visit a dormant volcano crater or a lake sacred to the island’s Hindus and surrounded by temples.
For my day on Mauritius, I chose a two-part excursion that took me out of the Port Louis port and into the countryside. Road shots along way...many are fuzzy thanks to our driver, who drove like a bat out of hell.
First stop was to the Casela Nature Park, a combination aviary—safari park—adventure park. I did the birds and most of the animals, but I skipped ziplining and tearing up the grassland on an ATV.
A walk through the aviary... not all the cages had signs so let’s just call these Avis Belli Tropicali.
The conservation — and restoration — movement on Mauritius today is working to bring back some of the almost-extinct flora and fauna. For example, in the Endemic Birds Department: Pink Pigeon (there are around 50 left), the Echo Parakeet (12 left), the Mauritius Olive White-eye (100-150 pair left). These species’ demise was due to the introduction of mongooses, monkeys and cats that went feral. In the 1950s and 60s, DDT spraying to stop a malaria epidemic led to the almost total annihilation of the Mauritius Kestrel: it was reduced to only four birds. Today, with conservation efforts, it’s back up to 800-1000 birds.
Meant to tell you this back in Australia, but I’ll squeeze it in here, from an article in Condé Nast Traveler about northwestern Australia: ‘[Australian Wildlife Conservancy] scientists are devising strategies to return the land to the days before European settlement by removing cattle and wild donkeys and horses, controlling fires and invasive weeds, and above all exterminating introduced feral pests. Research... has shown that one feral cat can eat 6 to 12 native animals a day, and there are at a very conservative estimate 400,000 feral cats in northern Australia alone (and 12 million across the country).’ ... With apologies to my own feral cat, named Retread, whom I rescued many years ago; she lived a warm and well-fed life in my garage for 11 years.
After the birds, we mounted our zebra-striped safari vehicle for a visit to Safari Kingdom. The landscape is gorgeous and the animals either fenced in (the rhinos and big cats) or free-roaming, like these bullseye-butt Waterbuck, with the fetching French name Cobe à Croissant.
On the giraffe feeding platform. Obviously, we were the ones on the platform.
‘May I borrow your hankie, M’lady, I seem to have mud on my nose.’ There was a lovely South African waitress on last year’s cruise who always called me M’lady.
‘Excuse me, sir... were you planning to finish that sandwich?’
Our second stop was at ‘Eureka,’ the oldest house on the island, built in 1830 by an aristocratic sugar cane plantation owner, in what’s called the ‘creole’ style. He and his one and only wife produced 17 children, 9 boys and 8 girls. Miraculously, they all survived to adulthood, sleeping in two large dormitory rooms on the second floor. The family had 50 servants. The house has 109 doors. It is now a museum and a modest restaurant.
Everything in the house that’s metal — an old sewing machine, an old victrola — is totally rusted, due to the tropical climate. An interior detail...
The Lesson Learned...
A day or two before we reach a destination, we have a ‘Port Talk’ in the theatre, where we learn basic history and culture plus useful info on local currency, expected weather, etc. Illustrated with colorful and enticing Condé Nast Traveler-worthy images, Mauritius looked gorgeous, with Bora Bora-colored water, white sand beaches and lush rainforest, locals in colorful costumes, etc. But, depending on which excursion one had signed up for, we might — or might not — see what we expected to see. Because, naturally, a travel brochure never shows you shanty towns and streets full of litter.
‘There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.’
— Henry Miller
So what was the ‘lesson learned’? The day after we’d been on Mauritius, our Cruise Director, Heather, interrupted her Port Talk about the upcoming Madagascar stop to get up on what she called her ‘soapbox.’ She said she knew that some guests were not happy with their time on Mauritius, and they had not hesitated to let the office know of their displeasure.
Why did we stop there? It was poor. It was dirty. The buses were dirty. There weren’t decent bathrooms. Bitch, bitch, bitch. Heather reminded us, Mauritius is a Third World country, so of course it’s out of your comfort zone. She asked:
‘Don’t you want to learn about the rest of the world? Isn’t this why you travel?’
Mark Twain also wrote, ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.’
Would that it were so.
And to close out the day: During his ‘Let’s Face the Music’ one-man show, my friend Josh needed a little help with ‘Things,’ the old Dean Martin-Nancy Sinatra duet. I chimed in occasionally with just one word, ‘things.’ #