When we tell people that we are going to Mauritius, their first reaction is: where? When we explain that it is an island off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, they want to know how long it takes to fly there. Our answer is, we don't know. But we do know that it takes 8/9 days by sea from Fremantle in Western Australia to Port Louis, the capital.
Leaving Fremantle, the seas are mild and the winds are strong but as we head out to sea the waves get higher and the chop gets shorter and the ship begins to bounce around. Sylvia and I are not affected (we got our extreme sea-legs crossing the Atlantic) but a lot of passengers choose to stay in their cabins for the two days before the sea calms down. The rest of the sea voyage is quiet, comparatively, and we look forward to arriving in Mauritius.
France took possession of the island of Mauritius in the 18th
Century. They named it “Isle de France” and set up a fort and harbour at what is now Port Louis in an area protected from the strong southerly winds by the
Moka mountain range. Over time, Port Louis became the trading centre of Mauritius and its main naval base.
During the war between Britain and France in the early 1800s, Britain seized the island and ruled it until it gained its independence. With a population of nearly 2 million, it is the most densely populated country in Africa. There is a blend of Indian, Malaysian and European cultures and this is reflected in the cuisine. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are all represented on the island and appear to live harmoniously together.
We were due to arrive in Port Louis at 8am but when I looked out of our cabin window about 4am there were already lights showing from the shore as we rounded the north east corner of the island and then sailed south to the port.
The ship offered several excursions to various parts of Mauritius but they were fairly expensive and involved driving up and down narrow, steep roads which doesn't make Sylvia very happy so we decided to venture out on our own to see the city.
The harbour is about 2km from the city so the ship provided a shuttle
bus to take us to the Caudan Water Front, a large shopping centre near the centre of town. It was so obviously a tourist trap that we promptly walked up in to the main town centre. Once away from the waterfront, most of the streets were narrower and busier. Market stalls lined both sides to the point where traffic was almost unable to get through. We headed for the main markets in Rue La Reine (Queen Street) but the smell was so bad that we gave them a miss. Some people from the cruise did go in and later said it looked as bad as it smelled.
Sylvia and another woman from the ship, Maxine, were determined to buy material while they were here and the tourist office suggested they go to Corderie Street where there were many material shops. After getting a little lost, despite having a map, as the street names are mostly not sign-posted, we found the place - two blocks of material shops on both sides of the street. The girls were in heaven.
While we were there, we heard the sounds of a band and, on going out to the street, saw a
parade of about 2000 school children walking behind a band and marching girls. It was a charity walk by one of the local high schools raising money for “social work”. We didn't manage to find out what that meant in this instance but it was obviously considered to be a good cause.
After about an hour, we were all exhausted (the temperature was 30C+ and it was very humid) so we sought out a little coffee shop and rested in the air-conditioning for a while. Surprisingly for a country with a French background, coffee doesn't seem to be popular and there were few places that sold it. Refreshed and rehydrated, we headed back to visit the remainder of the material shops before returning to the waterfront for lunch and then back to the ship.
Mauritius wasn't what I had expected – at least the bit we saw. Unlike the Pacific Islands there was little on view which was “native”. It could have been anywhere in Europe. Even the main languages - English and French – were European. This was even more true in Reunion, our destination on the next day.
Reunion Island is 200 km
South West of Mauritius. It is a Department of France and officially part of the European Union. The currency is the Euro and the prices are European prices plus, as there is a 28% import tax on everything brought on to the island. This is somewhat bizarre when you take into account that everything grown on the island has to be shipped or flown to a market in France before it can be re-imported back to the island for retail sale. They are being taxed on the produce that they grow on the island plus the cost of sending it to, and bringing it back from, France!
Reunion was discovered by Portuguese sailors around 1570 but was not exploited until 1642 when it was officially claimed by the French as a penal colony for recalcitrant prisoners from Madagascar. Formal colonisation didn't occur until 1665 after the prisoners were sent back to France and the French East India Company sent out 20 settlers to their trading post on the island.
Reunion is a volcanic island though three of the four volcanoes are considered dormant. “Piton de la Fournais” on the Eastern side of the island, however, is still active
and is constantly monitored. It has erupted more than 100 times since 1640 - most recently in 2010 - but the largest explosion was in 2007 when the lava flow was estimated at more than 3 million cubic metres per day.
The main town of the island is Saint Denis, about 16km from the port, Pointe des Galets. The ship offered several tours of the island but they were either full of hairpin bends and steep narrow roads or visited things like reptile farms which we have seen many times in Australia so we opted to do a tour of St Denis. What we discovered was that St Denis is a bad copy of a French provincial town, set down in a beautiful semi-tropical environment. Even when we were able to get off the tour bus to visit the local “market”, it was like walking down a UK high street or a suburban mall in Australia. A small market we did visit was full of tourist knick-knacks at ridiculous prices, though we did manage to find a bottle of Geranium Oil made locally for 10 Euro. We later learned that the best market on the island is at St
Paul, South of the port and not on any of the ship excursions.
Next stop is Durban in South Africa, four days sailing away.
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