Port Louis and the SSR Gardens

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Africa » Mauritius » Port Louis
August 24th 2015
Published: June 2nd 2017
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Today we've booked a tour to the Mauritian capital of Port Louis, and our guide turns out to be the same Ibrahim who drove us from the airport to the hotel when we arrived.

We drive past the Le Morne Brabant mountain. Ibrahim says it's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is associated with a very sad and well known local story. During the years when slavery was practised here, the mountain was used as a hideout by runaway slaves. When slavery was eventually abolished, some of the slave masters found out about this, so they climbed the mountain to tell the runaways the good news that they were now free men. The slaves saw them coming and thought that they were about to be recaptured, so some of them threw themselves off the cliffs to their deaths. This is unbelievably sad.

Ibrahim tells us that the local economy is very strong, and that there is virtually full employment. We don't see too many obvious signs of poverty. He says that the economy is based around five main industries - tourism, sugar, textiles, IT and offshore banking. He says that their sugar is of very high quality, and all of it is exported. The sugar sold in the local shops is imported from Sri Lanka and is not nearly as good. I'm not sure this makes a lot of sense. I'm also not sure that I really know what offshore banking is, other than it sounding like it might be a bit inconvenient.

Port Louis is apparently named after the French King Louis XV. I'm not sure it matters too much which King Louis it was named after; it's just called Port Louis, not Port Louis XV, so it could have been named after any of them. I still wonder why nearly all French kings were called Louis. Surely at least a few of their parents could have come up with something a bit novel.

Our first stop is on one of the many hills that overlook Port Louis. Ibrahim tells us that there were originally 27 volcanoes in Mauritius. and we immediately start laughing. The number 27 is a standing joke in our family for some long forgotten reason. Ibrahim can't work out why we're finding this bland fact so funny. We decide that we won't be able to explain it to him, mainly because we're not sure we can remember ourselves, so I think that Ibrahim is now fairly certain that we're a bit weird. He says that only four of the 27 volcanoes remain. I wonder what happened to the other 23. He says that scientists say that all of the remaining four are dormant, but he says he doesn't believe this. He says that if they haven't erupted for millions of years, he doesn't think that there's any chance that they'll ever erupt again. He says that they should be declared extinct. I wonder how long a volcano has to be dormant for before it's declared extinct. I think that maybe the scientists are just being cautious. If they say that a volcano is dormant then no one can ever accuse them of being wrong whether it erupts or not.

We get a good view over the residential area of the city on one side of the hill, and the local racecourse on the other. We visit Fort Adelaide, also known as The Citadel, at the top of the hill. Ibrahim tells us that it was built by the British to defend themselves against possible invaders, but no one ever tried. I think that the British were being a bit cautious as well. I'm starting to think that Mauritius might be a very cautious place.

We head down into the main part of the city, and Ibrahim drops us off at the market. It's chaotic. Everyone tries to sell us something as we walk between the stalls. Issy sees a table cloth that she likes, and manages to bargain the shop keeper down from 5,400 to 2,000 Rupees. She asks him whether he takes credit cards, and he tells her that he does. When it comes time to pay, he tells me that I have to follow him, presumably to his credit card terminal. He leads me down some stairs, through the stalls, and then across the street into another building. The credit card terminal seems to be a long way from his shop. I start to wonder whether he owns lots of shops, and only has one terminal that serves them all. I then realise that the building I'm in is a bank. He points me to an ATM and tells me to withdraw cash. Our account has virtually nothing in it, which is why we wanted to pay by card. I tell him that he told Issy she could pay by card, but he says that no one in the market takes cards. Issy's still back at the shop, so I'm not in much of a position to argue.

Ibrahim takes us down to the waterfront. We pass some palm trees with gigantic grey trunks. They look like concrete and we have to touch them to convince ourselves that they're real. The buildings here look quite modern, and there seem to be quite a few upmarket shops here as well as a casino, and lots of very expensive looking yachts. Ibrahim says that only rich people come here. If this is the case I'm not sure what we're doing here. He takes us into a craft market where we're offered upmarket souvenirs for many times the price we could have bought them for at the other market. I wonder if Ibrahim gets a cut.

We head into the suburbs and stop for lunch at what we're told is a traditional Mauritian restaurant. The waiter gives us a menu, but then brings out some plastic samples of his seafood on a plate. He tells us that we can have either fish, fish, fish, prawns or lobster, served with chips, salad and rice. We order fish and chips. I'm not quite sure why we came to a traditional Mauritian restaurant just so we could eat fish and chips.

We move on to the SSR Botanical Gardens. These are apparently named after Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, who was Mauritius' first Prime Minister. I think I can now see why they call him SSR. The gardens are enormous and spectacular. Ibrahim says that there are 3,600 trees here from all over the world, and the gardens date back to 1736 during the period of French rule. Perhaps unsurprisingly there's no shortage of palm trees of various varieties. These include the Talipot Palm, a monstrously gigantic fan palm, which only flowers once in its life and dies straight afterwards. The trunk of the so-called "bleeding tree" is covered in a thick red resin which makes it look like it's made out of red wax. The water lily pond is a standout. The lily pads are about a metre across and there are hundreds of them. Ibrahim points us to the so-called witness tree which has huge above ground roots spreading out
Palm Trees, Waterfront, Port LouisPalm Trees, Waterfront, Port LouisPalm Trees, Waterfront, Port Louis

The trunks of these look like concrete. We touch them to make sure they are real.
many metres from its trunk. It's named after an incident a couple years ago in which a Chinese girl was taking a picture of her boyfriend sitting on one of its branches, when he fell off, banged his head on one of the roots, and died. Last stop is an enclosure full of giant tortoises.

We head back south towards the hotel. It's peak hour and we get stuck in a traffic jam in pouring rain. We pass some spectacularly steep mountains. Ibrahim points out one with what looks like a huge rock precariously perched right on its very sharply pointed peak. I wonder how it got there. I wonder even more why it hasn't fallen off. Ibrahim points out the village in the valley directly below it. I think I'd be very nervous if I lived there. I think that if I lived there I'd probably move.

I tell Issy that I think I might wear sandals to dinner on our last night here, just to see what happens. I don't think I'll really do this; I'm not that brave.

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