Marching through Mauritius

If hiking through heaven appeals to you then Mauritius is the place to go.

If hiking through heaven appeals to you then Mauritius is the place to go.

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The lovely island paradise of Mauritius, located about 2,000 kilometres southeast of Africa, is highly prized by nature lovers. It is one of the prettiest of the Mascarene Islands, and is one of the world’s hotspots for those in search of biodiversity beyond belief.

Known by some as the home and sole habitat of the now-extinct Dodo, Mauritius has succumbed to centuries of human intrusion, losing many rare species. However, conservation efforts established since the 1980’s, supplemented by programs that bolster threatened bird and plant species in the National Parks and Nature Preserves are helping a rebound of vibrant flora and fauna.

Settling in to Wonder

Port Louis is the popular capital of Mauritius, but I opted to stay in the highly recommended and utterly stunning western coastal Roches Noires area. Hugged by the same lush forests you’ll be hiking into, it offers a perfect green embrace each morning and evening, with a soothing soundtrack of bird song as music.

If you do yourself the favour of renting a comfy villa nestled in the hills, as I did to further enhance the trip. Then the experience is all the more personal. Why bother with the busy flow of hotel traffic, when you can have splendid amenities, privacy and constant attention by on-call management? A private pool and balcony for sipping drinks at sunset wasn’t a bad addition. Neither was a good sound system, lovely local art and a wet bar that made inviting new friends over for a drink a real blast.

On the Road

In addition to being an escape to some private luxury, my trip was also an extension of an old “car camping” addiction, in the sense that I rented a land cruiser that would better allow for the stopping and exploring of small canyons and streams wherever I wanted. I never ventured so far as to get lost, and left no valuables in the car. You can also take tour buses, travel via mini vans, jeeps and other transport modes, but my choice is the most private, ‘controllable’ option, despite being a little riskier.

Mauritius is known for its many nature trails, making for healthy veers off the normal tourist traps path. I’d recommend a bit of practice hiking before this trip. And, it’s best to wear good, waterproof, all-terrain boots for stream crossings on some trails. Sunscreen, mosquito repellent, spare socks and copious fluids are all must-takes too.

Black River Gorges National Park

The biggest national park in Mauritius, Black River Gorges is in the hilly southwestern area of the island. While it is a good drive from the north and easterly coastal Roches Noires, what a drive it is along roads that cut through verdant jungle of the richest type on the planet.

For this trip, I met up with a small group that had booked a guide to better understand the indigenous forests. We were shown many of the 311 species of endemic and native flowering plants and 9 bird species only found on Mauritius. One good look at the bright turquoise and red spotted Mauritius ornate day gecko, and I was hooked on nature’s brilliance.

The trails wind through 6,764 hectares (26 square miles) of hilly terrain, hence the ‘gorges’ appellation, but it is fairly easy trekking. During the trip we crossed paths with some of the island’s local people, as well as more of the wild population, feathered and coated. Mauritian parakeets, cuckoo-shrikes and kestrels constantly flitted about us through the trees.

A fleeting glimpse of a Mauritian flying fox was the high point of the trip, as was ending our meander from one spectacular vista to another by dipping in a river fed by a quiet waterfall. Since the island is a blend of French, English, African, Asian, Portuguese and Creole peoples, we feasted on a picnic fit for the kings and queens of many lands. Venison curry, spicy rougaille saucisses, and other local dishes just taste better in terrain that smells even lovelier than the dishes themselves.

Pouce Mountain

On another trip to the wilderness I took on the relatively easy hiking at Le Pouce Mountain, known as “The Thumb” due to its digit-shaped peak. The pinnacle provides 360-degree views of Mauritius and you get some inspiring snaps to show off on Facebook. I was thrilled to photograph the nearby islands to the north, Snake Island, Round Island and Flat Island, which stand out as jewels in the sea. I also appreciated the amazing farming techniques on this volcanic-earth island – crop fields cover the plains.

I had a ‘personal guide’ for the excursion, namely Marques, a friend who has lived on the island for years. We started from Moka Museum, where cars can be parked safely and he took me rock hopping through several side valleys. This seemed like a trip back in time for me and during the hike, Marques pointed out non-native guava and acacia plants, and the endangered, endemic Le Pouce Mountain Screwpine.

Le Pouce, at 812 m (2,664 ft) is the third highest mountain on the island, after Piton de la Petiite Rivière Noire (828 m) and Pieter Both (820 m). Its central plains location gives fine views, which were graced by scudding clouds that evaporated by the time our early morning, hour-long hike ended at the mountain top. Since Charles Darwin, a personal hero of mine, has been historically credited with the first climb of this mount, I felt as if I was standing on a piece of history as I took in the soaring views.

Piton Du Canot Mountain

Another day trip you can squeeze into a half-day if you want to is a hike up Piton Du Canot Mountain, which starts out in Chamarel Village.

I’d had dinner the night before in the village, at La Palais de Barbizón, where I tasted the finest Mauritian food ever: Roast fish with green chilli paste, seared fish and roasted boar, all washed down with a wondrous punch. Talk across tables about the mountain above firmed up my plan to hike it the next day. It’s another not-overly challenging trek and the 540m (1,771 ft) high mountain is a fun hike of under an hour.

While there are no really challenging sections, be careful of slippery rocks near the summit. I found this out going sideways, but the good boots kept me from going vertical. The horizontal path from the summit along the high ridge offers superb viewing of Isle aux Benitiers off to the northern direction. Mauritius’s beautiful lagoon is also easily seen when looking southwest, and you’ll feel like you’re trundling down a verdurous trail in Jurassic Park as you look down into Chamarel Valley.

Continue on down into Chamarel after passing Petite Moka and Montagne La Porte, and there are some restaurants to explore for lunch. I hiked the same route back, but considerably more slowly on full stomach.

Diverse Distractions

There are many other activities to engage in on and around Mauritius. They range from ocean sports to fun on land and cater for everyone from first-timers to thrill seekers. Favourite shopping centres include Grand Baie’s Grand Baie Bazar, for souvenirs, cheap clothing and crafts. It’s best to gently haggle, then try some local flavours at the food stands. Super U Hypermarket is a massive store with all you could want to stock your villa and there are shops to buy jewels, perfumes, clothes and all manner of crafts. Have a wander through Shopping Village and Grand Baie Store Plaza, where the range extends from cute to sublimely international.

Author Mark Twain said, “Mauritius was made first and heaven was copied after Mauritius.” To see this special island’s many hidden charms, it’s a must to travel to the interior on foot, even just for a day or two. The walk is definitely worth the work, and my guess is that, like me, you’ll want to head back to trek it many times.

Some Tips before you Trek

Making the most of Mauritius requires an understanding of the island and its ways. Here are some tips to get you started on a Hike to Heaven.

  • Be patient when travelling around and allow plenty of time. Though Mauritius is only 45 x 65 km (17 x 25 miles) in size, trips can take a long time with crowded roads. British left-lane is the mode, and it is fairly safe driving but use caution to avoid wandering pedestrians and dogs. If you use buses, taxis to get about, be aware that they are unreliable and can be slow.
  • Currency is the Mauritian Rupee (MUR), which can be bought before arrival on the island, but can be exchanged more cheaply on-arrival. ATM’s are available and most hotel restaurants and large shops take credit cards and British Pounds.
  • The underlying culture of Mauritius is rather conservative, so don’t show a lot of yourself when getting around town, plan to remove shoes outside homes and ladies are best dressed when using a sarong – for a headscarf or a skirt, as required.
  • As Mauritius is close to the Tropic of Capricorn, it has two tropical seasons. November to April is the warm humid summer, with temperatures of about 25° C (80° F) and June to September is a fairly dry and cool winter, with temperatures ranging about 20.4° (68° F). You’ll see most rainfall during the summer months.
  • The only airport on Mauritius is Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport. It is the home base for the national airline, Air Mauritius, which operates out of a smart new international terminal opened in 2013.
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