I step into a small boat that sways with the rhythm of the choppy waters. Still yawning and fantasising about the comfortable hotel bed that I left behind, the cold wind pushes me to wake up. It is winter here in Mauritius, and I am sailing towards the rising sun.
Dessy Narayanasamy, the local fisherman who operates the vessel, puts down the anchor somewhere off the shore. The grey sky in front of us soon turns pink and orange; the sun moves away from the horizon just as a rainbow peeks out from the clouds. Rainbows seem to be following me around in Mauritius. However, it isn’t the picture-perfect sunrise that captures my attention, but the measured words of Narayanasamy talking about his ancestors and the long history of indentured labour on the island.
He sits in a corner of the boat as he narrates; his hands busy as he pours coffee from a thermos and passes a box of gateau piment (lentil and chilli fritters), stiff bread and cheese.
His story begins with how first the Arabs and then the Portuguese discovered Mauritius. While neither chose to stay, they marked the island on their maps as a tiny retreat; a place to rest, hunt and recuperate during long voyages. It was the Dutch (with their slaves) who settled here first, only to abandon it when obstacles like sickness and escaping slaves came their way.
From 1710, Mauritius was colonised by the French and the British successively. They dabbled in slave trade—bringing in slaves from Africa—and started the sugarcane plantations. And when they chose to abolish slavery in 1835, their need for cheap labour had them looking eastwards. A ‘Great Experiment’ was started and in came contract-based or indentured labourers, their conditions only marginally better than the slaves. Shipped from countries like India and China, they came bearing five-year contracts to work in the plantations. Narayanasamy’s ancestors were among the 450,000 labourers that set sail from India.
His words stay with me as he packs up our breakfast, pulls up the anchor and rows the boat back. The sun is much stronger now and Mauritius seems to be waking up right in front of our eyes.
Later that day I make it to Aapravasi Ghat, an immigration depot that was build specifically to receive the same labourers.
Walking down the steps of the Ghat, I imagine the scene unfold: European officers standing at the depot; ships brimming with labourers headed their way; hundreds filing out of the vessels, curious about their new lives but eager for the safety of land; officers noting down their names, or whatever they could make of them. (Many Indian names in Mauritius are spelt differently. For instance, Swamy becomes Samy or Kunji becomes Koonjee, etc.
A left turn takes me up the 16 wharf steps that the labourers must have taken when they first stepped into the island. But they weren’t allowed to work just yet. First, they had to go through a health check-up to assure the colonisers they were disease-free. They stayed at the depot for days before they were assigned estates and factories to work in.
As I walk up the stairs, I am told that less than half the structure still stands today (the rest was taken down to develop the surrounding Port Louis). On both sides, I find separate rooms for men and women, toilets and kitchens. A well-preserved clinic and a stable stand a little outside, next to a patch of grass.
There were many deliberate loopholes in the indentured labour system and its success was marked by its adoption in other colonies. Despite their lives being filled with hardships, many labourers chose to extend their contracts or stay on in Mauritius as workers.
Free from the shackles of caste and religion, this was considered a better life. Today, Indians comprise more than sixty per cent of the population.
No doubt, the history of this island nation is documented in its monuments and natural beauty. Our drive to L’aventure du Sucre, much like a drive anywhere else on this island, is marked by lush sugarcane fields and crystal waters. The route has little scenic hamlets cropping up here and there. The landscape’s beauty seems vivid and close enough to touch, as if I am viewing it through binoculars.
Over fifty per cent of arable land in Mauritius is used to grow sugarcane. The British called it white gold, and much of the history of the country begins with sugar at its heart—a fact most palpable at L’aventure du Sucre.
The attraction has been carved out of the erstwhile Beau Plan Sugar Factory. My visit begins at the area where sugarcane was once crushed. I then enter the museum, which still houses the original machinery and showcases the steps of processing sugar—clarification, cooking, crystallisation, spinning and drying. Also, there are interactive screens, installations and albums to take me through the history of the island, right from the volcanic eruption that gave birth to Mauritius’s ecology, to the three times it was colonised.
Much like how every part of a sugarcane plant is utilised in the production of sugar—cane fibre is used to fire the thermal power plants, scum is used as a natural fertiliser and molasses is turned to rum—I realise, every element of every culture in Mauritius is incorporated to create a proud national identity. People from different origins—French, African, Indian or Chinese—maintain their culture, religion and language, but put their Mauritian identity first. Most can speak English, French and Creole.
I don’t let go of these strands of history as the grand façade of Château de Labourdonnais inches closer. I have lunch at La Table du Château, which overlooks the Labourdonnais estate.
A privately owned colonial home, Château de Labourdonnais was built by Christian Wiehe whose descendants lived there until it was recently converted into a museum. Surrounded by farmland, the white manor has religiously maintained its original furnishings, wallpapers, silverware and even the nightclothes worn by the residents. Photographs aren’t allowed in certain areas, so I shove my phone inside my pocket and resist the urge to click, click, click.
Sprawling across 540 hectares, it branches into an orchard and a rum distillery. I walk around the orchard where papaya, guava and passion fruit grow in earnest. At their shop, La Corbeille, I indulge in fruit candies and freshly made jams.
I squeeze in a visit to Le Domaine des Aubineaux, and I am fairly disappointed. Built in 1872, the gorgeous blue-and-white colonial manor has all its rooms connected to one another. I navigate through its maze-like structure, to find the antique furniture covered in dust, the tapestry worn down and the original documents and photos strewn all over the furniture. Even rundown, this colonial house seems to be losing all its charm. The adjoining tea estate though, is a different story. Mark Twain once called Mauritius ‘the blueprint of heaven’, and it is easy to see why here. Surrounded by rolling tea gardens, serene lakes and pretty hills, I don’t feel like leaving or even moving.
In the southwestern part of the island, Le Morne beach is quite a spectacle. It is busy—I am here on a Sunday and find plenty of kite-surfers boisterously run in the waters with their equipment.
The Unesco World Heritage Site, Le Morne Brabant, is the 556-metre summit that towers over the Slave Route Monument. At the base of the mountain, a central sculpture is surrounded by other engravings and statues erected by the countries that were affected by or recognise the horrors of the slave trade.
Sculptures from India, France, Madagascar, Senegal and Malaysia catch my eye. I walk around the circle, my mind as quiet as the surroundings, the hustle across the road all but forgotten.
The backdrop of the Monument, Le Morne Brabant, is soaked in a dreadful legend. After slavery was abolished in 1835, it is said that the British dispatched the police to inform the slaves of their liberation. But the slaves, scared to see the police charge, climbed the summit and jumped to their deaths. “There were hundreds of them, but my people, the maroons, chose the kiss of death over the chains of slavery”, writes Richard Sedley Assonne.
Although there is no actual proof (no bones found and no written records of the deaths), the significance of this peak is not lost to time.
We know of the beaches, the coral reefs and lagoons that surround this island but if you walk away from the powdery sand and turn your back to the water, you might find an enchanting tale hidden in the tall sugarcane fields.
- There are limited options for flying to Mauritius. Air Mauritius has the only direct flight (from Mumbai) while Emirates has a one-stop option. You can opt for a visa-on-arrival, which is easy to get. In Mauritius, you can use taxis or hire a car for hassle-free transit.
WHERE TO STAY
- In the north of Mauritius, Zilwa Attitude is a rustic, contemporary beachfront property with 214 rooms built in traditional architecture. They organise boat rides to watch the sunrise, and a dining experience with a local family for a truly immersive experience (from approx. `23,580; hotels-attitude.com).
- Sofitel Mauritius L’Impérial Resort & Spa, on the west coast, has one of the most spectacular sunsets. If you manage to pull yourself away from their beach, you can enjoy golfing, spa sessions and shopping on the property. They also organise beachside barbecues (from approx. `22,300; sofitel. accorhotels).
- The 158 suites at Heritage Le Telfair Gold & Wellness Resort are located in seaside villas. With a European Tour-branded golf course, a nature reserve and an extensive wellness programme, you won’t feel like leaving the place (approx. `9,900; heritageresorts.mu).
WHAT TO DO & EAT
- Take a stroll through Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden in the Pamplemousse district. Initially opened as a private garden for the French governor 300 years ago, the garden has more than 650 varieties of plants. Look for the great water lilies and try to spot all 85 varieties of palm trees here.
- At Le Caudan Waterfront, visit Blue Penny Museum that has a vast collection of prestigious post-office stamps.
- Spend your afternoon at the Cap Malheureux church, popularly known as the Red Roof Church.
- Enjoy wine tasting at Takamaka Boutique Winery (takamakawinery. com) or rum tasting at Rhumerie de Chamarel (rhumeriedechamarel. com). Both places have an adjoining restaurant serving delicious food.
- The Curious Corner of Chamarel is whacky, fun and definitely tickles the senses. Keep your camera ready for this one. Head to La Vallée Des Couleurs, where you can enjoy the third-longest zip line in the world, quad biking and walking across the longest Nepalese bridge in the Indian Ocean. Seven Coloured Earths is a natural wonder in the area you can’t miss.
- Go to Port Louis’s Central Market for their street food like dholl puri, game curries and lentil fritters. Their palm heart salads are a must try. Mauritians love their chillies and serve mazavaroo, a green-chilli paste with fresh bread. I am guilty of forgoing many meals in favour of this fresh treat. n