Mauritius, a tourist magnet
BY LAM LI
I could not help but ponder on the ironies charted by the course of history while munching on venison curry in a wooden hut restaurant on a hilltop in the Creole Mountains of Mauritius.
As I chewed the tender meat of the Javanese deer – which is not native to this island – I was also fed the historical facts by the charming host at Le Domain du Chasseur, a colonial hunting estate turned eco-tourism spot.
Under the gaze of deer heads hanging on the walls – which constantly reminded me of the source of my meal – I learnt how the “migration” of these tame animals from Java, Indonesia, on board Dutch ships plying the spice route had turned into a story of the survival of the species!
Le Domain du Chasseur manager Fabrice Salaun told the story of how well these animals had adapted in their new home, their numbers growing by leaps and bounds, so much so that the 900ha estate had to cull some 900 deer yearly and serve them to the guests to keep the ecological balance in the forest. The ironic thing was that the species became extinct in their homeland in the 1990s.
Mauritius is famous for its lovely beaches and the turquoise waters that surround the island. Here a tourist gets ready for a tour of the marine world.
“We sent back 100 deer to Java for a breeding programme eight years ago to mark the 400th anniversary of Dutch landing,” said Salaun. The Dutch landed in Mauritius from the Cape of Good Hope and set up the first settlements in 1598. They brought along with them animals and crops.
The majority of the people here are Indians who came as bonded workers during British rule (1810-1968). The other main ethnic group is the Creole, French-Africans the legacy of French colonial expansion (1715-1810), with the Europeans and the Chinese who came as traders making up the rest.
The only “native” on the island, the dodo, has become extinct and lives on only as an icon and inspiration for the tourist market. The dodos – a slow clumsy bird the size of a turkey, with short legs, a huge hook-like bill and truncated wings – fell prey to not only to the Dutch, but also predators that they brought with them from South-East Asia, including dogs, wild boars and monkeys (which took the birds’ eggs).
The Dutch abandoned the island in 1710 after exploiting the island’s resources – ebony forest were destroyed and the last dodos were exterminated – but the early colonists had left behind a lifeline for future settlement on the island: sugar cane.
Throughout my five-day press tour organised by Air Mauritius, the most common sight – apart from the cotton soft beaches and calm turquoise sea that makes the island a popular honeymoon destination – were the sugarcane fields stretching into the horizon.
Strangely enough, sugarcane juice is not a common drink on the island. The populace seems to have adopted the British liking for tea – another migrant crop-turned-main agricultural produce in Mauritius. They have since developed unique flavoured teas like vanilla tea, also known as Mauritius Tea.
Although sugar production remains the island’s top income earner, its economic importance is slowly giving way to tourism as the island republic steps up promotions to expand its appeal beyond the European market.
“We do not want mass tourism, which will spoil the charm of the island.” This is the sentiment that crops up often in my conversations with the Mauritians, be they hoteliers, tour guides, or retailers.
The island state has a population of 1.2 million, with tourist arrivals numbering 700,000 a year. So many locals are now involved in the tourism sector that foreign workers have to be brought in to keep the textile and sugar factories running.
A deterrent to mass tourism is the high accommodation cost, which range between US$200 (nearly RM800) and US$2,000 a night. The price is steep, but guests are assured of top-notch service. I was made to feel like a memsahib throughout my stay at three different resorts, being waited on by butlers.
The French, the island’s former colonial masters who introduced African slaves to the island, make up the bulk of tourist arrivals. Legend has it that a group of slaves escaped into the mountains in the south-west. When the French capitulated and the British took over, the new administrators abolished slavery and sent soldiers into the mountains to coax the escapees out of the forests and into a new way of life. However, the slaves thought the soldiers were coming after them and committed suicide en masse by jumping off a mountain.
Today, the site of the supposed mass suicide, Le Morne, has been turned into a tourist spot with resorts (including one by Malaysia’s own Berjaya) mushrooming along the lagoon at the foot of the mountain.
Our group of Malaysian journalists were brought to a hilly winding road to get a panoramic view of Le Morne on a rainy morning in late October.
The Land of Immigrants has indeed come a long way in the last five centuries. Today it is a diverse nation that is the melting pot of African, European and Asian cultures. The characteristics of each culture is evident in the various festivals, customs, costumes and cuisines of the island.
“Mauritius is known for its beautiful beaches, sea and unspoilt marine life but we have more to offer,” said our guide.
“We have a wealth of cultural diversity to be discovered,” he added, as our bus passed through a village animated by colourful light bulbs put up for the Deepavali celebration.
Places to go, things to do
Mauritius is a popular destination for romantic couples who want to stroll hand-in-hand on the island’s beaches. Non-honeymooners, however, need not feel left out as the island has many places of interest.
One of them, Le Domain du Chasseur, is tucked in the mountains in the south-east. Leisure activities here include deer and wild boar hunting, jungle trekking, bird watching (including the near extinct falcon, the Mauritian Kestrel), swimming in the waterfalls and crystal-clear streams. The Pamplemousses Garden is an ideal place for an afternoon stroll and picnic.
Sugar, spice, French things nice
A place where history, culture and leisure meet is Domain Les Pailles, which offers a little bit of everything in activities. Take a horse carriage or ride an old tram car through the Domain’s sugar cane field and get a step-by-step explanation on sugar production. Visit its spice garden or take a trip down memory lane by viewing a restored French mansion and it reenactment of colonial life. Or for something more strenuous, opt for horse riding in the valleys.
L’Aventure du Sucre is a well-planned theme museum that traces five centuries of sugar production in Mauritius. There is a boutique there that sells everything made of sugar cane, including clothing made of sugar cane fibre and scented sugar cane candles.
Ever seen seven-coloured earth? In a sugar cane plantation in Chameral lies a piece of multi-coloured, barren land, probably resulting from volcanic activities centuries ago.
Sacred lake and coral reef
Besides drawing the holiday crowd, Mauritius is also a pilgrim’s destination. Situated in the south of the island is the Grand Bassin, a sacred lake for Hindus who perform prayers using its water. Legend has it that a high priest dreamt he stepped into India’s revered Ganges River only to emerge from this Mauritian lake.
And then there are the water sports enthusiasts who come to the island get their fill of water skiing, parasailing and canoeing.
For non-swimmers, there is the Underwater Walk. You don a helmet connected to a hose supplying oxygen, wear weights fastened around your waist and take a walk on the seabed – a novel way to explore the sea.
Or hop on board a submarine. It’s a one-hour Indian Ocean tour that includes a visit to a shipwreck and coral reefs.
And there is the shopping. From the stalls at the waterfront of Port Louis to the fancy boutiques in Grand Baie, there’s a good selection of duty-free jewellery, designer clothing, beachwear, wood carving, pareos, handicraft, and handmade ship models.
source: http://thestar.com.my/services/printerf ... c=features