By Vijay Shah
The great author Mark Twain, upon visiting the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1896, was told by a local that “Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius“. Only about 720 square kilometres in surface area (about the size of the English county of Surrey), this slice of earthly heaven is often held up as a hallmark of ethnic unity and a shining example of stable governance. Born from a volcanic eruption 2 million years ago, and about a 1,000 kilometres distant from Madagascar, Mauritius is home to people originally from India, Mozambique, Madagascar itself, France and China. Several of the major world religions are also represented here among the circa 1.3 million-strong inhabitants, especially Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
It is not just the multi-ethnic and extremely hospitable Mauritians who are an asset to Mauritius. With its clear crystal-blue seas, palm-fringed beaches and unique rare wildlife and vegetation, the country has been attracting tourists from all over the world for decades, if not centuries. Its position as part of the Mascarene Islands made it an important stopover on the maritime trade lanes linking Africa and India. The Arabs are usually credited with ‘discovering’ Mauritius which their cartographers noted under the name ‘Dinarubin’. The Dutch were among the first Europeans to establish a settlement and named Mauritius in honour of Prince Maurits of Nassau. The Portuguese also made their appearance, wiping out the indigenous dodo (the national symbol of the modern Mauritian republic) in the process. Eventually, the colonial scramble for Africa went into full momentum, and Mauritius became a disputed territory between Britain and France. After the Napoleonic War of 1801, the British had a resounding victory, and Mauritius was claimed as part of their spoils. Self-governance by the people came in 1968, and in 1992, Mauritius threw off the last legacy of imperial machinations and became a presidential republic, in line with the majority of independent African nations.
Nowadays ‘ti zil Moris‘ or ‘this little island of Mauritius’ in the home-grown Kreol language, hosts hundreds of thousands of international tourists, especially from France, Germany, the U.K., South Africa and India. They come to visit the numerous beaches and reefs surrounding the nation, and popular locations such as the Botanical Gardens of Pamplemousses, the Ganga Talao lake and temples of Savanne in the central region, the numerous mountains of the highlands, the Caselas Bird Park, the Mauritius Postal Museum. The list goes on.
To me personally, Mauritius is more than just a sun-soaked holiday destination to be found in glossy travel brochures. I have a familial and cultural link to the ‘star and key of the Indian Ocean’ as my mother was born and raised there, and I have many relatives still living in Mauritius’ major towns. In 2006, after I graduated, I visited Mauritius for the first time in my life. I met my cousins, aunts and uncles who had only before been seen in photos sent by my uncle. It really felt like paradise. We had much family fun and laughter, exciting moments, and sweet memories. My eyes were opened to the beauty and majesty of my maternal homeland, and really made me appreciate my Mauritian heritage, which until then was something I had been very much out of the loop with having been born and brought up in London.
To tell you everything I did, saw and experienced while on my sojourn in paradise would take up a whole Wikipedia-style website , rather than just a blog post, so I can only choose one such place that everyone can feel familiar with.
Grand-Baie beach to this day is what I consider to be the ultimate five-star definition of what a beach should be, especially down there in the tropics. This beach hugs the shoreline for several miles in the far north of Mauritius and is one of several beaches in the coves stretching like a sandy necklace from Camp Bestel in the north-west to Grand-Baie and beyond. The town of Grand-Baie, also known by its Anglophone name variant – Grand Bay has a population of about 11,500. It is geographically within the administrative district of Riviere du Rempart, is a seaside village and the site of the British invasion of Mauritius during the Napoleonic War. It is also home to numerous facilities for both visitors and locals, including restaurants, cafes, craft shops, and tourism businesses that offer scuba-diving, boat tours and helicopter excursions to other parts of the district.
While me and my family were normally based in my mother’s hometown of Rose Hill, we stayed on-and-off with a family friend named Shyam, a Grand-Baie local who was a police inspector and who lived with his hairdresser wife and son in a little bungalow just outside the main village. They were wonderful people who really looked after us. We spent much of the time dossing around, eating Cantonese food , talking, telling stories and drinking the native beer ‘Phoenix’. But you cannot be just acting like students in a place like Mauritius, and uncle Shyam subsequently took us on an outing to a neighbouring beach. The name of the beach evades me, most likely it was Mont Choisy Beach. Growing up in the United Kingdom, I have had the opportunity to visit many well-known beaches here, most notable Shoeburyness, Blackpool and Walton-on-the-Naze, but this belt of sand and ocean took me by surprise. The sand was the cleanest I had ever walked on, never mind seen. It was fine, and had the consistency of cane sugar. The colour was a very light yellow. Unlike British beaches unfortunately, the sand in Grand-Baie was clean, with hardly any rubbish, natural or man-made. I and my siblings decided to offload our socks and trainers and go for a dip in the water. The sand felt almost like some kind of soft gritty velvet. The way it seeped between my toes as I walked surefooted around the beach is a sensation that is hard to completely describe. There were no jagged rocks to painfully step on and a noticeable lack of pebbles. It felt like sensual and tactile bliss.
The sea was just as worthy of platitudes. As clear as glass, in the distance you could see the reefs and the water was a bright azure hue with subtle hints of grey. It is an unspoken fact that sharks patrol the deep sea just beyond the reefs but the coral was a barrier strong enough to keep the maneaters at bay. There was plenty of space to walk around even though there were numbers of other holidaymakers here for the same reason we were. My younger family members loved paddling in the lukewarm sea and trying to spot the well-camouflaged small white crabs that I was told were a highlight here. I only managed to uncover one or two. We definitely enjoyed. Indeed, I even did a little ‘happy dance’ which got a compliment from Preety, our host’s significant other.
The memories of those wonderful four weeks in Mauritius remain with me to this day, and I always dream of one day going back there. I miss my family there like anything…who knows maybe some time in the future I might be lucky enough to have my honeymoon there, sipping on green coconuts with my wife, resting on colourful beach towels whilst watching the tropical sunset turning the late evening sky fire-red.
One day, Mauritius, your son will be back…one day…
A handful of pictures I took of the beach and bungalow here…
SOURCES: Time Magazine US, Distance FromTo, Wikipedia, Geonames/Mongabay.com.