On Location – Mauritius Day 8
From volcanic craters to dramatic waterfalls, from sacred lakes to geological oddities, today our blogger in Mauritius discovered there’s more to this paradise isle than just tropical shores…
It’s fair to say Thomson knows a thing or two about excursions. But if you think all it does are coach tours en masse, think again. The travel giant also does a mean line in tailor-made trips, complete with private cars and personal driver-guides. And that’s precisely what I did today. When it came to planning the itinerary, I knew I wanted to visit the natural wonder that is Chamarel as I’d read all about it in my guidebook (more on that later). But beyond that, I needed a bit of a helping hand. Enter Dee and Armelle from Team Thomson. They worked with me to piece together my very own tour of Mauritius. We constructed a day out that focussed on the often overlooked central and south-western sweeps of the island. That meant forests, waterfalls, lakes and an alien-looking landscape.
From sun-kissed Belle Mare on the east coast, I headed inland to the cooler highlands of Mauritius. On the radar? A massive volcanic crater called Trou aux Cerfs. Not only is this natural cauldron entirely cloaked in tropical greenery, but at the bottom of the pit there’s a lake. Equally as impressive was the panorama. From this vantage point, I was able to look out across the island, banking views of the soaring mountain peaks that spear the island.
Next up was something I’d never have known about if it wasn’t for my guide, Marcel. At the base of the crater, he pointed out the Eiffel Tower. Yep, you read that right, the Eiffel Tower. This small-scale version of ‘La Dame de Fer’ was erected at the behest of a French colonial who moved to Mauritius. He missed Paris so much that he commissioned a replica of the iconic tower to be built in his front garden. The idea was that as he ate his breakfast each day, he’d be able to gaze out on the girdered beauty and imagine he was back in the French capital.
Heading south, my next port of call was the Grand Bassin AKA Ganga Talao. It’s a crater-lake set in a secluded mountain area. Its claim to fame? It’s considered the most sacred Hindu spot on in Mauritius – hence there are temples dedicated to Lord Shiva and other gods, including Hanuman and Ganesha. During the festival of Shivaratri, pilgrims flock to the site, walking from their homes to the lake in their bare feet.
Finding the Grand Bassin is relatively easy – you just need to keep an eye out for the trident-wiedlding, giant statue of Lord Shiva that stands guard to the entrance of the lake. While I was there, I was lucky enough to see the faithful washing themselves in the holy waters and presenting offerings of tropical flowers and coconuts at the lakeside altars.
Leaving the lake behind me, I traced a line south-west on the map to the Black River Gorge. En route to this tropical wilderness, I passed a tea plantation. Looking out over the vast sea of green that spread out before me, it was strange to think that the laurel-looking leaves would more than likely end up being bagged, dunked in hot water and splashed with milk in a kitchen somewhere on the other side of the world.
Back in the car, it was then onto my penultimate destination – the Black River Gorge. This is Mauritius’ biggest – and arguably the best – national park, ticking off about 2% of the island’s surface. It’s an untamed expanse of rolling hills, thick forests and marshy heath cut through by a fast-flowing river. If hiking is your thing, it’s got over 60 kilometres of trails to choose from. I, on the other hand, took advantage of the picnic areas and tucked into a sarnie beneath a woodland canopy of paper-bark trees. Over lunch, Marcel explained to me that the gorge is home to wild boar, macaque monkeys, and deer, not to mention a whopping 4000 fruit bats and 300 different species of flowering plants.
Rounding off my introduction to the Black River Gorge, Marcel took me up to Mount Cocotte. The views of the surrounding countryside and mountains took my breath away…
Finally it was time for me to take in Mauritius’ star sight – Chamarel. Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the main attraction is the waterfall, pictured above. Impressive as it is, the falls don’t get top billing. The big turn here is the ‘7-Coloured Earth’. A geological wonder, it’s a series of sand dunes comprising, yes you’ve guessed it, 7 distinct colours of earth. Here’s the science… the dunes are rich in iron and aluminium oxides which repel each other and in so doing create kaleidoscopic stripes in the earth – everything from red to brown by way of purple, blue, yellow, green and violet.
Heroes in a half-shell
As if a mesmerising waterfall and earthy display wasn’t enough to be going on with, Chamarel has one final card up its sleeve – in the form of giant tortoises. These boulder-sized slow coaches are extremely rare. Reason being, along with the poor old dodo, the original tortoises were hunted to extinction when man first set foot on Mauritius. However, a certain Charles Darwin re-introduced these gentle giants to the island from grandparent stock imported from the Seychelles in the 1800s. The colony at Chamarel is a vertible success story, with one of the shell-backed fellas notching up 150 years on the clock.