David + Lauren, December 2004
Posing on the beach in Mauritius. We enjoyed our last great holiday before kids, although Lauren was still sick with morning sickness throughout our travels.

My, my, where do I start ? Only 2 weeks into our journey, and it already rates as a life-changing experience.

First, briefly, I’ll mention that we met up with friends and family for 3 days in Sydney. Lauren’s sister Renée and her family came down for lunch, and it was good to see them. James drove us to Sydney harbour where he located a secluded beach to prove that such a thing was possible on a Sunday!

Deng, my Sudanese friend, has finally been successful in bringing nine members of his extended family to Australia. He worked for five years to pay their way – what an effort!

James (my brother), Lauren and myself drove out to Blacktown to meet them and enjoy their hospitality and delicious African cooking. James is a self-styled photographer extraordinaire, fluent in all things digital, so he took enjoyed the opportunity to snap some candid shots. Deng’s family also posed for a family portrait. They seemed to really enjoy this, dressing up in their finery and donning hats, handbags & jewelry. We have copies of the photos to give to their family in Kenya and Sudan. We will meet up with Deng at Nairobi airport on the 27th November.

Mauritius time is six hours behind Sydney, so the effect of our flight was one enormous long day. We departed Sydney at 11am and arrived in Mauritius 14 hours later at 7pm (with two hours on the ground at Melbourne).

Immigration and customs were easy and soon we had our currency exchanged, and we picked up our rental car, a 1000cc Suzuki Alto. We were delighted to discover that the steering wheel was on the right hand side of the vehicle! The British occupied Mauritius for under one century, but they left behind their system of roads.

Speaking of roads, we have seen some very curious signage here. What do you think ‘Slow Rumble’ would mean? Answer: Go slow because there are a set of raised, painted lines ahead on the road, and they will make a rumble sound as you drive over them. Other quirky signs include ‘Humped pedestrian crossing’ and ‘Crawler lane’.

All roads in Mauritius have a painted centre line, but vehicles rarely keep to their side of it. It is necessary to swerve dangerously onto the other side of the road into oncoming traffic in order to avoid all manner of obstacles – usually vehicles that just stop in the middle of the road to pick up a passenger or have a chat with a friend. People even leave their cars parked directly in the line of traffic while they do a bit of shopping. There often isn’t a hard shoulder for vehicles to pull up onto while they stop, so I guess everyone’s gotten into the habit of stopping on the road, even when there is space to pull over safely.

There are very few footpaths or wide shoulders, so pedestrians, pushbikes and mopeds just travel on the edge of the road (or down the centre of the lane). Just imagine this little scenario – you are driving through a town with buildings and shop fronts built almost to the edge of the road. Ahead on your left are a group of pedestrians walking away from you with apparently little regard for their own life. They are walking around a sharp blind left hand corner on the bitumen. Immediately opposite them on the right side of the road is a parked ute, with men unloading goods into a store. Tooting its horn and swerving at the last minute to its right (to avoid the ute) is a bus coming towards you. It blows a big cloud of diesel fumes over the pedestrians and a small motorbike which also overtakes the pedestrians in front of you. Your only safe option is to brake HARD and pull as far to the left as possible, just behind the pedestrians – who don’t even look up! The road is probably about a metre wider than the combined widths of your car, the bus and the ute. Thankfully, the bus driver has a keen eye and the pass is made successfully. While you gasp for breath, you notice another car about 100 metres behind the bus, but it appears to be going quite slowly so you flash your lights to indicate that you will pull out in front of it, which you do, accelerating hard to get a safe distance in front of the pedestrians in time to swerve back to the left before the car reaches you!

Driving in Mauritius, we have encountered scenarios like this one literally hundreds of times! (And this is also why we’re so pleased to be driving on the left hand side of the road – imagine having to tackle a different side of the road on top of the crazy driving practices!) Although it sounds dangerous, there is method to this madness, and once you begin to relax a little, the necessary responses become automatic, and you begin to enjoy the sights and sounds.

In a hire car, Mauritius
We hired this little Fiat for our stay on the island. I was six months pregnant at the time, and not feeling very photogenic!

When we collected our little car and made our way out of the airport, it was with the windows down to enjoy the warm evening breeze, while the warning from the car-hire-man about watching out for dogs echoed in our ears. (He really did mean watch out for dogs – they hang out on the roads, especially at night. Some are feral, others are just not fenced in, and they’re pretty fearless of vehicles, but will bark at you if you hang your arm out the window.) Driving at nighttime can be hazardous as some drivers ‘save on petrol’ by not using their headlights (or maybe they just don’t work)!

We went to a small town close to the airport and looked for accommodation. We bargained and settled on a room with water views and a balcony for A$30 a night. It was a comfortable relief to have located a hotel as we had not made prior bookings. The hotelier was very pleased to have us, even offering to organize our entire holiday for us! (Not a chance…) We have found that Mauritius appears to have a glut of tourist accommodation at the moment – it must boom in the high season, so we have been very fortunate with our timing.

Trou aux Biches, Mauritius
Another location of a self-contained apartment had views to the beach. Trou aux Biches was our favourite location, as it was just down the road from Grande Baie (with its internet cafés and diving tours), and the snorkelling off the beach here was fantastic!

We spent our first day in Mauritius exploring the east coast of the island. The scenery is beautifully lush, with beaches on one side and striking green hills on the other. There are 1.3 million people here, on an island only 50km in diameter, so it appears very compact. We could drive virtually all the way up the coast, stopping to swim leisurely or buy food and still be back in our hotel before dark.

The food is quite European, with French baguette bread available each day, but Indian samosas and fried curry puffs are for sale on the road side. We’re eating a lot of fresh fruit and vegies, which is good because we’re trying to get/stay healthy. We’ve both had turns being sick, but it’s been a good time for it because we’ve had a chance to relax and rest and get better. Lauren’s hormones don’t realize she’s switched time zones and now she throws up in the early afternoon.

We’ve been spending a bit of time each morning snorkeling at different locations. After a siesta, we drive around the island, checking out dirt tracks and trying to work out which roads are marked on the map. Our little hire car didn’t know it was a 4WD until I got behind the wheel. Some mapped roads are just volcanic soil tracks through cane fields.

Mauritius Radio Telescope
When we saw this, we had no idea what it was. We later discovered it was the "Mauritius Radio Telescope":http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mauritius_Radio_Telescope.

The landscape is dotted with tall, ancient chimneys built from volcanic rock. There are also some pyramids – lookouts, perhaps?

Mauritius
But wherever in Mauritius you are, you're never far from the beach and excellent snorkelling!

We once found a little track to nowhere that actually led to a high mountain peak from which we could see across the island. One minor road (marked on the map) was actually gated off and appeared to be the entry to a private estate. (There are large estates belonging to sugar barons and also private deer-hunting reserves.) As we approached, a dour-faced gatekeeper closed the gate on us, requiring us to reverse. We thought to ourselves, this is the end of the road. However we pointed in the direction in which we were going and spoke in English (which he didn’t appear to understand) – we certainly couldn’t understand him – but at the end of our little conversation, he opened the gate! The moral of the story was to have a go because you never know!

Mauritius
A lot of the centre of the island was quite mountainous, with fantastic waterfalls and hunting properties where "wild" deer were kept.

The majority of Mauritians are of Indian descent, brought here by the French and English as indentured labour to work the sugar plantations. The colonizers also purchased labour from China and Africa (slaves). Descendents of these people are minority groups in modern-day Mauritius. The towns are grey and shabby, with a definite third-world appearance, but without the litter. Buildings are built with concrete blocks to withstand cyclones. Many have flat roofs to accommodate future additions.

We have found the people quite friendly and tolerant of tourists – just about everyone knows some English. Those who don’t, speak French, or a version of French called Creole. Road signs are in English, but billboards are in French. We loved seeing ads for Bega cheese in French (‘Numero un en Australie!’).

There are many French here, both holiday-makers and expats. They own grand beachfront properties and employ local Mauritians as staff, cleaners, guards, cooks, etc.

Off the beach, Mauritius
Some Mauritian locations have their coral cleared to make a nice beach and mooring area for the richer residents and tourists.

The best swimming beaches (i.e. those with no immediate coral reef) are public parks which have toilet/shower facilities and are kept immaculate by small armies of workers who rake the sand and collect leaves from the ground. Public litter is not a problem here, which is a surprise for a place that appears to be a developing nation!

David and galapagos tortoise, December 2004
The Galapagos tortoises at a private zoo were very passive and happy to pose for photos!

Casela Bird Park, Mauritius
The facilities and fauna at Casela Bird Park was surprisingly diverse and well-established.

Casela Bird Park, Mauritius
Deer, tigers and apes were among the larger animals kept at Casela Bird Park.

Lauren, December 2004
Blooming in the last trimester of my first pregnancy, I was also VERY freckly from all the days in the sun.

Because most Mauritians are religious – Hindu, Catholic or Muslim – they appear to be quite moral and so dress modestly. We have always felt safe, and crime does not appear to be a major problem. The police are friendly; they maintain a presence, but don’t appear to be very busy, except just before school time, when they man the pedestrian crossings to direct the little children across.

Mauritius is encircled by an almost unbroken ring of coral reef. Sadly, however, a lot of the coral is dead. At the moment we have self-catering accommodation at Trou aux Biches (Hole of the female deer), where we have found the most spectacular sections of reef. Approximately 90 per cent of the coral is alive, and fish life is abundant. Visibility is great and when the sun is shining, the reef is an underwater garden paradise! We paddle along for hours, shouting to each other through our snorkels with exclamations of surprise and delight when we discover something new. Today we saw an orange and black-striped sea snake. Other favourite sights are clams with purple lips like anemones, fish that are over one metre long (but only 4 cm thick), brightly coloured starfish and foot-long fish that are shaped like sharks and swim in schools just below the surface of the water – we’ve nicknamed them sharkie-fish. The coral is chock-a-block with spiky sea urchins in most colours of the rainbow. It’s quite a hazard for the bare skin!

I dive to the ocean floor a lot and peer into holes and under rock shelves to make discoveries such as schools of bright red, big-eyed fish sheltering quietly in a cave. There are many more delights under the water – such as sea turtles and huge manta rays. Aïcha (in Lauren’s tummy) enjoys her position in the womb while Lauren snorkels so much that when Lauren gets out, Aïcha refuses to drop back down into the pelvis for the walk back.

Tamarin lodgings
We stayed in the ground-floor apartment in Tamarin.

During our time, we have made a few friends. We got along famously with Iswaïla and his wife from whom we rented the downstairs section of their house in Tamarin for 4 nights for just A$25 per night. He was very pleased to have us. His smiley face would appear early in the morning as he’d come bringing fresh bread or mangoes from his tree. Once he even gave us fresh fish he’d caught! Iswarla’s wife kept a Hindu shrine room and a shrine nook in her garden. She would burn incence on the altar every day. In the shine room she had many images of 3 different Hindu deities as well as catholic portrayals of Jesus and Mary.

Hindu shrine, Mauritius
This was the Hindu shrine in the garden of the house we stayed in. Many people on Mauritius have an Indian heritage, and they have brought with them the plethora of Indian gods.

Beautiful garden, Mauritius
The garden of one residence we stayed in. We paid about AUD20 a night for a self-contained, three-bedroomed apartment just off the beach.

We stumbled across five Hindi men having a barbecue at Baie aux Tortues (Bay of Turtles). We sheltered under their tarp during a sudden downpour, and they invited us to share their lunch. We stayed talking and laughing until dark. We will visit them at their homes on Sunday.

David and friends, Baie aux Tortues
We snorkelled at Baie aux Tortues, near a posh resort, where we met an Australian couple who had come to Mauritius to get married on the beach. We later shared a picnic with this group of men who cooked up their meals on the beach.

Just this afternoon, I made friends with Chantelle, a French girl staying at our compound. She’ll come out snorkeling with us tomorrow.

Chantelle and Lauren, December 2004
Chantelle accompanied us on some walking/climbing/swimming expeditions into the interior.

***

We are flying out to Kenya tomorrow morning.

Yesterday, I did a scuba dive, 39m to a shipwreck. There was just one other diver and our host. We free-fell (with no anchor line to follow) and landed with pinpoint-accuracy mid-deck on an old freighter. Visibility was perfect, and the water was dead still at 25 degrees. We dropped through a manhole and explored passageways. Fish were just hanging motionless inside, some of them quite large. We came out through an exit near the the rear deck and went over the railing and dropped to the ocean floor. We met 3 massive grey rays with big, sad, blinking eyes. They lived in a sand hollow under the ship itself. They came out to see us and to be pet. All we had to do was stretch out our arm and they moved their bodies so that my hands, though held still, brushed down the length of their rippling flanks.

Awesome, what a dive!