Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mauritius: first month

After a couple of weeks in enjoyable, rustic Rodrigues, we moved on to Mauritius Island - Mauritius controls the islands of Rodrigues, Agalega and St Brandon.

Port Louis harbour, the only port of entry and one of two Mauritian harbours, looked like this as we entered. Beautiful mountains and waterfront area, busy harbour: much of interest.

When the ship in front of us had finished its manoeuvres we headed deep into the harbour to the customs and coast guard area to check in. On the right are masts in the “marina” where we ended up after that was done.

The “marina” is really a small area at the Caudan Waterfront that has facility to tie boats onto the concrete walls, and supplies power and water (GREAT!). Unfortunately the wall was not designed to berth yachts, it would seem: it has a concrete overhang that causes huge damage to berthed yachts that move in the tides and swells and wakes from passing traffic. However, with enough fenders and planks and tyres and ropes, a measure of ingenuity, and constant watchfulness and adjustment the boat was left dirty but unscathed!
The area is tiny, so boats need to raft up alongside one other: here we are, tied to the wall, with a big catamaran tied onto us.
The problem with this situation (where the inside boat acts as a large buffer between the outer one and the wall) is that the boats move differently, straining the mooring ropes and cleats, and the people on the outer boat need to clamber across the inner one every time they want to go ashore. Also: every day, the rope tying our plank outside the fenders (protecting the fenders from the rough concrete wall) was chafed through and the plank was left hanging by one side only – imagine if the fenders or boat had taken that beating!

However, we happily passed the time in Port Louis. Le Caudan Waterfront feels a lot like (a tiny version of) Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront: a working harbour, mountains, shopping and eating-places. It is only a short walk from town, we made regular trips there: what contrasting experiences are provided in this small city!
The main street is flanked by many bank buildings, some very lovely (Mauritius is a busy financial centre) on the palm-lined route to the old colonial parliament buildings where Queen Victoria’s statue stands.
Leave these neat, posh areas and the scene changes dramatically: north of this is Chinatown and the old market area – mostly areas of uncontrolled hawking and general bedlam!
Hawkers under “Hawking Not Allowed” sign
However, the inside of the market is a real treat: a vast old building with central columns rising high, the three levels cover fresh produce, then local crafts then clothing at the top.
The market interior from the craft level upstairs
It is the ground floor that provides a massive sensory experience: the large floor holds many stalls, all heaped with superb fresh produce; stall-holders take great care to arrange and present their products beautifully (no jumbles here: all in neat symmetrical piles); smells of incense and spices, the general hubbub of noise punctuated by a cacophony of sellers shouting out prices and advertising their wares (all in French or Creole). Wonderful place to shop!
Rougaille is a Creole sauce: tasty, rich, tomato-based –
hence the plentiful ripe-tomato supplies!
Elsewhere in the city are interesting sights:
Lovely Company Gardens with restful shade and piped music
A typical street scene outside the CBD has fruit sellers, peanut roasters
and all manner of retail
Back to Le Caudan Waterfront Marina: our timing here could not have been better: three Dutch Tall Ships (‘Tecla’, barque ‘Europa’ and ‘Oosterschelde’) are sailing around the world, following historical old trade routes, and Mauritius was en route so they tied up along the wall outside the marina.
Oosterschelde and Europa tied alongside Le Caudan wall
Wow. These ships are truly beautiful, and it was fascinating to go on board and see how they feel and are put together. They have a small, permanent crew and take on paying novice sailors for all their passages – as a working holiday this must be a great experience!

Looking towards the city over perfectly flaked sails
– we watched them: its takes ages!
Friends from Phuket – Jay Jay, Melisa, Megan and Hayley, joined us at the marina for a week’s stay on Ketoro. After seeing the fun sights of Port Louis including the low wall alongside Ketoro’s berth which appeared to be the favoured spot for uninhibited young locals to make out with passionate kissing and cuddling, it was time to move on.

We headed for Grand Baie. Exploring Mauritius’ shores by boat is a challenge, as with so many Indian Ocean Islands. Mauritius is surrounded by fringing reef that provides few channels to the shore and then, once through the reef few areas that are deep enough to actually accommodate a boat with a draft of more than a metre. What is worse, there is no pilotage information available: you get your info wherever you can, and go slowly!

However, Grand Baie in fact has an easy entry channel and as a result is a favourite for the Mauritius boat-world. It is not a picturesque bay, but it has other attractions: notably, it is calm and gentle (hardly even rocks you to sleep!), and a great place to shop for provisions and eat out (although, being touristy, expensive). We found particularly delicious local food at La Rougaille Creole Restaurant, with spiced fruity rum made by the owner… we took that bottle home!
Speaking of calm and gentle: what was I thinking!? This is true for the nights… during the day, skiers, speedboats and day-trip catamarans are always on the move and about once each day a speedboat driven by alcohol, testosterone and an over-age adolescent almost careens into us. The local mosques encourage wakefulness from 4am, while roosters and dogs are plentiful and are set off by the call to prayer!
This is also a base for diving, and Megan (10) has her PADI Junior ticket: so off we went!
From here we set off to an island a few miles to the north. We had been told that it is deep around Gunner’s Quoin Island (Coin de Mire) and that there were mooring buoys on which to tie up: there are many rocky outcrops so anchoring is difficult.
Gunner’s Quoin Island (A quoin is a wedge used to elevate a cannon)
What beauty and solitude! The change from busy Port Louis and Grand Baie was remarkable – birds and fish were our only companions, and the only noise was waves crashing on the rocks.
The mooring buoys are fairly heart-stoppingly close to these rocks; in fact one has a good view of them and even nesting birds! As we swung on the mooring our view changed and we were never bored of the scene.
Looking across the boat to nearby rock-face
However, the hearts were challenged by an adrenaline rush one morning when the view changed at an alarmingly rate - Ketoro had suddenly spun around. We had come free of our mooring and were drifting onto the rocks. Engines were on in a trice and we drove to secure another mooring, had a soothing beer and contemplated the new situation.

We had dived down the line of the first mooring as deep as we could and it had looked okay – but could not get deep enough to get a close look at the rope to chain junction at the base. So after the beer Rolf secured us to our new base using a few additional lines, fitted two of our guests with scuba gear and dispatched them to check the entire mooring. Only at this stage could he smile as he regarded the Mauritian line, which had chafed through.
So we settled back again to drink in the local beverage (the local Phoenix is actually most drinkable!) and the scenery and splendour, enjoying our second day of quiet.

Then the world descended on us in a flotilla of boats! Evidently this island is a good stop-over for craft returning from their day trips to the other islands up north, on their way home. Afternoons here are not quiet!
Speedboats (four, with noisy beer-swilling passengers) arrived to snorkel, climb the rocks, and, um, drink and party. Catamarans (two, with noisy beer-swilling passengers and excellent / loud sound systems) did the same. There were not enough moorings available. No worries: some tied onto the other moorings, some tied onto Ketoro!

So it was that our new mooring held Ketoro, a speedboat hanging from our stern, and another party catamaran rafted onto us.
Enjoying the music from day-cat alongside, while another one departs
The mooring held, and we partied. The crew on these boats know how to cater to their guests…. and, it seems, neighbouring boats: they saw our flag and dug out their Afrikaans music!

Eventually they left, the speedboats left, and we were left to enjoy the bay on our own again.
Our guests have now gone, and we are relaxing into Mauritius and trying to figure out how to get places. Particularly, we need to know how to get Ketoro to an anchorage (if indeed there is an anchorage) off Merville Beach, where the family will be staying in August.

Initial research by dinghy was conducted using a portable fish finder (to measure depth), GPS, iPad (with Google earth map), writing implements and Phoenix beer.
We think we have now mapped out a route through the reef. It all looks good – and we hope it is not just the beer talking!

More of Mauritius explorations and other friends’ visits next time…