Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mauritius (2012)

Saviah and her crew arrived in Mauritius on October 10th, after completing a 17 day passage across the Indian Ocean from Cocos Keeling.  We tied up alongside the concrete wall in downtown Port Louis, a bustling commercial harbor and the capital of Mauritius. 
The island is part of the Mascarene Island group, located about 450 miles east of Madagascar.  The Mascarenes were formed many years ago as a result of underwater volcanic eruptions.  Like most of the others islands in the group, Mauritius was originally inhabited by the Dutch.  It was later occupied by both the French and the British before becoming an independent state in 1968.  Mauritius is famous as the only home of the now extinct Dodo bird. 

After informing the customs office of our arrival, we were told to wait on our boat, as officers from quarantine and immigration needed to come out first.  They arrived around noon, and we completed the paperwork in 20 minutes.  The next step was to check in with the nearby coast guard, and then finally the customs office gave us our official clearance papers.  Once checked in, we went ashore to the ATM to pull out some Mauritius rupees and grabbed a quick lunch before walking to the nearby marina.  We were really hoping to get a spot in the marina for at least a night, so we could take on water and clean off the boat and ourselves.   
Unfortunately, the marina was full.  The Coast Guard reluctantly let us remain on the customs wall for a night, as long as we agreed to leave the next day.  It wasn’t ideal, as there was a bit of surge in the harbor and our lines, which were tied off to the lamp posts, were under a lot of strain.  Since the nearest anchorage was a 15 mile sail, we were glad to have a place to tie up for the night and spent the rest of the day exploring downtown and getting used to walking again.   

The next morning, we moved to the anchorage at Grand Baie.  This is a well-protected and shallow bay on the northwest side of the island and the hub of the tourist activity.  The bay is surrounded by restaurants and shops, and there is also a very large grocery store a couple blocks away.  Food stalls along the beach offered an assortment of good cheap street food.  It was interesting to hear the variety of languages spoken as we walked.   The local population is made up of people from various nationalities, primarily China, India, Africa or Europe.  The locals seemed to switch between Mauritian Creole, French and English without any problem. 
The Grand Baie Yacht Club has a history of welcoming foreign cruisers, and offered us a one month free temporary membership.  We took advantage of the amenities and enjoyed hot showers while there.  They also have a jetty where we pulled up alongside to top off our water and fuel, which we hadn’t done since Bali, a month ago.   After our tanks were full and the salt was rinsed off the topsides, we set the anchor in about 10 ft of water and set off to see some of the island.

Mauritius is about 40 miles long from north to south and 28 miles wide, encircled by a broken ring of mountain ranges.  It is surrounded by miles of white sandy beaches, with lots of reef protected lagoons beyond that.  Since we were only planning to spend a week in Mauritius, we decided a good way to see this beautiful island is to rent a scooter and hit the road for a few days.  We left from Grand Baie and started off around the north side of the island, deciding to make a clockwise circumnavigation on mainly the smaller coastal roads.  The north side of Mauritius is mainly flat, lending itself to growing sugar cane.  We passed field after field of it as we followed the road along the coast.

Continuing on, the route took us along the east coast of the island through many small coastal villages. Near the SE side of the island, we parked the scooter at the Vieux Grand Port police station and walked down the road to the base of Lion Mountain.  Looking to hike to the summit, we searched for the trailhead using instructions from our guide book.  But the trail is not marked, and we spent almost an hour walking through the sugar cane fields at the base of the mountain before finding it.

sugar cane fields in Mauritius
It took a few hours to get to the top, and it was definitely worth it.  There were several lookout points along the way, with beautiful views of the east side of the island, as well as the lagoon and surrounding reef.

hiking on Lion Mountain
After the hike, we got back on the scooter and continued to the Blue Bay area on the SE corner of the island.  We stopped for the night at a B & B and enjoyed walking around town and along the very popular beach nearby. 
Before leaving Grand Baie earlier in the day, we checked the weather.  There was a tropical disturbance forming north of us around the Chagos Islands that we needed to keep an eye on.  That night we checked the weather again, and found the disturbance had deepened into a category 3 cyclone, named Anais.  Sustained winds were as high as 115 mph, and the forecast showed the track heading by Mauritius, a few hundred miles offshore.  This meant, at a minimum, we would get some strong winds, but that it could also change course just slightly and actually hit Mauritius.  We debated heading back to Grand Baie after just one night. 

Since we brought our laptop with us, we were able to keep an eye on the weather at the many wi-fi hotspots around the island.  The cyclone was still a few days out, and we could be back in Grand Baie within 3-4 hours from anywhere on the island, so we chose to spend one more night on the west coast and just keep monitoring the storm.  The next morning, we headed west to see the Black River Gorges National Park.  There was a narrow road leading through the park with attractions and hiking trails along the way.  We stopped to do a short hike to Alexandra Falls, and then we hiked up to the highest point in Mauritius, Piton de la Petite Riviere Noire, at 2,717 ft.   It was a relatively easy hike until the last steep scramble up to the top.  There were excellent views of the southwest end of the island and the ocean beyond. 

more hiking on Mauritius
After the hike, we continued to circle the island and headed north along the west coast.  We stopped for the night in the small coastal village of Tamarin.  We found a small backpacker lodge that was recently purchased by a couple of Italian expats who were in the middle of remodeling the place.  They had one room finished and available for rent, which they gave us a great price on since they weren’t officially open for business.
We spent some time walking around the small town, but there wasn’t much going on, other than the work being done at the salt evaporation ponds across the street.  Here they make salt in the traditional way by flooding the retention ponds with saltwater and waiting for the water to evaporate off.  The women then shovel the remaining salt into buckets and carry them off to the storage sheds.  Moving these buckets of salt around in the hot sun looked like hard work.   

salt ponds near Tamarin
When we checked the weather that evening, we were relieved that the forecast showed the cyclone staying further north than originally expected and then eventually dying out in a few days.  There would still be strong winds in Mauritius, but not too bad.  After a night in Tamarin, we continued north back to Grand Baie, taking the highway through the very congested city of Port Louis.  It was a bit nerve racking on our little scooter, but after we made it through the city, we were back on the smaller back roads again and enjoyed the last leg through the small coastal villages.  We saw a lot of the island over our three day tour and had a good time, despite having to keep our eye on the storm. 
Back in Grand Baie, we returned our scooter and did some last minute grocery shopping before getting back to the boat.  Although the worst of cyclone Anais was heading toward Madagascar, winds were expected to increase, so we planned to stay put for a few days until conditions improved.  Later that day, the wind kicked up in the anchorage and hovered between 25 and 35 knots for several days.  The holding was good in the shallow anchorage, and we had no issues while waiting it out. 

We agreed before we left Seattle, that we would not put ourselves at risk by being in the tropics during cyclone season.  The official southwest Indian Ocean cyclone season runs from November to April, with the most likely months being December to March.  Tropical cyclone Anais formed on October 13th, marking the earliest formation of an intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in this area.  Although the winds weren’t too bad in Mauritius, it was bit unnerving to be so close to this cyclone before the season even started. 
When conditions finally settled down, we sailed back to Port Louis on October 19th.  We tied up alongside the wall again and spent an hour completing the paperwork necessary to clear out of the country.  We set out early that afternoon for the short overnight hop to Reunion Island, 140 miles away.