More than 400 years ago, a metre-tall flightless bird wandered the volcanic, green hills of an island in the southern Indian Ocean.
Fearless of humans, the bird was dubbed dodo; Portuguese for crazy fool. Easy prey for the sailors that landed from Portugal, Holland and France – and vulnerable to the rats that swarmed ashore – the dodo succumbed to the perils of civilisation. Today, a skeleton in the Natural History Museum in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis is the only evidence of the bird.
In contrast, the descendents of those early sailors flourished, and established a distinctive blend of cosmopolitan Europe with the exotic flavours of Africa and India. Mauritius – or Isle Maurice as it’s known by in the Creole-French of its local inhabitants – lies 5000 kilometres off the western coast of Australia. Although it was more recently a British colony, receiving independence in 1968, its language, culture and cuisine reflect the older French heritage. True to island ideology, it boasts the white sand and turquoise blue water that beachcombers expect.
But Mauritius is more than that. Hiking trails lead into craggy, verdant volcanic valleys where it is possible to walk with the lush mountains on one side and the blue Indian Ocean on the other. The local markets vibrate with the energy of the Indian-Creole venders who hawk their local succulent pawpaw, sweet pineapple and freshly caught tuna. Sidewalk cafes serve French pastries and fresh coffee for breakfast, while lunch might be more south Asian-inspired, with meals like roti and dholl puri. Seafood makes for a tantalising entree while local dancers add colour and rhythm to the evenings in the tourist hub of Grand Baie.
Although most visitors arrive on the island of Mauritius, few are aware that the country in fact extends 500 kilometres to the east. The island of Rodrigues is a tiny outpost of Creole culture that is in contrast to the modern day, sophisticated vibes of its bigger sister. Like the dodo, life on Rodrigues is slow and easy going, but vulnerable to the pace of the 21st Century. Between visits in 2011 and 2012, I witnessed a palpable change. The once weekly market had expanded to a daily affair, and small local restaurants were now challenged by fastfood chains from Mauritius. Still, I was charmed by the fact that locals remembered me from my visit a year earlier, and shared my joy of returning. Rodrigues appeals to the adventurer who is seeking the hiking trails that serve the local population – and their goats – as highways from village to village. The lagoon encircling the island provides a seafood basket for the local fishermen, who rely on graceful wind-driven sailing dhows rather than motorised boats. Watching the sunset over the lagoon with my locally brewed Phoenix beer, I hope that this country can balance the demands of the 21st Century while retaining its unique fusion of island life and international appeal.
Words and Images by Rachel Mather