Travel Story From dodos to Jack Sparrow: Island hopping, Mauritian style

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

Travel back in time to the days of the dodo on a day trip along the east coast of Mauritius. 

For many of us, Mauritius will conjure up one image before all others: the distinctive, squat form of the ill-fated dodo bird. However, given the dodo has been extinct for at least 300 years, wiped out by the appetites and animals introduced by Dutch settlers in the 17th century, you won’t find any on the island today — except those on fridge magnets, postcards and assorted other souvenirs, of course.

You can, however, get a sense of how much of coastal Mauritius might have looked back in the days when the dodo roamed free with a visit to Ile aux Aigrettes, a small coral island just off the country’s south-east coast near the town of Mahebourg.

Now a nature reserve, Ile aux Aigrettes’ ecosystem has been restored over some decades by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, which removed introduced plants and animals, replacing them with native species including birds, lizards and Aldabra giant tortoises, a cousin of the now-extinct Mauritian giant tortoise.

Usually Ile aux Aigrettes can be visited only on guided tours organised by the foundation but I’m getting a little taste of it today on an Aqua Soleil cruise up the east coast of Mauritius.

We set out in the morning from the village of Blue Bay aboard a glass-bottomed boat skippered by the amiable Captain Jack — as in Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jack Sparrow — for a short exploration of the 353ha marine park. 

Blue Bay is said to be one of the best places to snorkel in Mauritius but today the conditions are poor and it appears that coral bleaching has taken an unfortunate toll. We spot plenty of fish, however, along with a hawksbill turtle that sends us into a snap-happy frenzy of smartphones and cameras.

From here, we transfer to a speedboat to head up the coast, past the remains of the ship Dalblair which was wrecked on the reef here in 1902 during a cyclone, to Ile aux Aigrettes. 

Groups such as ours are restricted to a narrow, sandy beach on the island’s western side, where we can swim in the stunningly clear water and take in the views across to the cloud-topped mountains of the mainland.

Our amiable crew — the wisecracking duo of Jean-Paul and Oliver — dispense drinks including “Mauritian coffee” (better known as rum and cola) and point out wildlife including a couple of giant tortoises and Telfair’s skink, a rare species that has been reintroduced to the island over the past decade.

There’s actually a scattering of islands fringing this stretch of coast, including Ile de la Passe, where you can see the ruins of the fortifications built to defend what was formerly the main port of Mauritius in the years of Dutch and French rule.

Ile de la Passe played an important role in the Battle of Grand Port between the French and British in August 1810, which the French won, although the British were the eventual victors in the war for Mauritius, assuming control in December that year. 

Normally we’d stop off here but conditions are too rough today, so we continue on, to explore nearby Ile aux Fouquets, also known as Ile aux Phare, or Lighthouse Island.

As its name suggests, this small island is home to the remains of a disused lighthouse dating from the 1860s — largely intact but missing its roof and windows, with a sign attached to its side that asks visitors to “take photographs only, leave nothing but footsteps, and keep nothing but sweet memories”. Among a low smattering of other old buildings stands a single lonely tree, sheltered in the lee of the lighthouse from the strong winds that blow across the Indian Ocean. 

After this, we continue along the coast, venturing up the Grand River south-east to a waterfall and a colony of macaques that congregate in the trees that overhang the river. 

And then we stop at Ile aux Cerf, a larger island with a golf course and a popular tourist precinct for day trippers, where we pull up on a quiet beach to enjoy a barbecue lunch with almost no one else around.

For now, though, I stand behind the lighthouse, watching the waves crash against the rocks, their churning white peaks in contrast to the calm, turquoise waters of the sheltered lagoon on the island’s other side. Apparently there are plans  to restore the island’s ecosystem and the lighthouse itself, but until then it stands in ruins, evocative and just a little mysterious, looking out over the ocean. 

Fact File

Disclaimer

Gemma Nisbet visited Mauritius as a guest of Air Mauritius and Emotions.

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