The plane turns and banks as it comes into land; the island below is a lush deep green.  Fingers of rock – the now solidified cores of ancient volcanoes – emerge from patches of forest, themselves set amidst a ‘sea’ of sugar cane that almost encircles the land between the coast and the villages of the central plateaux.  I catch a glimpse of the South Coast and the scattered developments of hotels and resorts with their white sands, calm lagoons and coconut palms, before the view returns to houses and cane once more.

Travellers’ guides to the island talk of the ‘warm welcome’, the ‘mixing pot of cultures’ and the waves of colonisation and immigration that have created one of the most harmonious, and apparently friendly populations on the planet.  Former slaves from the sugar plantations, immigrants from India and Madagascar, China and Europe have made the island their own, each bringing their own culture and cuisine.  “We don’t have any terrorism or trouble here”, says Hans my driver, proudly, as we head to the hotel.  The newspaper I picked up in the airport seems to agree, with a headline exhorting the country to become more self-sufficient in fruit.  Few crimes to report here it seems.

As a biologist and aspiring wildlife photographer, I’ve wanted to visit Mauritius for as long as I can remember.  At University, I read about the various creatures pushed to the very brink of extinction as any talk of Mauritius includes mention of the demise of the Dodo. It was the wildlife (and, let’s be honest, the luxury), that was calling me now and combining five star accommodation with a wildlife-oriented holiday seemed like a very attractive proposition.  Could I see the ‘real’ Mauritius or what’s left of it and enjoy some of the best hotels the Indian Ocean has to offer?

My first stay was at the Le Telfair, a refined low-key development, built in the colonial style of the 1800s.  Mauritius has gained a well-deserved reputation for luxury, high-end accommodation, and Le Telfair is no exception; it exudes class and effortless luxury and illustrates a chapter of the Island’s story: as sugar prices have fallen, the large estates – the Domaines, have invested in tourism.  Former chateaux have become restaurants and marginal land close to the coast or amidst the hills has been given over to forest, golf courses and hunting reserves.

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Staying at Le Telfair offered the chance to visit one of the largest areas of remaining natural forest – The Black River Gorges Reserve – in search of one of the island’s best known survivors, the Pink Pigeon, a curious and bemused looking bird that when I meet one, it eyes me with a blank expression that holds no hint of awareness its status a global rarity, not that I should expect such I suppose.

RCA_1823I’m in the company of John-Claude Seviathan from The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and, as we walk through the reserve, he tells me of the utter devastation wrought on the island’s wildlife and the massive challenges facing him and his colleagues.  “Only two per cent of the island is covered with native forest,” he explained, “The rest is farmland or village and what woodland remains outside the reserves is a mix of foreign interlopers like Cinnamon, Chinese Guava and Traveller’s Tree.”  Despite it all he manages to smile as he describes the challenges he faces and offers me fragrant leaves to smell.

As we emerge into a clearing we find abandoned cages, where in the 1980s the last remaining pigeons and vivid green Echo Parakeets were bred.  The cages now stand empty, the birds are back from the brink, but without the forest cover they will always be vulnerable, yet the fact that tourists are now paying to visit these forests gives them some protection at least? The ‘give-em-a-dollar-value’ school of nature conservation?

To the east of the island I enjoyed a very different tourism experience, staying in the chic and again five star, Anahita The Resort.  Set amidst mangrove fringed inlets in the largest lagoon system on the island; the complex offers the sublime Origine restaurant, spa, bars, a world class golf course and lagoon-side suites and villas.

RCA_2718Staff at Anahita The Resort arranged visits to several of the local reserves, including the tiny speck in the ocean known as Ile aux Aigrettes, where I got my first sense of what those sixteenth Century sailors must have witnessed when setting foot on Mauritian soil for the first time.  I was on land that was one hundred percent authentic Mauritian, black Ebony trees, Corkscrew Palm and Olive Woods formed a low, cyclone resistant canopy.  This resilient forest provides shelter for the Telfair Skink, a rather bold and curious lizard the size of a squirrel and the exceptionally rare Mauritian Fody, a red-headed finch whose numbers can be counted on the collective fingers of a single visiting boat trip and for some reason known locally as ‘Colins’.

RCA_2852My guide showed me a modest tree nursery and some giant tortoises, which seemed indignant at being required to ‘pose’ for photos.  The Mauritian Giant Tortoises are extinct: these have been introduced from the Seychelles as they are so good at spreading seeds and ‘gardening’ the native forest with their constant grazing.  Everything is turned on its head here – this is an island where the only native mammals are bats, with giant lizards and flightless birds ruling below.

That evening, I watched from the balcony as holiday-makers learned to windsurf and steer erratic courses on small yachts, largely unaware of the rarities a few miles away, before enjoying Mauritian-style venison curry, ‘capitane’ fish vindalaye with coconut and mango chutneys.

The next morning, I drove to the nearby Le Domaine de l’Etoile, again another fragment of natural forest with trees rare enough to stop a motorway construction.  The leaf-strewn forest of sturdy buttresses again includes Black Ebony – so nearly eradicated centuries ago for piano keys.  On some of the trunks, I can still the motorway route, daubed in red paint.  A few of the tarmac stoppers exist as only a handful of specimens, some of which are all male and thus presumably doomed – a fascinating yet sobering experience.

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Like most of the reserves on the island, hunting brings in significant income; something I’m ambivalent about, I feel uncomfortable at the thought of killing for pleasure, yet the introduced deer and boar, left unchecked would do further damage the forests.  Careful management brings much needed income to add to that from the horseback and quad bike safaris.

My final reserve visit is scheduled for the following day at the Valley de Ferney.  Again this island amidst the cane has been protected by geography – the modest yet still impressive hills of granite that form the Bambous Mountains and hint at the Island’s distant volcanic past.  I’m here to photograph, with luck, one of the rarest birds of prey on the planet: the Mauritian Kestrel.  The dainty bird, slightly smaller than our famila European bird relies on geckos for prey, those scuttling and apparently gravity-defying lizards.  In the 1980s, the Mauritian Kestrel’s number was reduced to only four individuals.  Increased protection and the work of the Foundation and international conservation agencies means there are now over 400 – a rare success story.

RCA_3203As we trekked up the hillside, every movement over the canopy had me lifting my camera to my eye, mainly though I just saw Mynah birds (introduced from India) and fruit bats, until a flash of russet caught my eye.  There was a Kestrel looking down from a large Makak tree – clearly a well-used vantage point.  We watched each other for ten minutes before it soured effortlessly away and I lost it against the patchwork of trees in the distance.

The very seasonal weather in the tropics often determines a traveller’s choice of location and Mauritius is no exception.  During the winter months, temperatures average in the low seventies and rainfall is low – a comfortable prospect for northern Europeans. The summer (December, January) sees far more rainy days with overall much warmer temperatures with the east coast generally being cooler.

In general, the west coast (which has a longer history of tourism) sees less rainfall and is sheltered from the trade winds that give the east coast a wilder feel.  It was to the west that I looked for some underwater adventure.

Le Méridien Ile Maurice is a larger and more well-established resort than my previous accommodation, and there’s exclusive adult only accommodation in their Nirvana wing, with access to the superb La Faya restaurant.  What Le Méridien also has is an excellent diving centre.

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I’ve dived across the planet and witnessed some frankly shameful dive centres, but luckily this wasn’t the case here.  Jonathan, my multi–lingual and entertaining dive guide knew I was looking for native animals and quickly found some underwater ones in the bright orange and white stripes of the Mauritian Clownfish in their anemone home.

We also toured shipwrecks that were deliberately sunk to make artificial reefs and now make ideal places for Jonathan’s students to learn their scuba skills in safety.

The water was deliciously warm and even though the locals cursed the colder waters (for them, July is winter after all), I was quite comfortable in a thin, short wetsuit, happily photographing the colourful tropical fish that milled around the coral with a huge underwater camera.

RCA_3884Sadly, tourism is having an impact on the island’s reefs: the coral that once dominated the lagoons has been wrecked in great swaithes by uncontrolled water sports – speedboats being a major culprit!  A poor write up on Trip Advisor has also seen many reefs destroyed to make way for sheltered swimming areas.  According to my dive guides the numbers of fish have dwindled considerably over recent years, although the cause is difficult to ascertain.

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On reflection, and from the desk-bound vantage point of a PC, back in rainy Blighty, Mauritius presents a mixed bag of tourist options.  Yes, you can simply enjoy the high life with Michelin-starred chefs, palm trees, spas and what I’m told is excellent golf; but, with a little effort, what I’ll call the ‘real’ Mauritius, the real land of the dodo is waiting to be discovered.  Just as Gambia, Kenya, Costa Rica, Alaska and destinations across the globe pull in travellers keen to witness their natural wonders, I suspect Mauritius will increasingly look to its natural wealth and heritage to add an extra dimension to the unequivocally fantastic hotels and a welcome and friendliness that for once lives up to the cliché.

Out of sight of the tourist destinations is a country that has begun a very important national conversation about its future and what kind of society and land it wishes to be.  Twenty years ago most of the cane was cut by hand and standards of living were poor for the majority.  Now, after a brief boom in the textile industry, most young people want to work in the emerging IT sector and look back on toiling in the fields as the old Mauritius – the ‘third world Mauritius’ – that it plainly no longer is. The island’s population, at over 1.3 million is now stable, yet it still ranks as one of the most heavily populated countries on the planet, given its forty odd mile size, from top to toe.  As the country emerges from dependency on fluctuating sugar prices it will be very interesting to see the direction it takes and whether rampant tourist development is shunned for the more cautious and sensitive model.

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Getting There and Where to Stay

Richard travelled with Air Mauritius: http://www.airmauritius.com/ which operates direct flights from London Heathrow.  Richard stayed at Le Telfair (http://www.heritageletelfair.mu/), Anahita The Resort (http://www.anahita.mu/) and Le Méridien Ile Maurice  (http://www.lemeridien-mauritius.com/).

Useful Information

Mauritius uses the Mauritian Rupee, has excellent health care and is malaria free.  Most international car hire firms are located at the airport though taxis are cheap, reliable and safe and can be booked for excursions from most hotels.

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the author

Richard is a freelance writer and photographer with a love of wildlife and the ocean. Richard is a biologist by training and has worked in nature conservation and land management for several decades, but is now focussing on his writing and photography. Richard lives in Yorkshire, England with his wife Angie. You can find out more about Richard through his websites: www.triggerfishphotography.com and www.aspinallink.com.uk.