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HindustanTimes Wed,23 Jul 2014
Mauritius: Indian Ocean’s very own treasure island
Ashutosh Sapru, Hindustan Times
March 15, 2014
First Published: 17:24 IST(15/3/2014)
Last Updated: 19:32 IST(15/3/2014)

Mauritius is clean, tourist-friendly, teeming with the familiar and yet foreign enough to be exotic. While on a vacation there, don’t forget to check out the multi-coloured sand dunes and the thrilling undersea walk.

Last March I visited Mauritius as part of an artists’ camp. We were there for four days, during which we had to come up with an artwork that would capture our interpretation of the island nation.

I was excited at the prospect of participating in this camp and decided to maintain a little travel diary.

Almost a year later, as I turned its crisp pages, I discovered that my earnest jottings had indeed started a day before we took off (there were details about a newly purchased suitcase and even the flat tyre on the way to the airport) but ended abruptly, no sooner had the aircraft landed in Mauritius.

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A portrait of Prince Maurice of Nassau, after whom Mauritus is named
I didn’t know Mauritius was named by the Dutch in the 16th century after Prince Maurice of Nassau. I was vaguely aware of the strong India connection (many, many Indians left to work in the sugar plantations of Mauritius in the early 19th century). I had looked it up on the atlas and it seemed to resemble a pair of thick lips, floating at an angle in the Indian Ocean, grazing the Tropic of Capricorn.

Nevertheless, the name with its slightly sweeping ‘shus’ sound suggested something so foreign and exotic that when we stepped out of the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport one humid afternoon and hopped into the cab driven by Satish, who spoke in fluent Hindi, and my co-travellers passed around some samosas from a local shop, I confess I felt a bit cheated.

Travel pieces typically shouldn’t be written a year later. But when they are, it is easy to distil the defining moments.

In our four-day stay we stopped at all the touristy spots. The dormant Trou aux Cerfs volcano at Curepipe with its bird’s eye view of the rest of the island, the 33-feet high Shiva temple at Grand Bassin, the Chamarel Falls, the seven coloured earth…

The 33-feet high Shiva temple

The last is one of those things that makes one’s jaw drop in wonder and at the same time despair as an artist. The seven-coloured earth is a geological formation – multicoloured sand dunes – at once simple and splendid. The Master Artist’s very own installation work. 

For all those who plan to take the kids along, this is a must-visit. Of course, if you thought you could let them gambol in the sand you were mistaken. There is a sort of wooden enclosure built around the red and blue and green glistening sands to prevent tourists from wandering into them. But you can buy little plastic test tubes filled with the rainbow sands. They are a source of amusement for children and when they tire of them you can use them for what they actually are, keychains.

Walking around Charamel village in south western Mauritius that houses the coloured dunes, I bumped into vendors selling prettily sliced dragonfruit. As someone who is not much of a foodie, though the local fish curry was a winner, I greedily tucked into the ripe fruit bursting with flavours. And then of course there was the sea.

The Chamarel Falls

Its colours, its moods, always varying. From a distance, walking along the beaches, turning the waters inside out scuba diving, I found my exotic Mauritius. And I couldn’t have enough of it.

One time we took a motor boat to one of the islands locally known as the Ile aux Cerfs Island, or the deer island. There were no deer, but the ride, the island, the flavour of adventure was something the children around us seemed to be enjoying.

Another time we went for an undersea walk. Yes, very Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, except that the diving instructor was a moustachioed six feet tall man. If you are not claustrophobic and have no fear of water, it is a safe and fascinating experience. The instructor had us hooked to a long cable which worked like a long leash, literally, and we walked around under water, eyes popping at the sight of all that lovely coral and marine life. At one point, the burly instructor thrust a white sponge-like thing into our hands, which turned out to be a chunk of bread. I had barely got a grip on my piece, when thousands of tiny fish appeared out of nowhere for a quick nibble. They were quite harmless really, but I hate to admit the sight unnerved me.

And that was the Mauritius I discovered and enjoyed. Neat, tidy, tourist-friendly and safe, teeming with the familiar and yet foreign enough.

Did you know
* Official languages spoken here are French, Bhojpuri, Creole, and English
* Despite its extinction, the dodo remains Mauritius’ national animal. The cute little ugly bird is now available in the form of key chains and other mementos
* To give tourists an idea about the history of sugarcane cultivation and plantation, there is a dedicated museum, L’Aventure du Sucre

Text and photos by Ashutosh Sapru

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