Mauritius: Africa’s tropical oasis

Travel once proceeded at a much more leisurely pace. In 1761, a French astronomer sailed to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius to watch the Transit of Venus. He ran late and was still at sea when Venus crossed the sun, so he decided to stay in Mauritius until the next transit, eight years later.

The island
His name was Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaisière — now there’s a name that’d fill a business card. He was a clever man: if you’re going to hang around a tropical paradise for eight years waiting for a cosmic event, Mauritius is a good choice.

It’s a spectacular volcanic island about 2000 kilometres off the east coast of Africa, boasting perfect white sand beaches and fringing coral reefs. Because of its history, the food is French but the roadsigns are in English and people drive on the left hand side of the road — locals say they are half English and half French, so they drive in the middle of the road. The population is largely a mix of Indian and Europeans (with many Africans and Chinese) who speak Creole, but everyone understands English.

Mauritius is a resort island that has been popular with sophisticated Europeans for many years, so the hotels are excellent. There are waterfalls and some remnant forests but most visitors are drawn to the coast. In fact, the whole island, which is oval-shaped and measures 65 kilometres north to south and 45 kilometres east to west, is now ringed by beach resorts.

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Beautiful sandy beaches and clear turquoise water make Mauritius a popular resort destination

Seasons
Mauritius lies at about 20° south — firmly in the tropics. There are no distinct monsoon seasons here: the weather largely depends on the direction of the trade winds. The hottest months are from January to April, the coolest from July to September. Sea temperature ranges from 22°C to 27°C, while coastal temperatures range from 34°C in summer to 22°C in winter.

Port Louis
The capital, Port Louis, is a pleasantly laidback port town with palm tree-fringed streets. It reveals the island’s polyglot past, from the ramshackle wooden Creole houses to the imposing French colonial Government House with a foreboding statue of Queen Victoria out the front.

The main attractions for visitors of the town are equally diverse — the modern shopping precinct of Caudan Waterfront and the chaotic, crowded stalls of the Port Louis Central Market.

The dodo
The Natural History Museum, on the ground floor of the Mauritius Institute Building, is where you have the rare opportunity to come face-to-face with a dodo. While extinction is forever, the indignity suffered by the dodo goes well beyond that.

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The Natural History Museum gives you a glimpse of the once populous dodo

Ornithologists have deduced that these flightless, turkey-sized birds were in fact giant pigeons, happily settled into a comfortable life without predators. When the Dutch first visited in 1598, the complacent birds wandered down to the shore to observe their arrival.

A mere 50 years later, the dodo was extinct, not so much killed and eaten but predated by the animals the invaders introduced. Some of the strange looking birds were sent back to Europe but none survived there, either. Some museums kept a head or a foot but, effectively, the dodo completely disappeared from the face of the earth.

Everything we know about the birds come from a few eyewitness descriptions and drawings, and some dodo skeletons that were discovered in a bog near the Mauritius Airport in the 19th century — more of which were discovered recently. The colouring of the dodo in the museum is largely a matter of guesswork.

While it doesn’t take long to visit, the museum is currently closed until at least 2018.

Getting there
While it was Lewis Carroll who metaphorically brought the dodo back from the dead in the Alice in Wonderland books, it is Air Mauritius that put Mauritius back on the map for Australian travellers. Decades ago, Qantas used to fly to Mauritius once a week, then onwards to nearby Africa. When those flights stopped, getting from Australia to Mauritius became a chore.

Today, it’s easy again, as Air Mauritius flies directly between Mauritius and Perth four days a week, with connections to other Australian capital cities. Flights leave Perth at lunchtime on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, arriving in Mauritius about eight hours later.

Staying
Merely selecting which of the more than 50 resorts to stay at may be the most challenging task of a Mauritian holiday. Wildlife Safari is an Australian company that specialises in travel to Indian Ocean and African destinations. It produces a comprehensive Indian Ocean brochure that covers Mauritius, as well as nearby Madagascar and the Seychelles. It provides a good cross section of the island’s upmarket accommodation.

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Chamarel Waterfall offers a fantastic natural spectacle

Notably, the Oberoi Mauritius stands on a perfect bay not far to the north of Port Louis. Like other Oberoi resorts, the luxurious suites are spread across manicured gardens and lawns, and very tasteful architecture predominates. This is simply a beautiful resort.

Exploring
The landscape of the island is impressive. However, most of the island’s forest have been cleared to grow sugar cane, so visit the glorious Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden at Pamplemousses to fully appreciate the island’s rich botanical heritage.

Chamarel Waterfall is also quite dramatic and the nearby seven-coloured earth is home to some large tortoises as well as a stunning landscape. The all-wood Maison Eureka is an excellent place to see how the colonials lived, in a beautiful setting that makes it worthwhile staying for a curry lunch on the verandah.

While waiting for your flight home, allow some time between buying local rum and model ships duty free, to spare a thought for the dodo: a boggy dodo graveyard discovered near here held several complete skeletons. The dodo may still be gone but Mauritius is still worth the trip.

Is travelling to Mauritius on your bucket list?

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