From Simon van der Stel’s birth here to the exiles from the Cape Colony evolving into sugar barons and being the getaway du jour of the late ’80s circa the time of his mother’s second honeymoon, South Africa has long had a strange connection to Mauritius, writes Roger Young
“You want to see the real Mauritius?” With an almost undetectable eye roll, Clarel, our tour guide, turns to the driver and sighs, “The real Mauritius”. It’s our second morning on the tropical, tourist-brochure paradise island of Mauritius and the rain is torrential. Leon Sadiki, the war photographer sent here with me, ostensibly to review a five star resort called Long Beach, is peering through the sheets of rain that pummel the car, looking for “the real shit”.
We twist through a stream of low-strung, double-storey buildings, a chain of high road villages, bus stops made of corrugated iron and frequent smattering of religious symbols, all of which bustle for attention. We pass secondary schools, grim, socialist concrete dotted on the landscape among the perpetual sugar cane fields and half-finished houses strung with makeshift scaffolding.
The national flag hangs off every front door, shop front, roof, fence, serving as a reminder of the recently passed 46th celebration of the republic’s independence (although it remains a member of the Commonwealth). Gardens ariot with grapefruit trees, green tangles, red leaves, yellow flowers, colourful but faded walls splashed with road dirt, and shrines. Shrines everywhere – small boxes of Hindu, Tamil or Catholic iconography, some garlanded, some abandoned. Between the villages are the resorts, public beaches, fishing jetties, stray dogs, swarms of scooters, young people all dressed up and aimless, new malls, stray dogs, KFCs and abandoned textile factories. We are racing to Port Louis to find the real Mauritius because Clarel wants to get us to the l’Aventure du Sucre museum in time for what he describes as “a luxurious lunch”.
The resort itself is a travel writer’s dream, seemingly designed around a collection of tastefully ostentatious adjectives: luxurious, tranquil, spacious, lavish, capacious. As you enter the triple-volume lobby, its giant wooden shutters open to show off the palm tree-lined courtyard, as well as the long curve of the beach beyond with its the white sands and endless sea.
Staff softly pad up to you with warm towels to wipe away the hour-long drive from the airport at the other side of the island. This is a drive scattered with the glowing red lights of the shrines, always the shrines, and men sitting on pavements shirtless drinking beer in the florescent light leaking from the corner shops.
It’s 10pm, it’s beyond-Durban hot and we also want to be shirtless and drinking beer. But it’s a five star hotel and we find ourselves threatened with having to dress up for an all-you-can-eat buffet with an exhausting array of food. Finished by the crab curry, we head off to find our rooms, our luggage long since whisked away from us by the staff.
Black slate polished floors, an outstretched-arms-length-wide screen TV, a shower, a super deep bath, an unending bed, a toilet with a room service telephone, and a balcony looking out on to a lawn, a beach, the sea, the stars. This is the kind of room you never want to leave (which kinda defeats the point).
I order a beer to better enjoy my sumptuous surroundings. The beer, a local brand, Phoenix, costs Rs225 (about R85), plus a tray charge of Rs100 (about R24). Buzz officially killed. Thank God for duty free whisky. The ice takes 30 minutes to arrive.
Since reading the brochure, I have become fixated on the “glass-bottom boat ride”. What wonders shall I see? I breakfast on a deeply comfortable bench facing the, yes, pristine sand, inviting blue ocean, and palm trees delicately blowing in the breeze.
Already the heat is such that the sugar is stuck inside the tiny sachets. It is, I concur, a “haven of tranquility” – except for the screaming toddlers having a food fight next to me while their parents yell at the au pair to make them stop. Long Beach may be a five star hotel, but it is also a five star family hotel. The children here are five star brats and they litter the experience with scowls and tantrums.
“Everyone is looking at me funny. I think it’s because I’m the only black person in Mauritius,” says Sadiki as we scout the resort in search of fun or single ladies. “No, Sadiki, it’s because you’re wearing a military-style photographer’s vest, carrying two giant-lensed cameras and acting like you’re hoping a bomb goes off. People are trying to fucking relax, man.”
You see them wandering around and you envy them, the tourists, those who have paid their hard-earned money to kick back.
You see them doing it with slack-jawed abandon and you envy them. Inside this enclave there is a low-rent Balardian sense of leisure, lacking only the background buzz of jet skis and party girls trying languidly to kill each other.
Parents and newlyweds laze on sun loungers, their progeny led away by resort staff to engage in children-type activities while they drink watered-down cocktails and slather on buckets of cocoa butter sun bronzer. A honeymoon in Mauritius, I think to myself, is grounds for divorce.
I watch a father walk his children down to the water’s edge, but the sea here is full of dying coral and not more than knee deep. There is little they can do in it. They wander listlessly on the edge of the shore while a local man in a motorcycle helmet casts his line out. The beach is not for sale here. All resorts officially end 5m above the high-water mark. Even in the most luxurious of resorts you will find the subsistence fishermen among the frolicking tourists. Among the isolating languor of resort life, it is strangely comforting.
The glass-bottom boat leaks. But that’s okay; it’s got a hotel towel packed into the hole. We’re out at the edge of the reef and the sea life below us is just sorta there – nothing National Geographic about it. It’s at this point that Sadiki and I decide to go find the real Mauritius.
“Pull the car over now!” Sadiki commands. The driver complies. We’re somewhere on the Quartier Militaire Road and we step out into the downpour. In front of us is a giant field, vast and muddy, strung with lines of plastic bag-wearing people bent over and uprooting the remnants of the last crop. Sadiki, barefoot and energised, races off, shouting, “This is gold!”
It’s here I discover that Mauritians often have a shaky grasp of their official language. Finally, I speak to a man who has pretty good English. I’m calf-deep in mud and volcanic rock. I’m soaked through. This is not a tropical holiday. He takes my hand and examines it, then lets it drop. He takes the other, examines it and looks into my eyes. His face is like a discarded handbag. His teeth, conversely, are quite perfect.
“No ring,” he says.
“You are not married?”
“But you like girls?”
“What hotel are you at?”
I tell him.
“I live near there, with my daughters.”
We find beer in a new strip mall, at a Shoprite-like place called Winners, next to another KFC, in the village of St Pierre. At Rs34, a six-pack is the price of one beer in the hotel. We stock up and head to Port Louis. Clarel pronounces it with a silent S and the driver repeats the name indifferently, pronouncing the S. In Mauritius, language is a slippery thing.
I ask Clarel where we would go to find dancing, nightlife, you know, Mauritians getting crunk. He shrugs, “I don’t like nightclubs. I prefer beach parties with friends. I don’t go out much.” I get the feeling Clarel is being economical with the truth. He looks like he knows how to dance.
In Ebène Cybercity, the bus stops are new plastic and the buildings shiny and tall. It’s a square kilometre of HSBC, Standard Bank, Microsoft and financial centre malarkey that sprung up about 10 years ago to service offshore banking, like a mini-Sandton in the tropical tangle.
Suddenly the driver points out a building, a giant nightclub with multicoloured walls. Here, he tells us, they play siga, hip-hop, rap, everything, and it goes all night. Unfortunately, it’s 11am and Summertimes, the tour company they work for, does not operate after 8pm and will not be able to take us dancing.
The bus stops in Cybercity are full of young people, well dressed with that dazed look of the call centre worker. They’re catching buses home, up to the central plateau, Clarel tells me with just a hint of disdain. The central plateau is where urban Mauritius is, and, according to Clarel, why would anyone want to go there?
The market at Port Louis is a combination of Ajmeri Arcade in Durban and St Lorenzo in Florence. It has a clothing section, a cheap-yet-overpriced tourist shit section, and a fresh fruit and vegetable section for the locals. We, I realise, are never going to see the “real” Mauritius. Sadiki, obviously, has never seen a fruit market before and goes bananas. I buy trinkets for back home.
A man with a cat on his shoulder says to me, “You’re from Durban, aren’t you?” He’s old, spritely and selling lottery tickets in a little box stall that reeks of a scam.
“Yes, how did you know?”
He pauses and then says, “You like the mushrooms, don’t you?”
“What the fuck, dude?”
He pauses to contemplate me. “It’s true, though.”
“Of course it’s true, but how the fuck?”
“All you Durban boys, all the ones who like mushrooms, you all look the same. I used to be a sailor. I smuggled dagga [he pronounces it DAGGAR with a murderous relish] from Uuum-tata to the islands for 20 years.”
I ask him, “Can you get me some?”
“A skinny, worthless, shit joint not worth smoking will be about Rs300.” That’s about R120.
“And can you get me ’shrooms?”
I am pushing out of my head the final line of the email I received from my editor, which read: “Remember, drugs are a hanging offence in Mauritius.”
“We have to go into the hills, up by the central plateau, where the drug barons live.” As he says this his cat jumps off his shoulder, down on to the floor of the lottery booth. The central plateau is now becoming more of a chimera than the glass-bottom boat.
“They control the country, you know, they rig the elections. The police are all in. If you want to go up there, you must bring plenty bribe money.”
I’d made a personal resolution to not spend any money of my own on this trip so we go to photograph a Tamil temple instead. Besides, I’ll never convince Clarel to venture into the central plateau.
The temple is near the slums of Port Louis, where many of the Chagossians, violently displaced by the US military from the island of Diego Garcia, now live. Clarel and I are leaning against a railing overlooking a giant water culvert in Port Louis. Its vast black walls were hewn from volcanic rock, always the volcanic rock, back in the 1700s or so. Flash floods apparently occur on the reg in Port Louis, rushing down from mountains surrounding the basin. Clarel is telling me about the most recent flood that killed 11 in an underground subway just last year. I’m just trying to find out about nightlife in Port Louis.
“Oh,” he says, “you wouldn’t want to be here after dark – too many crazy people; too much, you know, drugs.”
Clarel is such a tease.
“Luckily,” he continues, pointing to the surrounding buildings, “Port Louis has security cameras everywhere.”
L’Aventure du Sucre is a scaled-down version of the tour of the Hulletts factory that every Durban school kid has to endure at least once in their life, except the sugar mound here is fake, made of sand and glue and concrete, so the guide doesn’t have to whisper, “One year a child fell in and suffocated.” L’Aventure du Sucre also has a handy little section on slavery and Creole history that begins with the line, “Slavery would not have been possible had African tribal chiefs not been complicit in selling their own people. European slave traders seldom ventured inland.” So much for that.
Back at the resort, even though it is intermittently raining, I float out into the ocean, to just let go, to relax. The sea is filled with a constant clicking, a regular, omnipresent, sinister clicking. I think of Geiger counters, of surveillance. As I exit the water, a plastic bag clings to my foot.
Walking up to my cabana, I paused to watch an elderly man sweeping the footprints off the beach in the fading light. We eat an ennui-filled supper in the resort’s Chinese restaurant. Two teenage Japanese girls ignore their parents and stare relentlessly into their devices, occasionally glancing at their food with disdain.
On the way back to the rooms, I ask Vladimir, the hotel manager, if there is any chance we can get a ride to Grand Bay to escape the flamenco floor show and get some real dancing in. He smiles and points us to the bar. “Here, you can dance here.” But the bar closes at midnight and, like writing, proper dancing means staying up all night. I order a drink anyway.The bartender asks me where I’m from and, as I tell him, smiles widely. “Aaahh, ubuntu,” he says.
In the morning we travel south, past the fake pirate boats staffed by marooned backpackers that take tourists round the bay while blasting them with listless siga bands and cheap rum. We pass three women fishing on the shore’s edge, knee deep, seemingly a mother, daughter and grandmother, all staring resolute towards the point where the sea and the sky blend.
We move between a fishing jetty where, at 10am, the men are returning from their trips beyond the reef, past the fishmongers on the shore standing with stacks of low-denomination rupees, through a slum where the balconies are cardboarded in to make extra rooms, where “Hands off Diego Garcia” is graffitied on the walls, reminding me of the news report the night before, speculating that MH370 might be on the military base, and towards our destination, Blue Bay. I ask Clarel where the brothels are. “There are no prostitutes on Mauritius,” he replies, coyly. Sadiki jumps in, “Oh come on.” Clarel thinks for a second. “Maybe the Malagasies, but never a Mauritian girl,” he says.
We track down the graveyard of Dutch exiles. I scour for South African sounding names while Sadiki discovers, across the road, an old body builder who calls himself Mr Africa, and begins to work out with him. Observing, Clarel tells me that he never knew about this graveyard and sinks into a reverie about his early days in the tourism business: “Package tours are down,” he tells me. “They all go to the Caribbean now. It’s Johnny Depp’s fault.”
Laced with resorts and luxury private homes docked with small yachts or big catamarans, Blue Bay is as blue and shallow and white sand-bottomed as it gets. We cruise out towards Ile aux Aigrettes, passing a man dragging his shrieking daughter behind his speedboat, and dock next to a glass-bottom boat filled with Germans giggling with delight at the neon pink, yellow and blue eels.
Ile aux Aigrettes is a protected island, an attempt to restore indigenous flora and fauna to Mauritius. It is where the last dodo, the national bird that lives on only as a plastic insert on the Mauritian rupee, was said to have lived. It is where the French, Dutch and Portuguese used to stop to capture giant turtles for ship meat. It is where you will find a small metal sculpture of the skink, killed by the rats of the colonial ships. It is where, over the past 20 years, the pink pigeon has been bred back from the brink of extinction.
We follow our guide through the dense undergrowth and down the slope on worn wooden steps.We are asked to be quiet and there it is, in the branches – the pink pigeon. Pink hardly, but perhaps more pink then grey, it sits, just another ordinary-looking bird, gazing dumbly around like any old pigeon in any old park.
Creeping closer I look into its stony black eyes and I wonder if this particular pink pigeon has any idea how close it came to nonexistence. I wonder about the souls of extinct creatures. Where do they go? On the way back to the resort, the three women are in the same place and in the same configuration, staring out towards infinity.
I give up on the bar entirely and sit in my luxurious room, realising the function of its comforts. The resort is a ghost town designed for adults slipping into the middle classness of their futures.
Maybe I just hate this resort because I think monogamy is stupid. I get on Tinder and try to find a hook-up in a 2km radius (I reckon that’s as far as I can get on the hotel bicycle after I’ve finished the whisky).There is no one. Fuck it. I get on to Grindr and find a 50ish Scottish couple looking for “an island boy to have some fun with”. They are, according to the app, less than 1km away. Turns out they’re in the next row of cabanas and I end up sitting on their porch, overlooking the moon and talking about sex tourism (apparently Mauritius has disappointed them in this department) and the joys of open marriage while drinking badly constructed homemade cocktails.
On the last day, our vague dissatisfaction seems to have registered with management, and Long Beach organises us a day tour of another of the Sun resorts. It’s bittersweet.
We’re taken to Ambre, a four star hotel just down the drag. It’s fucking paradise. We could have been here all along. Words cannot describe the utter chav-ness of it. Every cliché is in place and it’s wonderful.
The beaches are actually wide and pristine, the sea is deep and blue, and the drinks are all universally free. The differences, it seems, between the four and five star hotel are twofold: firstly the rooms are mere places to rest, comfortable but uninteresting.
Secondly, there is only one payment structure: all inclusive – none of that poncy and confusing half board / full board / all inclusive (perhaps) bullshit we had at the other place.
There is another important difference: the atmosphere. Ambre is an adults-only resort. There are no screaming kids, no toddlers wandering between your feet as you signal a waiter – and it translates. Everyone is grinning and smugly drunk. It’s as if the place was designed exactly to make chubby Brits, New Zealanders and South Africans feel immensely sexy while getting plastered and forgetting to put on enough sun block. It’s like I’ve found my spiritual home. Roving gangs of Essex girls scout the male bodies that arrange themselves in various poses of imagined football star allure. Packs of Australians litter the shoreline on loungers, making wisecracks about the staff. After quickly photographing the resort, Sadiki says, in total relief, “I don’t think anyone is looking at me funny here.”
“Well then,” I say, “let’s rid you of that other stereotype and get you in the ocean.”
The glass-bottom boat at Ambre doesn’t leak. We get taken out to a snorkelling spot where the coral is not completely dead.
And, finally, in the deep water, I am on holiday.
The cleansing atmosphere of drunken holiday hook-ups that exudes from Ambre has given me hope, a sense of freedom, and I float on the surface and let the current take me. Soon I am locked in direct eye contact with a magnificently translucent, flat fish. We swim together, me following it, it occasionally looking back at me, sometimes stopping and staring me in the eyes.
Something inside me shifts. I vow never to eat fish again.
After sunset we watch packs of stray dogs fucking in the gloaming before retiring to the tables on the beach to eat supper. I order the fish of the day. The strains of the cover band float out over the glistening sands.
At 11pm the nightclub opens. Sadiki and I want to review the dance floor, and, perhaps, for the sake of journalistic ethics, do some research on the guests here. We get into “the pub” way too early. The only other people in here are three guys from Bloem trying to play darts, as well as the entire cover band.
I strike up a conversation with one of them, while girls in way too high, see-through platforms intermittently pop their heads in to see if it’s filled up yet. His name is Louis – he wears a white panama hat and has searing halitosis. “So, do you have another band beside this one?” I ask. “What do you think? I like playing fucking Freshlyground covers every night?” He scowls a little. “I’m a jazz musician. I hate this shit. The only South African song I’ve ever liked was Ipi Tombi, and they made me stop playing that 20 years ago.”
Moments later, sitting in the departure lounge, with the sun coming up through the massive windows, a weirdly proportioned couple, bronzed predators smelling like cocoa butter and looking like endangered lizard birds, stalk the duty free, searching for trinkets with which to line their nests, their souls, their very existence. Sitting across from me are people I had considered fucking back at the resort mere hours ago, now just ordinary schlubs, the kind you pass in the street every day without noticing, just like myself.
Somewhere out there is the real Mauritius, the nontourist economy we never managed to slip into, the high-speed powerboat parties of the plantation owners, the men drinking beer under florescent lights, the freshly arrived gaggles of girls at the hook-up resorts, the disenfranchised of Diego Garcia, the undone and harassed workers of Cybercity, the attendants of centuries-old graves, the grey, dreadlocked man living under a lean-to in a small field, the half-finished, tax-dodging, three-storey houses, the trio of women in the sea endlessly fishing against the tide, the dying coral, and the pink pigeon who has no concept of its recent flirtation with extinction.
This article first appeared in an edited form in #Trending, City Press’ arts and lifestyle supplement
All photographs by Roger Young