Visiting Mauritius during the Covid-19 pandemic: dodos, giant tortoises and Jurassic peaks

As the Indian Ocean island nation celebrates 30 years of republic independence, we take a deep dive into its multi-ethnic, multicultural, multifaceted appeal

Sprawling coral reef surrounds most of the Mauritius island, best visible from the many mountain tops. Photo: Mauritius Tourism Authority
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“This is the cross of the slaves; it was put here by my grandfather,” Allan Ramalingum tells me.

Touching his hand to the metal frame of the three-metre high cross in front of us, he closes his eyes and takes a breath. Perched near the top of Le Morne Brabant Mountain on the extreme south-western tip of Mauritius, the crucifix is surrounded by tropical greenery that cascades down towards a 360º tapestry of impossibly blue Indian Ocean.

Le Morne Brabant Mountain in Mauritius was once a refuge for runaway slaves. Unsplash

Clearly visible in the water are shallow sand banks and a sprawling coral reef that surrounds most of the island — keeping large predators out and thundering waves at bay. From this vantage point, it’s easy to see where the reef drops off into the deep blue, almost creating the illusion of an underwater waterfall.

As viewpoints go, you’d struggle to find anything more scenic, but this place has a darker history.

Retelling history: a slave trade in paradise

A hike to the top of Le Morne Brabant Mountain comes with a history lesson

The cross was erected by men who trace their heritage back to the slaves brought to Mauritius from Madagascar, Africa and India in the 17th century. Men and women who fled their sugarcane obsessed masters sought refuge in the crevices of this Jurassic mountain.

“They thought they would be safe here because it was so high and had open views, so they would be able to see if anyone was coming,” explains Ramalingum, who is the founder of Local Spirit, a Mauritian-owned and operated tour guiding company.

In 1835, Mauritius became the last of the British colonies to end slavery. Soon after, a group of soldiers rode up to Le Morne Brabant mountain to tell the runaway slaves they were finally free. When they saw the authorities, the former slaves, believing they were about to be captured, climbed to the clifftop and jumped to their deaths, choosing eternal freedom over the horrors of enslavement.

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“I look after the mountain, and those on it. I feel its energy and the energy of my ancestors whenever I'm here
Allan

Today, the cross pays tribute to their bravery and struggle. And La Morne, one of Mauritius's most popular tourist attractions, has been granted Unesco World Heritage status.

As we retreat down the mountain, we pause at the International Slave Route Monument. “Every year, on February 1 — the day slavery was abolished — we all gather here to pay our respects and to thank the mountain for giving our ancestors respite and shelter,” Ramalingum explains.

Tour guide Allan Ramalingum is a descendant of the slaves brought to Mauritius centuries ago. Today, he shares the stories and traditions of his ancestors with tourists.

Having grown up in nearby Le Morne village, the remnants of a community established for the slaves who did make it off the mountain, Ramalingum thinks of himself as a custodian of the land. “I look after the mountain, and those on it. I feel its energy and the energy of my ancestors whenever I'm here” he says.

By guiding tourists and visitors, and sharing traditions from his Creole community, Ramalingum tries to tell more people about the island's history — a story soaked in exploitation, but also one that celebrates human triumph.

A multicultural haven

Most places on the island are reachable in under two hours. Photo: Mauritius Tourism Authority

The next morning, our driver Maan is waiting outside our hotel at 7am. We're heading south to peel back another layer of this Indian Ocean destination. The drive takes around 90 minutes — most places on the island are reachable in under two hours, Maan explains.

Having been discovered by the Arabs, inhabited by the Portuguese and colonised by the Dutch, French and British, Mauritius is an eclectic mix of cultures, religions and languages. This is evident as we whizz through tiny towns and villages, passing lotus flower-topped temples, tree-surrounded churches and minaret-topped mosques.

You'll find temples, churches and mosques across Mauritius, a nod to the island nation's multicultural state. Photo: Mauritius Tourism Authority

The sun is shining as we arrive at the docking point for Ile Aux Aigrettes, a conservation site that has been a protected nature reserve since 1965, three years before the country gained independence. Accessible only by boat and with a licensed tour guide, the island lies about 800 metres off the mainland, but its shores play host to an entirely different ecosystem.

Dodos and giant tortoises: an Indian Ocean nature reserve

A giant tortoise roams wild on the protected island of Ile Aux Aigrette. Photo: Mauritian Wildlife Foundation

Unlike the rest of the country, which has volcanic origins, Ile Aux Aigrettes is formed from coral limestone, which means it has different endemic plants and animals, some of which aren't found anywhere else in Mauritius, or indeed the world.

It's also where visitors can see Giant Aldabra Tortoises, many of which live well into their 100s, as well as Mauritius' most famous animal — the dodo. “People in Mauritius love the dodo, they are always talking about it,” says our guide from the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. And she’s not wrong.

The famous island bird dodo is imprinted on the 500 Mauritian rupee note

The flightless island bird with its bulbous beak and stocky frame is something of a legend here and you’ll see it adorning postage stamps, building signs and on the official 500 Mauritian rupee note. On Ile Aux Aigrettes, you’ll find it in a clearing in the midst of the island’s last coastal ebony forest. Of course, given that the creature is perhaps the best-known extinct species in the world, you’ll have to be content with a stone replica of the bird.

But don’t let that put you off visiting.

The Mauritius Fody, a critically endangered songbird found only in the Mauritian region. Ben Birchall / PA

If it's real-life wildlife you seek, the island throngs with brightly-coloured geckos, Mauritian fodys, paradise flycatchers, pink pigeons and tiny kestrels, once regarded as the rarest bird in the world, but successfully rehabilitated on Aigrette. This little bird is about to be honoured in a very special way. It will be named the national bird of Mauritius as part of the country’s coming independence celebrations on Saturday.

Back on the mainland, we head north again as the weather takes a turn. The bright sunshine is quickly pushed out by a flurry of dark grey clouds rolling in from the ocean, and it’s not long before raindrops begin to fall — landing fat and heavy on the windscreen as we drive.

“We are an island, so we see all the seasons every day and the weather changes very fast,” says Maan, as he speeds through the puddles beginning to form on the winding roads.

A grand old dame: country's first five-star hotel

One&Only Le Saint Geran is the oldest five-star hotel in Mauritius.  

By the time we return to One&Only Le Saint Geran, the oldest five-star hotel in Mauritius, the rain has stopped. “If it’s raining on one side of the island, it will be dry on the other. There’s always somewhere where the sun is shining,” says Luca Guerra, the hotel's director of sales and marketing.

Having opened in 1975, 17 years before the country became independent, this grand dame of a hotel underwent a multimillion dollar refurbishment five years ago. As one of the island's original haunts, it has long been a favourite with celebrities and has hosted Nelson Mandela, UK's Prince Charles and actress Charlize Theron over the years.

One&Only Le Saint Geran sits on its own private peninsula in Pointe de Flacq. Photo: H Skirka

Located on a private peninsula in Pointe De Flacq, the resort has a pristine shoreline backed by emerald waters, and a huge coral reef on one side. On the other side, reached via palm-tree filled gardens, there's a lagoon that stretches out towards a mangrove forest.

Kayaking trips take place daily here and guests are accompanied by one of the hotel's environmental experts. Paddling slowly through the waterways, guests learn more about the area's unique flora and fauna. Sit quietly and you’re likely to catch sight of a mangrove heron or a whistler. A favourite nesting ground for birds and fish, the lagoon had a bumper breeding season in 2021, thanks to several tourist-free months brought about by Covid-19 related travel restrictions.

Tropical isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic

The entrance to the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport in Mauritius, which started welcoming tourists again on October 1, 2021, since the pandemic. AFP

At the outset of the pandemic, authorities announced that Mauritius would be closing to visitors, a policy that remained in place until October last year. When tourism did finally return, it was strictly controlled, with follow-up PCR tests and quarantine measures in place.

Since January, restrictions have eased further and tourists now only need to take a PCR test before flying, and an antigen test on arrival at their resort. More than 70 per cent of the local population is now fully vaccinated, according to a WHO report.

But while the shutdown might have been good news for the environment and the wildlife that calls Mauritius home, for an economy that relies predominantly on tourism, the pandemic has been tough. “There was no work, people just sat at home. But schools are reopening, we are slowly going back to normal,” says Maan.

And as the country celebrates 30 years of becoming a republic on March 12, there’s a sense of optimism, coupled with the ever-present spirit of Mauritian perseverance as tourists begin to flock back to the island. “Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow, so we must enjoy today," says Maan, smiling widely.

Updated: March 12, 2022, 11:37 AM