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Written by Paul Richardson
in the GARDIAN.co.uk –
The best-kept secret in the Indian Ocean
Claudine Moneret came to the door in bare feet. A big-boned lady with a big smile, she had been in the kitchen making lunch: a fish curry with aubergine pickle. Sitting me down on the front porch of her guest house, just a few steps behind a coral-sand beach fringed with coconut palms and casuarina trees, she brought me a glass of rum punch.
Dazed with jet lag I couldn’t quite work out what it all reminded me of. The Caribbean? The South Pacific? West Africa? Or all of the above?
There aren’t many places left in the world that not even your best-travelled mate has heard of, but Rodrigues may be one of them. This island is so very remote and so little known, only the poshest of atlases reveal its existence.
When I first heard the name, I assumed it must be one of those windswept uninhabited rocks somewhere in the South Seas, maybe a military base, or some tiny Polynesian atoll where the population subsists mainly on Spam. Then I Googled it, and sure enough, there itwas: an island in the Indian Ocean, 600km east of Mauritius, named after a Portuguese explorer, population 40,000, religion Roman Catholic. The last scrap of Africa before you reach south-east Asia, Rodrigues is a dependency of Mauritius, and is often described as its sister island. In reality, they are siblings who have little in common. Where Mauritius is lush and verdant, its tropical woodlands alternating with vast fields of sugar cane, Rodrigues is drier, rockier, more sparsely wooded, and has no sugar cane at all – which is ironic, since 97% of its population is descended from African slaves brought to work the plantations.
Just two flights come into Rodrigues every day, and both belong to Air Mauritius. The connection takes 90 minutes, but the only alternative is a 36-hour crossing on the weekly cargo boat that constitutes the island’s main commercial link with the outside world.
After the 12-hour night flight from London, the buzz of the turboprop engine sent me into a drooling slumber, from which I awoke to the shock of an all-blue world: powder-blue sky, dark blue sea to the horizon, and a big splotch of dazzling turquoise: the wide lagoon, twice the size of the island, that is Rodrigues’s greatest natural asset.
Economically, Rodrigues has very little going for it – no industry, no commercial fishing to speak of, and it lacks the hugely profitable machine of Mauritian tourism or the honeymoon island’s dazzling array of five-star hotels. Agriculture is strictly subsistence: every family has its vegetable plot, its fruit trees, its pigs and goats. Some of the men have small fishing boats, and the women go out to hunt for octopus in the lagoon. The extent of Rodrigues’s tourism industry is a handful of three-star hotels and between 30 and 50 guesthouses (no one seems to know the true figure) known here as chambres d’hôtes or gîtes, where you stay with local Creole families and share their tasty home-cooked meals.
Chez Claudine is one of these places. It is a chalet-like house in the hamlet of Saint-François, at the beach end of a quiet valley grazed by flocks of goats. On the window of Claudine’s front room it said « Joyeux Noel » in snow spray. We were now in March, which tells you something about the pace of life on Rodrigues. My room had peach-coloured walls, a fan, plastic furniture, a fridge with nothing in it, and a papaya tree outside the window.
But, despite the disappearance of the forest, the island looks extraordinarily beautiful. I couldn’t suppress an audible « wow! » as I rounded the headland on the coastal path to see a string of delectable bays, ringed by white sand. No beach bars, sun-loungers, parasols, or any of the usual seaside paraphernalia here – nor the hawkers, masseuses, cocktail waiters, and sunglass-cleaners that work the beaches of Mauritius. , ……..All Rodrigues’s beaches are public. But with one big difference: they have no public on them.
At Trou d’Argent, the island’s most photographed stretch of sand, the only signs of life were a cow lying on the grass behind the beach, and a hen with her chicks, clucking and pecking among the rock pools.
Earlier generations would have passed Rodrigues by as insignificant, terminally sleepy, primitive, even dull. To me it’s precisely the absence of stuff – I mean hotels, restaurants, entertainment, other tourists – that makes the island so appealing. It is so new to tourism that people still seem genuinely delighted to meet a foreign visitor. Service is gawky and informal. There is no luxury accommodation as such but more than enough homely, unpretentious comfort.
After leaving Chez Claudine I checked into another chambre d’hôte, Fantaisie, which stands at the top of a hill in the island’s fertile interior, with views down the valley toward the lagoon. In the field below my cabin, two ladies in straw hats whacked away with mattocks at a maize plot. The nights were silent and starry; I awoke to the sound of cooing pigeons.
……….One of Rodrigues’s main attractions is its delicious Creole cuisine. The island’s volcanic soil is ideal for vegetables (they are practically organic, since farmers here cannot afford expensive imported pesticides). The local meat – pork, beef and kid – is also good, as is the octopus from the lagoon, typically served in a vinaigrette salad with chives. But the staple food is fish. I ate grouper and parrotfish, sea bass and dame berri; all tropical species with meaty white flesh. Favourite cooking methods for fish and meat are rougail (a kind of casserole, with tomatoes) and cari (curry) gently spiced with ginger and garam masala.
As a first course you might have cono cono: abalone, sliced and marinated with lime juice and spices, or smoked marlin. Everything comes with side dishes of achard (pickles) and chatini (chutney), and a paste, made from crushed green chillies, that is a misleading shade of avocado green but as piercingly hot as wasabi. For afters there might be gâteau maïs, a yellow pudding-y sweetmeat; piavre, a deep-fried doughnut drenched in honey; or the pride and joy of the island’s patisserie, la tourte rodriguaise, a thick-crust pie with a jammy filling of coconut and papaya.
When I wasn’t eating, I was buzzing around the island with Jean-Paul, my driver, in his big 4×4. Before becoming a driver, Jean-Paul was a boxer. He is probably the island’s coolest guy, to judge by his fancy shirts and the number of times his cellphone rang.
Jean-Paul drove me on the switchback roads, many of them potholed and overgrown, until I started recognising not just places, but faces. He waved at everyone we passed: he knew them all.
……..There is a story-book quality to island life. Even the place names – Grande Montagne, Rivière Banane, Malabar, Château de Fleur – sounded childish and innocent, like the names on a Treasure Island map. At the seaside hamlet of Gravier, a pig ran across the road, pursued by a little girl in a dark blue school uniform.
Rodrigues has cultural oddities that charm and puzzle. You drive on the left, and the road-signs are UK-style, with curvy white letters on a green background. The currency (the rupee) and the spiciness of the cooking plainly reveal the influence of India. The French were in charge here for just 74 years, from 1735 to 1809, and the English for the next century and a half. Yet it’s French culture that has triumphed, oddly. English may be the official language, yet most locals speak Creole French and/or French. The shops are all quincailleries, tabagies, boucheries. Even the island’s name, a Portuguese word, is pronounced the French way, with two syllables instead of three.
……..Despite being only 18km long and 8km wide, Rodrigues has plenty to see. One day Jean-Paul took me down to Port Mathurin, the island’s diminutive capital. It was market day, and it seemed le tout Rodrigues had turned out in force to buy or sell fruit and veg, fish and meat, home-made preserves, cheap clothes and Chinese-made homewares.
In his book Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons, Gerald Durrell describes Port Mathurin as the perfect set for a Somerset Maugham novel. I know just what he meant. The town’s few thoroughfares have names such as Victoria Street, Johnston Street and Rue de la Solidarité. It has a low-rise, somnolent, villagey feel. The government buildings are single-storey colonial houses with corrugated roofs under the shade of giant banyan trees. There is a branch of Barclays Bank, a bookshop called the Bold Endeavour, a cyber café with the slowest internet connection I have ever experienced, and a general store, the Magasin Mackoojee (« Fondé en 1901 »), which sells kitchen mixers, brooms and palm-leaf
The tourist office in Port Mathurin is a room in a colonial residence dating from 1897. Two keen young people, Sandrine and Cliff, talked me through the island’s range of tourist possibilities. I could dive the island’s coral reefs, or walk the trails of the interior. A popular excursion was the boat trip to Ile aux Cocos, a desert island where the rare birds of Rodrigues enjoy protected status. Something more active, perhaps? The wide, calm lagoon is a perfect place for kite-surfing, explained Sandrine.
…………….We drove west out of town towards the island’s main tourist attraction, the François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve, named after a Huguenot exile who arrived on Rodrigues in 1691, when the island was still uninhabited and pristine. The park and its installations, which include a small museum and a long cave through which visitors are taken on tours to gawp at the stalagmites and stalagtites, were founded in 2007 by the Australian naturalist Owen Griffiths. There is plenty to keep you occupied here for an hour or two, what with the cave, the tortoises in their picturesque surroundings, and the fruit bats in their special enclosure. The Rodrigues fruit bat, Pteropus rodricensis, very nearly met the same fate as the solitaire. At one point in the 1970s, there were only 70 left in the wild, and it became the world’s rarest bat. Now it’s up to several thousand, though the species is still endangered.
Life on Rodrigues can seem such a convincing version of paradise that it’s tempting to ask: what’s the downside, then? The answer is surely the delicate environmental situation, the pressing problems of erosion and drought, and the chronic over-fishing of the lagoon, which has reduced stocks of octopus to unsustainable levels.
There is another shadow in the island’s political and economic life: many Rodriguais harbour a simmering resentment towards Mauritius, which, they feel, funds the island meanly and strangles its attempts at self-development. According to the World Bank, 37.5% of the population lives below the poverty line.
If there is any serious discontent or hardship, it lurks below the unruffled surface of island life. There is almost no crime on Rodrigues. The island’s prison accommodates five or six, in a come-and-go-as-you-please regime. No one can remember the last murder. In any case, dangerous felons are promptly shipped off to Mauritius.
One afternoon I left my posh new Havaiana flip-flops on the beach at Anse Ally. Hours later, when we were sitting down to dinner, I remembered, and ran back along the beach like a paranoid Londoner, fully expecting they’d been nabbed by the gaggle of kids I’d seen playing on the sand.
« Oh, ils seront là, » said Claudine nonchalantly, mixing up a glass of rum punch for when I got back. And it was almost comically predictable, somehow, when she turned out to be right.