Cycling around Mauritius: in the footsteps of the dodo
text: Annemarie Verhallen
In the 17th century the Dutch ate the dodo, the national symbol of Mauritius. This is what Mauritian children learn at school, but Dutch tourists won’t be bothered about it, because the Mauritians are a remarkably friendly people. Besides, the supposed dodo consumption is a nonsense story. The VOC did build the first settlement on the island in 1598, but before that time earlier ships had certainly left rats behind, with fatal effects on the dodo eggs. The strange birds nested on the ground, because before the arrival of the rats no flying or creeping animal was interested in the eggs.
About 25 years ago we had already studied the cycling and accommodation possibilities on Mauritius, but then there were only very expensive luxury hotels, no fun for cyclists. But things have now turned for the better! In all villages there are apartments available that you can rent for 30 to 50 euros per night. These are all personal initiatives, so you can get in touch with the landlord as a bonus. An excellent way to hear some interesting stories about this special island, and as a bonus you can cook for yourself. In each apartment we stayed 2 to 4 nights. Outside the peak season (around Christmas) it is no problem to book on short notice via Booking.com or Airbnb.
There are many excursion options, where your bike comes in handy. During our three week stay the bike hardly stayed in the stable for more than a day. That being said, the real mile-eaters are better off choosing another destination, as Mauritius is just a small island. But if you like to alternate cycling with (jungle) walking, coconut beaches, interesting small museums, snorkeling and swimming in tropical water, searching for the remains of the Dutch VOC, birdwatching and especially if you love amazing views, then you've come to the right place. Not a day went by without being struck by the endless beauty of this island.
We met 0 other travellers on bicycles. Also the Mauritian people themselves have yet to discover that cycling on Mauritius is an ideal means of transport. However, everyone thought our way of traveling in Mauritius was an amazing and admirable trick. Other means of transport: buses are cheap and run frequently, and taxis are affordable and spacious. Unfortunately the railway network was closed in the second half of the last century. So now the main roads in the densely populated island interior and in the capital Port-Louis are constantly congested. Strangely enough, Mauritius is still a very bicycle-friendly island. The coastal roads are usually quiet and nowhere steep. The owners of the apartments always offered to park their bicycles somewhere inside the house and at an attraction or restaurant we were always pointed a safe spot to park our bicycles.
After our arrival on Mauritius, we roll up the bicycle boxes, load them on our bicycles and ride to Mahebourg, where our endlessly friendly and helpful landlady will store them for the next three weeks (LeBovallon B&B, recommended!). Don't leave Mahebourg too soon! There are many nice excursions to do. Tip for the lucky traveller with bike: you can ride eastwards along the airport fence. It’s a bumpy ride with mud puddles and a few steep slopes with large boulders, but it saves a long detour along the main road with fast driving cars.
From La Cambuse beach, near the airport, there is a beautiful coastal path that you can cycle for the most part without much trouble. Don’t try this with luggage, because near Le Bouchon beach you have to climb over big boulders. Finally, a stony path leads you to a natural rocky bridge in the sea, from where you can cycle through the sugar cane fields inland to Trois Boutiques and back to Mahebourg.
Tip 2: Try to avoid through roads as much as possible. We always took the coastal road, if possible, at the expense of detours (it didn’t matter much, as it’s a small island). Through roads are usually unpleasantly busy and narrow and there is often adeep ditch next to the road so you can't get out of the way. Fortunately, it is usually no problem to avoid busy roads.
From Mahebourg to Trou d'Eau Douce
Along a beautiful and quiet road we cycle to Trou d'Eau Douce, where, contrary to what the name would suggest, we have to save water when showering***. According to the sympathetic landlord it hasn't rained much lately. Strange, because on the way we saw many perfectly green golf courses, apparently there is plenty of water for those! We interrupted our trip with a walking excursion through the Vallée de Ferney, which was easy and interesting.
There are also a number of not-to-be-missed VOC attractions to admire in this area: the Frederik Hendrik fortress with a small and interesting museum, the Dutch-French cemetery and the Dutch Landing Monument on the spot where Wijbrand van Warwijck came ashore in 1598 to supply his ships. The VOC sights are easy to combine into a cycling trip from Mahebourg.
In Trou d'Eau Douce, don't miss the Île aux Cerfs. On the beach it is easy enough to find a speedboat to take you to the island. The price depends on your negotiation skills, we paid 450 rupees pp return (€ 11,50). If you're looking for the real Robinson feeling, it’s better to avoid the weekend. Another option here is a cycle tour through the interior, where you will find nice towns, villages and a completely different landscape.
From Trou d'Eau Douce to Grand Baie
Because of the good bus connection to the capital Port-Louis, we choose Grand Baie as the next stop (Colosseo Apartments, recommended!). Port-Louis has a lot of interesting things to offer, but cycling in the congested streets is no fun at all. In the market we buy delicious fish for a reasonable price to put in the pan in our apartment. Grand Baie is built for the shopping pleasure of the many package tourists, but the nice beaches are just around the corner, on the west coast. Up to Poudre d'Or the cycling is very enjoyable, but later we have to use busier roads. Cap Malheureux is an attractive place to escape the hustle and bustle.
To get to Flic en Flac (from the Dutch ‘vlakte’ - plain) our map states it should be possible to escape the main road by crossing a shallow river arm on the coast after Le Goulet. When we arrived we arrived on the beautiful beach over there, the bridge was washed away. Wading through was no option because of the high tide -- the water reached our hips. Besides, it would be no easy task to get your heavy bike up on the other side of the river. Anyway, you can try your luck here.
Actually, the detour was not that bad. Then you have to pass Port-Louis. Well... The city lies in a narrow vallley between steep old crater walls (nice to climb on foot), bordered by the sea shore, so you can't cycle around it, but on the positive side the city could not expand too much because of these natural limits. All in all it's not too bad. Up to the city border you can cycle along the coast again. Tip: before you dive in the urban chaos, there are a few nice diners along the road for lunch. It’s best to cycle into the smaller city streets to avoid the horribly busy main road, and a few kilometers further you can escape to the coastal road again.
Take care: Many of the roads on Google maps and other maps are private and have a no entry-sign. Usually these are unpaved country roads through sugar cane plantations and cycling is no problem, but sometimes you will be confronted with a high fence and guards of a resort or golf course. Turning back is the only option. The last part of the route to Flic and Flac is on such an unpaved, but easy to cycle, private road. Highly recommended, because the alternative is a dangerously busy and narrow road.
From Flic and Flac to Chamarel
Also when you leave Flic and Flac, according to local information the little roads will end at a fence and unfortunately you are forced to ride on a very busy road for about 10 km on the way to Tamarin. If you want to make an attempt to cross the river: the estuary at Tamarin was easy to pass on foot at low tide. Fortunately, the main road that we followed offered beautiful views of the mountain.
After all the beautiful coconut beaches we craved for some mountain jungle. The mountain village of Chamarel is a favourite place to spend a few nights (Chamarel Mirador Studio, recommended!). The wildly coloured birds hopped over the breakfast table and the local people greeted us more enthusiastically at every passage.
Tip: the evening meal requires planning. The pricey restaurants are focused on day tourism, as part of excursions for resort tourists on the coast, and in the local shops you vcan buy only the bare essentials. The largest shop is located on the road to 'coloured earth'. So do some shopping before you cycle up the mountain. We took the shortest way up from Grande Case Noyale, but that's not a good idea, with extra heavily loaded bikes. The slope is mostly around 10 percent. It’s best to rounds the corner at Le Morne Brabant and take the road from Baie du Cap, which has a much gentler gradient and is just as attractive as the steep road from Grande Case Noyale.
If you like steep climbs, you'll find what you're looking for in this area, because on a day trip from Chamerel to the Black River Gorges-national park you'll be confronted with an even steeper road. Behind the sign ‘Welcome to the Black River Gorges National Park' there’s a 15 percent climb before you reach the viewpoint. Pooh. But the reward is an exceptional panorama over the west side of Mauritius. From the viewpoint you can climb the highest peak of the island, the Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire of 828 m. It is an easy hike, except for the very last part, which is very steep - and undoubtedly slippery when it rains - and is secured with ropes. At the top, there's a comfortable couch waiting for you.
From Chamarel to La Gaulette
An unprecedentedly short stage brings us to La Gaulette. The main attraction here is the storming of Le Morne Brabant (named after a ship that has strike upon on a rock here). The first part of the climb is an easy one, and the second part is probably not a problem for people with climbing experience, but we are not one of them. Once upon a time, ropes were hung there, but for some unknown reason they were removed and never repaired. Good luck! (Read the numerous contradictory reports on Tripadvisor about the difficulty of the climb.)
Once on the top, unique views await you. But at the end of the trail the views are also spectacular, and that’s quite a consolation for less adventurous hikers. So don’t miss Le Morne Brabant, even if you won’t make it to the top. One very important advice: don’t try the climb in rainy weather, because The via ferrata will turn into a waterfall!
From La Gaulette to Blue Bay
From La Gaulette it is a easy day trip back to Blue Bay. The first part is beautiful again. From the viewpoint at Baie du Cap a group of rays swam beneath us and dolphins are also regularly seen here. The atmosphere at the cemetery on the coast near Surinam is not to be missed and at Grisgris there are reasonably priced restaurants for lunch.
The eternal easterly wind can make cycling more difficult here and at Souillac you are forced inland on an annoying road up to Rivière des Anguilles. After that you’ll cycle on country roads again where you an to enjoy the views over the fields again. Our B&B-host in Mahebourg had stored our bike boxes for us. We packed up in the evening and put all our stuff in the taxi early in the morning, no stress!
In the tourist brochures Mauritius is nicknamed "Paradise Island", but it's not all gold that shines. At least not for the population: the differences in prosperity between the population groups are huge. The Creoles (official term: 'general people') come off worst in economical terms; they often live in poor conditions in the southern coastal areas. We also noticed that the fences of many houses are surrounded by ugly, razor-sharp rolls of barbed wire; necessity or not, in any case it is not a pleasant sight.
For the individual traveller, too, there are a few things to be desired: we missed a traveler's scene. No simple pubs and bars along the beach with straw roofs, no travel agencies outside the resorts to book a dive, no breakfasts with banana pancakes, no A-frame huts along the beach. The entire infrastructure is still focused on luxury resort tourism, with guests finding everything they need within the fence of their accommodation. But on the other hand: there are no hassles at all on the many beautiful beaches, hardly anyone comes to offer unsolicited services. If there's a cyclist's heaven, it must look a lot like Mauritius. And the banana pancakes, that's probably a matter of time.