Fifty magical years of freedom in Mauritius

Patriotism: Boats bearing the Mauritian national flag colours race to the regatta finish line Pictures: supplied
Patriotism: Boats bearing the Mauritian national flag colours race to the regatta finish line Pictures: supplied

TRAVEL

Trending visits Mauritius to experience the essence of five decades of independence. 

I wasn’t the only South African journalist invited to cover the fiftieth anniversary of Mauritian independence – I met several of my colleagues as we waited at OR Tambo International Airport for our flight to the country. None of us could contain our excitement as we boarded the plane, our luggage in tow, mine packed ready for some time in the sun. Bikini – check. Sunscreen – check. Beach towel – check.

The tropical island is home to 1.3 million people, and while the Mauritian government uses English as its main language, the local population is English-speaking and the language is important to its tourism industry, the people of Mauritius are multilingual and of various ethnicities, religions, and cultures, speaking languages from French to Creole, Hindi to Urdu. It’s also the only African country where Hinduism is the largest and most popular religion.

The Dutch landed on the island in 1598 and named it in honour of then Dutch Republic national leader, Prince Maurice of Nassau.

The waterfront

After landing at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport we were whisked off to our hotel. Smatterings of red, blue, yellow and green – the colours of the island’s national flag – heralded our arrival for the island’s monumental event. Flags were on everything from street poles, buildings and even rooftops to cars’ side-view mirrors, as locals prepared to celebrate Mauritius’ 50th independence day.

We stayed at Le Suffren Hotel in Port Louis, right beside Le Caudan Waterfront, which so reminded me of Cape Town’s own waterfront. Once we had checked in and freshened up, we went for dinner at a waterfront restaurant. We enjoyed a brief respite in the form of the warm ocean breeze – before the whirl of covering the various exciting events planned for the celebrations over the next few days.

The regatta

The day following our arrival saw us heading to the office of Mauritius’ prime minister to collect our media accreditation ahead of the day’s celebratory events. While waiting to have our photos taken for our press passes we managed to take some pictures of our own, and marvelled at the imposing boulevard Place D’Armes leading to a statue of British Queen Victoria in front of the government buildings. The statue is just one of many symbols of the island nation’s long and complicated history as a former colony.

While Mauritius was a Dutch colony between 1638 and 1710, it became a French territory from 1715 to 1810, and was then colonised by the British from 1810 until its eventual independence in 1968. The country was only proclaimed a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations in 1992, however.

Once we had collected our media accreditation, we joined the celebrations at the Mahebourg Waterfront, which hosted various food and craft stalls and a regatta to be held later that day. There was also a music concert which saw some of the country’s most renowned Sega artists perform on stage. Sega is a very popular genre of music on the island, usually sung in Creole, celebrating the freedom and self-expression of Mauritius, and apparently having stemmed from the slavery epoch of the country. I found myself mesmerised by the dancers’ colourful crop tops and long, flowing skirts – a signature outfit accompanying Sega performances. The genre boasts a particular style of dance that combines belly dancing with sashaying.

We managed to get on to a media boat to get up close and personal with the regatta boats. They bore the Mauritius national flag colours and raced to the finish line. There were also entertainers on other boats, giving them drum beats, and tourists taking pictures. While we were enjoying that our boat hit a rock and the oil started leaking out. The sea may be beautiful, however, I wasn’t ready to drown in it, but the captain of the boat handled it with ease. I had started to panic but, because he was so cool, I managed to relax a bit and we got to shore safely. Regatta started in the 19th century and has continued ever since. Mahebourg and Grand Gaube are two major sites for lovers of sailing.

Raising the flag

The next day we enjoyed some sightseeing before attending the Levé du Drapeau (raising of the flag) ceremony at the Champ de Mars racecourse. A buzz of excitement hung in the air as we arrived at the event, and I observed many men and women sporting Mauritian uniforms of various kinds, ranging from police officers to naval officers and military personnel.

Dignitaries, journalists and tourists from around the world gathered as President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, along with Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, arrived at the racecourse and prepared for the singing of the national anthem and raising of the flag.

A dark past

A celebration of Mauritian independence would not be truly honoured by ignoring the country’s colonial past, and so we visited the International Slave Route Monument, where stories about Mauritius’ slave history were told. The monument is at the foot of Le Morne Brabant mountain where, according to local historians, slaves jumped to their death while trying to escape from the harrowing conditions they were subjected to by their slave masters.

There’s another, even darker tale: Some say that, after the British passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, a group of soldiers and police went to the Le Morne area to let runaway slaves know that they were finally free. But the slaves, seeing the authorities approaching, feared that they were being recaptured and returned to their masters, and so climbed to the mountain summit and threw themselves into the ocean, committing suicide.

The monument is located in clear view of the caves in the cliff faces where it is rumoured that runaway slaves were apparently known to hide, and the sheer drop from the mountain into what has since been called the Valley of Bones.

After our sobering visit to the Slave Route Monument we moved on to the Mauritian village of Chamarel, located in the Rivière Noire district. There, we got an idea of the local agriculture from the pineapple and sugarcane plantations surrounding the village. A tour guide showed us various rocks from ancient volcanic activity on the island, and thereafter we were taken to the beautiful, plunging Chamarel Waterfalls on the River du Cap. The natural wonder is over 100m high – roughly the same height as the Statue of Liberty in New York.

Our day – and my dream trip – ended with a lovely dinner with our hosts back at our hotel. While my visit to Mauritius ended up being a whirlwind trip of sightseeing and celebrations, it nonetheless met my every expectation and hopes for my dream trip to the country. My most cherished memories are those of the regatta’s colourful boats, the beach, the flag-raising event and Sega music.

 This trip was sponsored by the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority

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