The drive out of Chamarel village in southwest Mauritius takes me past jagged mountain ranges, red flamed trees and swathes of sugarcane savannah to the twin waterfalls called ‘Cascades Chamarel’. Here, St. Denis River crashes 295 feet over a cliff into a gorge creating dreamy rainbows over thundering waters.
Greenery carpets almost every inch of this part of the island. Not far from the waterfalls is Mauritius’s most visited attraction—the lunar-like landscapes of the ‘Seven-coloured Earths’, tiny hillocks with seven distinct colours of sand dunes formed when volcanic basalt rock converted into mineral-rich clay.
After oohing and aahing over the earthen meringue, I queue up with my fellow travellers to buy Chamarel’s archetypal souvenir—a test tube filled with the seven-coloured sand.
Mauritius is a jumble of waterfalls, woodlands, pine forests, craters and extinct volcanoes. Once the land of the Dodo, the island is doing pioneering work in habitat restoration and the preservation of birds and reptiles. Three of the world’s rarest birds—the Mauritius kestrel, echo parakeet and pink pigeon—are found here.
Up at the impenetrably thick Black River Gorges National Park, pink pigeons and the great gingery fruit bats thrive. Giant tortoises can be found, both in captivity or roaming free, on Île aux Aigrettes.
The Lion Kings
The11-hectare Casela Nature Park in Cascavelle, south Mauritius, hosts over 150 bird species, giant Aldabra turtles, lions, caracals, tigers, zebras, ostriches, African antelopes, white rhinos, impalas, kudus and camels. I sign up for the ‘Walking with Lions’ tour, an hour-long adventure which allows me to get up close with the big cats in the savannahs.
I arrive on a safari bus to the lion reserve where the siblings, Jumbo and Jen, each about three years old and weighing 70 kilograms—appear before me. With Jim, their trainer, leading the way, I start walking next to the lions, crossing a barbed wire gate and then entering the 800-hectare savannah enclosure. I amble along a trail carved between coqueluche trees indigenous to the island while watching the animals gambol, eat and play.
Jim occasionally plays with the beasts, rubbing their tummies and egging them on. When Jumbo perches itself on an outstretched tree branch, I quickly fall in line to pose for photos with him. Standing next to the beast, I can almost hear—and feel—its breath. Time flies by and soon I am back to the reserve while the beasts are led back to their dens. Jim requests me to sign the visitors’ book. “We call this the survivors’ book!” he jokes as I crack up, relieved that I lived to tell the tale.
The next day I visit La Vanille Nature Park, 3.5 hectares of luxuriant vegetation home to 1500 Nile crocodiles, geckos, macaques, deer and mongooses, among other attractions. La Vanille is also the world’s largest breeding centre of Giant Aldabra tortoises with over 700 tortoises of all ages roaming freely here.
The Park’s Insectarium showcases one of the world’s largest collections of insects with over 23,000 species. The Ammonites’ Museum features hundreds of ammonite fossils from Madagascar built painstakingly by environmentalist Owen Griffiths. At the tour winds up, I’m invited for lunch at the park’s ‘The Hungry Crocodile’ restaurant—where I feast on (you guessed it)—a delicious crocodile meat curry.
The beauty of Mauritius is that you never have to travel far to be in the thick of wildlife. Even if I were to stay put at my hotel—Dinarobin—located at the foot of Le Morne mountain, a carnival of birds would congregate at breakfast time to enchant with their finely-tuned harmony. Every moment here is a walk on the wild side.