Photo: Patrick Kwan
This way to paradise
Few people had heard of Rodrigues before Prince William turned up there this summer on his gap year. We sent Andrew Gilchrist hot on his heels to discover what all the fuss is about
"Robinson Crusoe was exceedingly glad to see us. So glad, in fact, that he actually licked my hand. It had been a week since he last saw human life and, as we unpacked the freshly-caught lobster for a barbecue on the beach, he stood watching from a polite distance, his tongue hanging out, drooling.
Robinson is the self-appointed guardian of Ile aux Chats, a tiny island an hour or so by boat from Rodrigues, which is itself an only slightly less tiny island 550km east of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.
Robinson is a dog. Five years ago, two men were sent to watch over some rare birds on Ile aux Chats, and one took him along. When the birds flew off, the men returned to Rodrigues with Robinson, who promptly disappeared - his whereabouts remaining a mystery until some fishermen sighted a mustard-coloured mongrel paddling in the direction of Ile aux Chats. He's been there ever since, living off flying fish and scraps left by tourists who come to eat, snorkel and bake their brains on the crescent of perfect white sand along its eastern shore.
In the four days I spent in and around the beautifully-stark volcanic island of Rodrigues, Robinson was the only creature I met who seemed to have any desire to leave the place long-term. About the size of Jersey and home to 37,000 Creoles, the entire island has just three taxis, one petrol station and a prison which rarely has anyone in it, possibly because there's so little crime, and possibly because, in the absence of any fence or locked door, detainees can simply stroll out.
That has changed a little...this photo is from 2003 and the door is locked / Patrick Kwan
I was staying on the south east coast, at the Mourouk Ebony, one of the island's four hotels, comprising a neat row of red-roofed bungalows half-concealed by trees and flowers and overlooking part of Rodrigues's most astonishing feature: the giant coral reef that encircles the entire island.
Find a nice spot and you could look at it all day: at the translucent emerald shallows stretching 2km out to the barrier where breakers 3m high separate the lagoon from the wilder reaches of the Indian Ocean. Get up at 5am and you'll see women wading waist-high through the waters halfway between the shore and the breakers, spears held aloft to catch octopus they can't afford to eat.
"Why don't men do it?" I asked Josie, the Mourouk guide. "Because in the afternoons they have to drink rum," he said.
This unique marine environment, 240km square of reef flats surrounding just 108km square of land, is what encouraged Britain's Royal Geographic Society to fund marine research here, since so little is known about the Rodriguan eco-system other than that it is desperately fragile and that its waters, a crucial economic resource, have already been heavily exploited.
Not only in 2000....Going for a dive/Photo:Bauer Griffin- source
Named the Shoals of Capricorn, the scheme - which runs outreach classes for 200 eager Rodriguan schoolkids - currently boasts one famous Briton among its volunteer researchers: Prince William, there for a month during his gap year. I saw him having lunch on the Mourouk terrace as I checked in, but not before his bodyguard saw me first and requested a quiet word outside.
Allowed to stay, I parked myself at the next table and, feeling a little disappointed at being perceived as no threat whatsoever to the monarchy, swotted up on the history of this sun-baked, cyclone-prone island reputedly discovered in 1528 by a Portuguese seafarer called Diego Rodrigues whose name it kept throughout rule by Dutch, French and British colonisation until becoming part of Mauritius in 1968.
Today, the export to Mauritius of livestock, maize and onions (the latter they buy back when needed, at a loss, since they have no method of storage after harvest) are the chief sources of income, along with fishing; while the big political issues of the day are unemployment, roads and the water supply. In some villages on the barren, rocky stretch along the southwest, water is only available once a week, from just one tap.
But, although some islanders have mixed feelings about it, tourism is starting to make a difference to the economy. Rodrigues's remoteness, its raw beauty and giant blazing sunsets that seem capable of filling 10 skies have made the island a haven for honeymooners and couples celebrating anniversaries, while the racing winds and rich marine life have turned the lagoon into one big playground for windsurfers and divers. And back on dry land, the rollercoaster roads - with their chasm-like potholes, steep inclines and tethered beasts lurking around every sharp bend - make for exhilarating mountain-biking.
For all that, though, I had my best times on excursions that centred more on the culture, history and way of life of Rodriguans. There was the 600m underground trek through the stalacmites and stalactites of Caverne Patate, where you can see the remains of a solitaire embedded in rock. And don't go confusing solitaires with dodos, which were from Mauritius. Solitaires were bigger birds, explains Josie, had longer necks and cried tears when caught - not that that saved them from the hungry early settlers, who soon ate them into extinction.
Further inland, where the vegetation becomes more lush, Saint Gabriel church - the biggest place of worship in the entire Indian Ocean with a capacity for 2,000 souls every Sunday - is worth a visit, if only to shake your head in wonder at the fact that the 22,000 coral bricks used in its construction in 1937 were all carried up from the coast by women. They also carried up the sand and the bell - and probably the men's rum, too.
View of Baie Aux Huitres from Accacia/ Photo: Patrick Kwan
For the most spectacular views of the island, take the road from St Gabriel church up to nearby Mont Limon which, at 398m, is Rodrigues's highest peak. From there, you can look down on the undulating valleys sweeping down to the shores, and take in the sheer scale of the vast lagoon. Those waters offer some of the best underwater experiences in the entire Indian Ocean and you don't have to be a qualified scuba diver to make the most of them - you can still see a stunning array of marine life in just snorkel and flippers. Halfway to the Ile aux Chats, we stopped the boat and everyone jumped into the clear waters for snorkelling among shoals of barracuda and countless other finned exotica.
If you can dive, however, there are white-tipped reef sharks at Grand Bassin, and a good number of shipwrecks are scattered throughout the reef. Go with a good skipper, though, or your craft could end up joining them on the lagoon bed.
I also managed to catch a sega tambour, the traditional dance in which men and women shuffle back and forth like high-speed ducks to percussion and accordion music (one version of it is called scottisches).
Other things to see and do include visiting Ile aux Cocos, even more idyllic than Ile aux Chats, dining with a local family (a popular practice for foodie tourists), sampling the island's Ebony nightclub (sega and techno), or seeing the markets in Port Mathurin, the main town, on a Saturday.
On my final afternoon, I took a walk along the rocky coast from Pointe Coton in the northeast to Trou d'Argent, the island's most famous beach. In that short trek, I must have passed four or five other world-class beaches, pristine and deserted save for the odd dog, hen or goat dallying in the trees. It was breathtaking. At one point, the reef came in close and the fine spray doused my sunburnt skin. Then I saw a rainbow. What next, I wondered. When I got to Trou d'Argent I half-expected to find God there, sitting on a towel, gazing out at the breakers and looking awfully pleased with himself.
Sunset at Anse Anglais Cemetery/Photo: Patrick Kwan
As I headed back, the sun was setting behind the trees, casting long shadows across the virgin sands. Can Rodrigues stay like this? Probably not. There are already plans to expand the airport and, depending on who you talk to, there are six, nine, maybe even 16 new hotels planned. How on earth will this tiny island sustain development on such a scale? Where will the water come from, the power, the waste disposal, the fresh fruit, veg and varieties of fish tourists would expect? And, most important, will it be the locals who benefit, and can their culture still thrive? No one can say for sure."
More than 10 years after Andrew Gilchrist article in the Guardian...