Mauritius too hectic? Escape here

Katerina Roberts sits under the sighing casuarina trees of Rodrigues, hunts the solitaire and listens for fruit bats
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The Independent Travel
THE DAWN flight from Mauritius to the island of Rodrigues is every cabin crew's nightmare. Sanjay, our steward, sulked as he dished out breakfast to 48 zombies who, like him, had risen in the middle of the night to check in. It didn't help when I pointed out to him that a scorpion was somersaulting across my meal tray. The French holidaymakers were predictably agitated, returning Rodriguans somewhat sanguine and Mauritians frankly frightened. Sanjay forced his best corporate smile in an effort to pacify the rising hysteria and muttered: "I don't know why they're all going to Rodrigues. There's nothing to do there."

Oh, such bliss, I thought. I was happily leaving the maelstrom of Mauritius for a three-day sojourn to its other island and, besides, "doing nothing" really appealed.

If Mauritius is minute, then Rodrigues is microscopic. Arrive at this backwater, 400 miles east of its big sister Mauritius, and you feel almost quarantined from the rest of the world in a landscape reminiscent of Scotland in the tropics. Just 10 miles by five, with hilly ridges and deep valleys, it is surrounded by a set of coral reefs, thrown like rows of giant-sized pearl necklaces around a shallow, gin-clear lagoon.

Phanuel Leveque, our chirpy guide, met us in his Rodtours-emblazoned minibus at the tiny airport. "Rodrigues is simple - not sophisticated like Mauritius," he said as we bounced across the central ridge of the island to Cotton Bay in the east. Benign cattle grazed on glorious grassy hillsides; plump pigs and free-range chickens fled as the minibus shunted through shanty villages and ebony-skinned children with oversized backpacks full of school books chanted "bonjour" all the way.

The Cotton Bay Hotel is a bastion of small-island luxury. It hugs a deep crescent of sugar-white beach backed by coral cliffs and a forest of casuarinas, a kind of spindly pine tree. "People come here to escape the stress in Mauritius," said Phanuel, pointing to a Mauritian hotelier who languished like a clapped-out chameleon beneath the trees. "It's up to you. You can do nothing or you can come with me and I will show you round."

Rodrigues has just opened its doors to the outside world. In truth, they were never closed but until flights started from Mauritius the only way of getting there was by a monthly cargo vessel, which took 48 hours. These days you can buy a package, staying at one of three brand-new hotels, or opt for simple guest-house accommodation in the capital, Port Mathurin.

The islanders draw a careful balance between the economic benefits of tourism and its impact on such a small island. A few years ago they formed the Association of Rodrigues Tourism Operators, and Phanuel introduced me to one of its members, Englishman Paul Draper, who has lived there for 25 years.

Paul is in charge of Craft-Aid, a Mauritian-based charity which has a branch in Port Mathurin. The local authorities, he explained, need to implement a policy of environmental protection and "select" tourism to compete with Mauritius's highly developed tourism industry.

Going green on such limited resources when you are so removed from the motherland is easier said than done, and it is left very much to individuals to do their own thing. One enterprising artist voluntarily painted all the town's litter bins and, for good measure, added: "Keep Rodrigues Clean 'n' Green". Meanwhile, signs spread all over the island plead: "Keep Rodrigues Beautiful".

But Craft-Aid scores high with a range of innovative eco-tourism projects. One of these is a rehabilitation and production workshop for people with disabilities, where bleached animal bones and discarded coconut shells are carefully carved into lovely items of jewellery. "This way," said Paul, "waste is recycled and turned into useful and decorative products to promote our tourism."

Another is a model apiary attached to the workshop, which not only helps local beekeepers to improve their skills but also provides employment for people with disabilities. "We buy the honey from the locals," said Paul, "which we bottle and sell here and in Mauritius."

Over the years, the workshop has developed into a tourist attraction, where you can buy pressed flower cards, coconut earrings, bracelets, brooches and necklaces and honey which has twice received prizes at the London National Honey Show. But the visit also includes a tour of Craft-Aid's other project, a more humanitarian rather than profit-making concern: a school for visually and hearing-impaired young people.

It is easy to surrender to the smooth magic of a Rodriguan sunrise, bask on the beach, swim in a translucent lagoon, scuba dive from the hotel dive school, or go horse-riding. But this rugged island just begs to be explored and my earlier plans to do nothing vanished.

You can go with qualified diving instructors to see 18th-century shipwrecks which foundered on the reef in just a few feet of water, or join a guided trek across gentle hillsides and newly planted forests of casuarinas to the "Hole of Silver" or Trou d'Argent. Or you can just trot off on your own, or hire a bike.

Everyone walks on Rodrigues, yet you never get the feeling that it is overcrowded. I trekked along remote mountain roads, explored deep ravines and, often when I thought I was the only person on the planet, a family of Rodriguans with toddlers in tow would pop up from a grassy rugged landscape and wave a cheery "bonjour". The islanders' ancestors originate from Africa and Europe, and it is quite hard to believe that Rodrigues is part of Indian-dominated Mauritius.

Gaily painted buses, with names like Pacific Wonder or Supercopter, disturbed the calm of the tropics as they wheezed and spluttered round hairpin bends and mountain hamlets. They do carve out masterly routes to all corners of the island and are perfect for short trips, but as they stop running at 4pm I hired a jeep. I could have driven all day. There are no traffic lights, no traffic jams, no parking restrictions and nothing to provoke road rage.

One of my finest days out was a boat ride to Ile Cocos, one of 18 islets inside the lagoon. I hooked and cooked my own fish, trod floury sands, listened to the screaming chatter of thousands of birds and was just sorry that I could not stay longer. Ile Cocos is a designated nature reserve and home to terns and noddies, so overnight stays are not allowed.

Wildlife is pretty thin on the ground, but I had great fun spotting the endangered Rodrigues fruit bat, which comes out at dusk to feed on jamrosa and mango trees. I entered the same deep dark valley that the writer Gerald Durrell found when he came here more than 20 years ago but, with a comfortable room beckoning back at Cotton Bay and the night closing in, I never got as close to them as he did.

Wildest and wackiest of all, and not for the faint-hearted, was a trip to Caverne Patate where the bones of the extinct solitaire, a gigantic flightless pigeon, were discovered more than 100 years ago. These underground coral caves, some 60ft below ground, contain carved rock lookalikes of Winston Churchill and the Great Wall of China. How they ever got there remains a Rodriguan mystery. I stuck close to my guide who shone his torch on passages studded with stalagmites and stalactites. My buttocks clenched in fear when he related in sombre tones how two English explorers were lost forever. Half expecting to trip over their remains, I breathed a sigh of relief when we reached ground level.

Three days were barely enough to explore every facet of Mauritius's little sister. Still, Sanjay was much happier on the flight back and his 48 passengers were every cabin crew's dream. We were all sun-tanned, stress-free and certainly glowing. "Welcome aboard," he grinned. "I told you there was nothing to do."



Getting there

Air Mauritius flies five times a week to Rodrigues from Mauritius. Three- day packages including return flights and half-board accommodation in top hotels cost from pounds 90 through Mauritian-based tour operators Mauritours (tel: 230 464 7454), or a seven-night package from the UK costs from pounds 1,039 through Elite Vacations (tel: 0181-864 4431).

Where to stay

Cotton Bay Hotel, Cotton Bay (tel: 230 831 6001); Hotel Morouk Ebony, Morouk Bay, Port Sud Est (tel: 230 831 3350); Escale Vacances Hotel, Port Mathurin (tel: 230 831 2555).

Further information

Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, 32 Elvaston Place, London SW7 5NW (tel: 0171-584 3666).