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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Soaking it all up in Mauritius

Even relentless precipitation can’t dampen the spirits on an adventure trip to the island of Mauritius.
Mauritius is host to some spectacular scenery, including pristine beaches. Adventure activities are also popular, including quad biking and water sports. Courtesy Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority
Mauritius is host to some spectacular scenery, including pristine beaches. Adventure activities are also popular, including quad biking and water sports. Courtesy Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority

If there’s one thing that ­defines my week in Mauritius, it’s rain.

That’s not to say it rains all the time, or even very much at all by my British standards of precipitation. Perhaps not more than an hour a day, at most two, during my rainy-season visit.

It was just the timing of my Mauritius rain that’s of note – oh, and the intensity. It just so happens that every time something genuinely interesting ­occurs, the skies open. A lot.

Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is indeed a certain romance to be found in rainfall, as any Hollywood/Bollywood scribe would attest (and many rain-starved UAE expats would second).

I suppose my spider sense should have been sent tingling when we hit our first storm, 10 kilometres outside of the airport, from the comfort of a taxi.

A second downpour within my first hour in the country, and I really should have developed a hunch that something might be up.

But no, it isn’t until I find myself shivering and soaked to the bone, in the middle (well, ish) of the Indian Ocean, that I finally accept this rain stuff may be worth remarking upon.

It all starts with the seakart.

Some years back, jet skis were banned in Mauritius. So a few smart entrepreneurs came up with a new mode of recreational transportation reportedly unique to the island. In essence, a cross between a jet ski and a baby hover craft, these 2.8-­metre-long, turbine-propelled, 100-horsepower beauties are built to zoom over the waves like a dodgem on ­water.

Now, my trip. Mauritius might be best known as a holiday spot for honeymooners, but I’m here with just another guy for company. It’s the week before my 30th birthday, and while we won’t call it a lads’ getaway, there’s a certain element of while-the-cat’s-away to the activities on our itinerary. Thus, the seakart.

A coin toss decides that my companion will take the driver’s seat of this two-man machine. When I’m smugly told he “too much liked” riding jet skis, I perhaps should have protested.

For the first 20 minutes or so, I’m terrified. Part of a convoy of four, my mad companion uses every opportunity to whizz off from the group, zigzag over the water and generally cause as much turbulence as possible.

“Maybe I should work in the navy,” laughs my companion, as we appear to drive straight through a wave.

“Maybe you should work in an asylum,” I scream back, “because you drive like a lunatic.” My dad joke is the most suitable form of machismo I can grasp to hide the genuine fear I feel for my life.

And then, as we pull up for a breather, it starts to rain. Already soaked through, the suddenly ridiculous arrival of a rain shower makes me shake with fits of laughter. My anxiety ­immediately washes away.

If my companion uses the ­ever-growing storm as an excuse for even greater levels of recklessness, then I’m spurring him on, cackling like a schoolboy as we defy the instructor’s commands, and screaming like a schoolgirl as we leap over the waves.

The rain, it could be said, saves me from my own inhibitions.

The following evening, we go to a concert. Not just any concert, but the biggest event of the annual, week-long Festival International Kreol.

One of the most inspiring things about a visit to Mauritius is its clear and proud multiculturalism. Originally an uninhabited island, long periods of Dutch, French and British colonial rule (in that order) means the country that became independent Mauritius in 1968 is made up largely from the descendants of slaves and labourers brought here in centuries past.

Of this melting pot, a 68 per cent majority are Indo-Mauritians of Indian descent. Creoles of African descent make up around a quarter of the population, alongside smaller Hakka and Cantonese ethnic groups.

Now in its ninth year, the Festival International Kreol celebrates the music, dance, performance, poetry and art of this ­African diaspora. And the biggest event by far is the Gran Konser, an epic outdoor Saturday concert that kicks off at 7pm, starring more than 30 acts playing for 12 hours, right through the night until the following ­morning.

The music is incredible, a quixotic blend of times, places and rhythms. Dancehall and calypso sounds blur with the island’s traditional sega melodies and beats. Western rap-phrasing, plus modern rock and electronic elements lend the music a contemporary edge, yet the whole thing feels caked in a timelessly soulful, New Orleans jug-band euphoria. A music writer’s ­paradise.

And then, at about 10pm, it begins to rain.

But that was never going to dim spirits in this crowd. The ever-growing mass of Mauritian adolescents stand from picnic rugs and whip out colourful umbrellas. As the storm intensifies, the music appears to grow louder and deeper. By the time of the midnight headliner, the field is a sloppy mess of mud and writhing, happy human bodies.

The next day, we’re back on the waves, but the plan is more subdued. We take a short boat ride out to Île aux Cerfs, a pleasant, if forgettable private island of pristine beaches that offer a weekend escape to holiday-makers and Mauritians alike. From here, a longer speedboat ride takes us up the Grand Rivière Sud Est to a dramatic waterfall, which can be easily climbed in a few minutes for some fantastic photo ops. As I descend the rock-side, I feel the distinct splatter of water. By the third time, I know what to expect.

I honestly don’t think I’ve been so wet in all my life. I take a shower every day – but this is a different kind of wet: a cold, bracing and windy wet, the kind that can only come with travelling through a torrential thunderstorm in an open-air speedboat. Our pack of a dozen or so passengers huddle together, complete strangers hunching together for warmth and relief against the battling wind and rain. Electronic devices are surrendered to the ­elements.

The rain continues all afternoon. Stopping 30 minutes later at the next island, we take shelter under a roof of corrugated iron, a makeshift family restaurant where we claw on tasty, seasoned barbecued fish and chicken. As the only man-made structures on the island, apparently known to its owners as Il aux Manginie, the business has no name. It was started 15 years ago by Jonathan Dardenne, after a French tourist gave the now-35-year-old father a boat to help him take tourists around the islands. Today, he works the kitchen alongside his wife, Vanessa. Her father, Geoffrey, 61, joined as a makeshift barman five years ago, after 42 years work in a sugarcane factory. The couple’s daughter, Tatiana, 18, waits the tables on school holidays. Despite the growing rain and mounting chill, hearing this tale warms my heart right through.

The next day, I go to “walk with the lions”, one of a number of exotic animal encounters on my trip, which also included petting giant turtles (at the family-favourite La Vanille Réserve des Mascareignes, commonly known as the Crocodile Park) and swimming with dolphins (arranged by charter from the Rivière Noire District). Like the Nile crocs, the ­lions were never indigenous to the island, and the experience feels more like an extended photo op than a wildlife safari. Still, the Casela Nature Park does offer me one more unmitigated delight – quad bikes.

I’ve ridden these brutes before, in the desert outside Dubai, but those soft dunes offer nothing like the excitement, or the challenge, of a rugged forest terrain. A recent dune-buggy accident (let’s just say I flipped it over) fresh in the memory bank, I begin diligently; a Sunday driver viewing the hills, streams and rocks as obstacles, splattering mud to be avoided. And then – yes – it starts to rain. And I mean really rain.

The rocks we bound become puddles, the grassy surfaces ­water-soaked skid tracks, and the rivers knee-deep gorges to gun through at speed.

Suddenly, nothing matters. I soon realise I can no longer treat my ride as a conventional vehicle, a device to move between one point and another, but instead as a wild beast to be tamed. In little more than an hour on the bike, I feel a kaleidoscope of human emotions – adrenaline, embarrassment, bliss, terror and pride. It’s survival – me against the elements, soaked and psyched, spinning the wheels manically, wilder than the animals I’d encountered just an hour earlier.

If I had used a looming personal milestone as an excuse to search for a Mauritius beyond the honeymooners, it’s safe to say I found it. But there’s one more rain story to add. A logistical mix-up means we’re booked on an earlier flight than understood, a fact that only becomes apparent an hour and 40 minutes before take-off. Leaving in a frantic haze, halfway through the hour-long taxi journey we hit a blinding storm, slowing us to a virtual stop at points.

When we reach the airport, we’re told we’d missed the emergency check-in cut-off by just a few minutes.

But still, I’ll take the storms, missed flights and all. Without the rain, it just wouldn’t have been the same.

rgarratt@thenational.ae

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