Mauritius: An Indian Ocean Eden

An exotic lost world in the Indian Ocean has visitors feeling like Charles Darwin

Published 16 May 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 15:04 BST
Fruit bat, Mauritius.

Fruit bat, Mauritius.

Photograph by Pól O Conghaile

A short boat journey takes me 400 years back in time. Moments ago, I was watching sails shimmer off the southeast coast of Mauritius. Now, I'm picking my way through a forest brimming with exotic animals and plants.

Exotic to me, that is. Not to the Lost World of Île aux Aigrettes.

"What we're trying to do is make Mauritius like it was 400 years ago," my guide from the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (tours from MUR800/£17) explains. The number of years is significant. That's when Europeans first dropped anchor off Mauritius then proceeded to raze much of the island's endemic fauna and flora. The pigs, rats and monkeys that spilled from their ships took a toll too.

"Shhh! Here's Big Daddy," my guide says.

The name fits. Big Daddy is a lumbering Aldabra giant tortoise, weighing over 200kg at the grand old age of 50 or 60 (numbers, like time, are not reckoned too precisely in the Indian Ocean). He's endemic to the Seychelles — as was the domed Mauritian giant tortoise, a similar species that was extinct even before Charles Darwin visited the island in the 1830s. The last recorded sighting of the dodo, another species endemic to Mauritius was in 1662. Still, Big Daddy bosses the place, epitomising an island in lush quarantine.

Giant tortoises like him can live for over 150 years, my guide whispers. "Their heartbeat can be as low as six to 10 beats per minute. It's like they live in slow-motion," he adds, matter-of-factly. Their shells look and feel like wood, but are in fact made of surprisingly sensitive keratin. He encourages me to stroke a smaller tortoise gently beneath its neck. Warily, I consent.

Tortoises are just the beginning of Île aux Aigrettes' treasures. A tiny speck in Mahébourg Bay, the island covers a mere 67 acres; it's made of coralline limestone (unlike the volcanic main island), and pushing through its fragile forest we encounter pink pigeons, echo parakeets and scaly-skinned skinks. There are fruit bats, shielding their eyes with wings like Dracula cloaks. There are geckos, whose cartoonish colours could've been painted by children.

The flora fascinates too. We see tortoise poo riddled with ebony seeds, for example; colonists chopped down vast swathes of this dark wood for piano keys and expensive furniture, I learn, but here saplings are growing strong again, with surprising, peach-coloured flowers and olive-like fruit. The tortoises plod around like workers, weeding and propagating by eating its fruit.

Île aux Aigrettes wasn't always an Eden. This mini Mauritius fell prey to logging and land clearance, having its biodiversity ravaged until someone, somewhere shouted stop in 1965. In that year, it was declared a nature reserve, setting in chain several decades of intense conservation and managed visits.

Today, armchair naturalists like me whizz over from an old jetty at Pointe Jerome, taking a 1.5-hour guided tour with rangers, immersing themselves in the natural history of the Mascarene islands (and visiting a pint-sized museum) before leaving quarantine and returning to the real world.

Big Daddy is harmless (as long as you don't get too close). But don't forget your water and mozzie spray — small critters can pack an annoying punch.

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