Rodrigues, a wild island.
It was convened to spend the voyage to Rodrigues by ship, peacefully, so as to enjoy every single minute of this one and a half-day trip. To let time pass by in a sweet languor, forgetting all about stress and worries on this ship, and to better appreciate the discovery of the island, which seems out of reach beyond the horizon. Of course, taking the plane from Mauritius and hastily flying over the ocean to get to this small plot of land would have been much simpler, but we would have missed the most important thing: the thrill of feeling like real adventurers on our quest of an unknown island! What a wonderful feeling to catch a glimpse of the tiny speck on the horizon in the first rays of dawn! Reassuring and welcoming, it seems to appear suddenly out of the ocean with its black mountains being reflected in the still dark waters. While the ship draws itself nearer to the island’s coast, birds shoot through the sky to seek their only shelter on the islets found within the perimeter of the lagoon.
The “Mauritius Pride” engulfs the channel that leads to Port Mathurin. The silhouettes of the octopus fisherwomen stand out against the lagoon glowing from the rising sun. When the tides are low, they take the opportunity to hunt down the octopuses hidden in the cracks and crevices of the rock. The idyllic scenery breathes of serenity and well being. We can imagine this work as being the most admirable one in the world, but we soon realized that this is indeed a difficult task often crowned with little success. We were quite certainly observing the last of the octopus fisherwomen; the next generation will most probably have to move on to another occupation.
Rodrigues, here we are! Having only just disembarked, we are impatient to uncover all the secrets of this forgotten land. Usually, no one stops long enough here, the visitors, like the wind, roam the island in a flash of lightning. This is one big mistake: Rodrigues is worth a longer stay and visit! It is an island, which needs to be discovered gradually, patiently, to the rhythm of the lifestyle of its inhabitants. A human dimension, without any excess, their lifestyle easily comes to light and it does not take long for us to be completely immersed in the way of living à la Rodriguaise. It is a fact that it does not possess the rich cultural background of Mauritius, nor the insolent beauty of Reunion, and still less the natural opulence of Madagascar, but it owns “this little extra something” which seduces at first sight: a discreet and sincere charm. It is indeed an island where the word “authenticity” has never sounded so true.
Far from the postcards and stereotyped tourist clichés, it can however, at first sight itself, deceive the visitor desperately seeking a paradisiacal island. Too harsh and too austere, the landscapes seem unfinished and do not offer the usual tropical sceneries: pasture land made up of scrubby vegetation are strewn with basalt lumps, hills dried by the omnipresent winds, dispersed and isolated houses, remote beaches and rocky coasts can easily displease the tourist. Yet, the latter will soon discover an island belonging to another era where time has come to a halt, a haven of peace where there is only silence. Afterwards, the warm welcome and the touching kindness of its inhabitants will soon charm the visitor. Finally, the villages hidden away in a valley, the small abandoned creeks bordering the emerald-green lagoon, the deserted islets sprouting from the foaming coral reef belt will soon bewitch him. Curious he landed, conquered he will go!
The winding road that leads to Port Sud-Est is amazing. The tour operators have nicknamed it as the “road with the 52 bends”; we did not count, too enthralled by the breathtaking sceneries of the lagoon. A range of stunning turquoise shades and deep passes which blend and meet to form a unique channel zigzagging till the coral reef fringed with foam. And here, just in front of us, a welcoming strip of golden sand and the moored pirogues once again invite us in a sweet idleness.
On the map, the names of the villages are following a precise chain: Port Sud-Est, Songe, Tamarin, Rivière Coco, Petite Butte, yet, we never really know where we are exactly in so far as the villages are not clearly delimited. The houses are scattered here and there. At times, a community center or a grocery store is used as the “village center”! We then reached Plaine Corail and its main attraction: Caverne Patate. Stalactites and stalagmites decorate this strange cave of more than 1000 meters long. In the light of an electric torch, we discovered amazing shapes sculpted in the rocks, blackened by the torches used long ago. Their interpretation varies from person to person; the guide is making out a fish, a witch and even the bust of Winston Churchill! But, the relief and the tints of the vault are the principal charms that fill us with wonder. The relief, contours and the layers of rocks and corals have shaped abstract paintings, which reveal a hundred different shades of the same colour: nuances of yellow, orange, pink, ochre, white.
Without being in a hurry or the least bit bored, we continue to discover the interior of the island by car. Small green hills are outlined against the horizon, then, fields segmented by coral stone walls appear where cows and sheep are grazing contentedly. Uniform clad students are walking on the winding roads where peaceful villages stretched on. Women are waiting for the autobus near the little stalls in which some men are conversing with each other while drinking a small glas of rum. Perched on steep slopes, completely isolated, small houses are observing the ocean framed further away. Nothing seems to be able to disturb the peace of the place, unless Mother Nature decides the contrary: it is of no surprise that a cyclone can ruin this small plot of land in a flash of lightning and spread chaos all over the island...
Here, the weather changes abruptly, a sky tinged with blue accompanies us the time of a promenade but the next moment, a light refreshing rain is pouring out from a gray sky. The clouds roam the island without never really staying back; the meteorologists are clearly baffled by this phenomenon! And it is certainly not St-Gabriel who will try to prove the contrary: it rained in front of his church on the day where many little Rodriguan children were celebrating their first Communion. The church of St-Gabriel is the largest one that can be found in the Indian Ocean, it can welcome approximately 2000 faithful. The construction of this monument started in 1936 only to end in 1939. During this long period, each and every parishioner contributed to the construction of the edifice. When the faithful were going to attend the mass, they took the opportunity to dispatch some materials: coral bricks, sand, and wood. Today, as on every Sunday, the church is packed. The latecomers are obliged to listen, with half an ear, to the mass on the steps. The children are clad in their most beautiful clothes that have been specially created for this ceremony. The young girls, like small brides, are clearly excited by the event. They are running through the crowd, chattering among friends, and smiling mischievously, they are having their photographs taken to the great delight of their parents, proud of their offspring. The smiles are spontaneous. Nevertheless, the people hesitate before coming and talking to us; their shyness has won over their curiosity. It was up to us to make the first step to share some words and discover frank and open people. Welcoming and charming, the natives wish to convey a good impression of their island to the visitors and make their stay a memorable one.
Despite the arrival of “modernism”: mobile phones and satellite dishes, the people of Rodrigues are still living in simplicity while respecting their heritage and culture. Many young people whom we’ve met told us that they have a great liking for fashion accessories and clothing, the latest technologies, going out to discos and dancing on contemporary music but that they do not wish to sacrifice their island only to benefit from mass consumption. Yes to the consumer products and no to excess development! This new generation loves nature and the wild aspect of Rodrigues; for example, it refuses overly development of a road infrastructure that will promote the establishment of more hotels with the accompanying nuisances. Rodrigues wants to maintain its identity even though the development will be slower, and thoroughly considered. However, we still want to know if the Rodriguan population, and principally its government, which is partly administered by Mauritius, will be able to resist, in the long run, to the call of mass tourism and its poetry of cash registers!
We’ll have to wait for some more years to know the answer... and if I can allow myself to give you a bit of advice: hurry up and discover this island of the past, for modernism is right behind the door!
Text and photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra