Erin O'Dwyer

Journalist, Editor & Storyteller


Together on friendly turf


Photo: Erin O’Dwyer
Traveller, The Sun-Herald
Sunday August 15

People from many cultures — Indian, African, Chinese, European — live harmoniously in Mauritius, writes Erin O’Dwyer.

THE Australian tourist in the hotel lobby skids across the white marble tiles towards me. He has a boxer’s nose and wears a rumpled suit that pulls across his middle.

“Quick,” he urges with a giddy grin. “What was that tip we were given at dinner last night?”

svelte French woman in diamonds and designer drainpipes looks up over her Jackie O’s. A smooth-skinned African man sitting in a silk-covered armchair peers over his copy of The Times. I shrug and shrink behind my airport novel.

“Come on, you know,” he presses. “The one with the Australian jockey. The concierge wants to know.” An hour later, we arrive at the Mauritius Turf Club and my friend finds himself in more familiar territory. Punters claw at the perimeter fence like fans at a rock concert. Cars choke the side streets and policemen in khaki march along ribboned containment lines.

I am wearing my best dress – a flowery pink frock – but I’ve been led astray by the imaginary dress code. In Mauritius, anything goes. There are men in thongs and T-shirts and jeans; men in what they wore the night before. The women are little better: leggings, jerseys and more thongs. They hug the track in crowds 10-deep, clutching little scraps of paper and leaping on the trodden grass. “Anti-Freeze! Anti-Freeze!” they yell, as the winner crosses the line.

We’ve arrived in time to see the dying seconds of the fifth race and already the Phoenix beer is flowing. My friend finds the bookie’s counter, then slaps down a salmon-coloured note on No. 3. I bet the same, 100 rupees, on a pretty horse named Advocacy. I like the yellow bridle.

After two turns of the track, my friend pockets his winnings. I take the wooden spoon.

“Out of a field of five, three were bandaged,” he explains. “The others ran one, two. My shout.”

But rounds barely matter when you are in the VIP box at the Champ de Mars – the second-oldest racecourse in the world – in the Mauritian capital, Port Louis. The track is the oldest in the southern hemisphere, established in 1812 by the British, two years after they conquered the French.

Still today, the stands are tribute to colonial architecture, though sharp eyes will spot the sleeker 1930s and 1950s-era construction. Low timber ceilings give way to curvaceous concrete balconies and timber shutters are painted in creams and reds. Weeping figs shade the members’ area and only the crowd destroys the air of quiet cool.

Inside, it’s a better class of punter; however, it’s the cultural farrago I notice first. Sri Lankan women in silk saris, African women in leopard-print minis and Chinese men in bifocals poring over form guides. Along the gangway, pudgy Australian jockeys with sun-busted lips mill beside besuited Indian gentlemen dripping in gold. The entire scene would not be out of place in a Bollywood movie.

It’s the same caper every Saturday. “Mauritians are passionate about their horse racing,” says our host, Raj, a genteel Mauritian of Indian descent. “There are probably 10,000 people here today and it’s not even a classic. On big days, we can get 50,000.”

In an island nation famous for its glamorous beach resorts, it is that cultural curry pot of town life that makes for a rare treat for travellers. On the way here, we have meandered through sooty villages squashed between sugar-cane fields and purple volcanic peaks. Houses are half-finished, square and concrete affairs, with lines of wet washing flapping beneath mango trees. Every main drag has a Chinese shophouse splashed with red, a mosque painted jade green and an intricate Tamil temple, with their gods and goddesses bleached pink by the sun. There are kebab shops, corner shops and barber shops. Roosters strut on the footpaths. Packs of roughed-up dogs have had too many pups.

Mauritius is still a poor country. Most of the 1.3 million inhabitants live in the island’s interior, where the main industries are sugar and textiles. Cane workers on push bikes careen along potholed highways, bundles of stalks lashed to their backs. Faded French flags flap in fields of pineapples. Most people still grow their own vegetables.

At every turn on the highway, a ruined stone smokestack rises from the cane fields. These are the remnants of 250 sugar mills that once operated on the island. Now, there are five mega-mills and a rum distillery that sells fruit rums to tourists.

All cultures, be they Indian, African, Chinese or European, live harmoniously in Mauritius. Political affairs have been smooth and stable since independence was achieved in 1968. It’s evident at the races, in the villages, but most especially in the conversation of locals.

“Where do you come from?” I ask a handsome European with the whiff of Paris about him. “Mauritius,” he replies with a smile.

Perhaps the only point of contention in the island nation, lying off the east coast of Africa, is how best to preserve colonial heritage.

In Port Louis, we lunch at the country’s first gastropub, Lambic, established a year ago by a group of friends. The converted timber house once belonged to one friend’s grandparents and is believed to have been built before the British arrived.

“We have no date of construction but there is a photo of the house taken in 1905 and the mango tree out the front is almost as big as it is now,” says self-proclaimed beer hunter Oscar Olsen.

Lambic has 140 beers and 43 whiskeys and a selection of tea from Sri Lanka, Morocco and the Himalayas. The breakfast, lunch and dinner menus feature sauces and meats rich with beer-infused flavours.

“The idea was to make me happy, not rich,” Olsen says of his venture. “If I wanted to be rich I would have knocked down this building and built a big high-rise tower. But we think that if everyone destroys what is original here, there will be nothing left.”

Port Louis is a case in point. Glass-fronted skyscrapers squeeze between faceless office blocks. Bungalows with low verandahs converse with the Doric columns of government buildings. Along back streets, the iron roofs of old cottages sprout papaya trees like hairs from an old woman’s face.

It’s all absolutely charming. Look east and you face the mountains. Swing west and you’re headed for the sparkling port, where catamarans dart between the navy vessels hunkered on the horizon.

The markets are in the middle of town. The original green shophouses were destroyed by fire but the reconstruction stayed true to the heritage look – right down to the rats and pollution smut. Inside are rows of onions, potatoes and garlic – the only vegetables imported to the island. Outside, on street corners, hawkers sell everything from bike tyres to mosquito coils. Despite the crush,

I never feel unsafe. Mauritians are peaceful, friendly folk.

If what people want most in a holiday is good food, great beaches and a glimpse of local culture, then Mauritius has it all. Four and five-star resorts ring the island; the most popular crowded around the east-coast tourist village of Flic en Flac. Golf and snorkelling are island mainstays, though most resorts have a hectic schedule of activities – from archery and bocce to yoga and tai chi – and the spa is never far away, either.

To eat, it’s fish done all ways. In less than a week, I have it sashimied, sushied, tatared, curried, pan fried, flame fried, baked, roasted and grilled. The highlight is the curried clams and sea urchins peppered with Tabasco and lime.

Little touches make Mauritian hospitality shine. Fruity highballs served with intricate frangipani garnishes; main meals served to the women first; and at the five-star

Le Touessrok, a restaurant called Barlen’s has been named in honour of the maitre d’ who worked there for 30 years.

Historically, Mauritius is a fascination, too. The rocky outcrop Le Morne, a UNESCO-listed peninsula that juts into the Indian Ocean on the island’s south-west coast, is rumoured to be the most energetically charged location on the island. Legend has it that Le Morne was home to escaped slaves from India, Africa and Asia, who sheltered in the late 18th and early 19th century. Many hurled themselves off the sheer cliff face when they heard the British had defeated the French. Today, the luxurious Dinarobin Hotel is nestled in the shadow of Le Morne. The gravitas of Le Morne gives the resort a special spirit.

On our way to the races, we take in Pieter Both, another iconic peak, in the island’s centre. It was named after a Dutch explorer who was shipwrecked off Mauritius in 1615. The mountain is shaped like Pinocchio’s nose, with a giant rock balanced precariously on its point.

“Mauritian legend has it that the day the rock topples off, it will be the end of the world,” says our excellent Mautourco guide, Carolyn. All the more reason to follow my friend back on the punt. We slap down a few more salmons on No. 2 but as the siren sounds, he leaps to his feet.

“No. 6,” he shrieks, running to the bookie. “I can feel it in my waters.”

Sure enough, No. 6 comes in first. My friend leaps to his feet, jiggling around like every other Mauritian in the stand. The Phoenix beer, even the French champagne, can wait. This is a photo moment.

The writer was a guest of Air Mauritius and the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority.