Île Rodrigues ... thoroughly French
Rodrigues Island, pronounced the French way by the locals as Rod-reeg, was discovered and named by the Portugese explorer, Diego Rodriguez, in 1528. It was originally settled by French Hugenots fleeing France to escape religious persecution. The French subsequently colonized the island and, though it was ruled by the British from 1809 till its independence in 1968, it remains very French.
Rodrigues is a small, volcanic, autonomous outer island of the Republic of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, about 350 mi (560 km) east of Mauritius. It is part of the Mascarene Islands, a French Overseas Territory.
Population: 41,000 (est 2014)
Area: 42 sq mi (108 sq km)
Currency: Mauritian Rupees (Rs)
Time Zone: Mauritius Time Zone - UTC+04:00
Port Mathurin is Rodrigues' largest “city” and and our port of entry.
Passage stats ... We arrived at night and stood off till morning light to negotiate the circuitous, shallow route into the harbor.
Total miles planned: 1985 / Total miles sailed: 2036
Passage days: 13.5 / Average speed: 6.3 knots
Flying fish: 26 Squid: 1 Birds: 1 booby Fish caught: 1 dorado
Port Mathurin was welcoming and friendly. From the Port Captain to the people in the market and on the streets, we were met with frequent smiles and enthusiastic bonjours. The moment we passed through the port gate onto the street, we were charmed. We were reminded of the French Caribbean islands, especially Martinique, as we saw the colorful shops and French signs and narrow streets. There was no doubt in our minds, we were going to enjoy Rodrigues.
One odd issue about the anchorage in Port Mathurin is that it's quite small. When large supply ships come in, all the boats in the harbor must be escorted out of the anchorage until the ship docks or departs. Once the coast is clear, they're all allowed to come back in and re-anchor. Quite the hassle and very time-consuming for us yachties, but then those are the rules and we're the guests. This happened twice while we were in Port Mathurin.
On market day, Port Mathurin is a bustling town. The fresh fruits and veggies are wonderful, albeit expensive. We enjoyed the interaction with the friendly vendors. Figuring out the currency and exchange rate is always an exercise in higher math.
Francois Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve
The Francois Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve was open daily and located on the southwest end of the island. We'd heard about it from other cruisers and decided it was a must-see while we were here. We checked at the bus station, confirmed departure times and made plans for an early morning departure. The buses here are similar to those in most third world countries ... old, rough-running, brightly colored and endearing names like Lover's Choice and Prince. We reconfirmed we were on the right bus and sat back for a cross-island adventure.
After an hour-long, jostling ride on narrow, bumpy roads, we finally, we saw a sign for the Reserve, the bus stopped and the conductor motioned us to get off and pointed towards a rather narrow road up a hill. “It's about a 20-25 minute walk", the bus chugged off and we set out. We walked … and walked … and walked … up hills, down hills, around corners, up more hills. We were walking at a reasonable clip and after 25 minutes, we kind of expected the Reserve to be right around the corner. It wasn't. We saw another sign … at least we were heading in the right direction. One thing about walking, you get to see lots of things you'd miss if you were whizzing by in a car. We saw small houses and lots of goats and cows. The earth is bright red and there were lots of flowers and a few gardens along the way. The land was rocky and not very arable.
One remarkable thing about Rodrigues was the number of gigantic spiders in huge webs between utility wires and tree branches. Not just one spider, mind you, but we counted as many as 17 in one massive web. I learned later that these are red-legged golden orb-web spiders (Nephila inaurata), native to several Indian Ocean islands. They're non-poisonous, but even birds and bats get caught in their huge, strong, sticky webs. Evidently, they normally string several webs together to form enormous "homes" in order to cover as much surface area as possible.
We finally arrived at the Reserve, bought our tickets and donned hard hats for the guided tour. The guide was bilingual. He would provide a long dissertation in French and then a very short sentence in English. Most times, the French was easier to understand than his English. We descended a large flight of wooden stairs onto a boardwalk which wound through thick foliage.
The island was teeming with native wildlife when the Europeans first arrived. Tortoises by the thousands roamed the land. Birdlife was plentiful including the“solitaire” (like a dodo bird), but all were traded or eaten to extinction in a period of of about 50 years. Now only one fruit bat species is all that remains of endemic mammals. There are only two endemic bird species still around (Rodrigues fody and Rodrigues warbler) and they are considered endangered. Our first stop was a close-up view of several of the rare “blonde bats” (pteropus roderiensis) that are endemic to the island. They were on the verge of extinction back in 1970 when only 120 remained, but intense conservation efforts and captive breeding has increased their numbers to near 3,000 now. Looking at their little faces, you can see why some folks call them flying fox.
We entered the wide expanse of Tiyel Canyon with high limestone walls all around us and there, before us, were the tortoises. There are purportedly over 2,000 individuals here, comprised of two different species: Giant Aldabra and Radiated … neither of which are endemic to Rodrigues, but are endemic to the other Mascerene Islands particularly Aldabra Island in the Seychelles. We've seen giant tortoises in the past … the Galapagos, for instance, but certainly not as many and certainly not as active as these guys.
We were encouraged by the tour guide to pet them, especially stroking under their long necks which they seemed to not only tolerate, but to enjoy. The oldest and largest tortoise was Henri … estimated to be 110 years old and about 550 lbs (250kg). I'm not sure petting a tortoise ever appeared on my bucket list, but I'm glad I got the chance to do it. We wandered around amongst these gentle old giants, stroking some and observing them as they ate and hauled their huge shells to shady areas to relax. It was a Jurassic Park sort of feeling.
We climbed another long flight of stairs out of the canyon and looked down from the rim for a more expansive view of the tortoises below, then headed to the Grande Caverne. Quite honestly, we've seen and toured many caves, so we weren't all that enthused about seeing more, but there was no alternative. After tolerating the bright, hot sun for over an hour, the cool temps of the cave were quite appealing.
After a long spiel in and about the cave, we were finally allowed to return to the visitor center. Walking back to the bus stop, I was hoping to see a Rodrigues fody and the Rodrigues warbler … both endemic species and endangered. I wasn't quite sure what I was looking for, but when I saw a bright scarlet bird in a tree, I was pretty sure it was a fody. Well, it was, but it was a Madagascar red fody, not a Rodrigues one, and quite common, it seems.
Solitude and St. Francois
We had dedicated a couple of days to boat chores and so I didn't feel guilty about negotiating another day for seeing more of Ile Rodrigues. I was still hoping to see the two endemic birds that seem to hang out in the early morning near the Forest Station in the tiny village of Solitude, a quick bus ride from Port Mathurin. We confirmed what bus to take and were on our way by 0745. When the bus stopped at a tiny bus stop in the middle of nowhere and the conductor pointed to a path through the forest, we were a bit skeptical, but we got off and headed down the steep path. Sure enough, after a couple minutes on a heavily rooted, dirt track, the path merged with a road and we spotted a bright pink building down the way which turned out to be the Forest Station. The Forest Station guy wasn't really interested in talking to us (could be my terrible French!). We asked the best place to spot fodies and he said “in the forest”. No kidding! After walking for what seemed forever, we caught a glimpse of a warbler, but no pic. Several kilometers more netted us views of lots of goats, a dead mouse, more huge spiders than I care to acknowledge, several feral chickens with chicks, several Madagascar red fodies, scads of ubiquitous mynahs and house sparrows, a sleeping pig, banana trees, several odd looking flowers and plants, but no Rodrigues fody.
Our walk down the very steep, switch-backed road to Port Mathurin was a bit dodgy. There are no sidewalks and the roads are narrow and quite busy at this time of the morning. At one point, we climbed down a bank to avoid walking across a very narrow bridge with no place whatsoever for pedestrians. We had seen a lookout platform high above the town and found it on our way back. The views were terrific. We could see Nine of Cups at anchor and the whole town spread below us like a colorful mosaic.
It was mid-morning, we were back in town and decided to head via bus once again to the east side of the island to the tiny coastal town of St. Francois for lunch. The bus chugged up the same hill we had just descended and finally headed towards the east end of the island. The views were great and different from what we'd seen on our way to the Tortoise Reserve. We arrived in St. Francois just around lunch time. Our friends had bragged about a little thatch-covered beach resto that served fresh-caught grilled fish, lobster, chicken … whatever was available for their oil-drum-cut-in-half grill. We spotted Robert and Soulange's little place about a kilometer or so from the bus stop. They only had about six tables and, lucky for us, one was available.
The place was charming. We sat in plastic chairs at a plastic table, our feet planted in beach sand. The sun was shining and we could hear the sound of the surf not far away. Small sparrows peeked from the bamboo rafters of the thatched roof and swooped down every once in awhile for bread crumbs in the sand. Soulange put a fish on the grill for us, while Robert hacked at coconuts for other guests. The meal was excellent … grilled fish and chicken, salad, bread, drinks, espresso and a coconut tart … all for 500Rps (about $17US).
We walked along the beach afterward. It was high tide and there wasn't much beach, but the view was stupendous on such a glorious day. We reluctantly headed back to the bus stop. It was a long walk back to Port Mathurin if we missed the last bus. All in all, a terrific day exploring a bit more of Rodrigues. And now, unfortunately, it's time to move on to St. Louis, Mauritius, our next port of call.