10th January 2016
Tea and Tortoises on Mauritius
Tea and tortoises may seem a strange combination but odd mixtures are one of the many charms of my favourite exotic beach destination, the island of Mauritius. Whereas I love exotic destinations I do not relish the idea of spending day after day languishing on a beach. I like a variety of activities to fill some of my time and my next three blog posts will explore the possible diversions here.
Since I arrived on the island my early morning breakfast had been enhanced by the fragrant vanilla tea that accompanied it. I had no idea that Mauritius produced tea and decided to find out more by joining a tour to the Bois Chéri tea plantation, Tea was first introduced to Mauritius during the mid-eighteenth century but although it was planted extensively it was not produced commercially until the arrival of the British in the late nineteenth century but it was a slow, unregulated process. In 1955 the Mauritian government began a project to establish tea plantations for long-term leasing and to regulate the activities of the expanding industry. Production was increased in areas unsuitable for growing sugar cane to resolve a serious unemployment problem, the private sector joined the government led initiative and a tea factory was established in 1967 providing facilities for leaf produced by small holders. The industry has had its ups and downs since them but is currently doing well thanks to an alliance with India and the introduction of a rehabilitation plan the industry is doing well again and producing tea for local consumption – the islanders are very fond of a good cup of tea. My tour of the tea factory on the Bois Chéri plantation was fascinating. We watched small canvas bags of tea being conveyed into the factory before beginning the process of being chopped up, sorted, graded and finally blasted dry in a huge furnace. The yellow and red machinery clanked merrily and the workers smiled happily as we walked amongst them.
Before we left the factory we spent some time examine the exhibits in the small museum – an old locomotive, a model of a tea clipper and a display of old tea pots. Our next stop was a tea tasting in a chalet on the estate beautifully positioned on a hill above a lake with tea plants marching down to the water’s edge in even, regimented rows. We sat on the veranda and tasted an array of different flavoured teas. I particularly liked the coconut and mango flavours.
We had been promised crocodiles and giant tortoises and made our way to Vanille Réserve des Mascareignes nature park. We were too early to watch the crocodiles being fed so we made our way to an area where large numbers of giant tortoises roamed freely. At one time these tortoises were plentiful on the island but their numbers reduced rapidly due to intense harvesting by man for oil and food and also the theft of their freshly laid eggs by predators introduced to the island such as pigs and rats. All the giant tortoises now living on the island are the descendants of related stock brought here from the Seychelles during the 1880’s on the advice of Charles Darwin. The park has a breeding programme to conserve these and other species of tortoise. As I strolled amongst them I discovered that they loved to have their chins tickled and their heads scratched.
I was called away from my new friends by Dominque, our local guide, who wanted me to watch the crocodiles being fed. I was not particularly keen to watch this show but I did not want to offend – Mauritians are such a gentle, kind race. Portions of chicken were dangled above the crocodile pool while the occupants competed with each other to jump higher and quicker than their companions to snatch some meat. Older and wiser occupants just lay on the ground waiting for the keeper to throw some food to them. The Nile Crocodiles are bred in the nature reserve and used to make souvenirs from their skin (strictly controlled) and in the Hungry Crocodile restaurant crocodiles are fed to the visitors.
The nature reserve was full of surprises. We found a whole colony of fruit bats hanging from trees fast asleep. That reminded me that we saw lots of them in the evenings around the grounds of our hotel, Tamassa Resort, but I had never seen them during the day so I guessed their dormitory must be elsewhere. The nsectarium houses one of the world’s largest private collections of butterflies and other insects all beautifully laid and included some stunning specimens. Macaque monkeys gazed solemnly at me from the flight of steps that formed part of their enclosure and Mauritian green gecko outstared me from his spacious aquarium. It was very relaxed and I could have spent much longer exploring all the nooks and crannies but it was lunch time so we had to move on.
Our venue for lunch was the colonial restaurant in the Saint Aubin residence.
Here we were served a lovely meal, a clever mixture of traditional and gourmet. As we ate we were closely watched by one of the island’s most common birds – the pert red-whiskered bulbul – in case a morsel of food should come his way. He was unlucky.
This estate, originally a sugar mill, has preserved some of the original buildings which have been incorporated into a small manufacturing area were visitors can watch the the different stages of sugar production. We were shown round the artisanal rum distillery and tasted some of the flavoured rums they produce there. Next we moved on to the Vanilla House where we were shown a short video about its production and offered the chance to buy some vanilla pods. Next door was a ‘black’ greenhouse full of exquisite antirrhinum blooms – a lasting memory of a very interesting and informative day.
I went to Mauritius on a holiday organised by Solos Holidays and we stayed at the fabulous all-inclusive Tamassa Resort. We flew there with Air Mauritius.