At least I think that’s what the instructor was yelling at me as a 10m2 parabola of sail dragged me face first through the (thankfully warm) waters off Rodrigues. With one of the world’s largest enclosed coral lagoons to play in, the island of Rodrigues is kite-surfing paradise for those who know their control bar from their elbow.
I, on the other hand, didn’t. But as I was shaking the water from my ears it was easy to see the attraction of skimming across aquamarine seas. Brightly coloured kites bobbed and weaved across a bright sky scudded with clouds, a scene mirrored below in the palette of blues of the Rodrigues lagoon. Suntanned kiters flew across the water wearing enormous grins. I wanted to be that person. I wanted that smile.
Unfortunately, the joys of being pulled at speed by an unhealthy amount of sailcloth only struck on my last day in Rodrigues and, as good as they are, the instructors at OsmoWings kite-surfing school couldn’t transform me from pathetic to pro in a single two-hour lesson. Luckily, there is more to the island than sail-powered adventure.
From the coast the road runs steeply up to Mont Limon, the highest point on the island, with small vegetable fields and patches of forest dotting the roadside. Unlike the larger Mauritius, there are no acres of sugarcane here; just small-scale farmers and natural bush. It’s a peaceful rural picture, with walking trails around and across the island offering days of undisturbed hiking. Locals greet you with a friendly bonjour, but almost always speak a smattering of English to help with directions.
An uninhabited paradise when Portuguese sailors first discovered it in 1528, the lagoon thronged with dugong and teemed with sea life. In the island’s valleys, the hills were grazed by giant tortoises to the sound of solitaires, Rodrigues’ answer to the dodo.
Unsurprisingly, with the arrival of seafarers the lonely solitaire met a similar fate at the hands of hungry sailors. The tallest forests were cut down for ship repairs and the giant tortoises were loaded on board as food for the long journey home or – bizarrely – boiled for their oil.
The island was changed forever, but a small piece of this pristine landscape is slowly being recreated at the Francois Leguat Giant Tortoise and Caves Reserve in the southwest of the island. Indigenous trees are being replanted, a sanctuary for the endemic Golden Fruit Bat has been established, and giant tortoises from the Seychelles are being bred to slowly repopulate this corner on the Plaine Corail.
The tortoises here may be for conservation, not cuisine, but Rodrigues still offers some of the best Creole cooking of the Mascarenes; a sultry mix of French, Asian and African flavours, the island’s food is both exotic and affordable.
“Every Rodriguan will ask for their fish at dinnertime,” laughs Marie-Louise at Villa Mon Tresor. “Maybe a little roast pork too on special occasions, but every day there must be fish on the plate!”
Like many women on the island, Marie-Louise offers Creole meals at a table d’hote – literally, a ‘table of the house’. Although usually attached to a guesthouse, visitors are always welcome to join the family and other guests for the meal of the day, turning a simple and affordable meal into an island experience.
“I learned most of my skills and recipes from my mother,” says Marie-Louise. “Cooking runs in my family, and I still go and see what my mother is doing in the kitchen. Then I bring the ideas here to my kitchen and play a little bit more,” she laughs.
Creole cooking generally revolves around fragrant curries eaten with maize, red haricot beans and tangy salads of green papaya, onion, chives and tomato. Rodriguans like a bit of spice with their food, but the fiery local chilis are usually served on the side. With the island lying some 600 kilometres east of Mauritius – next stop; Australia – local produce is unsurprisingly king here. Maize comes from local fields, fish is caught in the lagoon that morning and salads are from the garden.
The regular Saturday market in the capital Port Mathurin is a good place to size up the island’s bounty, from local honey to the island’s famous baskets and hats woven from the Pandanus plant.
However, the undisputed king of Rodriguan cuisine is the beady-eyed octopus. As soon as the tide starts to fall the local fisherwomen make their way out to the fringing reef.
Metal spears in hand, they prise and pry for the eight-legged payday and invariably return with half-a-dozen slippery cephalopods slung over their shoulder. Hung out to dry across the island, they make their way into delicate curries and piquant salads, as well as onto planes to nearby Mauritius.
One of the best places to see fishermen at work is in the South East Marine Protected Area, where locals are being taught the value of sustainable fishing. The lagoon stretches far from shore here, providing happy hunting grounds for octopus-fishermen and the traditional net boats. Local boats will happily take you out on the low tide to watch the teams of fishermen in their carefully synchronised net dance, seine-netting schools of fish or scaring shoals of unwary carangue (similar to Yellowtail) to their fate.
While the fishermen stick to the shallows, deep passes break through the lagoon and offer great diving, dropping quickly from waist-deep water to 40 metre walls. Game fish patrol the depths and pristine coral is a welcome change to the dynamite- and sun-damaged corals of other Indian Ocean islands.
Parts of the reef also offer easy and safe snorkelling, although the best spots are only reachable by boat.
Say hello, then, to Christophe Meunier – local artist, boat skipper, fishing expert, snorkelling instructor and tour guide. He’s a man who wears many hats, but it’s his T-shirt that catches my eye the moment we hop on-board his open fishing boat: “No Stress” is emblazoned across his chest.
It’s seems a fitting slogan for a day on the waters off this paradise island. He smiles, and hands me a hand-line as we troll for carangue destined for the curry at this mother’s table d’hote. The wind is calm on the lagoon this morning, so he guns the engine and our boat leaps towards the popular Ile aux Cocos.
One of a number of protected islands surrounding Rodrigues, the slender Ile aux Cocos provides a refuge for thousands of migrating seabirds; a holiday destination where they are safe to mate, breed and feed before heading north again for the winter.
Elegant Lesser Noddies, snow-white Fairy Terns and their darker cousins, the Sooty Tern, fill the sky and the casuarina trees that line the beaches. Long free of predators here, the birds happily preen and pout a metre or two from two-legged tourists, only squawking their unhappiness if I venture too near their nest.
“The island is called ‘Cocos,’ because of the eggs,” the park guide Marie-Claude mentions over her shoulder as we wander across the island, “not because of any coconuts!” Just a few hundred metres wide, by 1500m long, a third of it is for feathered visitors only. “For the rest of the island, tourists are welcome to explore on their own.”
I don’t do too much exploring though. Ile aux Cocos offers one of the best swimming beaches on Rodrigues and with a local pandanus hat to keep the bright tropical sun out of my eyes, the calm blue waters of the lagoon seem to stretch on forever. In the distance, a handful of kites leap and dive on their way downwind. Perhaps next time I’ll make it out of the water.
First published in the Saturday Star, May 2010