Travel diary: discovering the Kreol Festival of Mauritius
Linzy Bacbotte's eyes ignite with the secret mischief of exuberance as she takes centre stage, dancing with a wide stance, closed fists and circulating hips. It's 5am at the eighth annual Kreol Festival in Mauritius, and the sleep-deprived, 100,000-strong crowd has barely begun to thin.
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Somewhere in the pre-dawn backdrop a French colonial mansion built on the profits of slaves stands testament to the chequered local history.
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But this morning is the culmination of a week celebrating the mixed creole culture that emerged here, and now defines the Indian Ocean's second largest island nation behind Madagascar.
As soon as I step off the plane I pick up on the unique cultural mélange. "Bonzour" my taxi driver greets in creole French with an Indian head waggle before we set off listening to 'Pot Pourri Sega' - a local genre infused with African percussion and French accordion.
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After two centuries of Dutch and French colonial rule that deforested the formerly uninhabited island and established cane plantations and Madagascan slave populations, the British sailed in. They eventually abolished slavery, but brought with them 450,000 indentured labourers from India who continued the back-breaking field work and from whom half or more of the island's population now descend.
The road to the capital city, Port Louis, winds through a broken ring of mountains cut like dragon’s teeth. Downtown is a jumble of rain-worn bluestone, cinder blocks, power cables, corrugated iron, cacti, tropical flowers, temples, mosques, churches, a fishing port and a dated waterfront mall. Street vendors squat under porticos selling umbrellas during a sudden tropical onslaught - but revert to hawking pet chameleons as soon as the sun returns.
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On the north coast I find a hundred gated hideaways swathed in hibiscus flowers around Grand Baie, a relaxed harbour and tourist town.
From there I join a catamaran island-hop cruise loaded with Kenyan students on holiday. I garner from the captain that the French have successfully vetoed any love for cricket in Mauritius. But after a snorkel and sitting in on a beach sing-along I hear the biggest local draw is the Saturday race at Champ de Mars, the second oldest thoroughbred horse racecourse in the world.
In the stands at the track tailored suits, peacock feather headdresses and satin gloves are de rigueur, while on the turf the crowds press against the fence with a roar at the finish.
In the afternoon I head southwest to Rhumerie de Chamarel in the foothills of Black River Gorges National Park. The views between mango and tamarind trees take in Le Morne - the most postcard-worthy beach and headland on the island.
It's also the site where escaped slaves built a settlement that earned Mauritius the international moniker 'The Maroon Republic' and is now a UNESCO protected Cultural Landscape.
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On the beach there I join a 'Sware Tipik' sega dancing night. It's a more traditional evening than at the festival main stage (with a lot more flowing dresses than neon miniskirts), but the extra space only seems to give locals more energy for dancing. After a few more double distilled, 18 month-aged gold label rums suddenly I'm ready to join them. Perhaps I've discovered the source of Linzy Bacbotte's secret mischief?
Buro 24/7 Selection
Buro 24/7 Selection