Exploring Chamarel and the Black River Gorges National Park
We went to Mauritius and didn’t go to the beach!
I’m guessing not many people can say that. After all, Mauritius is a tropical island paradise in the Indian Ocean, famous for it’s golden sands and watersports.
Ok, so that might be a slight exaggeration. We did stop the car twice for about 5 minutes to take a photos of Riambel and Le Morne, but that was it. Instead we were there to explore the area of Chamarel, and the Black River Gorges National Park. Jungle beats beach any day!
It wasn’t exactly a planned trip. Hubbie and I were flying with Emirates (yeah baby!) to South Africa and as always I was curious to see if there was anywhere we could stop off on the way. Mauritius was only a ‘slight’ detour and minimal extra expense, so with visions of snorkelling and hammocks we thought what the hell and booked the tickets.
So this is what being spontaneous is all about.
It was only when I did a bit of research that I discovered Mauritius wasn’t quite the powder white sands and swaying coconut palms of the Seychelles or Maldives. I read in horror about the resorts, sun-loungers and jet skis and wondered how on earth we could salvage what was apparently a huge mistake.
Then I spotted a photograph of the Chamarel Waterfall and breathed a sigh of relief.
This, I could cope with!
The south west of Mauritius is all about impenetrable jungle, roaring waterfalls, plunging cliffs and bottomless gorges, and is understandably the wettest part of the island. Who goes to tropical islands for sun anyway? Whilst the package tourists are frolicking away over in the warm waters of the north and east, the coast here is lined with fishing villages rather than resorts as the sea currents are unpredictable and dangerous. No-one swims here, but it’s a grown-up playground for competent kite surfers.
Chamarel and Black River Gorges National Park
Famous for it’s waterfalls, hikes and panoramic views, at over 6,700 hectares the Black River Gorges is the largest national park on the island. The area is probably reminiscent of how Mauritius used to look before the settlers arrived and began clearing the jungle. Located inland in the central highlands area, it is cooler than the rest of Mauritius, but no less exotic. The rare forest is home to more than 300 species of endemic flowering plants as well as 9 bird species found only in Mauritius. They even have flying foxes!
The verdant foliage carpeting almost every square inch of this area feels as ancient as the island itself, giving it a slightly mysterious Jurassic World ambience. If you’re looking for immersion in nature, then this is it!
The village of Chamarel is a great place to base yourself for a few days exploration, relaxation and hiding away from the world. We stayed at Lakaz Chamarel, a luxurious eco retreat tucked away in a private tropical paradise boasting numerous pools and palm trees for relaxing under.
And not a beach in sight!
Just a few minutes drive out of the village are the Cascades Chamarel and the famous Seven Coloured Earths. A combined entrance ticket costs R200 (less than £4) per person and is worth every rupee! First up are the twin falls, where the St Denis River plunges 295ft over a dramatic precipitous cliff, emerging majestic from the steaming jungle, it’s droplets often creating hazy rainbows over the pool below.
I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls and have to say this is my favourite! It’s a bit of a shame that it is so easy to reach (you can drive right up to the viewpoint) as the experience lacks the sense of achievement and discovery that comes with a little effort. Yet it does allow for some fabulous photos and if you’re up for a bit more of an adventure, you can always try abseiling down the falls with Vertical World.
A keen photographer can easily spend half an hour here!
Seven Coloured Earths
This place is just bonkers! More suited to the other-worldly landscapes of outer space, the undulating Earths are in fact sand dunes formed from the conversion of volcanic basalt rock into mineral rich clay. The molten rocks cooled at different temperatures causing the multicoloured iron and aluminium oxides to settle in separate layers of reds, browns, yellows, purples, violets, greens and sometimes even blues.
Interesting fact – take a handful of the sand and mix the different colours together and they’ll eventually separate into a smaller-scale layered spectrum!
The sand is actually quite hard and doesn’t become eroded by rain. Good job since the island experiences a fair bit of that. There is a walkway around the edge of the 1 hectare dune area but you can’t walk on the sand itself. It would appear that feet would conquer where rain fails.
The Earths are a 5 minute walk from the parking area, and if they’re not enough to keep you amused, there is also a giant tortoise park (‘giant’ alludes to the tortoises, not the park!) and small gift shop.
Black River Gorges Viewpoint
Driving east from Chamarel on the B103 Plaine Champagne Road is one of the most scenic routes on the island, with several viewpoints along the way. The most spectacular has to be the Black River Gorges Viewpoint, located right next to the main road and very easy to find. Unless like us you’re far too keen, end up stopping too soon and take an unexpected hike through dense humid undergrowth with no viewpoints or waterfalls in sight.
Instead the trail undulated steeply through tall forests and soon had us sweating buckets. Yet on the map the waterfall looked close. To be fair, it wasn’t the most accurate of maps but we were lured on, convinced the photo opportunity was just around the next corner. Stupidly we didn’t even have any water, having believed we’d only be ‘popping’ out of the car for a few minutes. Some while later we were becoming unsure of our navigational prowess and even resorted to trying to load Google Maps to assist us in our search. The attempt failed, and cost us £30 for the privilege.
After 45 minutes we finally came across a couple of scantily-clad trail runners who assured us there were no views of waterfalls (or anything else for that matter) and in fact we were climbing Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire (Black River Peak), the highest mountain on the island!
So feeling rather embarrassed we about-turned (something hubbie hates doing), and grumpily tramped back to the car. All in all a ridiculous waste of an afternoon! Driving on, a mere 10 seconds around the corner was a huge view point complete with coach park, ice-cream van (selling water and crisps rather than ice-cream), souvenir stalls (wooden dodos are in!), monkeys in trees, and…a waterfall! We’d clearly been too impatient and jumped out too early!
Alexandra Falls Viewpoint
A few miles further along the road to the right is the Alexandra Falls Viewpoint, although it is more difficult to actually see the waterfalls from here, even though they are 500ft! Again there is ample parking with all the trimmings and the panorama is just a 5 minute walk from the car. A wooden platform allows you to climb up for views out towards the south east coast, although it was rather hazy when we were there so we remained true to our sans beach trip theme.
Rhumerie de Chamarel
If you’re interested in how the local tipple is made, and fancy sampling some yourself, the Rhumerie de Chamarel does great little tours of the factory, including tastings at the end. We really enjoyed becoming rum connoisseurs for the afternoon, and I’ve written a separate post about our experiences here.
Trou aux Cerfs
It’s not often you can walk up a volcano in the middle of a town, but in Curepipe (just north of the national park) that’s precisely what you can do. Trou aux Cerfs volcano is dormant but could erupt any time…within the next 1000 years! So your chances are pretty good!
You can drive up to the rim and walk around the entire circumference in about 30 minutes. The inner slopes are forested, giving only glimpses of the marshy pool at the bottom and I have to admit I was slightly disappointed at what was essentially an overgrown muddy puddle. Yet the 2130ft high crater has superb 360 degree views of the whole island. On a clear day you can even see the neighbouring island of Réunion. We didn’t have a clear day, but it still wasn’t bad…
Entrance to Trou aux Cerfs is free, and there are toilets (for a small charge) in the car park.
Le Morne Brabant Peninsula
You know that iconic aerial shot of Mauritius with the imposing mountain plateau right next to the turquoise ocean? Well Le Morne is exactly that. So we couldn’t go all that way and not check it out. Whilst we enjoyed driving right up to the shore and going for a 2 minute paddle at Pointe Corail de la Prairie on the south coast (the water was as warm as a bath!) the actual beach on the peninsula itself was crowded with people and parasols, lined with hotels and golf resorts, and had no views except out to sea.
Definitely one of those places better experienced from afar.
We spent 3 days exploring the south west of Mauritius, and that was just the right amount of time. The island is undoubtedly one of the gems of the Indian ocean, yet for all the rugged wilderness and dramatic landscapes, it just all felt a little too easy. Despite being one of the most geographically remote nations in the world, Mauritius for us lacked the key ingredient as defined by it’s co-ordinates. It didn’t feel at all remote.
Next time perhaps we’ll try Réunion, although I’m sure hubbie would have a thing or two to say about having a stop-over within a stop-over!
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