Visiting Rodriques Island

Smallest of the Mascarenes  (published November 2012)

If you ask many North Americans to locate the Mascarene Islands, Rodrigues in particular, you will likely be greeted with shrugged shoulders and a puzzled look. The volcanic Mascarene Islands, comprised of La Reunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues, lie east of Madagascar in the western Indian Ocean. With an area of only 43 square miles, Rodrigues is the smallest of the Mascarenes and the furthest from the African continent. The arid island appears on early Arab charts but was rarely visited, and it didn’t become a routine stop until Dutch traders began harvesting the indigenous fruits, fish and tortoises in the early 1600s.

By the time the French began colonizing in earnest, the endemic tortoise was extinct, as well as several bird species and two gecko species. The French imported African slaves to work on plantations and tend cattle. The English defeated France in 1809 and slavery was abolished, but indentured laborers from India were brought in, which added to the diverse ethnic background of the 37,000 inhabitants currently living on this small island.

Horizon, our cutter-rigged, 38-foot Hans Christian sailboat, reached Rodrigues after a boisterous 15-day passage from Cocos (Keeling) Islands of Australia across 2,000 miles of the Indian Ocean. The harbor entrance is shallow and obscure (not to mention nearly half a mile from its position on the charts), so we stood off until after sunrise to make our approach. In rough conditions, this entrance can be daunting and many cruisers continue on to Mauritius. The friendly Customs, Immigration, Quarantine, Coast Guard and Harbor Police officials were all very helpful and keen to get the formalities finished so we could visit the Saturday fresh markets before they closed.

There is presently no charge to tie alongside the quay; in fact, the officials prefer incoming yachts do so for clearance formalities, and yachts often raft two or three deep. It is a busy commercial quay, so stevedores begin moving and unloading containers around 7am on weekdays, and dust and debris blow onto the yachts tied alongside. There is no dinghy landing, but the Coast Guard allows anchored yachts to tie their dinghies to one of the small tugs and climb up onto the wall from there. Some yachts prefer to make arrangements with a fellow cruiser on the quay to tie alongside and climb up that way. Either choice is awkward and occasionally difficult in gusty, choppy conditions.

The anchoring basin at Port Mathurin
The anchoring basin at Port Mathurin

A small anchorage basin that can accommodate up to a dozen yachts in settled weather lies off the commercial wharf; however, it is not uncommon for the wind to blow steady over 20 knots through the anchorage (with higher gusts as “bullets” coming over the island). Fortunately, we found excellent holding in thick mud. Keep in mind that when the weekly supply ship comes in from Mauritius at 6am, all yachts are ordered off the quay, out of the anchorage and out of the harbor so the ship has adequate turning room. The yachts are allowed back into the harbor to re-anchor, but must be prepared to depart when the ship leaves.

We took a guided circle island tour rather than renting a car—a good choice considering the winding roads, unfamiliar street signs and creative traffic schemes. Our drive followed the contour of the coastline along a narrow two-lane road and our driver, Jean-Claude, named the small villages we passed through while sharing tidbits of history relating to each. Most of the brightly-colored homes are of cinderblock construction with corrugated metal roofs; often decorated with columns, balconies with ornamental railings filled with potted plants, and a satellite dish perched high on the roof. Many homes were set within yards or compounds landscaped with brilliant bougainvillea, hibiscus, palms and banana plants. Cows, goats and sheep grazed on pickets near the homes and along the roadway, and Jean-Claude had to slow down several times to avoid hitting vagrant chickens. Countless small fishing boats rest on the shore and fishermen walk the reefs in search of octopus, a delicacy on Rodrigues.

The author's husband Joseph, greeting one of the elder Giant Aldabran tortoises
The author’s husband Joseph, greeting one of the elder Giant Aldabran tortoises

At the southeast corner of the island, near the airport, we left the main road and took the (mercifully) short dirt track to the François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve. Opened in 1985, it is a 19-hectare nature reserve dedicated to preserving and restoring some of the islands’ native vegetation and wildlife. There are currently more than 1,000 giant Aldabran tortoises (Dipsochelys elephantine) at the reserve, and many more have been released (or escaped) back into the wild. These fascinating, prehistoric animals can reach weights of up to 570 pounds and live up to 250 years. The oldest animal at the reserve is 90. A smaller species, the Radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) was also imported from Madagascar, and the on-site breeding and nursery project ensure the survival of these species for future generations to enjoy. Visitors are welcome to walk among the older animals (eight years and up) and invited to stroke their necks, which the tortoises evidently enjoy. These ponderous creatures seemed unconcerned about our party walking through their enclosure as they went about doing whatever it is tortoises do all day.

One of the streetside fresh markets in Port Mathurin
One of the streetside fresh markets in Port Mathurin

After lunch at the reserve’s café and a wander through the small museum, we continued our drive around the island. A stop high on the hillside provided a commanding view of the Grande Passe and Ile Hermitage, and Anse Mourouk, where diving and kite surfing are popular tourist attractions. Several lovely secluded white sand beaches are nestled on this side of the island as well.

From a cruiser’s perspective, the downside to Rodrigues is the absence of facilities for visiting yachts. There are no shipyards, chandleries or haul-out facilities, and LPG bottles come pre-filled from Mauritius by ship so no re-filling is available here. It’s a fairly dry island, so water is not always available. Fuel can be obtained by jerry can from the sole filling station in town.

If forced to choose one word to describe Rodrigues, it would be “colorful.” The deep blue Indian Ocean surrounds the turquoise fringing reef that circles the green hillsides and black volcanic cliffs. Brilliant flowers accent the equally colorful homes of people with a rich, varied ethnic background of African, Asian, European and Indian ancestors. The village streets are lined with stalls and shops and we were welcomed with warm smiles and kind words. We would have been sorry had we not stopped here on our way from Cocos to Mauritius, and highly recommend it as a rewarding stop for anyone passing this way.

Over the last 10 years of sailing, Marci and Joseph Paravia have covered more than 50,000 nautical miles throughout the Pacific between Glacier Bay, Alaska, Tauranga, New Zealand, westward to the Philippines and into SE Asia aboard Horizon.

Author: Marci Paravia