Africa & Middle East

Heritage Nature Reserve Mauritius: From Cane to Conservation

Three-hundred-and-fifty kilometres of sparkling beaches and rugged coastline – that’s the image most people associate with Mauritius.

One of the (many) things I didn’t know about this tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean is how green its interior is. Similar to the Aeolian archipelago in Sicily, Mauritius and its neighbouring island, Reunion, were formed by volcanic activity. Soils rich in mineral oxides support incredible biodiversity and give the island its emerald tinge.

The entrance to Heritage Nature Reserve in Mauritius.

Incredibly, the green space you see on the island today is just a fraction of what it used to be. A mere 2 percent of Mauritius’ primary forest is still standing, with the rest cleared over the centuries to make way for urban development and agriculture.

One place where you can fully immerse yourself in Mauritius’ lush side is Heritage Nature Reserve. Nestled within Macchabée-Bel Ombre, a recognised UNESCO Biosphere on the southern part of the island, the Reserve is incredibly valuable to the island’s flora and fauna – and significant to Mauritian culture.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced this part of Mauritius on a guided tour of the Reserve. It’s a fascinating part of the country, and well worth visiting if you can tear yourself away from the beach!

Before I start, I’d like to thank Heritage Nature Reserve and Mauritius Tourism for hosting my tour as part of the 2019 #MyMauritius Explorer Lab. As always, all opinions and recommendations are my own.

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But first… Check out my Mauritius video!

This short video captures my week-long stay in Mauritius, including my tour of Heritage Nature Reserve.

About Heritage Nature Reserve

Heritage Nature Reserve is a massive private estate perched 140 metres above sea level. It borders on a vast pocket of protected virgin forest, where endemic plant species including ebony trees and fruit bats (the only mammal that’s native to Mauritius) thrive.

Bordering these areas of primary forest, fast-growing botanical trees such as bamboo have been introduced to rehabilitate abandoned sugar cane fields. Stitched together, patches of old and new forest combine to form a sprawling jungle that stretches for more than 1,300 hectares over undulating hills and across river valleys.

A sweet and sour history

Heritage Nature Reserve is breathtaking to look at. It’s green, it’s fresh, and it’s vital. But it’s impossible to visit without also confronting some of the darker chapters of Mauritian history: Colonialism, the slave trade, and the story of a nation built on the back of indentured labour. A guided tour of the Reserve balances these themes.

Zino, our guide at Heritage Nature Reserve, explains the area’s history ahead of our tour.

Sugar cane was first introduced to Mauritius in 1650 by Dutch settlers. Raised on March rains and high humidity, cane thrived in the island’s sandy soil. Cropping quickly became a lucrative business. Swathes of forest were felled to make way for fields, and slaves were brought in from Africa and South Asia to work the mills.

There was a time when just about every household in France would have had a canister of Mauritian sugar in the pantry (alongside a grinder of black pepper grown in another French colony, Kampot).

But when the sugar industry eventually failed, huge patches of land were left empty.

Frederica Nature Reserve (named after a former plantation owner) was one such abandoned plot. In the 1990s, work started to re-forest the area with exotic plants in a bold effort to restore the area’s biodiversity.

Aerial view of Heritage Nature Reserve. Photo credit: Greta’s Travels.

From cane to conservation

Of the 309 sugar mills that once stood on Mauritius, only three remain operational today.

Locals say that instead of church bell towers, Mauritius has sugar chimneys. You can find abandoned stone stacks all over the island, engulfed by overgrown fields or poking up out of residential areas. Constructed from pockmarked basalt rock, there are two distinctive types of tower: Those with a rectangular top (built by the French), and those with a rounded shape (the hallmark of a British-built mill).

Along with the island’s teak plantation homes, these stone towers are the last surviving heirs of fortunes built on Mauritian sugar cane and tea leaves.

The old sugar mill inside Heritage Nature Park.

A lone chimney in the middle of the 19th-century Frederica sugar estate – now Heritage Nature Reserve – serves as a reminder of the area’s past.

The adjacent UNESCO Biosphere is one of the last places on the island where you can find endemic vegetation. At 3,500 hectares, the Reserve encompasses plains, rivers, waterfalls and hills. Groves of wild apple and ebony trees provide a sanctuary for monkeys, wild boar and native birds.

When we visited Heritage Nature Reserve, we had Zino, one of the Park Rangers, to show us around. His story perfectly captures the history of the area. His ancestors were brought to Mauritius as slaves and forced to work on sugar plantations just like the one that used to occupy this land. Generations later, Zino is a custodian of the park, and has worked for more than a decade to rehabilitate the land.

Zino, a Ranger with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, shows us around Heritage Nature Reserve.

A melting pot of flora and fauna

‘You can tell if a tree is native to Mauritius just by looking at its size’, Zino explained as we drove through the Reserve in an open jeep. Any tree that’s taller than a few metres has been introduced – native plants on Mauritius are invariably short in stature, an evolutionary response to the harsh weather. Every year, tropical cyclones batter the island, taking down any tall trees.

Four spice, camphor and tamarind were all introduced to Mauritius from the West Indies, mainland Africa, India and China. Like Mauritian culture, the Reserve is a melting pot of different influences.

Ebony trees with their jet-black grain (famously used to craft piano keys) and takamaka are two native trees that thrive in the Reserve. The latter is the only species that can be legally felled. In the past, the wood was traditionally used to make the masts of wooden fishing boats. If they obtain a special permit, Mauritian fishermen who wish to build their own artisanal boat can take one tree from the Reserve for their main sail.

Everything else is protected by Zino and his colleagues at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.

Driving through Heritage Nature Reserve.

The Reserve is a haven for endemic birds, including the critically endangered Echo Parakeet. The bird almost went the way of the Dodo after monkeys introduced to the island developed a taste for their eggs. (Apart from fruit bats, every other mammal – including humans – was introduced to Mauritius. Legend has it the monkeys travelled to the island from India as stowaways on a Dutch merchant ship.)

Zino and his colleagues have worked tirelessly to restore parakeet populations. They came up with a clever solution to the monkey problem: Specially designed nesting boxes that allow the birds in, but keep other critters out.

Other birds including Pink Pigeons and Mauritius Fody can also be found inside the park. Kestrels are the symbol of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and decorate the insignia Zino and his colleagues wear proudly on their uniforms. As the nation’s only NGO dedicated to conservation, the Foundation does vital work. Restoration of Echo Parakeet numbers is just one of their many success stories.

A Ranger holds up his cap bearing the insignia of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.

When the old cane fields were planted out in the 1990s, a population of rusa deer from Java was introduced. Mauritian law dictates that any arable land on the island must be cultivated for some sort of crop. The solution here was to introduce the deer and open the Reserve up for an annual hunting season.

More than 2,500 deer live inside the Reserve, with 700 or so hunted every year (the number rises or falls depending on how many births there were). This is yet another success story – the deer almost went extinct in Indonesia before their numbers were restored here in Mauritius.

The picnic area inside Heritage Nature Reserve.

How to visit Heritage Nature Reserve

Aside from trophy hunters who visit the Reserve between June and September, basing themselves at the historic Frederica Lodge, the park is open year-round to regular visitors.

Heritage Nature Reserve is a private park, meaning you can only access the area if you’re accompanied by a guide from the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. The forest is so dense in parts, it’s only possible to get around by either trekking, or hiring a four wheel drive. With an experienced Park Ranger behind the wheel, an open safari truck is the best way to see the Reserve’s marshlands, evergreen forests and rocky river banks.

There are a couple of different tours to choose from, all organised by Heritage. This 90-minute off-road tour by eco buggy takes the Riverine Trail up to the Sepoy camp. It offers a nice balance of nature and history. Alternatively, this guided tour is slower paced and visits a couple of the park’s waterfalls ahead of a picnic lunch by the river.

I highly recommend the picnic lunch option. Although stormy weather forced us to eat lunch under cover on the day of our visit, we enjoyed the home-cooked meal and dessert box. You can even organise a ‘Picnic Pod’ – a tent suspended above the forest floor and fitted out with a full dining table.

Most tours also include a visit to the black-rock creek and waterfall inside the Reserve.

Our picnic dessert at Heritage Nature Reserve.

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