SAPNA NUNDLOLL

Inspired by Pascal Laroulette and his Twenty Peaks Challenge; and all those who clamber up and down our mountains and share the experience through the stories and the photos they bring back from their journey.

Across the island, our mountains, basaltic blue weathered by the trade winds into distinctive shapes, dot the landscape as landmarks for navigation. Quatre Bornes to Le Morne is a classic: stitch (visually) Corps de Garde, Rempart-Trois Mamelles along Palma Road, the Tourelle du Tamarin, then Le Morne, with the coast occasionally in front of you, then mostly to your right, visible through foliage of the filaos or mangroves.

Within Quatre Bornes itself, one reason it’s almost impossible to lose your bearings is related to the town’s configuration. The urban grid, slightly staggered, aligns more or less with four distinctive peaks. One of the two main perpendicular axes consists of thumb-shaped Le Pouce on one end, roughly North towards Port Louis, and the Rempart-Trois Mamelles range at the opposite end (think of the Route Royale); Corps de Garde and Candos Hill form the other, closer and shorter, axis. “Tes quatre bornes,” quipped a knowledgeable acquaintance, when I told him of the four landmarks subtending my hometown.

So, hold this thought: the grid of Quatre Bornes, through its alignment with mountains, could be both a piece of our history, part of the town’s intrinsic value, but also a tangible parcel of our cultural heritage and our identity.

Given the current pace of land development under way on the island, it feels urgent to ponder on the place our mountains take in our collective image of the country. We are taught their profiles at a young age, their location relative to each other and the coastline, and find our way round the island, eye on the horizon. In this, Mauritian children are equal: whether we are public- or private-schooled, we learn about our mountains when we are about eight. Are we paying due attention to these details, which form such a fundamental part of how we move and therefore who we are?

Mauritians are natural wayfinders, both as a consequence of the island’s landscape and its history. There are parallels to be found between first planners who drew the first lines of our towns and the navigators who sailed the world’s oceans and approached our island along the spice route. The principle of fixing a point on the horizon when close to or on land is a primary navigation technique. Coastal navigators including our local fishermen use it, and it is among the first things that the novice sailor or surfer is taught. Our famed One Eye may be a hole on the face of Le Morne mountain, seen at a specific spot from the sea, telling surfers they’re where they should be to catch the eponymous wave; or it may simply the mountain revealed in the wave’s pit. Either way, the mountain is the key to the experience.

That the island’s mountains form such a strong component of our collective conscience is something our storytellers and placebranders were onto before anyone else; the latter linking wayfinding to sense of place [1], the former taking us deep into our geological past [2][3][4]. At the risk of challenging the collegial position on the matter, who needs iconic architecture when we have iconic mountains?

In more functional terms when it comes to orientation, consciously incorporating our mountains in spatial planning would, among other things, inform the configuration of our roads, including interchanges. This could reduce the number of wrong turns and exits on our roads, and in the process of saving some fuel and cutting on the road rage, also lower the risk of accidents. Granting them heritage status is a way to consider for us to commit collectively to honour their cultural value and preserving the visual access to them for all Mauritians. [5]

Mentally mapping our territory, which is the process by which we cognitively assimilate the environment around us, does not limit itself to the main island and can in fact extend to our outer islands. The Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding them, roughly 2 million km2 of sea to 2,000 km2 of land, means Mauritius is a vast expanse of water. A Mauritian dream could be one of a nation of Indian Ocean wayfinders, akin to Polynesian seafarers [6], capable of navigating the 1,500 km to the Seychelles and Diego Garcia, along the shallow, pelagic, sand banks according to the stars, the colour of the water, the wind, and the biodiversity encountered…  This is not as far-fetched or romantic as it sounds; as sea levels rise and engulf our coasts [7], a change from a beach-hugging lifestyle to one exposed to the elements is almost inevitable, and rather than having it forced on us by circumstance, we may instead decide to embrace it.

Links

[1] Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (2011) Brand Mauritius – Visual identity guidelines. Available from: https://www.tourism-mauritius.mu/trade/sites/default/files/styles/downloads/Visual%20Identity%20Guidelines.pdf

[2] De Chazal, M. (1951) Petrusmok. – De Chazal’s stories come from his meditations on our landscape, namely our mountains, and a desire to endow the island with its own myths and meld it with the cosmos. Corps de Garde features.

[3] Golam Hossen, N. (2019) The Curse of Engan. Available on Kindle from: amazon.com – a fantastic new story written for children, which I find gives us a sense for the vast expanse of water that is Mauritius. Without giving much away, the Saya de Malha banks and Piton de la Petite Riviere-Noire feature.

[4] Mervine, E. (2014) The Young Volcanic Landscape of Mauritius. https://blogs.agu.org/georneys/2014/09/08/young-volcanic-landscape-mauritius/ – a blog entry on Mauritius by an American geologist.

[5] Marko, P. (2013) Hackney Wick – From Fringe to Centre (Part 2). Available from: http://markoandplacemakers.com/blog/hackney-wick-from-fringe-to-centre-part-2-0 This quote on context resonated deeply. “The failure of cities trying to replicate projects such as Guggenheim in Bilbao or High Line in New York is that they ignore the context in which these projects are embedded. By ignoring the vital components that make these projects successful such as connectivity (investment into infrastructure and services in case of Guggenheim [Bilbao]) and genius loci (capturing views of Manhattan skyscrapers in case of High Line), this “transplantation” can only fail.” In Mauritius, the views to our mountains provide strong local context and valuing them must form part of our collective aspiration.

[6] Wikipedia (2019) Polynesian navigation. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polynesian_navigation

There’s more references, but the Wikipedia page is quite informative.

[7] Climate Central (2019) Coastal Risk Screening Tool. Available from: https://coastal.climatecentral.org/map/7/59.6449/-20.6901/  (Pan and zoom in for Mauritius & outer islands)

I know I’m on my way to Quatre Bornes when Corps de Garde is on my horizon. Rempart-Trois Mamelles on the left means I’m approaching from the East(ish). Within Quatre Bornes itself, our navigation is guided along two axes, with Corps de Garde-Candos Hill along one axis, and Port Louis/ Moka Range-Rempart/ Trois Mamelles along the other. Altogether they point to four directions, hence our four landmarks, “les quatre bornes”.
On the walls of a London pub – see the pelagic banks of the Mascarene ridge to the Seychelles and the elusive wing to the Chagos? Our territory claims the shape of a wishbone, with Tromelin and Rodrigues on the sides. The distance between them makes us – in  our minds – more a constellation than an archipelago. Our mental map of Mauritius should extend beyond the contours of our islands, on to the vast expanse of sea covered by our Exclusive Economic Zone. The last time I saw a map like this I was 11, what about you?
Can you guess where this picture was taken from by looking at the shape of mountains? Mauritians are natural wayfinders; our mountains are navigational landmarks which allow us to get around the island without having to depend heavily on maps. Are we paying due attention to these details, which form such a fundamental part of how we move and therefore who we are, when planning new towns?