An Introduction to Mauritius
The island of Mauritius lies in the Indian Ocean, 890 km to the east of Madagascar. It is situated between 19°50' S and 20°32' S latitudes and 57°18' E and 57°46' E longitudes. Mauritius is part of the Mascarene Islands along with the French island of Réunion 200 km to the southwest and the Mauritian island of Rodrigues 560 km to the east-northeast.
Mountains and hills, plateaus, river valleys and plains define the topography of Mauritius. The island is made up of a central plateau gradually rising towards the southwest where it reaches its highest point of 828 m at Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire. This plateau is surrounded by the remnants of a primary shield volcano in the form of a chain of mountains and some isolated peaks. Mauritius is almost entirely ringed by coral reefs.
The Republic of Mauritius comprises the main island of Mauritius and several outlying islands and islets. The island of Mauritius has an area of 1,865 km2 (with a length of 65 km and width of 45 km) and a population of 1,237,286 as on 30 June 2009. The Mauritian capital and largest city is Port Louis, in the northwest of the island. Other important towns are Beau Bassin-Rose Hill, Curepipe, Quatre Bornes, and Vacoas-Phoenix. The local climate is tropical, modified by southeast trade winds. There is a warm, dry winter from May to October and a hot, wet, and humid summer from November to April. Rodrigues is the main outer island of the Republic of Mauritius with a surface area of 108 km2 and a population of 37,748 as on 30 June 2009.
Safford (1997) writes that Mauritius was originally completely covered by wet or dry evergreen forest and scrub, and palm savanna. Habitat destruction following human colonization in 1638 resulted in the reduction of native vegetation cover on the mainland. Humans sent the native bird dodo into extinction by 1681 (Ash, 2006). The island was ruled in turn by the Dutch, French, and British, who modified habitats on Mauritius at an alarming rate. In the 19th century, large areas of dense Mauritius forests were cleared and converted wholesale into sugarcane plantations. A huge wave of mass migration of labourers from India to work in these fields took place in the second half of the 19th century. By this time, habitat modification on Mauritius had reached almost every corner of the island. Sugarcane is grown on about 90% of the cultivated land area. In fact, Safford (1997) estimates that only 5% of the original native vegetation cover remained on Mauritius by 1993.
Tourism in Mauritius
Mauritius has long been known for its natural beauty. Author Mark Twain, for example, noted in his personal travelogue, Following the Equator (1897) - "You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius".
Mauritius possesses a wide range of natural and man-made attractions complemented by a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural population. The tourism sector contributes significantly to the economic growth and has been a key factor in the overall development of Mauritius. In the past two decades tourist arrivals increased at an average annual rate of 9%. Tourist arrivals grew by 2.6% from 906,971 in 2007 to 930,456 in 2008. Surveys have shown that the main reason for tourists visiting Mauritius is beach holidays.
Developing tourism as a robust and vibrant industry has always been a top priority of the Government. However, if not properly planned and managed, tourism could significantly degrade the environment through pressures on the coastal and marine ecosystem on which it is so dependent. In its tourism vision for 2020 the Government has emphasised the need for diversifying into ecotourism with the sensitive use of Rodrigues and other outer islands (MENDU Report, 2005). Geotourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of places, and ecotourism, linking areas of higher economical value to low impact tourism, may present important and environmentally sustainable opportunities for tourism development. The abundant geological features related mainly to the volcanic origin of the island, offer much towards achieving this cause.
Geology of Mauritius
The Mascarene Islands of Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues are the tops of great volcanic cones that rise from the ocean floor. A popular geological hypothesis - the mantle plume hypothesis - suggests that these islands were formed over a hotspot, caused by a mantle plume upwelling under the African plate, with a source in the lower mantle (e.g., Morgan 1981; Duncan and Richards 1991; Mahoney et al., 2002). According to the hypothesis, the present location of this plume is Réunion, which is currently volcanically active, whereas Mauritius and Rodrigues are no longer volcanically active. This hypothesis is not universally accepted (e.g., Burke, 1996; Sheth, 2005 and 2007).
Mauritius emerged from the sea at ~8 Ma (million years ago) whereas Réunion emerged some 5 million years later. Rodrigues is only 1.5 million years old, though it is the emergent part of the larger Rodrigues Ridge, 8-10 million years old. Three distinct phases of basaltic volcanism, namely Older Series (7.8-5.5 Ma), Intermediate Series (3.5-1.9 Ma), and Younger Series (0.7-0.03 Ma) have occurred on the island of Mauritius (Baxter, 1972; Sheth et al., 2003; Paul et al., 2007). Many ocean island volcanoes are characterized by such distinct phases of volcanism. The Older, Intermediate and Younger Series of volcanism on Mauritius, with substantial breaks or hiatuses between them, can roughly correspond to the shield-building, post-shield, and post-erosional stages of volcanism that are so well recognized on Hawaiian volcanoes, for example (Macdonald et al., 1983).
Major Geological Attractions of Mauritius
Mauritius is an island with splendid primary volcanic features, and varied landforms produced as a result of subsequent erosion of this relatively young volcanic landscape. Some of the major geological attractions of Mauritius are described below. Figure 1 depicts a map of Mauritius with the locations of the geological features mentioned in this Chapter.
Chamarel Seven-Coloured Earth
The seven-coloured earth of Chamarel, a small (~7500 m2) site located in the Black River district of southwestern Mauritius, is a geological curiosity and a major tourist attraction. It is an area of strikingly bare landscape, in an otherwise large, dense forest. It shows small-scale fluvial landforms having gently convex slopes and rounded interfluves separated by sharply defined rills (Fig. 2a). The bare surfaces expose saprolite, the highly weathered remains of basalt, which shows the famous colours. The surface colouration in various shades of red, purple, brown, yellow and grey gives it its name.
The stunning colours originate largely due to the chemical weathering of basalt and the formation of iron oxides and hydroxides that impart multiple colours to the weathered rock. The surface material is a mix of clay minerals, and iron oxides and hydroxides. A detailed description of the site can be found in Sheth et al. (2009) who believe that human impact (deforestation) accompanied by sheetwash erosion has produced the bare, rilled landscape of Chamarel. It is probably maintained because erosion has exposed the saprolite, and active and continued erosion by rain and runoff provides very little opportunity for vegetation to establish itself.
Being a relatively young volcanic island, Mauritius has many major and minor craters, several of them well preserved (e.g., Trou aux Cerfs, Grand Bassin, Bassin Blanc and Kanaka, all from the Younger Series) and distinguishable from the erosional mountains around the central plateau.
Trou aux Cerfs
Trou aux Cerfs is one of the most well defined and impressive volcanic structures of the island. It is a dormant volcano with a well-defined cone and crater. It presents a perfect circular depression reaching a diameter of 350 m at the surface. The crater is about 80 m deep and its base, around 180 m in diameter, remains marshy all year round (Fig. 2b). Saddul (1995) considers it a monogenetic volcano with a central vent, formed during the late stages of volcanism on the island, 700,000 to 600,000 years ago.
Trou aux Cerfs is well preserved, though thick vegetation masks the rock outcrops. We believe that it may be a monogenetic cinder or tuff cone, like the many cones that cap and postdate oceanic shield volcanoes such as those of Hawaii (e.g., the Coco Head, Coco Crater and Diamond Head cones on Oahu) or Easter Island (e.g., the Rano Raraku tuff cone). Trou aux Cerfs also resembles, in its morphology and size, pit craters on Kilauea and other Hawaiian basaltic shield volcanoes. Pit craters are circular or elliptical, and though called "craters", they do not erupt lava or ash, but are formed by dislodgement of the solidified roofs of large lava tubes and their collapse into the magma beneath (e.g., Macdonald et al., 1983; Sheth, 2006).
Grand Bassin and Bassin Blanc
Grand Bassin is a volcanic crater lake in the northern part of the southern district of Savanne. The thick vegetation and extensive construction related to its Hindu shrines hide almost all surrounding rock outcrops. Known as Ganga Talao, the serene arcuate lake (Fig. 2c), with a tiny islet within it, is considered the most sacred Hindu place of pilgrimage in Mauritius.
Bassin Blanc is a scenic lake nestled in a volcanic cone surrounded by upland forest on the southern slope of the Savanne mountain range, approximately 4 km southwest of Grand Bassin. This volcanic crater is an unusual example of the most recent lava flows in Mauritius. It is about 500 m high, 350 m wide at the top, 250 m wide at the bottom, and 50 m deep. The area supports the highest level of biodiversity in Mauritius. As its name suggests, the lake appears white when viewed from above, because of the thick mist.
Lava caves form in Hawaiian-type pahoehoe lava flows when lava flowing in tubes underneath solidified, insulating crust drains out from the tubes. Many are known in Hawaii, such as the famous Thurston lava tube on the Big Island of Hawaii, which is wide enough to run a train through (e.g., Macdonald et al., 1983). In Mauritius, lava caves are seen in the low gradient areas of Plaine des Roches and Roches Noire in the northeast. Though some wide caves provide interesting walks, it is not possible to walk for long distances inside because of dangers posed by piling boulders and occasional pools. The well developed arcuate roof and horizontal markings on the side walls reveal the former positions or levels of flowing lava in the tubes, as is the tourist lava caves of Hawaii, Samoa and Australia.
Mauritius has a large number of islets of various types scattered around it. These islets play a crucial role in deflecting waves and currents along the coast and hence affect the coastal morphology of the main island. Most of the prominent islets are open to tourists. Saddul (1995) classified the offshore islets of Mauritius into four groups on the basis of their geology.
- Basaltic islets, lying close to the main island with very shallow water in between, structurally form part of the lava flows of the main island. Examples include the magnificent Ile aux Cerfs near the east coast, and Ile d'Ambre near the north-northeast coast.
- Sandy islets, found in the lagoon along the west coast, are low-lying accumulations of coral sand deposited by intra-lagoonal currents. An example is the Ile aux Benitiers near the southwest coast.
- Limestone islets, located in very shallow water within the lagoon, are formed of indurated, wind-deposited calcareous sand. An example is the Ile aux Aigrettes Nature Reserve near the southeast coast.
- Tuffaceous islets, formed by volcanic eruptions on the submerged northern shelf and magma-water interaction, are emergent pyroclastic volcanic cones. These include the northern islets of Gunner's Quoin, Flat, and Gabriel.
Gunner's Quoin (or Coin de Mire) is an islet of roughly 1.1 km x 1.3 km extent situated approximately 4.5 km off the north shore of Mauritius. It is not fringed by coral reefs, and as a result, cliffs have been produced all around the islet. The near-vertical cliffs rising up to 150 m along the west of the islet are the highest sea cliffs in the Mauritian territory.
Gunner's Quoin is an ancient basaltic volcanic cone, probably dating from 25,000 to 700,000 years (MAFTNR Report, 2004). The islet appears completely pyroclastic, as is typical of oceanic eruptions. Basalt lava in contact with seawater shatters and forms fine ash and larger fragments, which get deposited in the manner of sediments from explosion/ eruption plumes. Well-developed layering of ejected ash (termed "tuff" on compaction) can be clearly seen in exposed areas around the cliffs of Gunner's Quoin (Fig. 2d). The crumbly softness of this rock leads to many overhangs and small caves produced by weathering and wave erosion. Such pyroclastic basaltic cones exist on many or most ocean islands. Examples can be cited from Hawaii (e.g., Hanauma Bay tuff ring and Manana Island on Oahu), Easter Island, or the island of Heimaey in the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) group, 10 km south of the Iceland coast.
There are three main mountain ranges in Mauritius: Moka-Port Louis (the longest range), Black River, and Grand Port-Savanne. The range of mountains forms a ring giving an impression that they are all remnants of a large volcano. Inside the ring of mountains, there is the Central Plateau which was formed by lava flows from several smaller volcanoes. Some of the mountains carry names reflecting their shapes - Le Pouce Mountain in the Moka-Port Louis Range has the shape of a thumb, Lion Mountain in the Grand Port Range has the shape of a sitting lion, Trois Mammelles in the Black River Range has three protruding peaks.
Piton du Milieu
Piton du Milieu, meaning "peak in the middle", is located in the centre of Mauritius. There are two peaks with a central trough and the adjoining Piton du Milieu reservoir. Columnar jointing is well developed on the peaks, with inclined columns curving to almost horizontal. Columns always develop perpendicular to cooling surfaces of a lava flow or an intrusion, so curved columns mean a curved cooling surface (usually the contact of the lava flow or intrusion with the country rock). Many times columns acquire irregular shapes because of differential ingress of water inside the solidifying lava mass, as this process disturbs the isotherms. The upper part of the peak might have formed due to such a process, resulting in joints intersecting randomly, producing a crocodile-skin-like escarpment on one of the peaks (Fig. 2e).
Le Morne Brabant
Le Morne Brabant is a peninsula surrounded by a lagoon at the extreme southwestern tip of Mauritius and is a famous tourist attraction. It is highlighted by an outlier of basaltic rock with a summit 556 m above sea level, which makes for one of the most imposing sights of Mauritius. There are many overhangs along the steep slopes of this mountain.
Le Morne Brabant became well-known in the 19th century when runaway slaves used it as a hideaway. After the abolishment of slavery on Mauritius, a police expedition travelled to the site on 1 February 1835 to tell the slaves that they were free people. However, the slaves misunderstood the intentions of the expedition and jumped to their death. Since then, this day is celebrated as Annual Commemoration of the Abolition of Slavery in Mauritius. UNESCO inscribed the Le Morne Brabant Mountain on the list of World Heritage sites in 2008.
Black River Gorges
The Black River has carved these scenic, impressive gorges in the southwestern mountainous region due to its steep gradient towards the sea. Black River Gorges is a national park, and was proclaimed a Nature Reserve in 1994. Intensive erosion during the humid late Pleistocene and the development of high density fluvial system have been responsible for the deeply dissected character of the river valleys and gorges of this region (Fig. 2f) (Saddul, 1995). The national park protects much of the remaining indigenous forests of Mauritius and provides an excellent opportunity for visitors to enjoy hiking with superb scenery and also an occasion to appreciate some of the endemic plant and bird life of Mauritius.
The highest mountain on the island of Mauritius, Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire, forms part of the Black River mountain range. Located in the southwest district of Black River, it has a height of 828 m above sea level.
Pieter Both and Le Pouce
The Moka-Port Louis range includes Pieter Both (820 m) and Le Pouce (811 m) mountains, Mauritius' second and third highest mountains respectively. The notable feature of the Pieter Both Mountain is the gigantic rock perched on top of it, resembling a human head. Le Pouce Mountain stands out from a distance like a thumb pointing to the sky. The hike to the summit of the mountain is relatively popular.
The volcanic landscape of Mauritius has been deeply dissected by fast flowing streams which originate on the very humid Central Plateau. On crossing the rim of mountains, they have carved out magnificent waterfalls and deep gorges.
These scenic waterfalls are located amid lush green sugarcane fields in the southernmost part of Mauritius. The Savanne River water tumbles from a height of about 10 m over basalt blocks, producing a cascading effect. The falls reveal spectacular columnar jointing in basalt (Fig. 3a) formed by the contraction of lava during cooling.
The contact between the Older Series and Intermediate Series of lava flows is clearly visible at the Chamarel Falls (Fig. 3b). The dazzling falls plunge from the Baie du Cap River a hundred metres or so over two cliff-forming olivine basalt lava flows. The upper flow shows well-developed columnar jointing in places.
Tamarin Falls (Sept Cascades)
The Tamarin Falls are a scenic attraction of southwest Mauritius. They are a series of seven cataracts located on the Tamarin River, the outflow of the country's largest lake, Mare aux Vacoas.
Grand River South East (GRSE) is the longest river in Mauritius with the largest catchment area. Its mouth is a beautiful funnel-shaped estuary. The river cascades over a series of lava flows into the sea, generating a gorgeous waterfall, the only one of its kind in the country. The cliffs show well-developed columnar jointing in places. The waterfall is located on the east coast of Mauritius and can be very well viewed by a boat ride in the picturesque creek-like extension of the sea at the mouth of the river.
The coastal morphology of Mauritius is remarkably varied despite the overall limited extent of 330 km coastline. While depositional features like beaches occur almost all around the island, erosional features like cliffs are found in certain sectors. Most of the shelf is made up of the Intermediate and Younger Series lavas.
The existence of a shallow shelf has given rise to an amazingly well developed coral reef which encloses most of the island, except for two stretches along the south and west coasts. It is highly developed and has evolved since 5000 years before the present with the Holocene transgression (Saddul, 1995). The coral reef of Mauritius is mostly of the fringing type continuous with the island mass. It ranges from barely a few metres to 5-6 km from the shoreline, depending on the topography of the shelf. While on the offshore side the coral formation covers the shelf up to a depth of about 45 m, the onshore portion is occupied by shallow isolated colonies of corals. A barrier reef is present off the coast of Mahebourg in the east.
The most frequently observed type of beach in Mauritius is the sandy beach made up of calcareous sand. This can be seen in small and large embayments along the low-lying coastlines, prominent among them being the Belle Mare-Palmar (east), Pointe Riambel (south), and Flic en Flac (west) beaches of several kilometres' extent. The surf typically breaks on the reef found normally within 1 km from the shoreline. The long expanses of white beaches of Belle Mare and Palmar typically have a gentle amphitheatre shape (Fig. 3c). The basalt exposures on the Belle Mare beach exhibit spectacular columnar jointing. Sand dunes are present behind most of the sand beaches of Mauritius.
Smaller stretches of various other types of beaches are also present on Mauritius (e.g. Butte aux Sables granule beach of the south, Pointe aux Caves boulder beach of the west, and Le Souffleur boulder beach of the south). A narrow stretch of cobble beach (Fig. 3d) is present at the mouth of Riviere des Galets in the south, where the size of the basalt sediment grades from pebble to boulder as the river mouth is approached. Trou aux Biches and Pointe aux Piments beaches are conspicuous by the absence of coral sand, despite the presence of coral reef. Long stretches of basaltic beach rock occur in the intertidal range along beaches like Cap Malheureux and Pointe aux Piments.
Spits and Bars
Spits and bars are common features along the west and southwest coasts of Mauritius (Saddul, 1995). The most remarkable sand spit on the island is the one jetting out at Le Morne in a northerly direction in the southwest coast. It is 1225 m long with a mean width of 350 m. The tip of the spit is curved in a typical hook shape by the action of eddies. Bars are often present across narrow mouths of rivers like Tamarin and Baie du Cap. Estuaries are found at the mouths of many of the rivers.
Coastlines without coral reefs occur along the south coast from Souillac to Ilot Brocus, and along the west coast from Mt. Jacquot to the north end of Flic en Flac. The absence of reefs allows the open sea to come right up to the land, crushing against the rocks creating craggy coastlines (Fig. 3e) that are characterised by vertical cliffs, reaching up to 30 m high, mostly associated with a wave-cut platform. The cliff faces often display horizontal lava flows of the Younger Series. Continued heavy erosion has resulted in the formation of natural sea caves, arches and bridges on the cliffs. A beautifully developed natural bridge in basalt is found at Pont Naturel (Fig. 3f) near Le Souffleur on the southeast coast, which provides a dramatic panoramic view of wild waves pulverising the high black basalt cliffs.
Discussion and recommendations
The World-famous tourist destination of the Hawaiian islands is gifted with both spectacular mountain scenery and splendid beaches. But they are also known for their high living cost and expensive tourism. Mauritius has a geology, scenery and climate closely similar to that of Hawaii and can be considered as a more economical version of it. Several of the Mauritian tourist attractions are world-class, for example, the white sand beach and the turquoise sea of Ile aux Cerfs.
The Mauritius government is strongly promoting tourism, as this is increasingly perceived as a major source of revenue for the country. The overall aim is to create a 'Destination Mauritius' brand logo and slogan. However, if tourism is not developed as sustainable, it can damage or even destroy the natural environment that attracts tourism in the first place. With a view to maintaining Mauritius as an attractive and desirable tourist destination and to address the environmental considerations, the government has prepared several policies and strategic plans for tourism development. The direction of these policies is towards sustainable development of the sector integrating environmental protection, and diversifying into new forms of low-impact tourism which build on a variety of natural, social and cultural assets of the country. As suggested in the United Nations Report (2005), the government, with the required support of regional and international tourism organizations and other relevant stakeholders, should ensure that tourism development and social and environmental priorities are mutually supportive at all levels.
Many of the geological features of Mauritius mentioned in our Chapter have not yet been developed as tourism magnets. These geological heritage sites could be converted to geosites and geoparks depending on their size. A variety of tourist facilities are to be included in these spots and the required campaign is to be done through official websites, information centres, boards, brochures, etc. Geosites and geoparks include an area of single or a group of geological systems representing its geological history, events or processes. While geosites may be of restricted size, geoparks may be larger managed areas which can also include other assets of archaeological, ecological, historical or cultural values. For instance, the lava caves of Mauritius offer much potential of developing into geosites. The area of Plaine des Roches with these lava caves could well be developed as a geopark. Mauritius could take inspirations from similarly developed tourist caves of Samoa island in the South Pacific, which is also a tropical volcanic island like Mauritius.
The government should facilitate and promote the preservation of the geological heritage of the country through conservation of significant geological features, increased public awareness and support for local and regional development. In addition, the government should develop and implement community-based initiatives on sustainable tourism, and build the necessary capacities of civil society and local stakeholders, while protecting culture and traditions and effectively conserving and managing natural resources. Geotourism and ecotourism, for example, present important and environmentally sustainable opportunities for tourism development. Such new forms of tourism would generate encouraging ambience for visitors and local residents reflecting the existing historic, cultural, and landscape character of the area. Funds should be made available for developing geotourism and ecotourism, and mainstreaming these informal sectors into the formal economy.
Mauritius enjoys visits of large number of tourists by virtue of its geographical setting and resultant scenic beauty. Nonetheless, these very features make it susceptible to various natural and manmade disasters. While tourists enjoy the scenic beauty and natural environment of Mauritius, they have to appreciate how fragile and vulnerable are the natural landscape and the ecosystems of Mauritius, and hence to preserve them the best they can. The indifference and carelessness of the typical tourist must give way to ecological and environmental sensitiveness on the part of the tourist.
We hope that our article will inspire the reader to visit this island jewel in the Indian Ocean and to enjoy its natural splendour while recognizing how delicate and precious it is. While the Mauritius of the past has been a testimony to ecological disaster, the Mauritius of the future should be a wonderful natural laboratory and ecosystem for the generations to come.
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