A sunset kayak to the pretty waterfall on Grand Rivière Sud Est, in Mauritius’ sleepy southeast, has become my evening ritual. By day, oystercatchers perch on the basalt boulders and stringy local lads leap from the waterfall to impress boatloads of tourists. But as twilight falls, Mauritian fruit bats feast on the giant fruit trees, Macaque monkey families search for Badamier (Indian Almond) nuts among the mangrove and fishermen haul their catch into wooden pirogues.
It was when researching The Rough Guide to Mauritius, that I first stumbled upon Otentic Eco Tent Experience. Created by Franco-Mauritian father-of-three Julien Gufflet, who followed his dream to open the island’s first eco-camp in 2013, Otentic – which means ‘authentic’ in the local creole language – offers independent travellers a taste of the ‘real Mauritius’.
In October 2021, almost a decade later, I follow Julien up the familiar white stone path lined with vetiver, past herb and vegetable patches created during lockdown, to ‘Ile Ronde’ (Round Island), one of 12 safari-style solar-powered khaki eco-tents on a tropical hillside.
Set on wooden platforms, and big enough to sleep a family of five on beds made from wooden pallets, the tents are comfortable, with a bathroom (with homemade scrub) open to the skies, shelves made out of recycled packing crates, and canvas chairs on a balcony overlooking the river.
The cosy communal area has a swimming pool fed by rainwater, an honesty bar (and fresh coconut corner) and Lakaz Manze restaurant – an old shipping container covered with naturally-distressed planks salvaged from old Creole houses.
Scribbled on the blackboard are traditional Mauritian specialities such as octopus and green papaya curry, breadfruit gratin, seafood vindaye and jackfruit with smoked pork.
Otentic Eco’s Head Chef Christelle uses her grandma’s recipes, with plenty of local and organic garden produce, to create the best local buffet on the island. I tuck into a plateful at lunchtime on a wooden deck by the river. ‘My secret ingredient is patience and love, which I put in all my dishes,’ she tells me proudly. Her cooking is also enjoyed by the camp dog, Timoune, which means ‘little guy’ in Reunion Island creole, but who gets fatter by the year.
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The next morning I take the shuttle boat out of the river’s mouth to the popular island playground, Île aux Cerfs. It’s named after the stags which once roamed its forested interior and sandy tendrils stretch prettily into the vast limpid east coast lagoon. I swim in the translucent water and meander the paths through the filao (casuarina) trees. Watersports and a championship golf course are also on offer.
Otentic River is one of few places on Mauritius to offer kayak adventures and I smile at the memory of a previous visit, when I joined a guided family-friendly paddle to nearby Ilot Mangénie’s unspoiled shore. Trekking past giant holes made by carnivorous crabs scattered with snail shells in the mangrove, we stopped to swim at a wild beach and swing like children on the Tarzan-like vines of a giant banyan tree.
Although there are no guided tours from Otentic at the moment, you can hook a kayak to the shuttle and paddle back from Île aux Cerfs.
The days fly by with hikes up Mount Beau Champ (Otentic’s backdrop), mountain bike rides through the sugar cane fields, cookery classes with Christelle and paddle boarding and kayaking on the river. In the evenings, we swap stories over sundowners from Lakaz Bois before a lantern-lit buffet, and a homemade rum arrangé around the firepit.
It’s there I bump into resident physiotherapist and sports masseur, Sanjit Naiko, who offers me a free neck and shoulder massage, and I sign up for a session the next morning.
This place has the five elements, the mountains, water, air, earth and fire, in the warmth of the staff’s love,’ he explains, as his healing hands resolve a thorny neck problem in the thatched cabin overlooking the mangrove-fringed river. Otentic is full of surprises. This is arguably the best massage I’ve had on the island.
The southeast region is the island’s most historic, so it’s time to go exploring. although most people have their own wheels, the public bus stops at the end of Otentics’ drive. The scent of spices drift from crumbling Creole houses, as I ride down the backstreets of the characterful ancient port capital of Mahébourg on an electric bike tour of Grand Port led by eighth-generation Franco-Mauritian Laurent D’Unienville of Explore Nou Zil.
In the peaceful Ferney Valley, we stop at a monument in the mangrove, which marks the spot where the island’s first inhabitants, the Dutch, set foot on Mauritius some 400 years ago. At the fort ruins in Vieux Grand Port, Laurent regales us with tales of slave raids, ships stacked with ebony bound for Europe, and duels to the death.
The morning includes a visit to Pop, a pirogue (traditional wooden boat) builder, where we admire his work over a Tamarind juice. Lunch is a deer curry, fresh from the estate, at Falaise Rouge (Red Cliff), where a cannon, recovered from the sea, points at Île de la Passe in the vast Bay of Grand Port.
The 30-kilometre journey ends (without breaking a sweat) at the Natural History Museum in Mahébourg, where we examine relics from the naval battle, and other eclectic exhibits: a stuffed dodo, governor Mahé Labourdonnais’ tiny bed and legendary Corsair Robert Surcouf’s sword.
Keen to get under the skin of this town, I join a new insider tour by local resident, Lionel Atlion from Mahébourg Eco Adventure, a statuesque Creole man with dreadlocks, and a winning smile. As we stroll along its waterfront promenade, he greets the fishermen mending their nets under the banyan trees, and points out the Virgin Mary shrine where his seafaring grandfather prayed each morning.
We stop at Sunita’s stall near the waterfront for a coconut - sliced open to drink on the spot - and the town’s specialty, merveilles (marvels), a deep-fried cracker topped with tomato and coriander chutney and sweet tamarind sauce - which surprisingly, works.
Gazing at the impressive view over Lion Mountain across the Bay, Lionel tells us the swashbuckling tale of the Battle of Grand Port where in 1810, the British fought the French for sovereignty of the island (they lost, but won later that year).
For elevenses we sample the nation’s favourite street food, dholl puri (griddled pancakes stuffed with yellow split peas, wrapped around curries, spiced tomato sauce and pickles) at the colourful local market - impossible to eat without it dribbling down your chin.
Lunch is on far flung Île aux Fouquets, known locally as Île Phares (Lighthouse Island), where across a choppy channel, Lionel points out the French fortifications on Île de la Passe, which played a pivotal role in the Battle of Grand Port.
Speedboats come and go as our fish slowly sizzles on the BBQ, and we wander around the ruined lighthouse, looking for skinks, and watch white-tailed tropic birds shoot the breeze.
We are travelling with a local fisherman in his pirogue, and as its red and white sail unfurls, we sink into a soothing satisfied silence on the slow glide home. I arrive back at Otentic three hours later than expected, and over a poolside rosé, Julien just laughs, ‘Welcome to ‘Mahebourg time’.
Just beyond Mahébourg, I take a short boat hop for a Behind the Scenes tour of the tiny forested nature reserve of Île aux Aigrettes, with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF). I tickle the neck of a giant century-old Aldabra tortoise we encounter lumbering under the spindly canopy, as a ranger points out ebony saplings growing happily in tortoise droppings.
The islands’ star attraction is the endemic pink pigeon, but during the Wakashio oil spill last summer, other rare species the olive white eye, and Mauritius fody, endemic skinks and plants were airlifted to ensure their preservation. They are now back, and it’s safe to go into the water.
The tour gives me an insight into their rewilding project, as I witness the hand-pollination of a rare palm, visit labourers digging out the invasive guava, and learn about projects to reintroduce orchids and to lure seabirds (discovered in fossil remains) back to the island.
On my last day, I take the 20 minutes road shuttle from the river camp to Otentic Mountain. Although currently only available for hire by private groups, this second, more remote eco-camp, which opened in 2016, has five solar-powered thatched mountain lodges overlooking the lagoon, a freshwater rock pool, vegetarian food and a yoga and meditation platform wrapped around a tree.
For those in the river camp, Otentic Mountain is the jumping off point for a hike in the Bambous Mountains. This is one of the few places on the island to see the Mauritius kestrel, the island’s only bird of prey, and following a successful MWF translocation project, the pink pigeon and echo parakeet are now breeding in the wild for the first time in a century.
Trekking up a red-earthed, jungle-like path through centuries-old mango trees, it’s a challenge to reach the highest point ‘The Praying Virgin’ at 630 metres, so I stop and sit with Julien on a basalt boulder. There are no birds in sight, but as we watch a yacht drift lazily across hues of ocean blue in the distant lagoon, the silence punctuated only by the screech of monkeys from the forest below, I feel wild, and free.
Tents at Otentic Eco Tent Experience typically cost £101 for one night and £85 for three nights or more on a B&B basis, including all on-site activities (kayaks, stand-up paddles, mountain bikes, hiking, tennis volley, petanque, darts) and a daily shuttle boat to Ile aux Cerfs every morning, returning for lunch.
Lunch and dinner cost £12.60 for adults.
A massage from Sanjit costs approx. £35 an hour.
An Otentic day package costs £25, on reservation.
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