Friday, October 7, 2011

5 Days on the South Indian Ocean: The Wild Coast, Reunion Island, and Mauritius

Blog Entry #28: 5 Days on the South Indian Ocean: The Wild Coast, Reunion Island, and Mauritius

Monday, October 3, 2011

Pilot Boat guides the MV Explorer out of Capetown Harbor

We left Capetown, South Africa the evening of Wednesday, September 28th, and spent the next 5 days crossing the South Indian Ocean to the small island nation of Mauritius.  We woke up Thursday morning having rounded the Cape of Good Hope the night before to a significant change in our ocean environment: the cool temperatures and rough seas of the South Atlantic had been replaced by the warm breezes and much calmer seas of the South Indian Ocean, whose currents bring warm waters past the southeastern coast of South Africa.

It took us two full days to traverse South Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline, demonstrating vividly what a large country it is, spanning the length of Africa’s southern edge.  But more surprises and delights awaited us!  We awoke our second day out from Capetown to find ourselves just off South Africa’s “Wild Coast” – a spectacular and largely undeveloped section of coastline between Port Elizabeth and Durban.  To avoid rougher seas to the south, our captain chose to hug the shoreline, affording us one stunning view after another.

Albatrosses off the ship
It also brought us over shallower and warmer waters, full of marine life.  As Pat and I sat on the deck enjoying a sunny breakfast, suddenly a Southern Right Whale breached a mere 100 yards off the starboard side of the ship.  For the next ten minutes we watched several whales spouting and breaching as we moved through their waters.  Then right next to us on the port side, several porpoises began to play in the ship’s wake, darting up and down.  We passed by where the Mzimvuba River enters the sea at Port St. Johns. Northeast of there the rugged cliffs of the Wild Coast were broken by a large waterfall.  Another of those many moments on this voyage when I had to pinch myself: am I really experiencing this?
Port St. Johns & mouth of the Mzimvuba River
Waterfall along the Wild Coast
The Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape Province is the traditional home to the Xhosa people, and was part of the former homeland of the Transkei during apartheid.  It is the birthplace of the first two democratically elected ANC prime ministers, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.  Still largely ecological intact and “wild,” it faces many threats to both its environment and indigenous peoples, including a proposed toll road to open it to development and tourism, and the proposed Xolobeni beach dune mining project by an Australian mining company we learned about while at SAFCEI.  The beauty of the morning made these issues seem remote, and we reluctantly left the beauty of this wild coastline to attend more mundane matters (teaching classes and grading papers…).
A day after leaving South African waters and passing south of Madagascar, we learned we had a “non-life threatening medical emergency” on the ship: one of the “Life Long Learners” on board had developed a detached retina which would require medical attention soon.  The ship captain revved our engines up to 25 knots (25 nautical miles per hour), and we aimed to arrive at Mauritius 15 hours ahead of our scheduled 6:00 am Tuesday arrival.  One fortunate benefit of us in this unfortunate medical emergency is that it took us by Reunion Island, Mauritius’s larger western island companion lying 120 miles SW of Mauritius, during the daytime – we were scheduled to pass it in the wee hours of the night.  Instead by lunchtime on Tuesday a large, cloud-shrouded island with forested mountain slopes loomed off the north side of the ship.  

South Coast of Reunion Island

First discovered by Arab sailors, the Portuguese in 1507 were the first European sailors to land on Reunion and Mauritius – at that point the largest territories in the world uninhabited by humans outside Antarctica.  While Mauritius gained its independence from England in 1968, Reunion remains under French control and makes up one of 27 regions in France.  Geologically Reunion is volcanic and appears to be formed by a “hot spot” – a deep-seated source of magma that rises through the ocean crust of the plates that move over it, much as the Hawaiian Islands have formed.  The same hotspot formed now dormant Mauritius to the east over the past 10 million years.  Like the big island of Hawaii, Reunion is still volcanically very active, with its Piton de la Fournaise volcano erupting most recently in January, 2010.  We could see deep canyons incising its flanks above sheer cliffs plunging into the sea – a thrilling site as we moved by.

Piton de la Fournaise Volcano, Reunion Island

Southwest side of Mauritius with La Morne rock on south end
Mauritius skyline
Port Louis Harbor at night
By 4:00 pm we could see the profile of Mauritius rising eerily through the mist to the east.  Because Mauritius is much older than Reunion Island, it is much more deeply eroded, and the skyline is dominated by jagged remnants of the once-large strato-volcano that formed its core 5-8 million years ago.  

Dolphins off of Mauritius
We slid into harbor just at sundown, once again accompanied by dolphins in our wake, and eagerly anticipated our one day to explore the island the following day.

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