FROM my terrace in the Bambous Mountains, on Mauritius’s sleepy south-east coast, I watch white-tailed tropical birds soar over the forest canopy. Further out, a yacht is drifting lazily on the azure lagoon.
As evening starts to fall, the mountainside is alive with the sound of happy frogs, and fruit bats swoop to feast on the fruit trees. Up here, away from the twinkling lights of the island’s fishing villages, the sky is bursting with stars.
Mauritius is best known for luxury hotels on palm-fringed beaches. But its forested mountains, where the dodo once roamed, still shelter native trees and rare endemic birds. And it is the promise of this wilder Mauritius, staying at a ground-breaking mountainside eco-camp, Otentic Mountain Experience, that has tempted me here.
The camp’s four safari-style khaki tents, complete with thatched roofs (sleeping five to eight people), and one luxury tree-house-like chalet (reserved for couples), are situated on raised wooden platforms, surrounded by centuries-old mango trees. Its comfortable solar-lit eco-tents feature beds made from recycled wooden pallets, potato-crate shelves, and rustic bathrooms with windows angled to soak up the views.
Otentic Mountain is strictly vegetarian, harvesting much of its fruit and veg from its terraced permaculture gardens (stuffed with organic rocket and salad leaves when I visit, plus sweet potatoes and pineapples, among other produce).
Eco-activities available here include hiking and mountain biking. A yoga deck wrapped around a giant mango tree has been added this season, and trips with fishermen to the south-east islands — such as Îlot Flamants — are in the pipeline.
Notre Dame Auxiliatrice, at Cap Malheureux, attracts the most visitors
OTENTIC — which means “authentic” in the local Creole language — was created by a Franco-Mauritian father-of-three, Julien Gufflet, who, after 12 years in the textile industry, followed his “crazy dream” to open the island’s first eco-camp, Otentic River, on a tropical hillside in the village of Deux Frères, in 2013. Otentic Mountain opened in December 2016.
The eco-camps offer ways to experience this Indian Ocean outpost in areas largely untouched by tourism. In Mauritius, the people — of Indian, African, Chinese, and French heritage — worship side by side. In the cemetery, Christian and Muslim graves lie alongside Hindu funeral pyres.
A stay at the family-friendly Otentic River, with 12 tents overlooking Grande Rivière Sud Est (Mauritius’s longest river), is all about meeting village locals, watery eco-activities (snorkelling, paddle boarding, kitesurfing, kayaking, and lagoon fishing), and hanging out (there is a pool with sun-loungers, pétanque, an honesty bar in the evening, and a games room for the kids).
The Bambous Mountains are one of only two places on the island to spot the Mauritius kestrel, and as I follow doe-eyed Manu on a guided hike up a red-earthed, jungle-like path the first morning, my eyes are peeled. It is a challenge to reach the highest point — “The Praying Virgin” (named by Roman Catholics on this largely Creole coast), at 630 metres, with a 360º view — so we hang out on a basalt boulder which has sweeping views down the Bambous Virieux valley, the silence punctured only by the screeching of Macaque monkeys from the forest below.
The island’s history lies before us: Lion Mountain, which overlooks the first European (Dutch) landing; the Bay of Grand Port, where the British battled the French for sovereignty of the island in 1810 (and eventually won); and the charming ancient Dutch port capital, Mahébourg (My-boor). In the distance is the tiny forested nature reserve of Île aux Aigrettes, thought to be the final resting-place of the dodo, where ranger-led tours reveal Aldabra giant tortoises, Telfair’s skinks, and pink pigeons saved from extinction.
Mahébourg’s skyline is still dominated by the elegant pale-yellow tower of the 19th-century Roman Catholic Notre Dame des Anges, but the closest English-language church service is in Rose Hill, in the island’s central plateau. The Sunday mass (in English) that attracts the most visitors, however, is at the pretty, red-roofed RC Notre Dame Auxiliatrice, at Cap Malheureux.
As Otentic Mountain’s policy is to “love thy neighbour”, lunch means a wander across the valley to Stéphane Rouillard’s Mauritian table d’hôte, at the permaculture La Ferme Coco, surrounded by cats, rabbits, hens, ducks, sheep, and goats. At sunset, back at Otentic Mountain, guests mingle around the firepit with pre-dinner drinks of passion fruit or tamarind rum arrangé in hand, swopping stories or star-gazing, before sitting down to a lantern-lit dinner at a communal table.
Otentic MountainA Lagoon view from Otentic Mountain’s eco-tents
WHEN you have had enough of soaking up the mountain views, a daily shuttle to Otentic River (20 minutes’ drive away) connects to the free morning boat, to swim at the popular island of Île aux Cerfs (with lures of watersports, a tree-top obstacle course, and a championship golf course), off the east coast of Mauritius.
At Otentic River, I meet the head chef, Christelle, at the kitchen Lakaz Manzé, situated in a shipping container decorated with planks salvaged from old Creole houses. “I share my cooking with guests as with my family,” she tells me proudly, “My secret ingredient is patience and love, which I put in all my dishes.”
As I tuck into her slow-cooked Mauritian specialities — octopus curry with green papaya, breadfruit gratin, Creole sausage rougaille (a spicy tomato-based dish), wood-smoked aubergine caviar, and okra chutney — seated on a covered wooden deck by the river, I learn that she was selling chicken by the village roadside before Mr Gufflet encouraged her to share her grandmother’s traditional caris (curries), rougailles, and chatinis (chutneys) here, and (the vegetarian dishes) at Otentic Mountain.
Otentic Mountain A view looking east from the Praying Virgin, the highest point in the Bambous Mountains
Otentic River is one of few places on the island of Mauritius to offer kayak adventures, and the next day I join a family-friendly paddle to Îlot Mangenie’s unspoiled shores. We park our kayaks, and, trekking past giant holes made by carnivorous crabs, we stop to swim at a deserted beach, and later swing on the Tarzan-like vines of a giant banyan tree. Another unusual trip takes guests by motorised pirogue (a traditional wooden fishing boat) to the tiny sandbank Îlot Flamants, stopping to snorkel at Eau Bleue, a shallow strip of turquoise that teems with tropical fish and live coral.
On my final morning, on a dawn trek up Mount Bambous, Manu stops and points to a 500-year-old endemic ebony tree: “I think this one saw the dodo,” he smiles. The dodo may be dead, but, for the first time in a century, the pink pigeon and echo parakeet are breeding here again in the wild. I haven’t seen them, but a stay at Otentic Mountain is as close to wild Mauritius as it gets.
This trip was provided by the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (MTPA) (tourism-mauritius.mu), with flights by Air Mauritius (0207 434 4375, airmauritius.com), which flies from London Heathrow direct to Mauritius, from £790 return. Tents at Otentic (Mountain/River) (otentic.mu) cost around £90 a night for a three-night stay with break-fast; £13.50 adults/£8 child for meals. The best season to visit is October to April. Other glamping experiences, with home-cooked Mauritian food, in the south, include Chazal Ecotourism: army-style tents on a private estate overlooking the Rivière des Galets, with ziplining and river trekking; from £130 B&B (chazaleco tourismmauritius.com); the Bubble Lodge: a luxurious solar-lit semi-transparent inflatable bio-dome with a dry lavatory, outdoor hot shower, and gourmet dinners, on Bois Cheri tea plantation or Île aux Cerfs island; double from £241 half board (bubble-lodge.com); La Vieille Cheminee: Creole-style self-catering chalets on a farm in the Chamarel highlands, with horse riding; double chalet £85 couple (lavieille cheminee.com).
Nicki Grihault is a Mauritius expert and the author of the Rough Guide to Mauritius (2015).