Champs de Mars, Port Louis
Captain Thriller & Sackcloth
“We live in one giant sugar cane field”, chuckled Dhev our base ball cap wearing driver. His gleaming black Proton with body kit and lightning strike transfers sped through the island’s back country roads to avoid the Saturday traffic. His observation was entirely correct every square inch of rural capacity had been invaded by the crop which apart from tourism is one of the country’s key GDP contributors. Villages proudly displayed crop from their gardens, selling produce on makeshift stalls, papaya, pineapples, melons and giant squash. Our mission for the day was to join the capital’s throng at the Port Louis central market and then pick out some thoroughbreds at the oldest race course in the Southern Hemisphere.
Using a driver rather than enduring the map reading torture of self driving and the ensuing arguments, was cost effective and a solution for marital bliss. We arrived at the tourist trap waterfront known as Caudan, Port Louis, my advice; hot foot it through this clichéd experience...it’s anything but Mauritian. We flip-flopped to Port Louis’ in-outdoor market selling everything from prized vanilla pods, the usual ‘genuine fakes’, shrunken heads, tourist tat alongside elegant bone cutlery, tasteful raffia objets (ok i made up the shrunken heads bit). The noise at the vegetable market resembled a trading floor, beautiful, proud, fat fruit and veg displayed by competitive grocers all vying for attention with their market trader patter. Yet the Maharani’s attention was drawn to the humble flax printed sacks advertising “Best Tomatoes, Mauritius.” Inspired to incorporate vintage sacks into her next collection we engaged in a negotiation with traders for their cleanest printed sacks much to the bemusement of their owners hoping to sell us a kilo of yams instead.
We made a quick snack (gajak) pit stop at the street food booths next to the veg market and fuelled up on gateaux piment (mild yet scrummy chilli cakes) and aubergine fritters. Completing our purchases with a copse of vanilla pods we sauntered up to the Champs de Mars race course featuring various classes of thoroughbreds both human and equine. Gorgeous skinny brown children clambered over fences into the central ring catching free glimpses of each of the eight races. We were however, directed to an 18 by 18 inch hole in the wall of the Grandstand...the smallest ticket office I’ve ever encountered. One hundred and seventy five rupees included free entrance for the Maharani. We entered the splendid mayhem of bookies calling their odds to a frenzied mob of punters keen to outdo the turf accountants. Discovering a comfortable box on the third floor with a panoramic view across the course, the surrounding mountains and Port Louis’ skyline we gladly received tips from our fellow race-goers who happened to own a couple of steeple-chasers. They called in a few winners and we benefitted from their insight particularly in the colours of Captain Thriller who romped home.
The Champs de Mars blends a fantastic mix of relaxed Creole charm and institutional colonial tradition where enclosure members strut in their finest two piece suits and women wear shimmering saris, an enchanting mix of this ocean paradise. The sun faded as did our staying power, we found Dhev who enquired about our purchases, “we bought sacks”, the Maharani exclaimed. He cracked a quizzical smile wondering whether this was just another curious example of British humour, after all who’d come to Mauritius and buy sacking?
Tip1: Hire a local taxi driver, the money goes to Mauritian families instead of corporate car hire firms, it’s also less stressful.
Tip2: Go to Port Louis central market and avoid Caudan Waterfront unless your idea of fun is a McFlurry.
Tip3: Get to the races (March – December) and try some street food inside the Grandstand, dholl puri and a Phoenix Beer.