Please note - the expedition referenced is no longer running.
Jonathan Howe was a team member on Dr. Geoffrey and Françoise Summers' project to conserve historic French fortifications on Isle de la Passe, a tiny coral isle strategically sited off the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. The project stands to illuminate the dramatic colonial history on Mauritius, including the 1810 Battle of Grand Port in which Isle de la Passe was the key to Britain's victory over France. Jonathan's account of a typical day gives a good sense of what it's like to be on an Earthwatch expedition.
I open my eyes and ponder three geckos on the ceiling of our comfortable bungalow for a moment before I pull myself out of bed. After working hard in the bright sun yesterday, the team went to bed happily exhausted and early, so we're on our feet easily this morning. The air is humid, but cool, and filled with tropical morning sounds of birds, crashing waves, and scooters carrying early commuters to Mahebourg.
Following a breakfast of toast, cheese, and juice, we walk 15 minutes down the beach to meet Geoff and Françoise for the boat pickup. The sun only rose an hour and a half ago, but we can already tell the day will be hot. A gentle breeze drifts from the Indian Ocean. The sound of big swells crashing into the barrier reef is constant and soothing. No one misses their job.
After hauling the gear onto the boat, we have about 15 minutes before we reach Isle de la Passe, giving us time to discuss work plans and ponder the magnificent topography of Mauritius. The island looks like a Dr. Seuss circus tent, with vibrant green soaring peaks and troughs. The reef encircles most of the island in a halo of calm, shallow water, beyond which there is nothing but the blue expanse of the Indian Ocean as far as the horizon. A strategic rest-stop for historic trade routes with an excellent natural harbor, this island paradise was colonized by the Dutch, French, and British over the centuries. Our team is here to help unravel that extraordinary history by excavating and surveying French fortifications on Isle de la Passe.
It's only midmorning, but the sun beats down and the sweat flows freely. Three of us have been vigorously clearing another section of the upper battery, first attacking the grass with clippers and gloves then settling down to the slower, finer work of exposing the coral and basalt blocks. After a few days of such work, the trowels, brushes, and dirt pans feel like extensions of our gritty hands. It's tough work, but it yields immediate results: The "before" picture is a mound of grass and dirt with a pretty view, while the "after" picture is a well-crafted and formidable wall. The gun emplacements command a dominating overlook of the only deepwater entry into the Bay of Mahebourg, and thus controlled access to the first French capitol.
The other half of the team looks ready for a break as well, as their systematic documentation of the southern face of the battery wall requires precision and exacting detail. Their measurements and markings will enable Françoise to place the wall photos in a 3-D computer map. Of particular interest is the extensive graffiti carved into the wall, some dating to the 18th and 19th century and carved in grand, elegant script. Our midmorning snack is cool water, fruit, and a new delicacy: peanut butter and ketchup sandwiches, which have won over nearly everyone on the team.
After lunch, Geoff gives us a quick lecture on the powder house, one of the best preserved of its kind anywhere in the world and an outstanding example of colonial French military architecture. One of the frequent, brief, and refreshing rain squalls races in from the ocean for a 15-minute shower and then disappears, leaving the bright sunny day intact. A pair of tropicbirds leads their graceful tails through the breeze over the islet.
The afternoon's progress is measured in our stiff necks, filthy clothes, and an enormous new pile of dirt. We have cleared an entire section of the upper battery and dug down to the bottom row of stonework. Although archival researchers have found proposals of what was to be built here, they haven't found plans of what was actually built. There are discrepancies, and this is where our conservation work is so crucial. We continually try to fit the pieces and clues together to reconstruct how the guns might have fit, where the soldiers may have hid and fired the artillery, what's original work and what's a modification, and a host of other puzzles.
We pack up our tools and wait for the boat to come pick us up. I have enough time for a quick snorkel on the protected side of the islet. The water is cool and refreshing after all the sun and dirt. I see a marbled electric ray, two squids jetting themselves along, and several other sea creatures. The sea floor is littered with the coral and basalt building blocks of the island's fortifications, providing a good home to the resident tropical fish and critters.
Back at Françoise and Geoff's beach bungalow, we unpack, rinse, and stow the tools and supplies. A small sortie goes to town for groceries and supplies. Ian, a fellow volunteer, prepares the to-scale rendering of the measured and photographed wall, while I add to a list of the island's plant species, including several invasive species. A long-term goal is to restore the island's native botanical diversity. Once finished with the work, we put our suits on and go for a swim in the late afternoon sun.
We return along the beach to the bungalows under a pink evening sky. After a quick shower, I put on clean clothes and sit down to do some journal writing on the hotel's patio while the sunset bathes everything in a wondrous late-afternoon glow. The team gathers for a meal of curried fresh fish, rice, and a local, buttery cousin of the potato called the chou chou. Paradise found, we wrestle with our only stressful decision: stay up a little more to enjoy the evening or go to sleep so tomorrow's discoveries arrive sooner.
Photos © Copyright Jon Howe