Getting off the beaten path on Rodrigues Island

On a previous trip to Mauritius, we were intrigued by signs at the airport, not for Domestic connections, but for ‘Rodrigues connections’. Turns out there is only one domestic flight in Mauritius, to and from the small semi-autonomous island of Rodrigues, 600 km to the East. Western Australia lies 5,000 km away from Rodrgiues; the US base of Diego Garcia is 1,700 km to the North East. It’s probably one of the most isolated places on Earth.

Back in Canberra, when we were working out our itinerary for our current trip, we pondered whether the cost of a side-trip to Rodrigues was worthwhile. Myles needed to call the airline to work out why the connections we wanted were not available online. He calls, the phone on speaker.

“Hi, I’m having some trouble booking a flight to Rodrigues, I was hoping you could help me”

“oh you mean Rod-Reeg-s, of course”

We stopped, looked at each other. Had we heard him correctly? It is pronounced Rod-Reeg-s. We were more intrigued than ever. An obscure oddly-named island in the middle of nowhere with kind-of-interesting constitutional status? That’s our jam.

Fast forward a few months and we are on our way from Mauritius to Rodrigues. Even though were not leaving the country, we are still required to exit through passport control, and complete a passenger information card in Rodrigues (which looks suspiciously like an arrival card). However, no one stamps our passport, so we can all continue to pretend that we haven’t left Mauritius (unlike Australia, where I haven’t had a passport stamp since 2003, most countries around the world care greatly about passports stamps and will cause a huge fuss if you are missing one).

Our plan once in Rodrigues was much looser. There’s scant information online, so we figured we would pick up a hire car at the airport and just wing it. Unfortunately, Rodrigues airport turns out to be the only airport we’ve ever been to that doesn’t offer car hire. There isn’t even a taxi rank. All the other passengers on the plane are French, presumably from Reunion island (a French department in the Indian Ocean), and seem to have somehow premade their transport arrangements, and smugly set off on their way. We are left with what appears to be the only taxi driver at the airport, who quotes an exorbitant sum to take us to our hotel, a 15 minute drive away. He explains to us that it is so expensive because the roads are very twisty in Rodrigues. Eventually he drops his price by a quarter, and we are on our way (as an aside it takes much longer than 15 minutes as our taxi driver has no idea where to go and our hotel has no sign, and street addressing in rural Rodrigues is rather lacking).

Life at the hotel is not much simpler, the credit card machine rejects both our Mastercard and Visa cards, but luckily accepts our American Express card, ensuring we have a bed for the next two nights. Despite the hotel owner not really speaking English, we manage to organise car hire through the hotel (a lot of hand gestures and acting out driving were required). A mere two hours later a car is delivered by a man, presumably the car’s owner, who walks off up the road to catch the bus home. For around $50 AUDs, we are the proud renters of a beat up ute, with bald tyres and a fuel tank sitting on empty.

Our chariot.

Our hotel room rate also includes dinner, which is lucky since we are staying in the middle of nowhere and there are hardly any restaurants in Rodrigues anyway. Each afternoon the menu for the evening’s meal is written on a board near the swimming pool, which we then get to attempt to translate (from French) for the few hours prior to dinner. The pool at the hotel is also the world’s smallest pool to have a bridge crossing it (well probably anyway, it’s hard to imagine a smaller pool with a bridge).

Name a smaller pool with a bridge. We’ll wait…

Hiking to Trou d’Argent

Trou d’Argent.

The most famous sight on Rodrigues is Trou d’Argent beach. You need to hike for an hour or so to reach it, but it’s an easy stroll which was made even easier for us by a local dog which decides to assign itself to us as our guide. It’s a very picturesque beach, made more so by the resident goats climbing the surrounding rocks. It is however not great to swim at, being a bit too rocky. Undeterred, we manage a swim anyway, as does the dog who guided us there. Eventually the dog gets bored and continues walking along the coast, leaving us to walk back to the car unescorted. We also have a brief, unsuccessful search along the high water line for bits of MH370 – the only time Rodrigues has made the news internationally the last 50 years is when a piece of the ill-fated airliner was discovered there.

Saturday Market

Shoppers at the Saturday market.

Our trip to Rodrigues coincided with the weekly Saturday market, which is apparently the best market day on the island. There are hundreds of stalls, but they all sell such similar products that there may as well be only three – a fruit and vegetable stand, a pickle/sauce stand and a hat stand (Rodrigues being a producer of a somewhat famous straw hat). We didn’t attend any other markets on Rodrigues, so this may certainly be their best market (and perhaps only?), but not one that is worth a special trip to attend.

We end up buying a jar of octopus chilli sauce for a few dollars, which looks so interesting that we purchase it despite having no kitchen and no immediate way to use it. It is not a practical purchase. Spoiler: we end up carrying the sauce through six countries before we have a chance to use it. It is not easy to carry a glass jar of sauce across Africa – your luggage takes a battering, and you rarely have access to the kind of market or kitchen that would facilitate using a sauce. We contemplated throwing it away on several occasions, particularly once the sauce started leaking, making Keelie’s clothes smell like seafood. The octopus sauce however was just too darn interesting looking.

Eventually we manage to use the sauce, spreading it over chicken that we later cook in an apartment we rent on Reunion It was salty and fishy, with a strong, but not overwhelming, taste of chili. Was it worth carrying around for months I hear you ask – and the answer depends, of course, on how badly your clothes smelt like seafood in the intervening weeks.

The infamous octopus chili sauce.

Caverne Patate (Potato Cave)

Exiting potato cave.

There are several caves you can visit on Rodrigues, so we decide that it is our duty as tourists to see at least one. We decide to see Potato Cave for the precise reason that it happened to be in the general direction we were travelling in anyway. The tour is conducted in both French and English, with the tour guide giving the exact same speech in both languages. This means that the jokes in both speeches are exactly the same, it was interesting to see the differences in which jokes made which languages laugh most. (Note that most of the laughter was polite laughter, since the jokes weren’t that great).

This ends up being the most interesting part of the entire tour, as the cave itself is pretty dull. There are just a few stalagmites and stalactites and a couple of rocks that are shaped in such a way that if you use your imagination, you can picture them as something other than rocks. 

Francois Leguat Giant Tortoise Reserve

Our new best friends.

We had absolutely no intention of visiting Francois Leguat Giant Tortoise Reserve, but the weather wasn’t great and we had run out of things to do in Rodrigues that weren’t going to the beach. Rodrigues was once so rife with giant tortoises that an early visitor suggested that one could walk across the entire island using tortoises as stepping stones and never touching the ground, like some gigantic game of the floor is lava. There is no evidence that anyone ever attempted this, but regardless the tortoises Rodrigues tortoise is extinct. Interestingly, Rodrigues was also home to its own species of giant flightless bird, the Solitaire bird, similar to the dodo on neighbouring Mauritius. Alas it had the same fate as the dodo, but without its name living on as a beer or an internet service provider.

The Francois Leguat reserve runs a conservation program that breeds three species of tortoises to help reintroduce them to Rodrigues (and soon Madagascar). The reserve has been wildly successful, now hosting over 2500 tortoises.

You can either visit just the tortoises or combine with a trip to a cave in the same complex. Since we strongly believe that one underwhelming cave a country is enough to visit, we skip the cave portion of the tour. There are around 30 people on our tour, and we are the only people who skip the cave. If you spend too long in Rodrigues, prepare to have your beliefs about underwhelming caves challenged.

Once again, our tour is conducted in both French and English. However, this time we are the only English speakers, so the guide gives us our own briefing at each stop, in a very quiet voice, away from the rest of the group. He is much less interested in giving us the same information, which results in us getting more time with the tortoises and less time with the guide – which we consider a big win.

You see, tortoises, it turns out, love to be patted. When you start patting their heads, they rise up on their legs to make it an easier task and encourage you to continue patting. While you are patting one tortoise, others will rush over to you (well as much as a tortoise can rush anyway) and wait for you to pat them as well. Ever since we have discovered this fact, we have stopped to pat every tortoise we see. And every single one of them loves it. We’re strongly considering getting a pet tortoise when we get home to cuddle on the couch with us while we watch Netflix.

This was by far the highlight of our trip to Rodrigues, and if you ever happen to find yourself on this tiny island in the middle of nowhere – make sure you stop by and pat as many tortoises as you can!

He (also) tortoise so much.

Was it worth the expense to see an obscure island with a strange pronunciation of its name? Probably not, but we had a nice time exploring the sights regardless.

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