Written by: Kate Addison
Lingering over my cold beer on the balcony of a charming French brasserie, the only sign of the latest tropical cyclone skirting Rodrigues Island, located just off Mauritius, is the unripe mangoes falling from the tree across the road. Each strong gust of wind is greeted by a dull thud of fruit on the pavement.
Our arrival here, via the tall ship Picton Castle, was delayed by a few days as we dodged the first tropical storm of the season, diverting a couple of hundred miles to avoid its path. And now another storm to our north threatens to delay our departure for Reunion Island. 28 days from Indonesia, and with another 3 000 miles of open water before Cape Town, the lovely little Creole island of Rodrigues is a welcome break mid-Indian Ocean for the flocks of yachts that sail this way every year. But this is no yachting holiday: I am here as one of 44 crew on the tall ship Picton Castle. A registered sail training vessel, bound westwards around the world seeking adventure travel and maritime training.
Local children often ask us, wide-eyed, if Picton Castle is a pirate ship, and it does look like Jack Sparrow might be about to swing down from the rigging, cutlass in teeth. But apart from the romance of sailing around the world, Picton Castle also teaches serious seamanship skills. With no passengers aboard, trainee and professional crew work the ship together and then spend their off-watches exploring ashore.
The crew are not complaining about being storm-bound in Rodrigues: it’s a lovely and laid-back volcanic island that seems to mix its East African and European roots effortlessly. The people I have met are all friendly and welcoming. The beaches are beyond beautiful too. The local dialect is Rodriguan Creole, with French and English as second languages, and the food is a sort of creole too – curries and chutneys and rice, local sausage and fish dishes all served with the ubiquitous green chill paste called mazavaroo.
There are deep fried snacks sold from little glass cabinets by the side of the road, and drinking coconuts: perfect refreshment on a tropical day.
Picton Castle is not the first sailing ship to call at Rodrigues: from as early as the 16th century Portuguese ships in the spice trade were calling here for food and fresh water. Back then the sailors would have been delighted to capture the endemic giant tortoises and dodos to fill their cargo hold with fresh meat for the long journey.
These days there are still tortoises, safe in a sanctuary on the east of the island. The dodos, sadly, did not make it.