travel - motoring in mauritius

jonathan crouch looks at motoring, mauritian-style

travel - motoring in mauritius

When I first went to Mauritius ten years ago, the roads around the island were filled with a kind of moving museum, dedicated to the British motor industry. Since Mauritians drive on the right and since this Indian Ocean island was a British Colony until the Sixties, there were old British cars everywhere: Vauxhall Vivas, Morris Oxfords, Austin A40s, Humber Sceptres and Sunbeam Rapiers. Many were taxis: all were battered -but still in use.

Back then, taxes on cars were so prohibitive that most people couldn't afford a new one. That, and the lack of an effective MoT system, meant that these old relics just stayed on the road. Mauritius was perhaps the only place you could learn to drive in an Austin A40.

Today, inevitably, things have changed. Right hand drive cars are easier to get these days, even if you're a small island, and the Mauritian government has relaxed its tax structure a little. Not much mind you. The cheapest, nastiest car is still around 20,000 - most of which goes straight into government coffers. Thanks to a prosperous sugar crop, textiles and tourist-driven economy however, a few more people can afford them. Those that can't become pick-up drivers or taxi operators.

For some unfathomable reason, the law has reduced the tax on pick-ups to 10% of that levied on cars. Which means that you can have a beautifully-specced double-cab pick-up with all the features of a luxury car and room for four for the cost of the most basic Citroen Saxo, Fiat Punto or Peugeot 106. Not surprisingly, such double-cab pick-ups make up the majority of the best selling vehicles in the country - and about 50% of the traffic.

Much of the other 50% is made up by taxis. Embarrassed that its precious tourists were being ferried around in Vauxhall Victors and aware that no Mauritian would be able to afford to pay current car prices, the government slashed taxi purchase prices by half a few years ago. Being essentially an African economy, however, not too much attention was given to the paperwork. Which meant that everyone and anyone who wanted a cheap new car became a 'taxi driver'.

It's a nice loop hole: fancy a BMW 3 Series for half-price? Just put a 'taxi' sign in the window and it's yours. And goodness knows how many of the cars on the road whose owners don't bother with the sign were originally bought this way.

Other endearing quirks of the Mauritian motoring system go further back. When you get a fine that requires you going to court - for excessive speeding or some other motoring misdemeanour - there's nothing in the law that says you actually have to attend yourself. Most of those wealthy enough to own a decent car have maids and gardeners - so they send them on their behalf. So it is that the waiting rooms of court houses around the island are filled with all kinds of domestics of one sort or another, all clutching tickets and wedges of Mauritian Rupees.

The road system has improved in the last few years (when I first arrived, there was only one dual carriageway on the whole island) but it still hasn't kept pace with the volume of traffic. To get from the South to the North of the island, you have to travel through the capital, Port Louis, which also means you have to join a teeming throng of other motorists, all fighting for the two inadequate lanes which are all that's provided. Ironically, further on, where the traffic is lighter, a glorious new underpass has been built.

There's no rail system on the island, so the majority of Mauritians who can't afford a car travel by bus: that means a lot of buses. Most are Leyland-derived with smoky Indian-made engines that emit a filthy black cloud of pollution into the clear ocean air: no one seems to mind. Their drivers are frustrated Formula One wannabees who hurl these old vehicles at ludicrous speeds around the narrow roads of the island, occasionally swerving to avoid pedestrians (there are no pavements) or stray dogs (Mauritius has more dogs than people).

Still, it all seems to work - and there's very little car crime. Unlike neighbouring South Africa. Mauritius has a large South African ex-pat population who bring with them horrific stories of the dangers of motoring around Johannesburg or Durban. Apparently, car theft is so rife that a quality car as an average shelf-life of only a few months. A BMW M3, for example, will, on average, last six weeks on the open road before it is stolen. And that's despite the elaborate precautions that most of the owners take with satellite tracking systems: as they've discovered, it's one thing a helicopter tracking a car into a Township: it's quite another being brave enough to go down there are retrieve it.

All of which makes you glad to visit somewhere you can leave the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition. Somewhere the laws seem somehow arbitrary (overtaking a policecar on a blind bend is de rigeur). And somewhere in which the pace of life is that bit slower anyway. People hoot but no one gets hot under the collar. Hey, this is Mauritius after all...