We landed three days ago on the island of Reunion, a days sail away from Mauritius, and yet a continent away in environment and culture. This IS France as Reunion is a French Precinct. But more than this, it LOOKS like France! (Claire our young stowaway/backpacker traveller confirms this).
Here, amongst the people we find a beautiful blend of Madagascan, French, Chinese and Indian heritage. Add all of this to a French nationality and throw in some French mainland tourists, European Union flags and French flags and the Euro as currency . . . and you have what I would imagine Europe to be like? Although the islanders are French, as residents of the Indian Ocean, they apparently identify more with the islanders of Rodrigues Island than with the islanders of Mauritius and this is evident in the vast difference in the feel of the two islands which lie so close together.
Reunion Island is much bigger than Mauritius with the most active volcano in the world. We don’t see evidence of it as the “Piton de la Fournaise is so high up (over 2000 meters) and is constantly covered in cloud. It is a Basaltic Shield Volcano, meaning it is very large and non explosive. The lava is viscous and flows easily. It is (apparently) erupting at the moment, but not in any visible sort of way. The last big eruption was in 2005. As we approached the island by sea we could see from our viewpoint, where the floes have happened in the past.They display river like shapes down the sides of the mountain.
We had decided not to stop in Reunion, but just before we left Mauritius fate changed things. The harbour master at St Pierre on Reunion Island emailed us back saying they could accommodate us after all (the harbour was full before) and we made contact with Aud, a beautiful young citizen of Reunion who we last saw in 2005 when she stayed with us in Cape Town as an exchange student with the purpose of learning English. So we thought a 3 day stop would be good.
We were made extremely welcome on the island by Aud, who claims French, Madagascan, Chinese and Indian heritage. She prepared us a magnificent Creole lunch which we shared on board Jerrican amongst much discussion on the islands history, culture and politics. We felt so very privileged to meet her again and marvelled at how amazing life can be with its many unexpected opportunities and surprises.
With our limited time here (anxious now to get the last leg of our journey home done with) we decided to choose two excursions, one to visit the town where Aud lives (St Philippe on the South East side of the island where old lava floes flow into the sea) and the other to visit the town of Cilaos, which lies at around 2000 metres above sea level up into the old crater of the volcano. We were told we would enjoy the bus ride . . . . 2 hours up a narrow, winding road with an endless number of hairpin bends! The skill required to navigate these long busses around the smallest of hairpin bends, of which there are too many to count has got to be admired not to mention the two extremely narrow tunnels which the bus squeezes through on the journey . . . . extreme bus travel!
We loved this excursion and understand why it has been described as one of the best scenic excursions around the world by some of the cruisers we met who have circumnavigated . . . and they should know!
Once in the village of Cilaos we enjoyed the dramatic mountain scenery around us (we had to get there early, before the clouds came in), the cool air and a 2 hour walk up into indigenous forest (one of many walks from day walks to overnight excursions) as well as plantations of pine. In the forest we found wild Ginger growing prolifically.
Our trip down was a little quicker but no less interesting!
In St Philippe we walked around the town getting a feel for the local way of life on a Sunday. We walked along the seafront seeing dark volcanic rocks and strange seafront trees. Slightly out of town we found the “Garden of Flavours and Spices” a private plantation in amongst prolific indigenous forest up on the mountain side. Spices like Ginger, Vanilla and Tumeric grow here. It was interesting to see raw vanilla and part of the drying process. This is truly a spice island.
I cannot imagine why more South Africans don’t visit this beautiful place. While Mauritius is a true leisure destination, lazy days in the sun, blue bays and white sand beaches, Reunion is the island of raw and beautiful nature, dramatic landscapes, warm sea (there are corals and protected areas to swim) and of course a beautiful French sophisticated Culture with Boulangeries and Pettiseries on every corner? It is not too expensive, even though it is a Euro based economy (R22 for a coffee?) although supermarket food is comparable with SA.
Of most interest to me are the many hikes and walks in nature which we will have to return to the island to explore more of. Reunion is one of the worlds biodiversity hotspots and is truly a place to breathe in fresh mountain air, commune with scented forests and bathe in the sheer drama of an active Volcano, the Piton de la Fournaise, and a mountain peak Piton des Neiges 3069 metres high ( Safricans . . . Table Mountain is relatively low at just over 1000 metres). All of this is surrounded by the deep blue of the Indian Ocean which meets dark volcanic cliffs in the form of huge curling swell. Surfers make pilgrimages here and it is known as the Hawaii of the Indian Ocean.
I would love to return here one day and wonder if this will ever be a possibility?
We are now preparing for the last dash across ocean to SA. As we do so, a gypsy boat with parents, kids and grandkids pull up along the quayside. These are gypsies of the sea, endless sea wanderers and I wonder if I am made for the life of the sea nomad. I feel so emotional saying goodbye to each place we visit and our departure tomorrow at 8am is already stirring emotion.