Published: February 7th 2008November 25th 2007
Flower in the Market
Sunday market, St Denis
We didn't expect to be here when we left on our big trip but here we are on a little piece of France a couple of thousand miles away from Europe in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We have been eagerly awaiting this leg of the journey for about 3 months, and now we are here, to all intents and purposes in France. There are Super-U's, Carrefours, Credit Agricoles, Boulangeries, the road signs are in French, the cars' plates are the French ones (and of course the cars are all Peugeots / Citroens)... and the French are... well... French! It really is just a part of France. Unfortunately so are the prices. The currency unsurprisingly, is the Euro. In fact due to its easterly position to Europe, Reunion was the first place in the world to use the Euro when the mayor of Saint-Denis bought some Lychees. So there you go.
We are here to see Julien and Claire who we met on our Masai Mara trip in Kenya; they very kindly invited us to come and stay with them when we got on so well. They are both teachers here on Reunion and have been here for a
few months now. So another rest stop with home comforts and good company - excellent!
Reunion is about a 1hr flight East of Madagascar (so altogether about 3hrs East from South africa). The island is volcanic and rises dramatically out of the sea to a height of 3000 m, this made all the more dramatic by the fact that the island is only 39 miles long by 28 miles wide - enough to fit inside Wales 8 times! It seems a lot bigger than its meagre dimensions suggest because of the mountainous landscape. The towns are almost all squeezed around the edges of the island, on the lower slopes of the volcanoes. In the middle of the island the slopes rise steeply to three volcanic cirques (volcanoes now extinct - only the eroded collapsed calderas are left). Everything is incredibly green and forested with exotic looking plants. At the South East end, there is one very large and very angry volcano which is still active. Last eruption was in April 2007 when something incredible like 3 million cubic metres of lava a day spewed out of the side of the volcano, destroying a section of the road that circuits
Sunday market, St Denis
The people here are an amazing mix. There are Caucasians who have come from France and elsewhere in Europe. But there are also black Africans and everything in between including some very bizarre mixtures. During the times of slave trading, the French colonials here imported a lot of slaves from Africa. Like Mauritius there is also a large Asian population as well as a lot of Malagasy people too. So what you've got now is a complete mix which includes Indian (including Tamil), African, Malagasy, Chinese, Vietnamese and ethnic French, so it's not unusual to see someone with quite dark skin, ginger hair and blue eyes!
The people of mixed ethnic background (the vast majority of the population) are called Creole, and there are some lovely Creole villages with traditional wooden houses. They also have a distinctive Creole cuisine involving lots of fish and chilli (And crumbs DM do they like it hot!). No laid back tropical island would be complete without large amounts of local rum - in this case they make "Rhum Arrange". Take a lot of rum, add some fruit and some local spices (vanilla, endangered orchid leaves, parts of an extinct bird...),
Sunday market, St Denis
some sugar and leave it in a bottle for 6 months. Hey Presto! A very drinkable flavoured rum. In the restaurants they have rows of different types: pineapple, lime, lychee, orange, vanilla, cinammon, coffee... mmmm
Many of the Creole population are the descendants of the slaves who escaped from their masters and hid in the mountainous interior. As a result there are still some very remote (it's hard to imagine "remote" when you're on an island 28 x 39 miles but believe me it is) Creole villages in the cirques. Two of the cirques are accessed by incredibly zig-zaggy mountain roads. Julien teaches is one of these, called Cilaos. The third, Mafate, is not even accessible by road - only footpaths, in fact Julien told us that some of the children he teaches have never seen the sea..?!?!?!
Final interesting bit of general knowledge about Reunion - there are almost no birds. In the airport we saw a tea towel with "The Birds of Reunion" on - and there were six of them. Apparently when the slaves escaped up into the mountains they didn't have a lot to eat. So they ate the birds. An awful lot of
Chilli in the market
Sunday market, St Denis
them. In a stroke of practical genius they spread glue over their hut rooves and waited until the birds got stuck to them. What I want to know is, did there used to be dismembered bird legs sticking out of the rooves of all the huts? And so they ate a lot of the species to extinction. There are some exotic looking white paradise birds with long tails, some small hawks and some red sparrow sized things. But that's about it. In some sort of ironic nod to this sad history, the local beer has a picture of a Dodo on it.
Anyway, we stayed for a week and managed to fit quite a lot in, as well as some chill out time. We spent a very pleasant couple of days just exploring the island with Claire and Julien: the Sunday market in St Denis, a couple of beaches (one idyllic white sand and one darker from the volcanic sand) with great snorkelling, an exotic jungle-fringed waterfall where we swam, and some view points that gave incredible views down into the cirques. We also took the car ourselves on a couple of occasions and visited the volcano, and hiked
to the highest point on the island called the Piton des Neiges.
We were disappointed that the volcano didn't obligingly erupt while we were there, but nevertheless it was pretty spectacular. The drive up is beautiful, through scenery that is almost alpine. As you get closer to the main crater, the scenery becomes more desolate. There are several small craters from older eruptions, and all the rocks are either sharp volcanic pumice or splatted magma. There is a huge main crater which you can walk into - it's very weird with almost no vegetation, just lots of solidified lava flows. Recent eruptions have been from a new mini cone which has formed in the middle, and the most recent in April was actually from a vent on the flank of the volcano. In fact you walk in the crater at your own risk - when the vent opened in the side of the volcano in April and loads of lava came out, the floor of the main crater collapsed and the whole thing dropped several metres. Luckily nothing so spectacular happened while we were there, but advancing rivers of molten rock would have made for good pics eh?
for the rum
The "hike" up to the Piton des Neiges was one of those things that we can say we were glad we did after
the event. At the time it was a real slog. We started from just outside the town of Cilaos in one of the cirques. The path takes you up the wall of the cirque via endless steep switchbacks. It's just relentless. The forest is nice and the views back down into the cirque are spectacular, but somewhere after the hundredth zig zag you stop noticing. In fact it took about five hours (including picnic) to gain just under 2km vertical! I still shudder just thinking about it. There is a hikers refuge on the rim of the cirque where we stayed the night in some dorm tent things. They provide much needed cold beer (but no water!), dinner and some of the ubiquitous rum. The next morning at about 4am you drag yourself out of bed and head for the summit, which is a bare, rocky volcanic cone. The path is quite difficult because apart from being steep it's also over loads of loose sharp volcanic rock and gravel. And it's dark. And cold. We arrived at
not so good in the rum
the summit (3070m above sea level) in time for sunrise. Sunrise from high mountains is always quite spectacular - and it was - but unfortunately we chose a cloudy morning and much of the view down onto the island and into the cirques was obscured by cloud. We staggered back down for breakfast at the refuge and then back down the knee-destroying switchbacks to the car.
After that little expedition we were sleep deprived and could barely stand up so what better to do than... go to a reggae concert! The "Wailers" of "Bob Marley and the ..." fame were playing Reunion. Well Wailer anyway I think the others are all dead?!? Big concerts on Reunion are held in a rather spectacular natural amphitheatre in a gorge and the bloke they got to sing Bobs bit, obviously having a fair bit to live up to, did a bloody good job. There were Rastas everywhere, all suitably attired in Green, Gold, Black and Red, with dreads like medusa on steroids, and equipped with fairly large reefers that require a PhD in Origami to construct. I seriously think a large percentage of the world's Rastas have moved to Reunion.
then it seems as soon as we've arrived its time to leave, it's time for the next leg of the trip. Madagascar!
Julien and Claire, thanks so much for inviting us to your fantastic home and showing us around the island. It's just a shame you are so far away! We'll be perfecting our Rhum Arrange in preparation for our/your next visit! See you soon!
There are more photos below