If the vans a rocking'... Reunion by camper van 2014

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Africa » Reunion
May 14th 2014
Published: May 14th 2014
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Speaking French would be a huge plus, but we made do without much more than a few essential phrases, bonjour, merci and vin por favor. And let me tell you how very pleased we are not to have let the lack of English research info dissuade us from visiting this utterly spell binding island.

The missus and I decided to do something a little different after hearing that a rental car would almost definitely be needed in order to see the island properly, and being on a limited budget and accommodation being pretty expensive, we hired a camper van. This would serve as our car and our accommodation all wrapped up in one. What a lag, not being the tiniest of human beings we certainly started off getting in each others way but before long we developed a system and we were slipping past each other with the ease and grace of ballerinas, albeit clumsy ones.

It was by luck that we came across www.campingcarreunion.com whilst doing our research and that Catherine on the other side of the email address conversed perfect English. We arranged to take the camper van for seven nights, she would meet at us at St Denis’s Roland Garros airport to take us through the fine art of camper vanning. The Boing 777 touched down just after 5 pm, after a really superb three hour fifty minute flight from Johannesburg on Air Austral, Reunion’s national carrier. Having flown a fair amount I feel the need to compliment the airline on putting on service the old fashion way, no cutting corners, great food and wonderfully presented, a little goodie bag despite the flight being so short and friendly crew. We were soon to discover the whole island had this “old” way of doing things, almost innocent in their ways. What an amazing place to visit.

Catherine was there with her board welcoming us to the island, and due to it almost being dark she suggested going back to her house where she and her husband Serge would whip up a dinner for us, after which we could familiarise ourselves with our new mobile home whilst on their property, before a quick lesson and early start the next morning. What a good idea that turned out to be, were treated to our first Reunioniasse cari. A delicious mix of sausages and beans wonderfully spiced and served with rice. Serge could speak no English, so whilst Catherine was going through a suggested itinerary on the map, he was plying us with Rhum Arrange, his closely guarded, secret blend of home flavoured rums, just to make sure we felt completely at home under his roof. Not only did we finalise an interesting route, we also had an incredible evening with wonderful hosts.

We were sent off the next morning, after toast and home made preserves, to conquer the island. Now you need to remember it is a tiny island but don't let that fool you into thinking it is anything but dramatic, short distances can take quite some time. The van dropped nearly 1000 meters after breakfast from Catherine’s place to St Paul only about 15 kms and 15 hundred bends away. That first morning behind the wheel of a three-ton camper van, on the wrong side of the road, was I won’t lie, quite nerve wracking. St. Paul has a wonderful market on a Friday morning, we stocked up on fresh bread, cheese and olives from the stalls before hitting the super market to purchase wine, beer and sundries to stock the fridge, all packed we set off down the coast. In Trou D’Eau we found a wooded parking lot on the edge of the ocean, pulled up the hand brake and set camp. There are no restrictions on Reunion, if you like the look of the parking lot, forest or roadside, stop and camp. It felt a bit odd initially I but soon relaxed, a few Dodos later, as happy as Larry. The beach upon which we arrived seemed to me to be quite a larney one, well to do looking homes, fit people and a beautiful little restaurant all neatly overlooking the natural coral reef protected beach.

All the way from St. Paul down to L’Etang-Sale les Bains you can swim without fear of the sharks and currents that rule the waters around the island. This is due to a natural coral reef that keeps things like sharks and extreme currents out, it’s easily visible so you know when you are within it’s confines. Beaches that are not protected are well sign posted.

After a day on the beach we took a sunset walk along the beach to see what else was happening further up this gorgeous beach, loads of cool little coffee shops and patisseries. Laid back locals earnestly playing boulle under the watch of a beach bar audience, wine and beer flowing. Apart from the obvious tropical feel the atmosphere is far more that of France than of Africa, and being a department of France it is indeed, well France.

Leaving Trou D’Eau the next morning we continued along the west coast roads in a southerly direction. The landscape and sea views jaw dropping as we passed through the little seaside towns en route Grande Anse, the next suggested stop on our map. Fortune was on our side, as this particular stop happened to fit in on a Saturday. Grand Anse, then unbeknown to us, is a favoured spot for wedding parties to come and take their photos. What a hoot, as we sat braaiing we watched no less that 5 or 6 wedding parties arrive in this spectacular setting to have their pics taken. We were amazed at how each wedding party arrives in a colour scheme obviously chosen for that particular wedding. There was no worry in distinguishing who belonged to which party, the lumo green would seriously clash with the vivid pink! Boys and all, not a word of lie, they all dress up. It was an awesome day in this great picnic area surrounded by locals enjoying their day off. Nice ablution facilities the cherry on top, believe me showering under the fresh water outdoor showers is much easier than using the van’s… night falls early but only after a beautiful sunset, champagne drunk and party mood up we watched over several very festive parties dotted around the park before retiring to our van.

A stop at Puits Arabe is must, the scenery in the Savage South is harsh and spine tingling. This particular spot is perfect for keen photographers; pitch-black volcanic rock and brilliantly blue sea connect. One amazing place to chill with a le Dodo le la let me tell ya. The drive continued over the lava fields, which look like the moon’s surface, only with a few more people taking giant leaps. This is a very popular place to stop and do adventurous things like guided tours through the lava tubes, jump over crevices and the like. The weather was unfortunately not very nice when we got there and we were unable to see the top of the volcano. Having found out that it isn’t doing anything particularly dramatic at the moment was some consolation though. But it is very much an active volcano so who knows when it’s next bit of activity might just be. After a vain attempt at taking a few pics we continued our journey to Anse des Cascades, as the name says there are lots of waterfalls. Sunday and many, many more picnics at yet another incredibly beautiful gathering spot. A natural harbor, albeit a very small one, fishing boats, forest and waterfalls. We were amongst 1000’s and after a scary drive squeezing through cars to get down to the picnic area we knew we had found our place for the day, there was no way I was going to try get that camper out of there through the masses. Again what a great decision, an awesome day was had exploring. The throngs all shifted out at sunset and we were left in this eerie forest for the night, all alone, pitch dark, just the feint outlines of tall trees and the wind whistling through them. This wasn't helped but a great bloody storm that rolled in and bucketed down on the van. So loud it was that I awoke to close up the windows and saw a torchlight flickering through the trees…. Man it was like a Steven King but actually it was just the fisherman coming in with their haul. We awoke slightly more sleepily the next morning but were soon reinvigorated after showing under a waterfall, brewing up a coffee and rolling out onto the open roads again. We drove right up around the east coast before turning left for the winding road up the Cirque Salize to the village of Hell-Bourg, voted the prettiest village in all of France.

Reunion has three cirques or circuses, volcanic formations creating three distinct rings in the center of the island. When I say to you they are breath taking believe me they really are. As a visitor you could so easily be fooled into thinking you are in fact in the alps, 2000 meters up, cool and surrounded by majestic peaks and little villages. Each cirque is attached but each is only accessible by one road each and you are unable to get from one to the other without leaving the one you are in, circling the island to the entrance to the next and entering it that way. In fact Cirque de Mafate has no roads what so ever, accessible only by foot or helicopter.

We spent the night at the local fire chief’s garden, he has created a little campsite of sorts and has nice hot showers and electricity. Well slept and smelling good we drove back down the cirque, back to the coast where we joined the N3 which crosses the island circumnavigating the base of two of the cirques, we were headed for Cirque De Cilaos, famed for it’s mini vineyards and small wine industry. The N3 was yet another spectacular drive from St-Benoit on the islands east coast to St Paul on it’s western side. Upon arriving here I made the best decision of the holiday, I had read that a public bus operates hourly from St Paul to Cilaos. For the princely sum of 1.50 euro I saved 15 years on my life. The hour and half drive is one of the most incredible I have had the pleasure of doing, and for that entire hour and a half I thanked god the driver of the bus was the one negotiating these unbelievable mountain roads. Cilaos is breath taking, unfortunately the same cant be said for the wine, that said it is certainly drinkable and we actually rather enjoyed the rosé. The experience was certainly worth it though and I am so very pleased to have made the visit to the winery and to Cilaos itself.

An equally exciting downward drive saw us back at the camper, which we pointed in the direction of Hermitage les Bains, a seaside town set on black beaches. Well they are more that chocolate brown you some times see Labradors come in, and bugger me it was hot. The sun must get absorbed more so than white sand or something like that and one really needs to keep one’s slops on when walking along this beach. The seaside suburbs here are astonishing and I found myself fantasising about living in one of the beachfront homes, watching the ski boats come in after game fishing adventures. We had a very enjoyable dinner in the main street, at a restaurant named something about Indians but wasn’t Indian at all. It did have it’s own Rhum Arange and of course we had to sample the flambé banana version, yummy.

We slept in a proper parking lot that night, which was quite a laugh, woke up to people arriving to park their cars for work which was fine, it was them being greeted by me in my boxer shorts having a stretch that would have been more alarming!

The journey was much shorter on this day, just a hop up the highway back to St Paul, being workers day the town was empty, fabulous, so much easier to negotiate the camper through town to the Marine Cemetery where the legendary pirate “La Buse” was buried after being executed in St Paul.

We continued from the cemetery down to Boucan Canot, Reunion’s version of Camp’s Bay. Lots of cool people, cool cars and a trendy little strip of shops and cafes abound. We had a great lunch whilst looking at the goings on in this sandy paradise. Homemade ice cream licked, sun dipping and time to take the camper back to Catherine and Serge. We arrived and were introduced to our van’s new temporary guardians, an Australian couple about to embark on adventure just like ours, lucky fish. But all the excitement was not over, no not at all. We had mentioned to Catherine before we left that we would love to do a cooking course to learn more about traditional Reunionaisse cooking. Tonight she would be teaching us to make vanilla duck with all the trimmings Creole style. What a blast, we sliced, diced, cooked in a pot on an open fire, smashed Serge’s rhum and quaffed on French wine. We collapsed, for the very last time in the camper that night, full and very satisfied. We rose early so as to take advantage of the sunrise from The Maido, a view point that looks into the Cirque de Mafate, words to describe it hard to find, the views mind blowing and this is just 10 odd click up the hill from our hosts place. Catherine and Serge have some great friends on the island who they have know since they lived in France many years ago, who also happen to have a house in Cape Town, where they are soon to move too. It deemed appropriate that we join them for lunch before we headed onto St Denis for our last two nights. They arrived armed with an assortment of exciting French delicacies and wines. Once again the island hospitality caught us unannounced and all had a fantastic day before Catherine dropped us off in the capital for our last stretch on this wonderful Indian Ocean island.

We settled for a rather dodgy little place about 15 minutes walk from the center of town. No drama it was just for sleeping and the walk could only do us good. The first night we found a cool little sidewalk restaurant called Le Roland Garros, we partook enthusiastically. Strolled home and slept well. Our last full day was another filled with fun. We stumbled over a boulle competition with teams from all over the island throwing for honours. For dinner, we decided on a funky diner in what we gauged must have been St Denis’s hipster quarter. We were treated to a show, hosted on the pavement amongst the tables of the restaurant. It was incredible, even though we didn't understand a word. But judging from the rest of the patrons these actors were hysterical. So we laughed and drank and ate until late before strolling back into the dark for a few hours sleep and a 5 am taxi ride to the airport.

Reunion, I can’t wait to have another!


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