Reunion Island; where does one start to describe this jewel in the Indian Ocean? Possibly the most complete tourism package I have yet seen? Without being at all touristy!
The approach to St Pierre from the North East.
Our approach to Reunion on Friday 31 October was from the East after an overnight 140 mile sail from Port Louis, Mauritius. The island was visible on the clear night from 30 miles out and at dawn, revealed itself in all its mountainous, green splendor. The volcanic nature of the island, with its highest peak over 3000m, was soon evident from the massive lava runs down the northern slopes.
We were headed for St Pierre, the third largest town on the island, on the south eastern coast where we had managed to secure a berth in the town Marina for a few days despite being told that there was no berthing available anywhere on the island due to the ARC Round the World Rally boats taking up all the available space. This may have had something to do with a young Reunion friend of ours who harassed the Port Captain into making a plan for us! There are no anchorages around the island as it rises straight out of the depths of the ocean and except for a narrow, shallow reef on parts of the East coast, is steep to and a fiercesome coastline. At a distance of only some 50m off, we were often in depths of over 200m!
Our approach to St Pierre was made all the more exciting by a screaming fishing reel! By the time the Genoa was rolled away, the cockpit cushions taken out of the ‘splatter zone’ and the wind vane disengaged the fish had almost stripped my reel and was heading back towards Mauritius! After a lengthy and spirited fight with wonderful tail-walking displays I got the fish alongside and saw just how beautiful a specimen it was. About 1100mm long, it was later identified from a photo by a friend of ours, as a Short Billed Spearfish. Fortunately my fishing skills were no match for its cunning and after ducking under the boat and wrapping the line around the propellor,it gave two victorious leaps in the air and swam off over the horizon.
The next bit of excitement came with the challenge of negotiating the entrance to the St Pierre Marina! The marina is literally a section of reclaimed reef and the entrance is short and takes a dogleg to starboard and then to port between waves breaking on the reef on either side. Once through the channel, there is little room to maneuver and even less signage to indicate where one should berth for Immigration etc. The only section of wharf available to us was a low, sloping section of rough concrete about a metre longer than Jerrican! With a stiff onshore breeze, this berth was always going to be easier to get into than out of again. Sliding in like a pro, we ever so slightly touched the bottom! Although it was Spring Low tide, the port has an asymmetric tidal curve and I wasn’t sure how low the next cycle would be! With a bit of pushing and pulling from our American neighbours, with whom we had been in Rodrigues and Mauritius, a lot of engine revving and a slight scratch to the bow, we re-parked next to “Calico Jack” and I wandered off to find out how to clear into this Province of France!
This turned out to be the simplest formalities yet! I walked in to the harbourmaster’s office to find it deserted except for a single, non-English speaking lady which would explain why the VHF call to the office had gone unanswered! With lots of hand gestures and my rusty schoolboy French we got by. A single information sheet to be filled in, mainly about the yacht, a crew list and she faxed copies of our passports to the local Gendarmerie who promised to come down and check us in at 17h00! We were somewhat skeptical as it was Friday afternoon after all. My crew scattered like truant school children and when the Gendarmes arrived at 17h00 precisely, I was left trying to explain that they were “somewhere around”! With a nod to officialdom, I was instructed to round them up so I could prove the veracity of the crew list. A quick sprint through the centre of town was successful. It helped to know what their priorities would be; beer, free wifi and burgers, in that order. The Gendarmes then eyeballed each crew member, stamped their passport in the back of a little Renault, and wished us all “Bienvenue a Reunion”.
The marina in St Pierre is literally right in the middle of town and everything one could need is within easy walking distance. The first three days mooring is free and thereafter it is €15 per day, irrespective of the size of the yacht. The marina has a 25 ton travel lift and a reasonable size hard working area. There are very rudimentary showers and a toilet but there is 2 hours of free wifi per day, per email address.
Formalities done and dusted, we set off to explore this quaint little piece of France. With a population of around 890,000 the island is less inhabited than Mauritius but manages to convey a sense of sophistication and poise which its smaller, more populated and commercially more successful neighbour doesn’t. The Island is a Province of France and is divided into four departments. A Prefect runs the island’s Government affairs.
Downtown St Pierre is a veritable paradise of Patisseries and coffee shops for those whose tastes run that way! I know Anita and I spent a considerable portion of the boat’s budget at these establishments but we reminded ourselves that the Internet was free as opposed to being extortionately expensive, or horribly slow if free, on Mauritius. More than once I heard my crew remarking that it is amazing how French women have such lovely figures when they eat so much pastry!
Several years ago, when we lived in Kommetjie, we hosted a young Reunion schoolgirl on a language exchange program. Aude Ahn was the shyest 14 year old imaginable and didn’t speak a word of English when she stayed with us. The Internet is an amazing tool for keeping in touch with people all over the world and, through Facebook, we stayed in touch. Coming to Reunion was an opportunity not to miss to catch up with her and see how 9 years had changed her! Aude facilitated a berth in the Marina for us and then on our first afternoon in town, she brought us lunch that she and her mother had made in Reunion tradition. Fish curry and various side dishes that were absolutely delicious! A wonderful afternoon was spent reacquainting ourselves and learning about Reunion from a local’s perspective. Taking a bit of the gloss off my initial impressions was finding out that the island suffers approximately 30% unemployment amongst the youth and that job opportunities, even for the well qualified, are scarce. But isn’t the rest of the world somewhat similar? Apparently, social welfare is a well entrenched part of the local psyche and there is a certain amount of resentment about this from the mainland French. But on the bright side, island culture has prevailed and people are generally laid back and friendly.
With a limited amount of time to stay, and having arrived at the start of a weekend, we needed to select two excursions before setting sail again. For the Sunday we decided on a bus trip up to the north east of the island to the village of St Phillipe. The local busses are inexpensive and punctual with a clapping of hands to tell the driver that you wish to alight at the next stop. The trip to St Phillipe took around an hour and travelled along a scenic coastal road. Once in St Phillipe, we were reminded of a small East Coast of South Africa resort town that closes down over the weekend! There was an open restaurant where the clientele seemed to be family and close friends of the owners and outsiders were welcome as long as the regulars were there to keep the place open! In fact, the kitchen closed just after 13h00!
We walked along the sea front which was formed from hard, black volcanic rock, very much in keeping with the inhospitable nature of the weather shore.
Monday’s excursion will stick in my memory for years to come! It was certainly the best €5.00 I have ever spent! We rose early and headed for the local bus station to catch a “yellow bus” to St Louis where we changed to a “pink bus” for the journey to Cilaos, high up in the mountains. The trip was nearly two hours long, went from sea level to over 1200m and the road had 69 switchbacks and two tunnels that were about 50mm wider than the bus! The scenery was spectacular in the extreme as were the encounters with other vehicles, especially busses, going in the opposite direction! On many occasions we met another vehicle on a blind corner and a whole set of rules that I couldn’t work out determined which vehicle had to back up to let the other past! On the return trip to St Louis, the bus driver had to make a three point turn to line the bus up squarely with a tunnel and this involved the back two metres of the vehicle protruding out over a sheer drop of several hundred metres! Not for the faint hearted!
This is the track on my chart plotter!
The village of Cilaos is quaint and scenic. It begrudgingly attends to the needs of the large numbers of tourists without actually appearing to do so! Restaurants close at a whim leaving uncomprehending tourists standing hungry on the sidewalk and the ladies staffing the embroidery workshop, one of the town’s proclaimed speciality industries, glare at those impertinent enough to wander in to the showroom! We settled for a non-interactive walk in the surrounding mountain forests and were glad to have done so! My fitness fanatic and mountain biker friends would have been impressed by the number of trails conspicuously marked as not being for pedestrians, only for mountain bikers!
The downhill run from Cilaos has its own set of concerns, mainly those of brakes! We needn’t have worried as clearly the trip is mundane and ordinary for the locals and they managed to catch up with some sleep on the trip into town while we gripped the armrests anxiously!
As always happens, the time came to leave this special place, in this instance, before the sea conditions forced the Harbourmaster to close the harbour. The formalities for leaving Reunion were, if anything, more relaxed than those for clearing in! Hand back the marina security tag, phone the police and have them come down and stamp our passports! All over within 20 minutes. “Bon voyage” they said. I hope so too, I thought.
With a fresh South Easter blowing and a rowdy sea forming swirling currents and breaking waves at the harbour mouth, it was definitely time to set sail for Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Or so we thought…… but that’s a story for another day.