Friday, January 20, 2017

Viva l’ France!

La Reunion
Oh, how we love to visit the French territories! Baguettes, bistros and cafes, French food and good wine! We have been looking forward to dining out in La Reunion.

Reunion is a little island in the middle of the South Indian Ocean and is a small French Overseas Department. And a nice stop on the way to South Africa. It has a large resident sailing community with the best yachting facilities of any island in the Indian Ocean. Hopefully this means we can get the repairs and parts we need. The Watt & Sea is a French product so maybe they will have the bracket we need.

We were berthed along the wall on the left side of the little
basin just inside the entrance. It was a long way from
everything and there was nothing near us. Not great!
Although Reunion was discovered by the Portuguese, it was uninhabited and frequented by the Arab, Malay and European sailors just like Mauritius. In 1946, the French settled on the island and Reunion became an overseas department of France. With a population of 800,000 of mostly French and some Indian and African minorities, the main languages are French and Creole. The capital is Saint-Denis, but we won’t let the “Saint” part go to our Captain’s head.

We are nearing the top of the mountain to see the volcano.
Unfortunately, La Port is no Noumea, New Caledonia! It is very disappointing. The marina is a 25-minute walk from town. Other than some marine services, a fuel station and one restaurant, The Dodo Cafe, there is nothing here! So much for the idea of going for an early morning walk for baguettes! Apparently, this is the largest of the two ports in La Reunion and the only one large enough to hold the fleet. As it is, we are rafted side-by-side on the wall.

Like the others, this is a volcanic island. The interior is lush and mountainous and there are large craters called “cirques” with sheer walls that are some 6,562 feet deep! There is an active volcano, Piton de la Fournaise, in the southeast region. It has recently altered the landscape with black lava. It seems a volcano blows whenever we are near one, so let’s hope this one doesn’t know we are in the region!

Piton de la Fournaise, which means The Furnace.
Our World ARC day tour took us to see the Piton de la Fournaise, which means The Furnace. As the bus passed through villages and wound its way up to the higher altitudes, we could see the diversity of the terrain, climate and vegetation. We went from beaches to rain forest to forests to volcano.

The culture and ethnicity is as diverse as the environment. They call themselves The Rainbow Island with its multiracial population is around 850,000. The people are a real melting pot of racial and religious backgrounds. Interracial or interreligious marriages are very common throughout the island.

The voloncanic area looks like a moonscape.
At one time, the island population was 80% Madagascar slaves. Today it is a mix of French, other Europeans, Chinese, Tamil Indians (Malabars), and Muslim Indians (known ‘z Arabes). Since they are an Oversea Department of France, they send representatives to represent them in the French Parliament.

One of the beautiful vistas on the way up the mountain.
Most people work in the two main industries: sugar-processing and rum-making. There is actually more sugarcane grown on Mauritius than on La Reunion and every island seems to have its own rum!  Another important product here is geranium essential oils. They harvest the geranium leaves every two months to distill the oil.

On our trip to the volcano, we passed through Saint-Paul, which was the capital at one time, and it is where the notorious French pirate La Buse, ne’ Olivier Le Vasseur is buried. People are still searching for the buried treasure he supposedly left and refused to tell where it was located. We stopped to view the Piton Maido, which means burned earth, and to see the view down the Mafate crater’s “valley of death” named for escaping slaves.

We passed through Saint-Gilles-les-Bains known for its luxury resorts and villas. It is the vacation area for yachtsmen, game fishermen and surfers. La Reunion is not known for its beaches. They are black sand from the volcanic rock and are infamous for sharks! At Saint-Gilles, there is a sanctuary for sea turtles where over 25,000 turtles have been reared from eggs deposited on uninhabited islets offshore. For years and even now in some areas of the world, island people have eaten sea turtles and their eggs, which has let to their endangerment.

Working our way down with a number of hairpin turns, we
traveled across the volcanic fields to reach the cauldron,
Saint-Leu was the next village we passed on our way up to the top of the volcano. The view of the coast is breathtaking from the highway above. It is said that the highway is the most expensive one in the world because they had to build so many bridges over the gorges created by the three volcanoes that formed La Reunion. It was a beautiful drive.

Once we turned off the highway to wind our way up the volcano, the road became very narrow and full of hairpin curves. The bus and the cars could not pass each other on the curves. This took us through a forest that felt very much like being in the European Alps. Even the architecture looked alpine. The air was cooler and the clouds were closer.

The cauldron lies ahead here, but it is not a red hot
fire-type volcano like the others we have seen. It has been
quiet for a few months, but they expect it will go off soon.
Then we left the paved road and took a very bumpy ride across one of the cirques toward the main volcano. Cirques are inland valley basins created by the erosion of the Piton des Neiges, an extinct volcano. It looked like a lunar landscape as we crossed it. It was bleak and moor-like with basalt rock formations We stopped to view the Paine des Sables before crossing the stony track that ended at the Pas de Bellecombe. We were then at 7,710 feet of altitude. Unfortunately, the volcano was quiet so we could not see any smoke or fire. It had blown in September and since it usually only goes off once a year, it may be a while before it goes again.

Here at the restaurant we felt like we were in the French Alps.
On our way back down to the port, we stopped for a traditional lunch. And our driver accommodated us by stopping at a roadside stand where we all bought fresh fruits and vegetables. These are the items we run out of early into a passage. Everyone wanted salad! He also stopped at a boulangerie where baguettes and pastries were purchased. We were all happy sailors at that point!

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