4th September to 12th October
Mountains, wine, hiking, more wine and it’s not a hedgehog
So first of all here’s some geography. It’s a French Territory (like Martinique and Guadalupe) a bit bigger than its nearest neighbour, Mauritius, which is just over 100 miles away. Both islands emerged from the same geological hotspot in the earth’s crust, though Réunion is much younger, a mere 2 million years. Hence it’s very mountainous with stark steep volcanic peaks everywhere other than on the narrow coastal belt, and lots of deep ravines. Madagascar is about 400 miles west of here.
First settled by the French in the 17th century, sugar became the mainstay of the economy, with firstly slave labour from Africa, and then indentured labour from India and elsewhere. Hence the population mix today. In Réunion’s case it’s roughly a third each of people with origins in Europe, Africa and South India, plus a handful from China and elsewhere, all with lots of intermixing from earliest days, total over 800,000 people who mainly live in the coastal towns. I find it delightful.
Those born here are Reunion Creole and often speak a local French creole language, which I’m told is similar to Mauritius creole. But totally incomprehensible for visitors like me, who must try and use French, which is the official language.
That’s your geography and history lesson for the day.
For me, life here could be very easy, even easier if I spoke much more French.
It has all the comforts of France, everything from fresh baguettes, myriad cheeses and bottles of Bordeaux, to good infrastructure, clean streets and well-stocked chandleries. Bins are emptied promptly. Cafes, bars and restaurants abound.
People seem much more laid back and friendly than in much of France. Cars usually stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings, and we exchange friendly ‘Bonjours’ with a smile. People everywhere seem happy to chat with me.
The only reason Réunion is not so very easy is that the island has all these super steep mountains, which were created so we could go hiking.
And since the seas are so full of unfriendly sharks that visitors only swim or surf a little bit, we all go mountain walking instead. Or to be precise, some go walking. Others run or ride their bicycles up and down these crazily steep slopes.
The place is covered in a network of steep hairpin roads, the hairiest hair pins you’ll find anyway outside your granny’s dressing table.
This allows access to hundreds of well-marked paths. As in the Alps there are excellent signs, maps and splodges of paint, so no one ever gets lost – except me.
And if mountain walking is too tame for you then every year they hold an international mountain ultramarathon, reputedly one of the toughest races in the world. It’s designed to bring out and satisfy the masochist in you – something the French excel in (see also Tour de France, Marathon des Sables, Vendée Globe – a question to ponder: is masochism an under-reported part of the French psyche?).
This year the Réunion endurance run, La Diagonale des Fous, Madmen’s Diagonal, will be held this week, mid-October (probably explains why in the time I’ve been here there are so many people running up and down these extremely steep and rocky paths – running!).
The course covers 166 km, with a total climb of nearly 10,000 metres (significantly more than Mount Everest).
There are over 1,000 entries, far fewer than usual, and winners usually finish in less than 24 hours; others may take three days. Although I have done a few standard marathons in my time, the thought of four marathons run consecutively on rocky and muddy little paths with Mount Everest included, leaves me incredulous. Even ambling along the paths in sedate style is a seriously tiring affair.
If you enjoy mountain walks in an exquisite variety of scenery both above and below the clouds, with fabulous wildlife and glorious views, Réunion is a dream.
If you’re not up to walking, then there are hundreds of helicopters. There are perhaps more helicopters per person than anywhere on earth, though I’m only guessing that. (For one well populated area in the Cirque Mafate, it’s how residents get their food supplies. They walk a couple of hours up a mountainside to where they keep their cars, drive down to a supermarket, leave their shopping for helicopter delivery, drive back up the mountain, and walk down to their homes. Not really popping out to the corner shop, is it)
While thinking of most, highest, biggest, etc, Guinness Book of Records stuff, I can tell you that Réunion, apart from its amazing number of helicopters, has records for heaviest rainfalls on earth (over 1.8 metres in 24 hours is one such) and for its size is one of the most biodiverse places on earth too. Its cirques, ramparts and pitons give its National Park (40% of the island) UNESCO World Heritage status.
And so for more than a month I’ve been wearing out joints and organs that are little used with life on a boat (ie. legs and lungs). Plus eating a lot and enjoying a subdued and civilised social life with the twenty or so visiting and resident boats.
We’re a mixed bunch of visiting boats, mainly French, but including Scandinavians, Chilean, Canadian, Madeira, Swiss, Réunion, Spanish, German and me (English). Réunion has new-found popularity with world-cruising sailors while both Mauritius and Madagascar remain shut.
I cherish and value the international goodwill and friendly helpfulness that are so much a part of cruising life. About half of us, maybe a dozen boats including me, will head for South Africa in the next few weeks, before the start of cyclone season.
Oh! This little creature that I stopped to chat with on one of my walks is not a slimline hedgehog, as I’d initially thought. It’s a tailless tenrec. It seemed friendly. Apparently good to eat. Maybe a useful word for Scrabble too. I’d not heard of tenrecs.