Monday, January 4, 2010

The Middle of Nowhere Reunion Island and Mauritius

Map picture
Map picture

The Middle of Nowhere

Reunion Island and Mauritius

We travelled almost 800 nm east of the island of Madagascar to visit two small spots on the map of the Indian Ocean. First, we visited the Island of Reunion, and then the following day we moved another 135 nm east to visit the Island of Mauritius. I hope I can be excused in admitting that prior to this trip, I had never heard of either place, but then again there are over 100,000 islands on earth, so the lapse is perhaps understandable.

I have a saying about islands “every island looks like every other island.” I have found that to pretty much be true, but occasionally I find an exception, and Reunion Island would certainly be one of those exceptions. Its main source of revenue is, first and foremost, the production of sugar cane and its related products, which are processed on the island. The next major source of income is production and assembly of electronic devices. Tourism is only the third major source of revenue. The tiny island is a Provence of France, and as such, is a member of the European Union. The roads on the island are first class, and the entire island can be traversed by 4 lane interstate type roadways. In fact, if I had been blindfolded and suddenly dropped onto the island, when my blindfold was removed I would have guessed I was driving in the French countryside. The official language is French, and there is at least one flight per day to Paris.

Lisa and I rented a car and driver for the entire day, but he told us that it would not be possible to see the entire island. Well, he did not know us, we are quick travelers, who did not need for example a two hour lunch, but instead could suffice with a chicken McNugget and fries at the ever-present chez McDonald’s. Also, our visit occurred on a Saturday over the holiday weekend, so that there was almost no traffic.

After a short drive around the city, we headed into the mountains. The main attraction on the island is the volcano Piton de la Fournaise. The center of the island is a massive basaltic shield culminating with the giant crater at an elevation of over 8,000 ft. The volcano is among the most active in the world, erupting almost every year. The last major eruption was as recent as December 14th, 2009. I did manage to get some very good pictures of the moon-like landscape, which I think you will enjoy.IMG_5663

Leaving the mountain, we descended in the opposite direction from which we arrived, thus putting us on the other side of the island. It was obvious that unlike some islands, Reunion is not known for its beaches. It has a few, some of them black sand beaches, but nothing spectacular. It is a young volcanic island with an incredibly diverse topography. From the bare desert-like landscape of the volcano, we travelled into dense jungle-like growth to visit the other extraordinary feature of this beautiful island, the Cirques of Salazie. A Cirque is a unique natural landform of lush dense vegetation covering the surrounding deep chasms and narrow valleys in the south part of the island.IMG_5718 As you drive into the very narrow chasms, the mountains tower above you on all sides and the air is filled with the constant sounds of the many, many waterfalls dropping along the chasm walls. Climbing up the steep narrow winding roads is quite exhilarating, but eventually the narrow chasms open into deep wide valleys of incredible beauty. I was able to get some pictures, however the day had clouded over and the rains were beginning to fall, so our visit was cut somewhat short. We did get to stop briefly in a small town on our way back down the mountain for a few local pictures. IMG_5746

At the end of the long day, we had indeed managed to see the major attractions of the amazing island, and make it back to the ship with an hour to spare before it departed for an overnight run to Mauritius.

We arrived at Mauritius early the next morning. Even though Mauritius was once owned by the French (and the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish), the last colonial ruler was Great Britain. When the British departed, Mauritius became an independent republic. So, unlike its neighbor Reunion, it struggles to support itself on its own. English is the official language, but interestingly enough all the signs and billboards are in French, and the people speak French. In fact, we hardly heard English being spoken at all. The population of the island is a mix of cultures; however, the Hindus would appear to be predominant. Mauritius produces sugar like its neighbor, but then relies on tourism for its economy. It was obvious that the island is relatively prosperous, but clearly not as much so as its neighbor.

Both islands share a common ancestry in that they were formed by volcanic activity. Mauritius is the older of the two islands, and the plate on which it sits has long ago moved from the vent on the ocean floor that gave rise to its birth. So it does not have any volcanic activity currently, and what remains has been worn down by time and is now covered with dense vegetation.

Our day started fine enough with a quick drive around the city and an obligatory picture from the old fort atop the hill. IMG_5754 Our driver had such a heavy accent that he was very difficult to understand, and as I was to learn later he had a bad habit of acting as if he understood what I had said, when in fact he had no clue. It became clear that for our half day drive, he was planning on driving along the coast road and showing us the hotels and beaches on the North Shore of the island. This was not of interest to us, so I said that instead we wanted to visit the Carmel Colored Rocks in the mountains, which is a geological formation that puzzles geologists to this day. Our driver kept saying that it was too far for our time, so I offered to pay for his extra time. We were due back at noon, this way we would return to the ship at 1pm. We eventually agreed, I thought, but what I did not understand is that for some reason he just seemed not to want to go there. Traffic was very light, and we made really good time on our drive, but our driver kept veering off the main road to show us something or another. He would literally drive around in circles, stop at a driveway and proudly announce “this is the British Embassy,” and no more had he stopped, then he would slam on the gas and we were off again. This went on until both Lisa and I were about to lose our cool. After several hours of these shenanigans, we finally got quite near to our destination. IMG_5812 We had some good picture shots, and our timing looked just about right, when suddenly our driver announced that it was too far to make the Carmel Rocks and get to the ship by one, so we had to go back now. I looked at the map and I decided he was nuts, but what do I know, so reluctantly we allowed him to head back to the ship.

It quickly became obvious that we were making really good time on our return trip, and you can see this guy’s brain turning trying to figure out how to avoid getting back too early. He keeps offering to take us to this shop, or that old home, but we didn’t bite. So his only alternative was to slow down. He began to slow down a little at first, and as we got closer, he slowed down even more. When we were back on the highway where the speed limit is 110 kmh, he slowed down to 50 kmh, and kept getting behind large trucks in the slow lane and staying there while traffic flew by in the other lane. I look at Lisa and she looks at me and I am about to say something when he explains that there are many speed cameras and that he had to be very careful. In the end, after all his detours and explanations we arrived at the ship right on time at noon, not at 1 pm as he said we would. Needless to say, he did not get a tip that day.

I will try to have pictures from the last two stops uploaded by tomorrow. Today we are at sea headed for the southwest corner of Madagascar, and will arrive there day after tomorrow.


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