Ooh La La Réunion!

Nico Cyprien continued exclaiming animatedly long after he was out of sight- and very likely when out of earshot- as he rappelled down the waterfall on the Fleur Jaune in Cilaos, high up on Réunion Island which lies between Madagascar and Mauritius.

It says a lot about an island only 51km at its widest and 72km long that someone who has been enthusiastically guiding visitors for over a decade is still discovering new pleasures. And it’s easy to see why this French expatriate settled here after living on five continents and traversing most of the globe. If you’re considering a trip of a lifetime, consider Réunion. If you have a French or E.U. passport marry me and let’s relocate!

My Favourite Things

The famous song from The Sound of Music does not mention countries, but Réunion Island incorporates so many of mine.

Your country, my country- as long as we’re not playing cricket against the Aussies (insert country of choice), it doesn’t matter to me. I do however love my home country, South Africa, and never considered relocating. That was until I visited Réunion- a couple of times.

Although it’s been a couple of years since my last visit, I’ve kept in touch. Nico and I are more than Facebook friends. And I’ve sent others, who affirmed that I wasn’t overstating my case in my role as unofficial island Public Relations Officer. My mate Sophie traverses continents and sails across oceans- and she sails with Rob who does nothing but sail, all over the world. After a week or so she was as enthused as me (Réunion shares top spot with Iceland) and Rob has the island in his top five.


This beautiful little French province is a fantastically diverse mix of cultures and geography.  The melting pot of islanders is mostly a Creole mix.  Sugar, rum, vanilla, essential oils and seafood are synonymous with Reunion and over 40% of the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The land rises swiftly from the shores to high plains and mountain heights and the climate ranges from humid to dry tropical to Mediterranean.  There are hundreds of microclimates- a good thing if you like food, because it means that tropical foods flourish along with those from colder climes- strawberries and watermelon for example.

The combination of first world structure and island life suits most Réunionnais. The French government promotes Réunion as a tourist destination and has innovative green projects in place. Most homes have solar power and there are wind farms and fields of solar panels. There is a separatist movement but the headquarters were deserted and listlessly dilapidated when I had a looksee. Why? Well, the first inhabitant were French with free Malagasy people and more than one islander commented on the plus of enjoying the perks of France’s infrastructure, while being far removed from “homeland” politics. Things cost a little more, but there are tax breaks. The rich are very much so while the poor among the population of about 866 000 rely a lot on social welfare, but there is an ineffable quality of life money can’t buy.

How’s the weather?

Your guess may be as good as anyone’s. Nico and his Czech born wife Libuse have guided final year Czechoslovakian meteorological students. This is because the weather on Réunion, with an estimated 200 microclimates, is so hard to predict. Unlike other Indian Ocean islands, Réunion is a huge, dimply, high pimple rising steeply out of the ocean, causing disruption to wind and ocean flow, plus it lies above-and was formed by- one of the planet’s major hot spots.

Drive 15-20 minutes and you can find yourself in a completely different ecosystem, something Nico clearly gets a kick out of. “I’m going to take you to some savannah” he once announced and, sure enough, a while later I felt as if I was back in the African bush. The many definite changes of scenery, vegetation and perspective are some of the things that delight me most about the island. Hard to get bored if you can experience a different “country” more than once a day.

The island is essentially formed by two volcanoes: the inactive Piton des Neiges (Peaks of Snow)- which tops out at 3070m and sees snow once every 7/8 years- and Piton de la Fournaise (The Furnace Peak), one of the most active- and safest- volcanoes in the world.  Réunion has three beautiful, distinctly different calderas or cirques- huge, steep, bowl-shaped valleys resulting from the older volcano’s collapse and water erosion. Salazie is wet, with waterfalls and rainforests, Cilaos is similar to South Africa’s Western Cape mountains and Mafate- somewhere between the two- is a rugged wilderness accessible only by foot or air.

ancient cannons in St Denis

Flying in, one touches down outside the subtropical capital city of St Denis. The town has a mix of French colonial buildings and fortifications built with incredibly durable blocks hewn from volcanic rock, wooden Creole-style and some typically European buildings, with a lack (thankfully) of high- rise towers. The island architecture is charming- symmetrically laid out wooden sided buildings with verandahs (varanque) and floral motif fretwork under the eaves and tin or wood- tiled roofs. Colours are fresh and bright, with complete and careful restoration of dilapidated buildings an ongoing project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From St Denis, many visitors head along the coast to Saint Andre and up into Salazie. I recall that on my first visit a light misty drizzle set in, creating beautiful atmospheric effects and causing the myriad of waterfalls on this, the wettest part of the island, to turn to seething torrents after a few hours. Neither words nor camera can do justice to the breathtaking views. Through staggeringly beautiful, narrow valleys and up steeply climbing roads, one passes roadside shrines. These dot the island and reflect the mix of predominantly Catholic belief mingled with Hindu, Tamil and Islam.

The highland village of Hell Bourg with its ruined thermal baths (a volcanic eruption diverted the spring system) is a delightful glimpse of yesteryear- charming Creole houses with gardens ablaze with beautiful flowers and herbs, several endemic to Réunion. On the subject of endemic, Réunion has no poisonous spiders, no snakes and the main predator is its only bird of prey, the Papanque. Le Relais des Cimes provided a fine lunch, much of which we saw on our journey. Chou chou/ chayote/ sju sju vines cover trees and hillsides and were served au gratin.

The food on Réunion- a mix of French cuisine and Creole delights – is as wonderful as the scenery. Be adventurous. Seafood abounds, the caris are delicious as is gratin palmiste, smoky sausage is great and carne cabris massale an unexpected highlight. Vegetarians will not be disappointed as the islanders pride themselves on their lentils and legumes whilst chou-chou grows incredibly profusely. Meals are typically accompanied with locally produced rum punch (buy your own rhum arrangé “starter pack”) or aperitif, wine, and the pleasant, relatively inexpensive Réunion Bière Bourbon, also known as La Dodo. (Legend has it that the extinct Dodo existed on Reunion). I was happy to see that fast food joints do not thrive, but patisseries/ boulangeries do.

Cilaos is the sunniest and driest of the three calderas and is overlooked by Piton des Neiges. “The road with 420 bends” takes you through tunnels and along cliff faces into a different world. Cilaos- from a Malagasy word meaning “the place you never leave”- is aptly named. The majestic alpine setting is a paradise for sporty adrenaline junkies, nature lovers and those simply there to relax with a glass of local wine in a thermal spring.

With so much to see and do you probably won’t relax long. Canyoning beckons – and what a treat! Wide- eyed, crazily grinning faces are the order of the day on the way down cliffs and waterfalls into crystal clear mountain pools.

A highlight for me was a Creole picnic with the lovely Raymonda Gontier and charming husband Mikael. It began with the ubiquitous rhum arrangé (a potent rum liqueur). This couple have some 80 varieties, infusing rum with a delicious variety of herbs, fruit, flowers and spices. Our lunch consisted of pork and chicken dumplings for starters wrapped in rice ‘pastry’. We progressed to quiche with Cilaos lentils and dark, smoked homemade sausage, Marlin with endemic “mango” ginger, chicken in Cilaos wine with fish sauce from the potjie. Food on Réunion is always accompanied by rougail – interesting side dishes/condiments with, for example, tomato, peanut butter, and almost always an aubergine version. We topped off with corn cake and gâteau maison and vanilla rum, plus home roasted, vanilla flavoured coffee sweetened with honey from their apiary.

Raymonda runs cooking courses and Mikael grumbled about the weight he’s gained since they opened their guest house in the stunning mountain hamlet of Ilet a Cordes.

I was also thoroughly entertained by Noe Noe Dijoux, who owns the charming Hotel Tsilaosa where I stayed. In his downstairs cellar he regaled us with the history of wine in the area, plying us with various vintages and varietals, accompanied by excellent Piton Maido, one of 17 local cheeses, and salami.

Cilaos produces naturally sparkling mineral water (there are four water companies on Réunion) and the spa is popular with local and overseas visitors. Before leaving we shopped for rhum arrange kits, settling on Faham (wild orchid) with vanilla and cinnamon.

 

Another spectacular drive up from the coast- to the volcano this time- encompasses pastoral farmland, panoramic views toward the high peaks and down to the sea. En route we dined at Auberge du Volcan, where gratin palmiste (palm hearts) and carne cabris massale, two typical Reunion dishes, stole the show. Who knew goat could be so tender and succulent?

Plaine des Sables- conspiracy theorists reckon this is where Mars Rover actually went

The drive climbs above forests to fynbos and the otherworldly expanse of volcanic grit, Plaine des Sables, en route to the view over the lava landscape created by previous eruptions of Piton de la Fournaise. It’s reassuring to know that the volcano is one of the safest and most studied in the world. It’s a “red” volcano and doesn’t spew ash, is not on a fault line and when it does erupt the caldera of high cliffs it created ensures the lava flows toward the ocean.

 

Descending to the volcanic plain- pic Nico Cyprien

On the way back, after a bracing hike up and down the cliff face of the volcano’s caldera and onto the magma moonscape, I’d recommend Ti Resto Lontan, facing the Volcano Museum, where they cook on wooden fires.

The caldera of Mafate is a wilderness accessible only by foot or helicopter and like much of the island is a hiker’s paradise with over 140km of footpaths in varied landscapes among 10 peaks.

Hiking in Mafate. Pic Emmanuel Virin

My knees are buggered so I can’t hike that far, but a helicopter provided amazing sights of little clifftop settlements, ravines, sweeping forested canyons and valleys. Cloud covered the two peaks that day so unfortunately I did not get a bird’s eye view of the volcano or Cilaos.

The coastline of Réunion is as dramatically varied as the interior. In the north- at St Denis- black polished rocks below sheer cliffs form the shoreline. Moving south the road crosses the lava field, steaming under a downpour. The road was rebuilt after lava flows some 60m thick in ’07 and vents on the roadside are still hot enough to scald, Here there are narrow sandy coves between steep headlands and the humidity gives way to drier, savannah-like areas. Some beaches are golden, others black- and they become longer and are protected by coral reefs heading west. The west coast is where almost all the snorkelling, surfing and other water activities take place. It has the biggest selection of hotels and is a popular base from which to explore on self-drive day trips. Five star Palm Hotel, about six kilometres from St. Pierre in the other direction toward St. Joseph was, for me, the most charming spot, though the sprawling five star Lux Hotel in Saint Gilles probably has the most to offer, with a beautiful coral reef and calm, still waters on its doorstep. L’Orangine, the fine restaurant, is superb.

Here I dined on Toothfish and potatoes in a champagne sauce, with the champagne clearly evident and marrying perfectly with the white fish. Tuna and beef, roasted potatoes with a coffee sauce and foie gras topping were simply heavenly.

Réunionnais like to party. One visit coincided with the annual carnival in the coastal town of Saint Gilles Les Bains and, after an elegant dinner at Boucan Canot Hotel’s Le Cap restaurant, we joined the crowds still thronging late on a Sunday evening- around 50 000 attended. What a fun atmosphere! Everyone was chilled- if that’s possible while partying up a storm. Among the painted faces, elaborate hairdo’s and fancy costumes were mums pushing prams through the jam-packed streets past dj’s, pumping music and light and smoke shows.

Expect to give way on the mountain twisties if driving. Thank goodness for the islanders’ attitudes! They are polite, patient and reserved. It is safe to cross at pedestrian crossings- even at peak times. When Nico flagged an oncoming car to ask advice we South Africans hunkered down as traffic backed up while the two drivers chatted for several minutes in the middle of the road but nobody hooted, nor flashed lights or rude signs. There are lessons to be learned from this rainbow nation not far from ours.

Hitchhiking hikers are commonplace, getting from one hiking trail or hut to another. Pick them up. You’ll hear some interesting stories.

Adventure seekers, the list is extensive- paragliding, all forms of mountaineering, spelunking, exploring lava “tube”: tunnels, white water rafting, surfing, diving, fishing, hiking. Canyoning is highly recommended.  There is plenty of culture to soak up- Musée Léon Dierx in St Denis for example has a renowned collection of international and local artists. Buy award winning vanilla products from family industries. Essential oils likewise won’t tax your baggage limit. Volcanic pebbles won’t cost a cent. An ultralight flip is highly recommended. If you can afford another 100e each, take a chopper.

Getting there from South Africa: Air Austral (www.air-austral.com- excellent service, excellent food) flies between Johannesburg and Saint Denis every Thursday and Sunday. South Africa passport holders do not need a visa.

More information: See the Réunion Island Tourism website at www.reunion.fr/en. Maps and brochures can be requested by email from reunionisland.za@atout-france.fr

The go-to guide for Réunion Island Tourism is Nicholas Cyprien-https://www.facebook.com/nicocyprien / globotrotero@free.fr – and I cannot recommend him highly enough.

Constance Tsarabanjina

I hate questions like “What’s your favourite song?” At what time of the day, in what mood, for what reason, in what circumstances/ season etc. etc.? I listen to a lot of varied music, I visit a lot of varied places.

I hate being put on the spot too I guess but if you asked me “What’s the best place you’ve ever been?” Constance Tsarabanjina is right up there, any time of the day. Continue reading “Constance Tsarabanjina”

Nosy Be

If You’re Heading To Nosy Be (and you should)

There are so many reasons to visit. Lemurs of course-and many other endemic or unusual species of flora and fauna too. 90% of the species in Madagascar are found nowhere else on earth.

I’ve never been to the mainland (though many I know have spent time there). I have, however, visited Nosy Be (Big Island) and several of the satellite islands- there are fifteen in total- that comprise the collective also known as Nosy Be, off the north western coast of Madagascar proper.

While the mainland is, in many respects, an ecological nightmare, Nosy Be and the surrounding islands is mostly reserve, on land and sea, making it Madagascar’s natural showpiece. And what a showpiece it is!

Dirty Laundry- Corruption, poverty, sex, disease

Let’s get this out of the way- and I’ll try not to rant. There’s some crazy shit going on around the globe and, whatever bad things you read about Madagascar (don’t get me started on sensationalist journalism), the Nosy Be area is not the same as the mainland and I feel way safer there than I ever did in, for example, Istanbul, between bomb attacks.

If you’ve been to Africa, you’ll understand. If you are scared off by what you read in the media, you will never know what you’re missing.

Corruption is rife but hardly affects visitors who are, after all, everyone’s bread and butter. You get a sense as you disembark at the Hellville airport. Make sure you have USD30 or Euro25 for your entry visa and don’t expect change. Know that you will be asked for a “gift” by each of the officials- and you will be needlessly shuttled between five or so. Just decline. No need to be intimidated. They are just trying it on.

Similarly at the frequent roadblocks. These affect your driver, not you, and I had a good laugh when I asked my driver what he had given the policeman. A hotel brochure. It’s a daily, de rigueur dance and the locals know all the moves.

The darkest side of corruption and poverty is the sex trade. You’ll see signs regarding that in Hellville and, if you hang around Hellville, a lot more besides. I have no tips for you concerning that.

International media had a field day in 2017 regarding the “Black Death”. To quote World Health Organisation official Charlotte Ndiaye: “It is as if the plague is the end of the world… but it is a disease like any other… We are lucky that treatment is available for this disease and it is free.”

More importantly, there have been no cases in Nosy Be. See this blog: https://lonepalmjewelry.com/blogs/captains-log/captains-log-16-october-2017-1027
It’s been handled very well and, on their website, “WHO advises against any restriction on travel or trade on Madagascar…”, something reiterated by the Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Taleb Rifai, in November 2017.
“WHO expects more cases of plague to be reported from Madagascar until the typical plague season ends in April…”

You are more likely to get Malaria, so take prophylactic treatment to be safe. For the record, I have travelled in and out of malaria areas more times than I can remember. I stopped taking prophylactics years ago. I have not contracted malaria. Mozzie spray is recommended.

Comparisons

Nosy Be is way different to the Indian Ocean destinations that I have visited- La Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles (though I have not seen all of the Seychelles islands, which are scattered across an immense area), Zanzibar and others spots on and off the Mozambique coast.

Mauritius is lovely but very commercialised (not my thing) and similar in many ways to my part of South Africa. Mahe and Praslin are extremely beautiful and I love it there, but I constantly remind myself that much of the flora is imported, as is most of the food. La Reunion is somewhere I would happily live but that’s another story. Besides, poking a tad over 3000m from the sea gives La Reunion a very different climate (climates actually) and, being a French province, it’s quite first world by comparison. Zanzibar is beautiful but my experience was largely of walled, cheek by jowl, resorts- a tourist trap with incredibly persistent hawkers. Mozambique is, well, complicated (the roadblocks are way worse) and not as beautiful.

Nosy Be is more densely forested, jungly, wilder, more exotic than any of the above. Only a few of the fifteen islands are inhabited. Poverty is evident but not abject. Delicious and varied produce and, of course, seafood, is abundant so nobody’s starving. “Nosy Manitra” (the perfumed island) is one nickname for Nosy Be and ylang ylang, coffee, cacao, vanilla and sugar cane plantations distil a deliciously balmy fragrance in the warm air. People are laidback. Shouting and gesticulating is not their way- even taboo (fady).  There are many fadys and they vary from community to community, so be sure to ask (quietly). This, and a few Malagasy words or phrases, will go a long way to making your visit all the more enjoyable.

I do have tips on tipping and money. Draw Ariary, the local currency, at an ATM in Hellville as money changers will maximise their profits at your expense. You will get better prices from traders if you use Ariary, but USD and Euros are widely accepted.

There’s another form of currency- just for tipping, and this applies in other poor countries. A seasoned fellow traveller’s suitcase was packed with clothes he didn’t use or need and he went home with an almost empty suitcase. I now routinely leave obviously placed caps, folded clothing, slip slops etc. when I check out, especially in remote areas where items are not easily available.
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Out And About

Diving is probably the top drawcard here and there is plenty of fishing, swimming, snorkelling and sailing if you prefer to stay close to the surface. Every lodge or resort will arrange those and other activities. Alternatively MadaGascaT have live aboard charters- which rolls all that into a package that I am itching to do.

Wherever you explore, be it by boat, foot, quad bike or mountain bike, be courteous. The Malagasy people are generally reserved but open up if you engage with them, I found. They are genuinely friendly, not just because you are a paying customer. I like that and was touched by several as I toured.

Claudio Harrys, my Be Welcome guide, was one. A gentle soul, Claudio first took me, paddling a pirogue (dugout), alongside a steeply rising, forested stretch of Nosy Be from Ambatozavavy to Ampasipohy Community Reserve (Lokobe National Park). Here Anwar Alle guided us through the muddy paths in the dappled light of the humid forest.

On hundreds of African game viewing excursions I’ve always been amazed at guides’ spotting abilities, but Anwar takes the cake! The Giant Leaf Tailed gecko may be huge but is incredibly well camouflaged, the large spiders and boa constrictors not so much (happily, no venomous types in Nosy Be). But the mostly nocturnal lemurs, some the size of mice and endemic to Nosy Be- like many of the trees and flowers- can be hard to spot, hidden in the dense foliage. Panther Chameleons, with males reaching 44cm, are a doddle but Madagascar also has the world’s smallest chameleons- the size of a pinkie fingertip- which take some finding.

 

 

 

 

Frogs, bats, trees and flowers- including some vaginal beauties- and much more. Then it was back to the little village’s lunch spot above the bay for a delightful lunch in yet another beautiful setting, accompanied by colourful song and dance from the women.

Back we went- this time getting a tow from a passing motorboat, so all we really had to do was bail water. If you are visiting Nosy Be, this is a must-do (not the bailing bit).

I was reunited with Claudio on a full day’s visit to Tanikely Marine Reserve- on and around a small, uninhabited island a little way off from Nosy Be.

The snorkelling at Tanikely is superb, swimming with green and hawksbill turtles in the tap water clear, warm water a real treat. Much of the coral was bleached a couple of years ago but the sealife is abundant- rays, eels, fish of every colour, ranging from shimmering shoals of tiny types to giant pufferfish and large groupers. Huge sea urchins and giant clams, nudibranchs, octopi and unusual sea cucumbers are just some of the sights around the reef which is only about 30m from the shore.

Lunch- made offshore on the boat (no fires allowed)- was what you find everywhere, and delicious: rice, veggies, seafood, Zebu (the local cattle)- seated on a log rectangle at a table of piled up and flattened sand bedecked with a colourful cloth, under the shade of trees fringing the forest. Entering the forest, one goes up, with many stops for pics of lemurs, crabs, bats and more, to an interprative centre and the now-defunct lighthouse which affords great views and a way to get your bearings among the islands.

If the tide is right, you can walk around the island in about 45 minutes. If you like solitude I recommend getting there early, before boatloads of other visitors arrive- though there’s always space.

Claudio also showed me Hellville, the colourful, somewhat chaotic and Cubanesque capital (named after a person, so never fear). The bustling produce market is worth a visit for a looksee, vanilla, fragrances and spices. Finely crafted jewellery from shops in the main road is worth considering and I came home with lots of fine Madagascan chocolate.

Heading out of town, we lingered at the site of a humungous, sacred banyan tree (Malagasy beliefs are largely a blend of Catholicism and Animism). Our guide, and the posing lemurs, were enchanting, the banyan truly impressive, the little museum rather interesting and the rhum arrangé and coffee, looking out to sea, most welcome.

Mostly Muslim Marodoka was another stop. The 9th century village of Swahili origin, which attracted Indians and Arabs, was the first in Nosy Be. Madagascar’s first mosque is here and the Indian cemetery, dating from the 17th century, was one of many sights that made me wish I was a film director.

There’s lots I haven’t done, lots yet to do (I unfortunately had to cancel my last trip- but soon!). Beautiful Nosy Iranja, a favoured hawksbill turtle hatchery, for example.

But it’s not so much about the doing as the being and soaking it all up. Pick a perfect spot (and another, and another) and be as rooted as the banyan, or gad about. Either way, unplug, observe and immerse yourself in the experience- “Mora Mora”(relax, it will happen – it just takes time) as the Malagasy say.

 

Getting There, Getting About

MadagasCaT Charters and Travel arranged my seamless itinerary. MadagasCaT are members of Nosy Be Tourism Board and are the private partner behind Airlink’s direct flight to Nosy Be. MadagasCaT are the main contributors for the Nosy Be chapter in the Bradt Guide to Madagascar for the last four editions. Call +27 21 2000173 and visit www.madagascat.co.za

Airlink connects you to your unique Indian Ocean island getaway, Nosy Be, on Sundays and also has seasonal flights from Johannesburg to Nosy Be return on Wednesdays from 28 March to 2 May, 27 June to 10 October 2018 and 19 December to 2 January 2019. Airlink, now connecting you to 37 destinations in nine African countries and St Helena Island. Book your flight direct on www.flyairlink.com or call SAA Central Reservations on 011 978 1111. Spread your wings- fly Airlink.