Words by: Bryson
Latitude: 20 deg 56′ S
Longitude: 55 deg 17′E
The mighty Mascerene Archipelago covers almost 1.2 million square kilometers of the south western Indian Ocean. Comprising of the mighty volcanic peaks of Mauritius and Reunion, the rolling hills of outlying Rodriguez and the almost invisible islands of Cargados Carajos, the islands are the remnants of ancient land bridge that once connected Africa to Asia. The islands were uninhabited until the 16th century but Arab and Malay sailors had been using the islands as stopping points before heading off to other destinations for many years prior.
The Portuguese were the first to visit the islands, naming Mauritius “Ilha do Cirne” (Isle of the Swan). The infamous Dodo, an extinct flightless bird, called Mauritius home until sailors killed them all off for food thereby creating the roots of the phase “As dead as a Dodo”. The islands were subject to a fierce rivalry between the Dutch, the French and the British due to their geographical location on the South Africa to the East spice trading route, but also for their forests of Ebony. In the 1700′s the French took control over the islands naming Mauritius “Ile de France” and Reunion “Isle Bourbon”. Under the leadership of the French, vast sugar cane plantations and fortifications were built using Malagasy slaves.
All the islands were occupied by Britain during the Napoleonic wars, and while Mauritius, Rodriguez, and the Cargados Carajos islands were ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Paris, Reunion stayed under the rule of France. Reunion became known by its current name after a revolt of the slave labour in the 18th Century. Huge slave revolts occurred and some managed to escape to the interior of the mountainous volcanic island, where they lived under traditional chefs and began to call the island “La Reunion”. While the sugar industry continues to dominate the industry of both islands, they are beginning to export tea, vanilla, and tobacco and reap the benefits of a booming tourism market.
While geographically and topographically similar, the islands are very different in their “feel”. Reunion is an overseas department of France. Not a colony, but more like just another region of France. Everyone speaks French almost exclusively; many foodstuffs and French cuisine are air-shipped to the island. As a result the cost of living is exorbitant and unemployment is rife. The amount of money that the French Government must have to fork out to keep this far flung island under their control must be incredible. I wonder if their tax payers have any idea !
Mauritius, on the other hand, received independence from Britain in 1968 and has been forced to be somewhat self sufficient. Many items found in the groceries stores are imported from South Africa, and English is the official language. Despite this Creole and French are probably more prevalent but the kind natured people encourage our halting (if not non-existent) French. While the St Louis waterfront is all high-rises and 5 star hotels, and the Southern coasts are filled with vast expat villas, the interior towns and roads off the main thorough fares are filled with more ramshackle, conservative and rundown house, showing the true standard of living on the island. Despite this, the locals are all smiles and waves to the foreign visitor.
On our voyage across the Indian we had not planned to stop at either Rodrigues or Reunion, rather just heading directly to Mauritius and then onwards to Durban after a week or so of rest. Unfortunately, we are on a sailboat and dependant on the wind. The wind had other ideas about our plans. Sitting just 30 nm from Rodriguez and 380 nm from Mauritius, the wind died completely after two weeks of consistent trades. So we changed course and headed into Port Mathurin, Rodrigues to anchor for a couple days and wait out the wind “hole”. After a couple days of exploring the reefs, waves and back alleys of Rodrigues with our local guide, Andy, the trade winds filled in and we set sail for Mauritius.
After a few days in Mauritius, we once again started looking at the weather and trying to decide on our course of action for the trip to Durban. All we were greeted with from all weather sources was a four/five day wind “hole” again. No wind. Hmmm… Reunion is only 140nm from Mauritius, on the course for South Africa and has excellent facilities for yachties, so it suddenly became a viable option. So off we set (this time under the influence of the iron wind aka the engine)
Currently Khulula and her crew are sitting in “La Port” on the beautiful isle of Reunion enjoying the fresh baguettes, cheap brie and all the other benefits of the French lifestyle waiting for wind again. This time however, we need to make the move for South Africa. Once again, we are behind the “pack” of boats heading to South Africa, it seems we may have dragged our feet a little too long through Indonesia (I cannot understand why? ahaha). Cyclone season will be beginning soon and we do not want to be caught unawares.
It will be a momentous occasion for Ryan and I to sail to Southern Africa, where we were born, grew up, and, in many ways, is still our cultural home. And as they say, each journey starts with a single step, so in our case, our last journey in the Indian Ocean will begin with us pushing off from another dock, setting our weathered sails again, and choosing a course over the distant horizon.
Note: This blog was written before one of the best days of the year at the world famous St Leu. During our three day stop on Reunion, the gods smiled on us and provided ample swell for this world famous left hand reef break to show its true class. We pulled into the parking lot to be greeted by solid overhead waves peeling and barrelling down the point, mass disorder ensued as we all tried to pull our boards off the roof, wax them up, put fins in at the same time. What an incredible wave St Leu is ! After an easy takeoff, the wave runs down the reef getting bigger and rounder all the way to the channel. The local crew was all over it and we just tried to track down any available waves possible, all getting our fair share. Definitely on the list of waves, we will all come back to surf in the future ! Easy paddle from the beach, epic barrels and lips to smack, and tasty after surf treats on the beach.