(A few months ago, I visited Réunion Island for Condé Nast Traveller India. A modified version of the piece below appears in the current issue of the magazine. I highly recommend picking up a copy, because the photographs are gorgeous – far better than the poor iPhone shots embedded in this post.)
A diffused, numinous quality inhabits the light over Réunion Island. The physics is not too complicated to explain. Every day, with utmost reliability, clumps of cloud form around the peaks of the island’s central mountains, filtering the tropical sun, allowing it to shine through only in broad shafts of golden light. These beams blaze at will upon Réunion’s plains of volcanic soil, its sugarcane plantations, its beaches of satin-soft sand, and the wind-tossed waters of the Indian Ocean that encircle the island. In a fanciful moment, it is possible to imagine some divine authority spotlighting, in turn, the varied seductions of Réunion’s landscape.
Geology has had a playful time here, confounding our expectations of this tiny outpost of France, this speck of rock lying due east of Madagascar. This is best seen from the air, so on my first morning in Réunion, I took a seat on a Helilagon chopper. As we clattered upwards, the full curve of the island’s west coast fell away, all sand and sun, bristling with yacht masts, looking every inch the French Riviera. But then we swooped into a gap in the mountains, past the extinct, 3,000-metre-high Piton des Neiges volcano, around its crater valleys, and through the Iron Hole, a canyon with waterfalls pouring off its lip. Within just eight minutes of flight, the weather had changed. We were in another of Réunion’s 200 microclimates, clouds assembled rapidly about us, and the wind bounced us around. We couldn’t, the pilot said, proceed on to Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, or to the forested east coast. All this diversity, packed into an island just 28 miles wide and 39 miles from tip to toe. The mind reeled.
It is easy to find, in the variety of Réunion’s population, a mirror of the terrain on which it lives. Among the 800,000 people on the island are descendants of French settlers, of African slaves, of Tamil indentured labourers and Gujarati merchants, and of Chinese and South East Asian immigrants. Réunion can appear to be a perfectly named post-racial idyll. “I visited and then decided to stay,” a Belgian woman told me, “because it’s a great place to bring up children. There’s no racism here at all.” This is true enough, but fortunately, it isn’t as if Réunion’s demographics have been whipped into some bland, homogenous confection. Rather, the island’s society is textured and jagged in all kinds of fascinating ways, holding hidden and surprising interconnections for the amateur anthropologist to discover.
Réunion’s striking mixture of humanity has been conferred upon it by geography and thence by history. As European explorers rounded the Cape of Good Hope and proceeded north-east towards India, the Mascarene Islands – Réunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues – were frequently used as mid-ocean pit stops. The French took the island in the middle of the 17th century, and its history evolved alongside France’s. It was called “Bourbon” until the downfall of that royal house and “Bonaparte” until the downfall of that emperor; the name “Réunion,” commemorating the 1792 concord between revolutionaries and citizen militias, stuck in a republican France. Slaves from Africa worked the island’s sugarcane plantations until 1848, when France abolished slavery its colonies. Subsequently, Réunion imported its labour: Tamils from the French-controlled areas near Pondicherry and Chinese from the Malay peninsula, all nominally under contract but toiling away in conditions indistinguishable from slavery. In 1946, Réunion became a French département, and it now sends three senators and seven deputies to the country’s legislatures in Paris.
My friend Sully Chaffre, a cheery man who drove me all over Réunion for four days, once pointed out how these histories had distributed themselves over the island’s geography. The people of Tamil and Chinese descent live in the north-east and south-west, where the plantations were – and still are – located. All around the coast are towns with classic French names: Saint-Denis, Saint-Gilles-les-Bains, Saint-Pierre, Saint-André. “But deeper in the mountains, the towns have names given to them by slaves who escaped and settled there, out of the reach of authority: Mafate, Cilaos.” Some of these settlements are, even today, famously inaccessible. The hamlets of Mafate have no police stations or hospitals, and they can be reached only by helicopter or on foot. Every year, thousands of hikers, delirious with joy at finding such unspoiled trails, tramp to and from Mafate.
“And the people who live there? How do they get around the island?” I asked Sully.
“Oh, they’ve become very good at walking,” Sully said, with a laugh. “Sometimes these veteran hikers will go on these trails, with their superb shoes and all their equipment, and they think they’ll be making good time. Then they’ll see some little boy from Mafate overtake them in just a pair of sandals.”
Sully told me about the Madman’s Diagonal, an arduous ultramarathon that takes place every October on Réunion: 162 kilometres in length, and with a cumulative altitude gain of 9,643 metres, more than the height of Mount Everest. He had never attempted it himself, but he had participated in virtually every other adventure sport the island offered; he named kayaking, canyoning, paragliding, diving and deep-sea fishing before he wearied of listing activities. In Réunion’s summer, beginning in October, athletic tourists swarm over the island, swathed in lycra, eager to jump, run, swim and climb. The island is an adrenalin junkie’s paradise.
Sully is a striking example himself of Réunion’s diversity. His father is of Tamil descent, his mother of Chinese, and his wife of European. He speaks Réunion Creole – which derived from a pidgin French, with loan words from other languages – but no Tamil or Chinese. This is almost always the case. In the quest to replicate the Gallic mainland, the French colonials effaced local languages and cultures. Hindu temples were proscribed, forcing the Tamils to construct tiny shrines in their backyards instead. The music known as Maloya – derived from the chants of slaves much as the blues was in America, and brimming with complex, infectious rhythms – was banned until the 1960s.
But culture is a difficult animal to slay right off. The island now celebrates Diwali nearly as extravagantly as Christmas, for instance, and new temples with vividly coloured gopurams, built in the traditional Tamil style, are beginning to sprout in the east. Pieces of Tamil have also survived in Réunion Creole: the livid chilli relishes served with every meal are called rugai from the Tamil urugai” or “pickle,” and the drumstick vegetable is known as baton murung, taking part of its name from the Tamil murungakai.
The habits of food are, in fact, particularly resilient. Witness the Creole cabri massalé, a curried goat with the word masala implicit in its name. Even in restaurants promising the most refined French food – complete with fussy cuts of meat and thick sauces – the Asian palate injects itself, in bright flavours of spice and citrus. At the restaurant at the Le Vieux Cep hotel, up in Cilaos, a chef named Patrick Ramasamy cooked for me – in addition to crisp boudin, fresh yams baked in cheese and béchamel, and duck with chili and coriander – a dish of stewed black lentils and smoked pork. Served with pristine white rice, the lentils tasted like a meaty, full-bodied dal. The meal came with a local sweet wine, tasting like young port, and outside the window next to me, Cilaos’ unfamiliar stone massifs rose into the sky, but on my plate was a powerful reminder of home.
I never ventured into the water at Réunion; it was early August – winter in the southern hemisphere – and even in these tropical latitudes, the sea was nippy. But the beaches were exemplary, their sands sloping invitingly down into the sea. The water was almost a platonic blue, the sort of blue of impossible clarity that the mind imagines when it thinks of that colour. Bars and restaurants line promenades in the towns along the west coast, their tables situated mere metres from the sea. In season, this is where the island’s most appealing nightlife resides: seafood and drinks on the tables, a live Maloya band nearby, and the milk-white surf pounding onto the sand.
Every time Sully and I drove along the shore, I looked longingly at the ocean. If I was lucky, Sully told me during one of these afternoons when I had my nose up against to the car window, I might spot a humpback whale, travelling up to its breeding grounds from as far away as the South Pole. “Sometimes you can see them even from the coast,” he said. “People will stop their cars on the highway and get out to watch.”
No whales made an appearance, although we always drove slowly when we were next to the sea, particularly in the south-east. This terrain is known as Le Grand Brûlé – the Big Burned Area – and it lies directly on the path of the lava that Piton de la Fournaise spews forth every few years. The ground is striated and shiny, the lava first scorching the soil and then settling into quicksilver-coloured rock. This segment of the island has been cleared of human habitation, but guides often lead tours through the maze of tunnels within the hollow rock, the walls still warm to the touch. Occasionally the volcano sends its fiery dispatches into villages on the borders of Le Grand Brûlé. In Sainte-Rose, I visited Notre-Dame-des-Laves, a church that had survived the eruption of 1977. The lava arrived at the church, spilled through the open doorway, but then went around the building, leaving it undamaged. This was promptly proclaimed to be a miracle, giving the church its present name: Our Lady of Lava.
One morning, Sully and I decided to drive up closer to the volcano, a two-hour drive from the east coast, up winding but impeccable roads, past meadows and cows that recall central Europe and not tropical Africa. As we climbed into the clouds, tatters of mist floated across the road and flecked our windshield. In the winter, the temperature in these parts can dip as low as 5 degrees Celsius; even in the middle of that afternoon, the car’s dashboard display showed an outside temperature of 7 degrees.
“Okay, now the road is going to make a turn, so close your eyes,” Sully said. “And don’t worry – I’m a good driver!”
I did as instructed, feeling in my stomach the car go around a sharp bend. “Open your eyes now,” Sully said.
Stretching away in front of us was a landscape out of Mordor – a black volcanic plain, streaked red in parts by granules of rust, and hemmed in by forbidding black mountains. A lone dirt path sliced through the plain, across which we now drove. The road concluded in a small clearing, where there was a hut that functioned as both viewing point and café, and from where parties of hikers set out every day to walk across one last stretch of plain and then climb the volcano.
On the afternoon we were there, bands of thick cloud obscured our view of Piton de la Fournaise. We waited around for a while, hoping that the skies would clear, but the volcano preserved its magnificent mystery well. It sat there behind the clouds, patiently digesting its molten rock, biding its time until its next eruption, reshaping Réunion in front of the very eyes of the islanders, providing a glimpse of how the earth worked not over decades or even centuries but over hundreds of thousands of years. Under our feet, the forces of geology laboured on, the creators of Réunion Island and the engines of the world.