Now borne on stiff south-easterlies, Suka negotiated the 180-mile passage to Reunion swiftly. This island is tall for its diameter, its highest peak jutting over 10,000 feet above the sea. Theoretically, from the deck of a yacht the peak is visible at a distance of 118 nautical miles. We sighted it at 75 miles.
On the evening following our first day out, the auxiliary self-steering rudder ceased functioning. I crawled aft to investigate, and found that the vane's rudder assembly had wrenched itself from the transom. Towed by its safety lines, the contraption was water skiing. Struggling against the motion of rough seas, we managed to haul the apparatus aboard and to lash it onto the afterdeck without inflicting further damage to the massive assembly, to the ship's stern, and to ourselves. From there we took turns at the helm, thankful that the ship had not lost her self-steering while midway on a long passage.
The bright lights of Reunion's waterfront cities simplified navigating, and at 2 a.m. we rounded the island's north-west corner. Here we encountered a strong venturi, as the wind funneled around the island and increased to perhaps 40 knots. Then as we sailed under the island's lee, the wind died, leaving our little brig lying quietly under the weather shore, half a mile from land.
At dawn we entered the tiny, man-made harbor of Le Port. Several yachts lay alongside the concrete walls, and we rafted to the French sailboat Cipango. Her crew Jean Marc and Dominique quickly proved themselves most amicable.
In the small harbor of Le Port, Suka is rafted to the French sailboat Cipango.
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We were eager to explore the high country, but not wearing beach sandals; clearly, I would need a pair of shoes suitable for hiking. Our searching the shops of Le Port proved fruitless, so we rode a bus to the capitol city St. Denis, and bought a pair of running shoes.
Cirque de Mafate
The day following, we rode a bus along the steep winding road from Le Port to a village perched high on the hillside. Dos-d'Ane is situated slightly over 3,000 feet, and this is where we set off afoot. I toted a large backpack containing our camping gear, while Jenny wore a small day-pack, and hand-carried a double sleeping bag under one arm.
The red arrow indicates the start of our trail out of Dos-d'Ane, 3,000 feet down the endless switchbacks. View More
Hiking the switchbacks from D'os Dane, we catch a view of Le Port on the coast.
Half way down the switchbacks, the view of the cliffs across the gorge was stupendous.
From the same place, looking up into the Cirque. Our trail is visible in the center of the photo, as it crosses River des Galets.
The villagers offered directions when we became confused, and in this way we soon found the trail leading away from the houses and into the thicket. Well trod and maintained, the pathway traversed down the impossibly steep hillside in an endless series of switchbacks. Occasionally a gap in the lush foliage afforded a stunning view of the deeply cut canyon far below and of spectacular mountains towering above. Rumbling far beneath our feet, the river coursed through the canyon. Veiled in a distant and hazy cloak of mystery, Piton des Neiges thrust skyward into a ceiling of cloud.
By the time we had neared the canyon bottom, some 3,000 feet lower than our starting point, a throbbing of the feet dictated I revert to my well-worn beach floppies. Prior to this hike I had not owned a pair of shoes, let alone worn them for a few years. Jenny was enduring much the same difficulties, but she persisted in her shoes. Following the gorge, we crossed the River des Galets many times, wading to the knees. The trail led onward, following the ever steepening gorge, flanked on both sides by stupendous cliffs.
Following the River des Galets as we make our way into the Cirque de Mafate.
The legendary Cirque de Mafate was so ruggedly impenetrable that it had precluded man's otherwise ubiquitous roads. The trails here were the only means of reaching the Mafate, short of using aircraft. As such, they were not built for the tourist; rather, they were used by the islanders as their only means of travel.
Our afternoon's destination was the hut at Grand Place; however, somewhere along the way we missed the trail junction. The route we followed instead, "the route less traveled," began scaling the escarpment to our right. After we had climbed this several hundred feet, we could see our intended trail winding its way across the acclivity on the opposite side of the impressive ravine. The trail we followed was not depicted on the map we carried; nevertheless, we decided to continue. Looking upward, one could not imagine how the trail would circumvent each impossibly steep bank of cliffs, but somehow it did.
After climbing high on the opposite side, we catch a view of River des Galets, far below, and the trail leading to Grand Place. A few houses there are barely visible in the patch of green. Just right of that, in this photo, are houses of Lataniers (on our side of the river), where we are headed.
The trail to Lataniers is simply mind-boggling!
Late in the evening we hauled ourselves over an inconsequential rise, and found a cluster of hovels: a tiny village by the name of Lataniers. In French, Jenny asked a few villagers if the trail continued. Their surprise at our appearance suggested that few outsiders reach these parts, and we regretted our inability to speak their Creole language, as we were full of questions. Why were they living in such an improbable location, as though in self imposed exile?
A ways beyond Lataniers we get a good view of Grand Place lying improbably on the steep hillside across the gorge.
With daylight fading we bid the people good-bye and hurried on, anxious to find a place to camp. Soon we came to a stupendous cliff, most improbably traversed by our trail. In most places the rock had been hacked away, forming a narrow shelf; otherwise, wooden stakes had been driven into cracks in the rock, and these were covered with foliage and then with dirt. "Don't slip," I cautioned Jenny as we started across, trying to ignore the fact that two thousand feet steeply below, the River des Galets rumbled in a succession of sweeping cataracts. Part way across the expansive cliff we came to a small, level stance, some 15 feet square. This, I declared, would afford an ideal bivouac.
Our bivouac on the trail, plastered on a cliff just beyond Lataniers. Note the yellow garden hose the locals had strung to irrigate a tiny plot of vegetables. View Map
(Our bivouac is in the center of this map.)
I had figured that firewood would be scarce in the Mafate, because the locals would have long-ago collected it, so while hiking through the gorge, throughout the afternoon we had gathered small sticks and branches. This kindling I had carried beneath the top flap of my backpack. The foresight paid off, as the cliff itself was of course devoid of firewood. After striking a small cookfire, Jenny prepared supper while I sipped a mug of coffee and penned the daily journal entries. The evening was wonderfully serene, and we enjoyed it from one of the more spectacular vantages imaginable. Directly across the gorge squatted the minuscule village of Grand Place, and as dusk fell away and darkness blanketed the Mafate, one tiny light - a candle, or perhaps a kerosene lamp - was all that indicated the improbable presence of Grand Place.
Lataniers and our cliff-side bivouac.
The next morning we lingered awhile, awaiting sufficient daylight to snap a few photographs. Because of yesterday's dehydrating exertions, we had grown intensely thirsty. Curiously, suspended overhead was an ordinary plastic garden hose leading from a tiny and inaccessible seep, across the cliff and a few feet above the trail. No doubt this hose provided someones' water supply. At one point, though, the hose had chafed against the rock and was dribbling. Taking advantage of the mishap, Jenny placed our cooking pot in line with the drips, and in 20 minutes had collected a few quarts of pure water.
Our morning view of Grand Place lying across the gorge.
Jenny waves at the camera, a short ways beyond our campsite.
Balancing cautiously across the face of the cliff, we came upon two young men hacking at the mountainside with shovel and pick. The trail's final precipitous 50 feet had not yet been completed, so we clambered across a steep and crumbly section, made all the more awkward by our loads. Once around the corner and out of sight of the trail crew we found their lunch bags hanging in the shade of a scrawny tree. Into these we dropped small gifts of hard candies.
A short ways farther we found that the garden hose was irrigating a tiny plot of vegetables.
The trail led onward and ever upward, and eventually crossed a few small springs, where water seeped from the rocks. At each of these lay a small plot, burgeoning in a miniature jungle of bananas, taro, maize and other vegetables. Tiny patches of potatoes, irrigated by small wooden troughs or perhaps by hand-carried buckets, clung tenaciously to the terraced hillsides. These lent the impression of our having stumbled onto the grounds of the Swiss Family Robinson. The soil was excellent, and water was abundant, but level ground was severely lacking. Each flat spot, however tiny, had been meticulously cultivated to best advantage.
Women and children of Roche Plate.
Mid day we came upon a trail junction. Unable to determine the proper branch, we enjoyed a lunch stop while hoping that someone might pass who could provide directions. And indeed, a young lady, also wearing beach floppies, happened along carrying a basket of store-bought food balanced on her head. She appeared to be returning from a shopping spree, although we could not imagine from where. Jenny spoke a few words of French, and mentioned the name Roche Plate, our current destination, and the woman pointed the way.
Following a small stream, the path began climbing again in earnest. The heat was scorching so we stopped to indulge in a refreshing swim in one of the pools. Gaining altitude, the pathway led through a pine forest, of all things, and its soft pine needles provided a perfect place to stop and rest our aching legs.
A short ways farther, near the head of the cirque, we reached Roche Plate, a spread-out village. In the center of the village stood a school house, constructed at what must have been a great cost to the French government by transporting the materials by helicopter. The building of the various houses, though, had been a different matter: on their backs the natives had carried each bag of cement, all building materials, and every modest accoutrement.
Our ship-bound, atrophied lower limbs were now protesting against carrying on much farther, so at the next trail junction we decided to return, reluctantly, and by a different route.
At yet the next junction we met a pair of women, and stopped to visit with them. One spoke French, and she explained to Jenny that she lived in the city and was now about to return home after visiting with her cousin, here, in Roche Plate. Equipped with a little rucksack and wearing sturdy hiking shoes, she seemed the epitome of an alpinisma grandmere. The trail she would follow climbed the steep cirque nearly 3,000 feet to the road-head and her parked car, and the thought occurred to me to accompany her, as a quick way out, but I was forced to concede that in our depleted condition we would prove incapable of matching the pace of this venerable and obviously robust woman.
Cousins; one from Orangiers, and the other from the city.
The trail to Orangiers.
The other lady was returning to her home, down in Orangiers, so we walked in her company. She spoke a little French, and as we ambled along lightheartedly, Jenny and I helped her collect what few scarce sticks of firewood were to be found. Nearing the village, the woman began venturing from the trail to collect her kindling the more adamantly, so we bid her amiable good-byes, and continued with our journey.
Orangiers was a village of some 20 houses, according to the woman, but these were so deftly tucked away in the thickets that we saw only a few of them. From there the trail plunged into a canyon, not the Galets, for we were thousands of feet in altitude above that. While following it we saw the occasional weather-beaten farmer plodding along, bearing over his shoulder a sack of potatoes. Once, we saw two men coming down the steep hillside with their potatoes, apparently returning home from their farmlets, located at impossible parcels about the steep faces of the mountains.
Late in the afternoon we came to a concrete aqueduct into which the stream disappeared. Imagining that this would probably be our last water supply, we stopped on the trail to cook supper. Here also was a profound dearth of any firewood, and after no little searching we scrounged hardly enough feeble twigs to fuel a hasty meal.
Using a few dry branches, Jenny cooks dinner on the trail.
We both hiked in beach thongs (floppies) during this part of the trip. Note that we always remove any trace of our cookfires when finished cooking.
After eating we walked a ways farther in search of a flat place spacious enough to accommodate the bedroll. Nightfall was nearly upon us, yet the terrain was unfeasibly steep and irregular. The best we could find was a wide place in the trail, so there we threw down our poncho and sleeping bag, happy that the evening skies portended no rain.
At 3 am, three voices in the Cimmerian night tromped briskly past, the men obviously headed for town. Perhaps theirs was a routine journey, and what a long walk lay ahead of them, as it did us.
At dawn we set out, and followed the interminable trail winding down the prodigious mountains. The gravel trail had been built atop the aqueduct, so it seemed rather like a modern turnpike for the serious walker. It led under splattering waterfalls and over precarious, rickety bridges, and it treated the walker to stupendous views into the gorge Galets. Directly across the way stood the mountainside we had descended from Dos-d'Ane, three days previously.
Following the aqueduct.
Beyond the aqueduct.
Eventually the trail diverged from the aqueduct, and here the trail became much steeper. The day was sultry and we sweated profusely, and pondering the pain of leg muscles wearied from the constant downhill pounding, I complained to Jenny that "my brakes hurt."
In the wake of six hours of such pile driving we reached a gravel road, and in another few miles, a small store. Here we bought and devastated considerable quantities of cold drinks. After another hour's hobbling we reached the most outlying bus stop, and soon were whisking along the highway, seated in comfort.