We hired Michel Martin, one of our French yachting friends, to sew a third reef in our mainsail. He worked in Suka's cabin because it had much more space than on his own smaller boat "Why Should I."
Our objective for a second hiking excursion was to scale the highest peak on Reunion Island, Piton des Neiges - mountain of the snows. In winter the summit is frequently dusted in "real snow" boasts the tourist brochures.
Cirque de Salazie
So after recuperating a few days we set out again, beginning this pilgrimage with a long series of bus rides around the island's northern perimeter, then steeply inland. The road climbed into a cirque, or amphitheater, known as de Salazie. Three large cirques flank Piton des Neiges: Mafate, Salazie, and Cilaos. Unlike the Cirque de Mafate, the Cirque de Salazie and the Cirque de Cilaos are both accessible by roads, and this Salazie encompassed a great deal of reasonably level and fertile terrain. With ample rain for irrigation, Cirque de Salazie was an agriculturist's dream come true.
Jostling along the ever climbing road, we passed through several climatic zones, each a succinct ecosystem displaying characteristic flora, and each governed by an ambient temperature that decreased markedly with altitude.
The town of Hell-Bourg, Reunion.
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At road's end is a quiet little town with the curious name Hell-Bourg. The setting was forcibly reminiscent of an alpine vacation retreat, with lush foliage, quaint Swiss chalets bedecked in potted flowers, dramatic views in every direction, an unexcited populace, and a decidedly bracing atmosphere. All that lacked were the gaudy, moiling tourists. Late in the afternoon we took a room at the chalet Relais des Cimes, which was the kind of place where one could sit on the veranda for hours, quietly absorbing the invigorating setting.
Rising in the dawn of a positively frigid morning, we set out upon the trail climbing to the summit of Piton des Neiges. Once again I freighted the big backpack while Jenny toted the small day pack and carried the bedroll under one arm. And this time we carried an umbrella in the likely event of rain.
“A slow pace is even more necessary when the challenge is a peak 6,700 feet overhead.”
The secret to climbing a long steep trail is to adhere to a slow, methodical pace. The slow pace is even more necessary when the challenge is a peak 6,700 feet overhead, and when one has spent the better part of the year sitting idly aboard a sailboat. At any given moment my pace felt ludicrously slow; nevertheless, as the hours slid by, the earth dropped ever farther away.
As we reveled in the striking scenery, occasionally we encountered a trail junction, whereupon we heeded the directions related by residents of Hell-Bourg: "Follow the signs to Terre Plate." Indeed, this advise proved correct. What impressed us the most was the vegetation - it was unique, lush, and at regular intervals its life zones changed dramatically. Gaining altitude we passed through giant, tree-size and prehistoric-like ferns; we passed staghorns and bromeliads; then fields of colorful and gorgeous fuchsias; then a plethora of unfamiliar but impressive plants and flowers; and after passing through jungles, and then rain forests, we reached alpine meadows.
Hiking through jungles above Hell-Bourg.
Mid day, while ascending into a staunch, cloudless blue sky, we attained the upper plateau bastioning the cirque's rim, this at 7,000 feet. The sight of the surrounding ocean jolted us with the reminder that we were upon but a relatively small island, a mere dot upon a nautical chart of the vast Indian Ocean. But what a fabulously interesting dot it is!
Another hour of trekking across dry, barren slopes of coarse volcanic rock brought us to the Dufour Hut. We had planned to sleep in a nearby cave and assault the peak early the following morning - before any clouds had developed, as these typically obscured the views. But drinking water was not to be found anywhere, and we had grown raggedly dehydrated. Driven by a raging thirst, we stashed our gear in the cave and dashed for the summit.
At the wharf, our friend Michel had jokingly advised us to carry our ID papers on the hike. "You never know," he jested, "you might run into the police up there on the Piton." And indeed we did, and no less than 20 of them. It seems that the gendarmes were out for a little exercise, climbing the peak. Passing us by while traipsing downhill at a determined pace, they were not, however, interested in our credentials.
Climatically, the trade winds extend vertically only to about 10,000 feet. We had climbed above them, and found the air dead calm. We gained the summit scarcely ahead of an encroaching batch of clouds, and after allowing a hyphenated rest while sharing the last few sips in the water bottle, we beat a hasty retreat, driven by nagging thirst.
On the summit of the highest peak on Reunion Island, Piton des Neiges - mountain of the snows. The frayed hair is an electrostatic effect.
Cirque de Cilaos
An hour's stumbling doggedly back down the mountain returned us to the cave, where to our dismay we discovered that a toothsome rodent of some stature had chewed a gaping hole in my backpack, and had managed several sizable bites of a loaf of French bread. Shouldering our loads, mine now somewhat ragged, we pressed down the mountain, following a trail leading the direction opposite from that which we had come. This trail led into the Cirque de Cilaos. Descending, we found the scenery most interesting, yet by now our sense of aesthetics had all but vaporized by an almost overwhelming urge to find water. Down and down we went, following a trail that had been "improved" by the fitting of log steps every 18 inches. These forced an unnatural and mercilessly unvarying stride, and one that jack-hammered our hip sockets until they were practically begging for mercy.
About to descend the steps from hell.
We found it incredulous how far down the mountain we had to press in order to locate water. Every stream bed, every rivulet, and every spring was dry. Two-thirds of the way down the mountain Jenny thought - again - that she heard the trickling of water. Detouring into a dry stream bed she peered into a small pocket and indeed found dripping water. Beneath this she set the cook pot, and before long we had our water, deliciously chilled and crystal clear. The long draughts were unspeakably refreshing.
After yet more pounding down this interminably wretched stairway we reached a gravel road. And when we had followed this only a short distance, a school bus pulled over and the driver offered us a ride. This was greatly appreciated, but it soon had us worrying when the driver proceeded to pump the brakes continuously and furiously while careening down the steep road and into the small town of Cilaos.
Hotel du Cirque in the town of Cilaos.
We found a room at the Hotel du Cirque, and suitably equipped with several bottles of cold, sparkling mineral water, together we fell into the bath and indulged in a sybaritically protracted, steaming hot, and a well deserved soak.
"You know, the problem with world cruising," I gamboled with my intrepid companion, "is that it's so banal."
The church spire of Cilaos is dwarfed by towering cliffs above.
The following morning we enjoyed a lengthy soak in the village's naturally heated mineral baths. Then in the absence of any bus we opted for an inexpensive and extended taxi ride down and out of the cirque. Although Cilaos is 5,000 feet above sea level, it is only 13 miles to the sea shore. The road connecting it with civilization is therefore steep; so much so, in fact, that it must be traveled to be comprehended. At one point, supported by scantlings it risked a spiraling 270 degree outside turn over the abyss. We were impressed.
Marina at St. Pierre
At last our driver reached the marina at St. Pierre, which, incidentally, is different from the marina where we had berthed Suka. Most of the island's foreign yachts were here, simply because this anchorage was free of charge, in contrast to Le Port where stiff fees were levied. But St. Pierre was no place to escape the strictures of ones vessel and venture on an extended hike. The tiny harbor was jammed with yachts, and our friends from Mestizo, Moongazer, Joggins, and M'Lady were quick to tell us of their various ordeals of bumper-boating and fending-off. We stood at the wharf talking with our fellow cruisers, who knew that Suka had plenty of extra space aboard, and related accordingly that the French girl, Annette, whom we had met at Cocos Keeling, was seeking passage to Africa. Jenny and I discussed accepting a crew member, and suggested that these folks might relay the message that Annette was welcome aboard Suka.
Now late in the afternoon Jenny and I boarded a bus bound for Le Port, a ride that proved one of unbridled squalor. Beleaguering the seated passengers were the standing ones, crammed practically to the brim and overflowing. The driver made frequent and lengthy stops and monotonous side trips, and kept the windows closed. The lack of fresh air had most of the tousled passengers gasping. And the poor, miserably car-sick kid next to me had little effect at improving the ambiance. So when the bus reached Le Port and opened its doors we stepped gleefully outside to freedom.
While Suka was generally being readied for departure, she lay rafted alongside the American yacht Comitan, whose owner, the venerable Josh Taylor in his late seventies had begun his circumnavigation many years previously. The boat had garnered its name from Josh's little rancho in Baja, Mexico. Prior to embarking on this voyage, Josh had worked for 40 years as a radio communications officer in the Merchant Marines. "Got to where I didn't even look out the window going through the Panama Canal," he recounted. Josh was particularly adept at copying CW, or Morse Code, and each morning in Le Port he would don his old fashioned headphones and tune his battered but somehow functioning ham rig, and stand at the typewriter transcribing the day's weather forecast in triplicate. The copies he distributed to any interested yachtees, who held him in esteem wherever he went.
A personable fellow, Josh entertained us with interesting stories relating to his extensive travels. He had recently sailed solo from Mauritius, but here on Reunion he had found a German crew member. Young Heidi lacked sailing experience, undoubtedly a desirable attribute considering Comitan's bedraggled condition. A man is never too old for a woman's companionship and cooking, though, and Heidi soon proved to be Josh's Godsend. Leaving us with a favorable weather forecast fresh off the press of Comitan's radio room, Josh and Heidi wished us a safe voyage to Africa, and said that they would maintain scheduled radio contact, and would be looking for us in Durban, our next port.
A few days earlier Annette had happened along and paid us for her share of the groceries for the passage to South Africa. Then when our departure was imminent she stepped aboard carrying but a small satchel, and wearing shorts and a shirt vividly portraying a busty and muscular Tanzanian woman of the wild jungle.
After releasing our warps from Joggins, to whom we had been rafted, we experienced something of a mishap. As we were easing away, friends waving their heartening bon voyages, a powerful gust clouted Suka broad on her port bow, and drove her uncontrollably back toward the wharf. She had not cleared her neighbor, and hoping to avoid slamming hard against this vessel's stern I gunned the engine and hoped for the best. But the best proved not good enough, for Suka scraped stern quarters with Joggins, and with a loud bang our mizzen boom spun their outboard's power head like a child's top.
“My best proved not good enough, for Suka scraped stern quarters with Joggins, and with a loud bang our mizzen boom spun their outboard's power head like a child's top.”
The cross-wind pinned Suka hard against the wharf, but luckily her fenders were still in place, and these prevented any hull damage. I was about to tie to shoreside bollards, in order to access whatever damage we had inflicted upon the hapless sloop, but Virginia waved us on, admonishing us to press ahead - perhaps fearing I might inflict further damage. So with Annette helping Jenny fend-off the implacable concrete wall, I powered ahead, and this time we succeeded in gaining steerageway.
Thus, bound for Durban, Suka departed Reunion Island on October 23rd. The mishap had genuinely embarrassed me, but I reasoned that such a clumsy beginning could only portend a favorable passage.