methow grist 2011-2014 archive

La Réunion, Indian Ocean

An excerpt from Bill Hottell's unpublished memoir                                                                                      

photo of small townFrench colonists established towns on Réunion Island three
centuries ago. It remains a French possession.
photo of very tall narrow waterfall on tropical cliff faceBill and Diana took a bus up and up to a
town on the inside of an old volcanic crater.

Want to “get away from it all?” Drop down far south in the Indian Ocean to the little island of La Réunion. Diana and I left Africa, flew from Madagascar and landed on the unusual French-speaking island at the town of St. Denis. La Réunion is only thirty miles across, but the island is a sky-scraping volcano that springs up out of the Indian Ocean and towers more than 10,000 feet above the sea.

I kept feeling a need to orient myself. “Where in the world am I?” Durban was 1,060 miles away, Mombasa 1,070. Bombay was 2,959 miles to the north and Perth 3,830 to the east. In short, La Réunion was more than a thousand miles from anywhere.

From St. Denis we decided to strike out for the most remote spot on this most remote island. At St. Andre we said good-bye to the azure blue waters of the Indian Ocean and caught a bus which headed inland, climbed up steep mountain roads and struggled up numerous switchbacks along the side of a precipitous gorge. We passed through lush jungle terrain of thick trees, bushes and wild flowers. This tropical paradise had waterfalls that were incredibly high. The bus kept climbing up the steep cliff-side. At one spot I actually got dizzy peering down the face of a precipice. When the bus came to the mountain town of Salazie it just continued on and kept climbing higher.

photo of small townInhabitants of Hell-Bourg live inside the verdant walls of
an extinct tropical volcano.
photo of rustic house on la reunionA home in Hell-Bourg town.

At long last the bus reached the end of the road and arrived at the town of Hell-Bourg. The town clung to a steep hillside which forms the inside wall of the crater of an ancient volcano. I was standing inside the vast crater of an extinct volcano, the Salazie crater which measured seven miles across. This dizzying location was one of the strangest sites for any town in the world, yet Hell-Bourg was a most picturesque and charming place. It was a French-looking town with quaint wooden “Creole houses” decorated with gingerbread fringes.

It was difficult to find lodging in this burg at the end of the road, but eventually we hit the jackpot. For $8.60 a night we two were the only guests in a large mansion. A man in St. Denis had built this lavish house in the volcano-top, but when he suddenly died four years earlier the “Maison Mourange” became a youth hostel. No one else was staying here so we had the entire mansion all to ourselves.

photo of many large black spiders in a webThe tropical paradise did have a down side.

The front porch was a spacious veranda which offered a breath-taking view of Piton des Neiges , the 10,069 ft. peak stabbing into the sky.

I set up a desk on the veranda and spent days writing journal and reading books like  G. R. Elton’s Reformation Europe, 1517--1559. The panoramic view from my desk kept shifting from high clouds to low clouds to thin mist settling over the thick vegetation of bushes, vines and trees. But the tropical paradise had a down side. Thousands of large, black spiders hung on huge spider webs that stretched from power lines down to bushes and fences. In the cemetery curtains of spider webs reached from tall crucifixes and family vaults down to marble headstones.

A French woman who befriended us invited us to her home for several meals. Monique Martiaux’s husband was a gendarmes who had been stationed here for three years, but they really did not like living in this hell-hole at the end of the road. At one afternoon tea Monique captured my heart by baking a loaf of pate du foie porc, pork liver pate, which was the single most wonderful taste of a lifetime. Monique’s entire family, including two daughters, ages six and nine, were all happy to see someone new in town.  This was a town that never gets drop-ins.

Nine-year-old Carine was a good student who liked history and geography, so we both had a good time in our quizzing sessions, all in French, of course.

“Who was the first president of the Fifth Republic"?

“Who was the president before Mitterand?

“What is the second largest city in France?

“What is the highest mountain in France?” “In the world?

“What is the longest river in France?” “In the world?”

Here in Réunion Diana and I spoke French one-hundred percent of the time. We didn’t meet anybody who could speak English.

Aside from the Martiaux family, many of the people in Hell-Bourg were very unusual. As soon as we had arrived in town I noticed that a lot of the locals sat on benches staring blankly into space. Others sat in front of the grocery store wearing slack-jawed expressions on their faces. Monique informed us that indeed the people of this remote town had been so isolated from the rest of Réunion that cousins had married cousins for generations. Some families had never seen the sea which was only fifteen miles away. The inbreeding within such a limited gene pool had evidently produced many who were mentally and even physically deficient.

When we finally waved “au revoir” to the generous Martiaux family as we left Hell-Bourg, I took one last look at the vast volcanic crater, the lush jungle forest, and the picturesque town clinging to the wall of the crater’s rim.  I knew that we had found a place in the Indian Ocean where a person could really “get away from it all.”