The island of fairies

‘Come, let’s go find the tomb of the pirate La Buse!’ Danielle tells me as soon as I get in the car. We met at a party and she wants to show me around to get to know the island better. We reach the small monumental cemetery of Saint Paul located on the edge of the beach facing the Indian Ocean. The sun has just set and the entrance gate is closed, but we find a gap between the stones of the perimeter wall. We enter at dusk and I feel like I am in a Böcklin painting. We wander among the sepulchres in the dim light: the tombstone of a captain who died in a duel, that of some sailors of a wrecked vessel; and at one point here it is the tomb of the pirate! Olivier Levasseur lived between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and was one of the best known pirates of his time. He was known as ‘La Buse’ (The Buzzard), due to the aggressiveness and speed with which he attacked the enemy. Among his many exploits, the riches he managed to score by taking possession of the booty of a Portuguese crown galleon from Goa is recorded in history. A real treasure that he hid in a secret place, like any self-respecting pirate story. He ended up being hanged in Réunion on the 7th July, 1730 but legend has it that while standing on the gallows he threw a necklace to the crowd bearing encrypted engravings with directions to find the treasure. From that moment on, many have tried to decipher this puzzle, but still no one has managed to find the treasure.

The tomb of La Buse
The tomb of La Buse

But this is the Réunion of a past whose traces are difficult to identify. Today the island is an overseas department of France. This means that it is like being in France in all respects despite being in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It is named to commemorate the historic union of the revolutionaries from Marseille with the national guard in Paris during the march on the Tuileries Palace on 10th August, 1792 in the middle of the French Revolution, when the monarchy fell and the Republic was established, which gave rise to the Regime of Terror. Don’t expect a wild and unspoiled tropical island. The whole island is heavily man-made with impressive infrastructures built in recent decades. Since our arrival, at dawn on Friday, 25th October, we realised that the idea we had of Réunion was completely distorted. For those coming from the sea, heading to Le Port – where there is a large tourist marina and a huge commercial port – it is easy to see the town of the capital of Saint-Denis on the north coast and the concrete buildings on the slopes of the surrounding hills. But what is most striking is the new coastal road, suspended on pylons that rise from the ocean along the stretch that connects the capital with La Possession on the west coast. A €9 billion pharaonic project that was implemented to avoid the continuous closures of the old road due to landslides on the coast.

The new coastal road under construction
The new coastal road under construction

But there are many construction sites on the island which is teeming with all kinds of works in progress and which has a road network consisting of fast-flowing arteries, bridges and tunnels that seem no less than that of the motherland. ‘When you see cranes at work, it means that money is circulating,’ says Yves, a good friend who sailed with us across the Indian Ocean alone on his Cajou, a magnificent Allure 51 made of aluminum. We spend Sunday on the beach of Saint-Gilles frequented by boys who play beach volleyball and practice water sports. ‘People keep fit in Réunion,’ he tells us. Along the coast we find swimming pools, sports fields, sailing clubs, diving and wind and kite surf centres. But Réunion’s outdoor activities do not end with those related to the sea. In recent years the number of ‘shark attacks’ by bulldog sharks has increased, particularly aggressive even in shallow waters. The problem is thought to be due to climate change and therefore people have stopped surfing and swimming in the ocean. Today the greatest attraction is that of hiking in the inland areas. Réunion is a volcanic island, its highest peak is just over 3,000 metres and the volcano located on the southern side is one of the most active in the world. It is located in the tropical cyclone belt and heavy rains fall here from November to April. For this reason, the island is rich in water, with streams that dig deep canyons and large rivers that flow into the sea. The vegetation is rich, luxuriant and extremely varied according to the different altitudes: from the palm trees on the coast to the fir trees of the volcanic mountain slopes. Trekking is accessible through a dense network of paths, through woods, valleys and up to spectacular mountain peaks, but there is also paragliding, rafting and canyoning. It is also possible to fly over the island with a tourist helicopter service to see the pitons and the active volcano from above.

The volcano
The volcano

We spent the first ten days working to fix Milanto: Valerio ordered two new pumps for the autopilot, mounted the new hydraulic connections, struggled to find a way to adopt them to the system, improved the entire VHF and AIS transmission, overhauled the forward head, checked the masthead connections and the entire rigging, cleaned the steel from rust and took the interior upholstery covers to the laundry. Andrea, (an Italian from Biella passionate about rally racing, and living in Réunion for several years), has been a great help by making his mechanical workshop available to us. Ben, the local sailmaker, has repaired our old Genoa that had been torn during the last crossing. Finally, we bought some nautical parts to replace the worn ones. During the weekends we allowed ourselves some excursions to the volcano and the mountains of the interior. The Cirque de Mafate is spectacular: a huge volcanic caldera enclosed in the mountains, like an inaccessible kingdom full of waterfalls and dense vegetation.

The Cirque de Mafate
The Cirque de Mafate

Boucan Canot beach is beautiful at sunset, every day it is filled with kids who come to watch the sun go down into the ocean. ‘Here in Réunion it goes down faster – says Danielle – and tonight the moon will be blue. You will see the whole beach turn blue.’ This is the best memory I have of this fairy island. The image of the two of us walking hand in hand through the small grove of trees on the beach of Saint-Gilles where we find ourselves immersed in the blue in front of the ocean waves. Today we set sail for South Africa and once again it will not be easy to leave.

Sunset in Boucan Canot
Sunset at Boucan Canot