Monday, August 13, 2012

Réunion: a little background – by Gary

At 63 kilometres long and 45 wide it is just a speck in the Indian Ocean, but what a speck!  Only 200 kilometres away from its closest neighbour, Mauritius, it shares many similarities to that country, yet at the same time it is remarkably different.

For a start it is French – not just somewhat but totally.  As an overseas department of mainland France it is an integral part of the Republic, it's part of the EEC, its currency is the Euro, and French is the official language.  The main impact of this distinction is that it overflows with wealth and modernity; with wonderful things like highways, roads, bridges, cars, marinas, education, mobile phones, flat screen TVs, welfare payments and traffic jams.  Thanks to the generous flow of Euros from Paris true poverty is pretty much unknown here.

Like Mauritius, it is crowded with people (over 800,000) and has great ethnic diversity, but with a different mix.  Creoles (the descendents of African slaves) make up about 40% of the population, with Indians (descendents of indentured labourers) being 25% and Europeans (whites, mostly originally from France) another 25%, along with small numbers of others, mostly Chinese.  The first language, the lingua franca of most of these folks, is not actually French at all, but Réunion Creole.  While things like education, road signs, shopping, administration, tourism and most media reporting are conducted in French, conversations between family and friends will most likely be had in Creole.  English on the other hand is pretty much a totally unknown language.

The island’s history is similar to Mauritius but with important differences.  Uninhabited by man before the arrival of Europeans, the first colonial settlers in 1642 were French.  It remained a French possession until captured by the English in 1810 (readers of Patrick O’Brien will know it fell slightly before Mauritius) during the Napoleonic Wars.  With France's defeat and surrender in May 1814, and under agreements forged at the Congress of Vienna, the island was returned to the French just five years later in 1815.  It has remained in French hands ever since.  Independence does not seem to be particularly high on the local’s agenda (wonder why???).

Like Mauritius, sugar has been the traditional economic mainstay, and like Mauritius it is this industry that prompted large numbers of slaves to be brought to the island, followed by indentured Indian workers following the abolition of slavery.  These days tourism is also an important part of the economy, but nowhere near as important as in Mauritius.  Practically all tourists arrive from mainland France.

Unlike Mauritius, Réunion retains large tracts of land and fringing reefs with reasonably intact natural values.  Like Mauritius the island is volcanic, but on Réunion one volcano, Piton de la Fournaise, is still active, indeed it is one of the most active and impressive volcanoes in the world.  The island also has a very large inactive volcano, Piton des Neiges.  These two high volcanic peaks and their associated caldera, ridges, valleys and canyons are contained within a stunning national park system that comprises more than 40% of the land area of the island.  Well loved, Réunionnaise use their park system for hiking, picnicing, climbing, sightseeing etc. It is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Finally, the island’s capital, St Denis, contains an exceptional wealth of well preserved and beautifully presented colonial architecture.

We don’t want to rave about the place, after all its full of damned frogs, but with its natural beauty, its awesome volcano, its walking trails, its camembert and baguettes and its French colonial architecture we reckon Réunion Island has to be one of the Indian Ocean’s best kept secrets.

The marina at St Pierre, looking across the town centre in to the volcanic caldera of Cirque Cilaos, Réunion National Park. 

Standing on the side of Piton de la Fournaise, Réunion’s active volcano, next to a REALLY recent larva flow (2010)

Frozen rock anybody?

An old colonial hospital in the heart of St Denis, recycled as government offices. 

Streetscape, St Denis

The heart of Réunion’s World Heritage Site, at the foot of Piton des Neiges
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