17 To the Peaks of Reunion

Solitude is the home of the strong; silence, their prayer.

- Ravignon

Across Islands

The early morning land breeze dropping off the mountains of Mauritius carried me ten miles out to sea before shutting down completely. Without moving forward, Atom lurched drunkenly in the swell. Following a scent of gasoline fumes I lifted a bilge board and discovered a fuel leak from the engine had dumped a gallon of gas into the bilge. I stopped the leak, pumped the bilge out as much as I could, and then escaped the nauseating fumes by staying on deck the remainder of the day.

As the current carried me slowly away to the west, my eyes kept drawing back to the island. Memories, desires and tidal flows of contrary emotions left me numb for the first time to the excitement of beginning a sea passage. Part of this voyage was about seeking the solitude of the sea. True loneliness, at least as I've known it, is more keenly felt when you are among people but remain detached from them. The loneliness of the sea had not much entered my mind before. Out here I did not expect human companionship and it was little missed. It had always been enough that on each return to land I smothered myself in new friends and new cultures as well as a full embrace of mountain and forest. But on this day I deeply felt that stab of despair I had not known before. The pact I made with myself to stay alone on this voyage now had me looking out the bars of a self-made prison and I didn't much care for the windless, hopeless void around me. Action was needed to break the spell but what action can be taken on a boat adrift in the calm?

Finally, the caress of a freshening wind on my face gave me something more than self-pity to contemplate. Instinctively, I trimmed the sails and set course for Reunion Island just 130 miles away. Still trying to avoid the gas fumes below deck, I lay on the cockpit bench, drifting in and out of semi-conscious sleep.

Just before sunset, as Atom crested a wave, I chanced to open my eyes halfway and spotted an orange canopy life raft drifting past our beam. I sat up and stared in stunned disbelief, then sheeted in the sails and tacked back into the wind, expecting to end my heroic misery with a heroic rescue. As I sailed past, I saw the canopy entrance flap was closed and so shouted to alert anyone inside the raft. No response. On the second pass I brushed up against the side of the raft, backed the sails to stall mode by pulling their sheets to windward, reached over and lashed a line tightly to the raft.

Floating tethered alongside the raft was a radio locator beacon that seemed not to be functioning. I felt compelled to enter the raft to see if perhaps there was anybody dead or unconscious aboard. First I dropped the sails to ensure Atom would not break free and sail away, leaving the rescuer adrift in need of rescue. I cautiously reached over and pulled back the canopy entrance flap. The raft was empty except for several canvas bags lying on the floor. Trying to resolve the mystery, I released the safety harness line that forever bound me to Atom and slid down into the raft. Inside I saw the bags were filled with sand, I presumed as ballast to prevent the raft turning upside down in the seas. There was nothing to identify where it came from or how it got here, just the words “32 person capacity” printed on its side. Yes, it was huge, about 15 feet in diameter – over half the length and almost double the width of Atom.

I didn't know enough about ship-sized life rafts to know that bags of sand ballast are not standard issue. I thought perhaps it had been lost overboard accidentally from a ship. A smarter man would have left it there or put a knife in the side to sink it and sailed away. Lacking that degree of common sense, and having long had the poor man's tendency to collect all valuable things abandoned, I felt an unreasonable pride of discovery, even of ownership. I even imagined maritime law might permit me a nice reward from the raft's owner if I could salvage it.

But how does one man on a 28-foot boat pick up a heavily ballasted 32-person life raft? I rehearsed a plan in my mind and then set to work. The first task was to remove the ballast and dump it over the side. It's remarkable how awkward it is to lift bags of wet sand while standing on a bouncing fabric floor. While the raft rose and fell in the waves, it was like bouncing on a trampoline while lifting and throwing hundred pound barbells. Second thoughts about the whole scheme kept recurring as I looked up at Atom with an uneasy feeling of separation as she lifted to each sea. Each sharp snub of her line jerked the raft under my feet as if she was reminding me I was now on the wrong end of a dog's leash.

Once the bags were out, I rushed to unscrew the four deflation plugs and re-boarded Atom as the raft deflated. Heaving aboard the half sinking, half inflated raft onto Atom's foredeck took all my remaining strength. Finally, as darkness fell, I had it lashed down in a great untidy pile that sprawled waist-high clear across the deck. I then hoisted a small jib above the pile and a reefed main, set up the self-steering, and collapsed in the cockpit. Still unable to inhabit the cabin or light the stove because of the gasoline fumes, I spent a miserable eternity of a night on deck, watching compass course and sail trim and getting doused by a shower of spray from the occasional wave slapping the side of the boat.

At dawn the cloud-capped mountains of Reunion lay a few points off the starboard bow. With a slight course correction I approached the southern coast, carried in the arms of a wind strengthening as it accelerated around the windward-side mountains. For twenty miles I flew down a rocky shore backed by summits floating above the cloud rack. All at once the miniature man-made harbor of St. Pierre appeared in front of me. A lather of breakers foamed against the stone jetty. I made two ninety-degree turns to enter the narrow harbor, packed wall-to-wall with a dozen local sailboats and assorted fishing craft. From shore a Frenchman called out, directing me with waving arms to lie alongside one of the sailboats on a mooring.

Across Islands

St. Pierre, at the time, was not well known to foreign cruising yachts, most of whom layover at the west coast commercial harbor of Port Des Galets. A local French sailor in Mauritius had recommended this little port to me as being more convenient, which turned out to be true. The neat and modern little town was built right up to the waterfront where local boat club members welcomed me ashore. One of the yachtsmen escorted me up the steeply inclined main street to check in with officials at the police station.

Reunion is a French possession, or “department,” and every bit as much of France as Hawaii is of the United States. At the gendarmerie a police officer issued my entry papers without delay and listened intently to my story of the daring and daft raft rescue. Another policeman then drove me over to the office of Affaires Maritimes where I retold my story to Francois Gangnant, who in turn called the French Navy headquarters, who sent an officer over to question me all over again. Francois escorted me back to Atom where we waited until a navy launch pulled alongside. In a flash, the three sailors off-loaded the raft and sped out to a French Navy ship waiting offshore.

As they left I asked Francois whom to contact for my salvage award. Looking surprised and embarrassed, he said, “Sorry, there is no reward but the good thing is they have agreed not to arrest you for interfering with a naval operation and theft of government property.” Francois went on to explain the Mauritian Navy set out the raft a day before I found it, as a joint rescue exercise with Air Mauritius and the French Navy, who were supposed to locate it. To their great embarrassment they were unable to find the enormous bright orange raft, at first because the radio beacon was not operating and later because I had plucked it from the sea. To save face, navy officials blamed me for the operation's total failure. I was just glad no one was actually in the raft expecting rescue from the French Navy.

My raft struggle was not completely unrewarding since Francois felt moved to befriend me and brought me to his parents' home for dinner. The Gangnant family told me their ancestors arrived on Reunion with a wave of other immigrants from France in the late 1700s. Like Mauritius, the economy was then, and still is, primarily based on sugar cane, worked by its kaleidoscope population of Indians, Africans, Europeans and Chinese.

The following day I joined Francois as he toured the southern coast fishing villages checking registrations and condition of the local outboard powered fishing boats. I watched as sea-hardened fishermen launched their wooden dory-like craft by sliding them down ramps on the harborless, surf-pounded rocky windward shore.

Near the village of St. Philippe, we walked on a shore of congealed rivers of lava: raw and recent rock, pocked by craters and crevasses. The twisting lava bled down the slopes of a nearby volcano where it was instantly petrified by the sea. Its latest eruption of just a few weeks previously, left the cauldron still smoldering. On our drive back to St. Pierre we detoured inland, upland you could say, to where a creek cascaded over an escarpment into a pool flanked by perfectly vertical vine-laced cliffs. In the distance rose the shimmering peak of Piton des Neiges, over 10,000 feet above sea level, and higher than any other in the Indian Ocean. I promised myself then I would stand on its summit before leaving the island.

Across IslandsWith a map of Reunion in hand, I once again shouldered my backpack, leaving Atom secure on a mooring in the care of friends at the boat club. Francois drove me to my starting point at St. Denis at the north end of the island, along the way passing towns and villages, each named after a greater or lesser Saint. Beyond Port des Galets the narrow strip of pavement built from the rubble of dynamited cliffs crouched low between mountain and sea. The crumbling mountainside is held in place by gigantic wire mesh and a stone barrier wall protecting motorists from rockfalls during torrential rains of tropical cyclones.

Francois dropped me in front of a bakery in St. Denis. I was soon walking up a steep road looking like a bread peddler with two baguettes sticking out the top of my weighty pack. My planned route was to go up and over the highest peaks, down the lowest valleys, searching out footpaths instead of roads whenever possible and ending up back home at Atom on the opposite side of the island.

Several hours of nonstop footslogging along the ridges brought me thousands of feet up among the cool moist white clouds and scented tropical pine forest. At Plaine des Chicots I passed the first of the island's many “gites” – the log cabin rest houses constructed by the parks department for weary travelers to spend a night. Here along the footpath I approached a man of African and Chinese features, leaning on his rake, perhaps pondering the fallen leaves littering the park grounds. I stopped in front of him and asked directions to the next peak, more as a traveler's reflexive greeting than a real need for information, since the frequent signposts and white paint marks on stones and trees obviously pointed the way. Perhaps he was a mute or found my accent disagreeable, because in reply he merely pulled up the corner of his straw hat to look me over and silently pointed down the solitary trail I traveled.

With miles yet to cover and still-fresh memories of my ordeal at the bottom of a New Guinea mineshaft, I resisted the urge to explore the numerous caves my map indicated lay nearby. Approaching the rocky outcrop of La Roche Ecrite, I climbed above the forest onto an inclined surface of smooth stone slabs separated from one another by cracks hiding trickling streams of clear water. I walked into a cloud and found myself at the rampart's edge overhanging empty space. Straining to see through the enveloping cloud, slowly, as if awakening from a drugged sleep, the cloud thinned until I could just make out a village in the valley far below, trimmed with a ring of haze around the edges of my view. Then the dream-like haze of cloud cleared, bringing the entire valley and surrounding mountains into focus. Drifting by me was a rainbow, one of many that so often arch across the rain-washed blue skies of Reunion.

I stood here at the entrance above three valleys, called “cirques,” located on three sides of the craggy heights of Piton des Neiges. Sometime after the island was thrust up from the depths of the ocean floor some three million years ago, the central volcano cooled and these three cirques collapsed into these now lush funnel-shaped canyons. From La Roche Ecrite, the way into Cirque de Salazie led down a seventy-degree inclined slope. Gravity tugged me downward as I cautiously placed each footstep and clung with both hands to rocks and bushes.

Across IslandsAt the bottom of the valley, I made camp at an empty park. Daylight was nearly gone as I unrolled my sleeping bag under a picnic table beside a river. Nestled deep within this narrow valley, the sun is eclipsed early behind high horizons. The twilight was long and the night passed slowly. The cadent utterance of church bells woke me early. I took a single cup of tea prepared over a fire built from two handfuls of twigs, packed my kit, and set out across the valley.

I entered St. Martin, a little village out of a Dutch storybook. But these tiny storybook house porches and gardens were bursting with an exuberance of flowers of every tropical shape and hue. Perfect amounts of temperature, sunshine, rainfall and rich volcanic earth produce geranium, vetiver and ylang-ylang, which are gathered and their essences distilled into the perfumes of France. Also, begonias, asters, gladiola and other gaudy plants splashed their colors against the green canvas. The dried pods of vanilla orchids are the only other visible export of the valley.

People trickled out of a country store and bakery, each one carrying those delicious long loaves of French bread. Unable to resist, I had the shopkeeper cut two crusty loaves in half and I tied the four sticks to the top of my pack. As I walked I reached back and broke off chunks of bread to snack on. Later I calculated that I was getting a mileage of five miles to the baguette.

The people of the cirques are a handsome and mostly unidentifiable mixture of races; an island melting pot where French is spoken by all and signs of racial or cultural enmities absent. Perhaps nowhere else on earth with a history of slavery have so many races and religions merged to live side-by-side with such ease and tolerance. In much of today's world, the fad is to encourage cultural diversity for its own sake, despite the prejudice and suspicion it breeds. Once again in my travels, I saw this hybridization of cultures is the outstanding difference between so many of the French and the British or American territories. This impression of Gallic culture on the people of France's overseas possessions is made richer by the penchant for intermarriage between colonizers and subjects.

I followed the road up out of the valley towards Cirque de Mafate. On this trek across the island I was always moving up or down and I was always in view of another ridge of mountains to cross. The road bent back on itself until it dead-ended near the pass of Col de Forche, as if knowing it had nowhere to go but back. Ahead, the verdant amphitheater of the valley of Mafate bore few man-made scars, chiefly because no roads penetrated its mountain barriers.

To call Mafate a valley is misleading. It resembles a valley only from the heights of the surrounding cordillera. As I dropped into Mafate, I entered a world tipped on its edge: a roadless, buckled terrain where hamlets of a few houses are scattered like islets on plateaus between river gullies. A grazing cow and a farmer mending a wooden fence took little notice as I passed along the trail. Along the moist banks of a stream bloomed the whitest Lilly of the Valley orchids. Footpaths and wagon tracks laced back and forth among the hilly pastures and vividly colored farmhouses. The sun bathed the circular wall of cliffs that guard and emphasize the valley's air of impenetrability. Reveling in the quiet rhythm of solitary walking among stands of tropical pine and tamarind forest, I wound down my pace to match a more slowly ticking internal clock.

By mid-afternoon, when I entered the village of Marla, the sun had begun its hours-long twilight behind Piton Maido. The population of about fifty people and a dozen cattle had several hours walk separating them from the next village in the next valley. Marla huddled here under the crater wall with its back to the cliffs – the embodiment of seclusion. And yet the local inhabitants were used to passing hikers whom they referred to as “moun dehors” (strangers). No one going about their business looked twice as I prepared a dinner of rice and onions over a small fire started for me in the center of the village by some local boys.

Later, a barefoot brown-skinned farmer came over to me. In the low rolling tones of Creole patois he invited me to spread my bedroll on the covered church porch. He sat there pointing with outstretched arm the route out of the valley, six hours on foot to the nearest bus stop, a trip he had made many times over the years. His face seemed hewn from the same rocks I clamored over to reach this place. Like the land that holds them, these mountain people do not change in a few generations. When they die, they are replaced by children almost exactly like them: children secure in the knowledge that life is hard, but predictable, and would always be the same. Well, not exactly the same anymore. A weekly helicopter now brings a few tourists and the more welcome visits from the doctor and postman. As a misty darkness settled in, the shy villagers drifted away to sit around hearth fires. I sat there in chilled silence contemplating my solitude.

I was up at first twilight, eager for the warmth of an uphill march. The rising sun crept over the mountain to meet me as I approached the pass into the next valley, Cirque de Cilaos. From here, the town of Cilaos stood out clearly six miles ahead. A path through banyan trees and red cabbage palms led me to a narrow paved road, then over a bridge spanning a gorge where the river Bras Rouge boiled below. Frequent flooding of the river shifts the rocks that scour it deeper every year. This very spot holds the world record for seriously rapid rainfall, an almost unfathomable 74 inches in twenty-four hours during a 1952 cyclone. Even with the forces of erosion working overtime on Reunion, everywhere the choking grip of vines and creepers is tenaciously stabilizing the crumbling cliffs.

The town of Cilaos, which in Malagasy means “place of no return,” since it was once a hideaway for runaway slaves, is now a place of easy return with a well-traveled road connecting it to the coast. Even with the vices and virtues of development and easy access, the white-washed town remains pretty, buried under its frangipani, hibiscus and all the colors of the flower garden bouquet and family-sized vineyards. Beyond the flowered streets of Cilaos, I followed a path through the acacia forest and then up through the clouds and dripping wet vegetation. A signpost pointed to Hell-Bourg, eighteen kilometers to the right and Piton des Neiges, two kilometers to the left.

Across IslandsHere I met another solo climber, I guessed to be in his forties, who was resting seated on a flat rock. I stopped to share his seat and Philippe told me he was a Catholic priest from France now on his way down the mountain after spending the previous night at the peak. Over his wool sweater hung a curly black beard under which protruded a heavy silver crucifix on a chain. Philippe told me he was on his pilgrimage, one that he made each year, always to a different, far, and inspiring place. He summed me up in a glance it seemed. “And you too are looking for something here; something more than the mountain,” he stated, rather than asked.

“Does it show? Well I guess I am on my own pilgrimage of sorts,” I said and then unselfconsciously spilled my story – that I was sailing the world alone, walking across each island that crossed my bow, and climbing every penitentially steep mountain within reach. As if we were close friends I told him of my defeat at Mt. Wilhelm in New Guinea and the girl I'd left in Mauritius. The unspoken message was that on this mountain I looked for more than a hike and a view; I expected some solace to the soul, if not redemption.

No doubt the priest wondered what manner of sins I had committed to require this manner of ultimate penance, though with the knowledge gained of witnessing a thousand confessions, he wisely knew the futility of pressing the point. It was an unlikely meeting of two unlikely men seeking out their own paths to purify the soul. Knowing we would probably never meet again, Philippe touched my shoulder as he rose to walk away and gave me a blessing as he said: “A man who sails alone and walks alone is a seeker. It's a good thing to be.”

A chilling rain ran off my jacket and soaked my pants and boots as I continued up the trail into the clouds. The landscape became more menacing, almost moon-like with boulders of every size perched on furrowed slopes of bare gravel, all colored in grays and blacks. I was surprised then to step around a rock and see a single yellow flower. Such a display of strength and tenacity of life, sprouting here in a tiny foothold of sand and stone, was not lost on me.

At ten thousand feet elevation, my pack seemed to double in weight and I paused often to catch my breath in the thinning air. At the summit I stood on a sprawling cone of dead volcanic cinders in pale sunlight. Ahead, the crater wall dropped with frightening suddenness into an abyss of cloud tops. As the high clouds retreated, remote summits stippled the horizon like separate islands floating above the cloud rack. The peak of Grand Bernard, four miles to the west, lay as crisply outlined to my eyes as my own boots in the sand, a distance-minimizing clarity pulling together the vastness of the scene.

As I watched the afternoon clouds recede to the lowest depths of the valleys, surreal shapes of towering peaks, misty waterfalls and wooded green valleys emerged from all points of the compass. The rocky ridges falling away from all sides of me looked like the exposed ribs of the earth's skeleton. The serrated mountains plunged seaward in a fantastic geologic overstatement of crag and precipice. The island of Mauritius, where I had left a part of myself, was just visible as a spot on the horizon, one hundred miles away to the northeast. Despite the loneliness tugging at my heart, I was standing on top of my world, feeling a fierce joy in the freedom above the clouds, even a kind of salvation. There is something about the hard physical effort to gain a summit that restores the spirit of a man – and being alone, no one can dilute the experience. An absurd possessiveness overcame me as I laid claim to everything in view on an island of over half a million people.

Through the rarified air, I watched the sun set in an orgy of colors and with its departure the temperature plunged. Without a single twig to start a fire, I put on the least-wet clothes in my pack and slipped into my lightweight and easily compressible tent, which is a nice way to say I shivered all night under a thin layer of soggy Gore-tex fabric. The high-sounding name of Piton des Neiges (Snow Mountain) warned it could get cold enough to snow when the cloud ceiling lifted. Lights from towns along the coast shimmered below. Overhead, frost-sharpened stars pulsed in their brilliance just out of reach. The trade winds that caress the sea can be notoriously shallow. I was above them in air so still I could hear my heart beat. The unearthly silence settled over me: no sound of man or machine. As Philippe well knew, such is the place where priests can talk to the heavens. Restless from the cold, I got up and walked in circles. Only the crunch of my boots broke the dead silence, bringing me back to the reality of my austere and lifeless mountaintop world.

From a half-sleep the next morning, I awoke to a tarnished gray dawn inside a cloud of howling wind and rain. The temperature felt barely above freezing as I laced my boots with stiff, aching fingers. With the cold wind knifing through me, I wondered that within an hour, people would be lying about on the sun-warmed beaches, perhaps chancing to look up at my cloud-capped mountain above them.

Here I was thankful for the marks of white paint on rocks that guided me down the slopes. Without these scars on nature's flesh I could not have found my way down until the fog cleared. With their help, I descended quickly into the warmer climate to be clear of the storm.

Rain persisted most of the way back to the village of Cilaos. But what of that? I was warmed by my labors and felt a renewed confidence in meeting the challenges of the voyage ahead. Aches and pains aside, I had to admit that summiting that peak was literally the high point of my travels. On the mountain and on the sea, I learned that loneliness in itself is neither good nor bad. It is what you do with the feeling that counts. For me, loneliness was a hunger that urged me on to new experience and I embraced it.

What yesterday had taken me most of the day to climb, today I descended in just a few hours. A well of cool spring water refreshed me at the bottom of the trail. Strolling through the flower-scented village of Cilaos, I was lured into a pastry shop by the smells of warm croissants and herbal tea – such inexpressible luxury after a long, cold night on the mountain.

All that day I followed the hairpin road exiting the cirque alongside the river Bras de Cilaos. Because of the high vertical riverbank, it took eight years to construct this one road. Single lane in too many places, it clings to the cliff sides, spans gorges, and tunnels through mountains of rock. Today, the Bras de Cilaos river and I both were headed for the sea. We both moved serenely but the high, eroded banks testified to the potential fury during cyclones where river water carried boulders into bridges, dragging the stony debris out to sea.

I shared the road high above the river mostly with small passenger buses that sped around blind bends, horns blaring a futile warning to oncoming traffic. One bridge was so narrow the approaching bus had to stop, back up, and realign itself so as not to tear off its mirrors on the guardrails. I ran through the tunnels hoping not to be caught by oncoming traffic but still had some close encounters. In the riverbed I spotted the corpses of vehicles that had plunged over the side. I liked my chances better on foot. By late evening I was back aboard Atom, having gone from summit to sea level in one excruciatingly beautiful day.

As I prepared to depart for the passage toward Africa, Francois Gangnant insisted on taking me to the market where he bought four bagfuls of expensive provisions for my trip. His kindness embarrassed me and he dismissed my profuse thanks with a wave of his hand. Francois claimed that when a Frenchman is diagnosed with terminal illness he will try to come to Reunion for a peaceful place to die. Once here, he finds life so pleasantly invigorating that he recovers and lives to a ripe old age. Anyone who has been here could hardly doubt the possibility.