Papillon - Chagos to Reunion 2011
In past years, cruisers have usually gone from Chagos to the Seychelles or western
Madagascar when en route to South Africa. Due to the pirate problem in Somalia, more
of us are taking the southern route to Mauritius, Reunion and southern Madagascar.
We made that trip this year, and want to report that C-Map MAX and NT+ charts were
spot-on for the locations we visited. Neither chart format had up-to-date information
on Port d’Ehoala, but excellent charts can be downloaded from www.ehoalaport.com.
Our first destination upon leaving Chagos was Mauritius. The 1,260 mile trip
down was fast and bumpy, with winds between 15-30kn and seas 3-5m and steep. We
entered the harbor at Port Louis at 10:00a.m. on June 21, 2011 and pulled right up to
the Customs House dock. It took about an hour to clear Customs, Health, Immigration,
and the Coast Guard, with no fees involved. We were given one-month visas, which
could be renewed for up to three months (or more) with no hassle.
The Caudan Waterfront Marina is really just a small boat basin with ties to the
cement quay. Located across the harbor from Customs, you just go over and tie up and
then go to security and register. Water and power are provided and docking fees vary by
boat length. You can anchor, with no power or water, in the basin behind the marina, or
at Grand Baie. The one limitation in Port Louis is that at night only the waterfront area
is safe for tourists to wander. A dinner downtown means a taxi ride to the restaurant and
one back, even if your location is within an easy walk during the day.
Port Louis has one of the largest, most vibrant open markets we’ve seen, and after
two months in Chagos it was like being in a candy store. The vegetables sparkled, and
the butcher shops smelled fresh and clean. On offer were fish, chicken, lamb, beef, pork
and venison. Chinatown is just behind the market and offers hours of exploration.
Further up the hill is the Citadelle, which is the original fort that protected the harbor.
Today it’s filled with tourist shops but still offers an excellent view of the harbor. For
staples, Winners and Kaddy Plus have downtown stores. Kaddy Plus has the best wine
and liquor selection, fresh meter-long baguettes and rotisserie chicken.
After our rather raucous ride down from Chagos, Papillon’s sails needed some
attention. Rob Stevenson from MU-Sailmakers Ltd (230-211-2569, musails@intnet.
mu) is an excellent sailmaker. Rob recut our mainsail to solve a weather helm problem
and replaced the sun cover on the genoa. We were very pleased with his knowledge,
service and pricing. Several other cruisers had sails made by MU-Sails and were equally
happy with the results.
Mauritius is well served by a comprehensive bus system that connects the whole
island. For about a dollar you can get to any major town. The only catch is that the
bus service stops at 6:00 p.m., so you have to be sure to get home early, or face an
expensive taxi ride back to the boat. We took buses to Grand Baie to shop, to Floreal
to get Madagascan visas, to Curepipe to visit the Trou aux Cerfs, Mahebourg to see the
countryside, Moka to tour the Eureka Plantation and to Pamplemousses to visit the
SSR Botanical Gardens and l’Adventure du Sucre (sugar museum). Don’t miss the aged
rum at the sugar museum, but beware of flavored rums at all the tourist outlets made
from the cheapest white rums.
Medical services are good and quite reasonable. Vaccinations for South Africa
can be had at the Health Department for nominal cost. Anti-malarial pills are free.
Diagnostic workups are also free at the local hospitals, but treatment is best done at
For a change of scenery, Grand Baie, 16 miles north of Port Louis (20.00°S,
057.50°E) offers a totally different experience from Port Louis. The Grand Baie Yacht
Club offers one-month free membership to cruisers. It’s a safe place to leave a dinghy
and a nice setting for a beer or glass of wine at sunset. You can also fuel at their dock.
From the yacht club it’s about a 15-minute walk to Super-U, which is a Walmart style
grocery that will meet all needs. As a tourist town, Grand Baie has a huge number of
restaurants and shops, but strangely no commercial laundry. There’s none at the yacht
We arrived on June 24, 2011 after a 24-hour sail from Mauritius. Off the Reunion
coast we could hear the Coast Guard hailing in French but couldn’t understand them.
Finally, it dawned on me that they wanted any boat planning to enter St. Pierre harbor
to call them. I did, and they said the port was full and that we were to proceed to St.
Denis at the north end of the island where there might be room. That was nine hours
away, and we’d have made landfall at night, which would mean standing off until the
next morning. I was sick with a bad cold or flu from Mauritius and Jim was coming
down with it. NO WAY. We got a call from a cruiser who’d just left and he said to go
on in and make do. So we did and found two possible berths. One at the unused fuel
pumps on the quay was good for Papillon and we tied up there. The Harbormaster came
down and arranged power and water, and all was well. Dockage was free for the first
week, and 90 Euros/week thereafter. We met lots of people as we tied up. They were
all very curious and often spoke some English, which was fun, except we couldn’t get
After the boat was secured, I headed off to the bank and telephone office to get
SIM cards for the phone and computer modem. When I got there, the staff couldn’t
speak English, except for the manager who was tied up. The security guard asked the
customers if they could speak English and found a woman who was willing to help. She
introduced herself as Christelle and said she taught English to children. She helped
me get the cards, and I promised to invite her family to the boat once I felt better.
Meantime, a gentleman named Francois chatted up Jim on the boat. He was from
France but had lived in Reunion for 20 years. The chemistry worked and he ended
up stopping by every evening after work. On Monday we had him to dinner, and on
Tuesday Christelle’s family came for drinks and appetizers and ended up making an
evening of it. We became fast friends with both.
Shopping in St. Pierre is a delight. There is a selection of boulangeries, clothing
shops, groceries and frozen food centers (meat, seafood). Good wines are available in
the groceries for 3-10 Euros/bottle. Rhones and Bordeaux were especially good values.
There’s a well-stocked health food store, Bio-Diet, near the downtown Leader Price.
Jumbo is about a 20-minute walk from the port and has an excellent selection of
everything. Other large groceries are accessible by car, as are charcuteries in the smaller
As the week wore on we were astounded to find that the winds in the marina
topped 35kn most afternoons. It was often gale force (34-40kn) with salt spray covering
everything, inside and out. Then we’d see rainbows off to the east and shortly rain would
blow in, forcing us to close up for just a few minutes. The harbormaster wanted us to
move to a floating dock, but we couldn’t get off the quay. On closer inspection, the dock
was too lightly-built for us anyway, so we stayed put.
Reunion’s geography is unique and it invites exploration. There is Piton de la
Fournaise, the active volcano that last erupted in 2007. Then there are the Cirques:
three unique caldera that were once covered by a single huge dome. The dome collapsed,
creating Cilaos, Mafat and Salazie Cirques. Each is isolated from the rest by steep
mountains, and each is unique due to differences in rainfall and accessibility. Hikers
and climbers are richly rewarded here, but those opting to view the mountains from the
roads or helicopters also enjoy the thrill of the unique geological formations.
Christelle invited us to go to Entre-Deux, which is a small Creole village in the
foothills of the Cilaos Cirque. It’s located on a high plateau between two rivers. The
attraction was old-style Creole houses. It was a really sweet village and we enjoyed
walking the town.
Francois and his friend Raymond took us to Cilaos to see the town and one of
the three communities in the Cirque. We had a delightful drive up into the mountains
on the “road of 400 curves.” There were deep gorges—probably 500’ deep—with small
rivers at the bottom. We were told that rushing torrents roll down during the rainy
season, but now there were quiet pools that begged for swimming. The town was built
on a plateau deep in the crater, and one had to wonder how it was accessed years ago. We
later learned that it was founded by escaped slaves who went deep into the mountains
to hide. Later a road was hacked out of the woods. Wealthy people actually had porters
carry them up to Cilaos, which was a two day trip! People in the hills around Cilaos
plant Le Puy lentils on the steep mountain hillsides. Reputed to be the best in the
world, they sell for 12 Euros ($15) per kilo (2.2 lbs).
On Monday Francois sent us a text saying “Watch out for the waves.” We shrugged
it off, but later that day the waves built to 4.5-5m (15’) and broke over the seawall that
protects the marina. We hastened to put an anchor out on the side of the boat away
from the quay to hold the boat off the cement dock. Water would rise a meter (39”) to
overtop the dock in less than a minute, and recede almost as quickly. It was quite scary.
Fortunately, the anchor held us far enough off the dock that we didn’t risk floating up
Tuesday morning we were supposed to go with Christelle to see the volcano and
hike in the mountains. Jim wasn’t sure we should leave the boat, so he stayed there while
she and I went adventuring. It turned out to be an uneventful day for Jim, but Christelle
and I had a great time. We took the south road around the coast and saw where the
latest eruptions in 2001, 2002 and 2007 ran down to the sea. There’s a church that was
in the path of the lava that was spared: the lava flow stopped three feet from the building
on three sides! It hasn’t been dug out. Pretty amazing. We picked up sandwiches along
the way, and then drove up in the mountains to Grand Etang, which is a volcanic lake
that formed when two volcanoes erupted and dammed a stream. It was beautiful, with
six waterfalls feeding the lake. We hiked around it, which was about 2.5 hours, and more
than a little muddy, but fun.
On Thursday Christelle took us to an overlook into the Mafat Cirque. It’s the
most isolated and has no roads! The communities living within it have to physically
carry everything in or have it dropped by helicopter. The escaped slaves that originally
hid there were well-protected by the rough terrain. Looking down on it was absolutely
amazing. After viewing Mafat, we went to her parents’ house where her father was
distilling Geranium Bourbon essential oil. We had a wonderful time seeing just how
it’s done, and then her mother served a fantastic lunch of Creole dishes. Before leaving
I bought 100ml of geranium oil, and he gave me two liters of hydrosol (geranium
water). They were amazed that hydrosol, which they pour over the spent geranium after
distillation to help stimulate mushroom growth, would sell for $17/4 ounces in the
The St. Pierre Farmer’s Market is Saturday morning. We had fun sampling LOTS of
stuff, and buying more veggies, sausages, smoked pork, and the most remarkable lychee
honey. I bought Reunion Bourbon vanilla from a grower for 2 Euros/piece. Nearby,
Madagascar vanilla was 10 pieces/5 Euros. (But in Madagascar, it was 25 pieces/2.2
Euros (about US$3.00). I can’t say I can tell the difference.
Saturday evening, Christelle brought 12 of her English students to the boat. We
had a very nice visit. They all brought something to eat or drink and small gifts made
in Reunion. While they were here a jazz concert started in the port, so we watched the
performers marching and playing their instruments as they went to the stage. It was a
fun evening for all of us.
We departed St. Pierre at 6:45 a.m. on September 13, 2011 when the wind suddenly
shifted just enough to blow us off the dock. Outside, wind blew 18-26kn with a 12-15’
Commodores Julia and Jim Parker
Part 2 of Papillon’s letter on Madagascar will be published in the March SSCA Bulletin.