Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Hellbourg to Belouve hike

bamboo growing near the start of the hike

The hike from Hell-Bourg to Belouve is 3.5 km long, and climbs about 530 metres. The ONF sign (see below) says 1¾ hours are needed, but it only took us an hour and twenty minutes.

sign at the beginning of the hike, start of the path to right.

the hike up to Belouve is only one of several hikes
possible from the same starting point

Although Severe Tropical Storm Fakir had barrelled past Reunion only a few days previously, the path and surroundings were in a surprisingly good state. 

shrine beside the path

view from the path across the cirque of Salazie;
flat-topped Piton Enchaing to the left

fuchsia growing wild

Hydrangeas growing alongside the path

view across Salazie higher up the path, higher up;
this time Piton Enchaing is to the right

Towards the end of the path you suddenly come across two concrete pillars sticking out at a 45° angle. These are remnants of a now-defunct cableway that was inaugurated on 24th November 1954 and which linked Belouve and Hell-Bourg. It had a span of 1 202 metres, a gradient of 805 metres, and used a 1500-mètre long cable. 

concrete pillars near end of path

Then the path turns a corner and you come across more vestiges, together with another small shrine.

more relics of the cableway

path between the cableway and gîte

Once we arrived at the top we had a picnic lunch before heading back down the same way we came. Incidentally it's said the name of Belouve comes from the Malagasy word Belova which means "important or rich heritage" in English.

It took us 1 hour 20 to hike back down

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view of nearby waterfalls when driving home

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Carri baba figue

Severe Tropical Storm Fakir barrelling past Reunion recently meant that we found ourselves with three stalks of bananas blown over. The bananas were inedible as they weren't ripe enough, but we were able to recover three banana flowers, known locally as baba figue, to make a popular local dish: carri baba figue (carri is the general name for Réunion's 'national' dish, normally consisting of meat or fish cooked with onions, garlic, turmeric (safran), thyme, salt, pepper and sometimes tomatoes. Normally served with white rice, rougail, lentils and traditionally leafy green brèdes).

three baba figues 

The first step was to peel the purple outer layers off the baba figues, leaving the central white core.

peeled baba figues

close-up of one of the peeled baba figues

They can they be chopped up and put in a bowl of water with salt for 24 hours. This helps get rid of their bitter taste.

chopped up baba figues in a bowl of water with salt

The next day after draining the chopped baba figue, slice up about 300 grams of boucané (smoked pork meat) and 300 grams of smoked sausages and let it fry in the bottom of the pan with a little olive oil for 10 minutes.

boucané in the process of being chopped

chopped sausages and boucané in the pan

You will also need to dice 3 tomatoes and one large onion.

dicing the tomatoes 

This should be added to the meat in the pan along with a teaspoonful of turmeric and two pinches of salt.

adding turmeric to the other ingredients 

Cover and cook for 10 minutes, before adding the baba figue and 50 cl of water; leave to cook for 20 minutes over medium heat.

cover and leave to cook

Stir half way through cooking.

stir half way through cooking

Serve hot with white rice, rougail, lentils and brèdes (leafy greens). Bon appétit!

Finished carri baba figue!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Garden visitor(s)

This fellow visited our garden this week. Officially known as a panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) in English, locally it's called an endormi due to its slow way of walking. Native to eastern and northern Madagascar it was introduced to Reunion (and Mauritius).

Panther chameleon/endormi

Its generic name Furcifer is derived from the Latin root furci meaning "forked" and refers to the shape of the animal's feet. Male panther chameleons like this one can grow up to 51 cm (20 inches) in length, with a typical length of around 43 cm (17 inches). Females are smaller, at about half the size. Panther chameleons have very long tongues (sometimes longer than their own body length) which they are capable of rapidly extending out of the mouth. They spend the majority of their life (about three to five or six years) in isolation, apart from mating sessions.

Panther chameleon/endormi

Incidentally I saw this other visitor on the terrace this time last year:

blind snake

It's a nonvenomous blind snake (Reunion doesn't have any venomous snakes), probably a Indotyphlops braminus. The others species found on the island is the Indian wolf snake, Lycodon aulicus.

Further reading:

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Vanilla: the book

Vanilla: travels in search of the Ice Cream Orchid is a book by writer, journalist and broadcaster Tim Ecott that was first published in 2004. It explores the history and current cultivation of vanilla, the world's most versatile flavour, and traces its story from its natural origins on the Gulf Coast of Mexico to Madagascar, Tahiti, Reunion, Seychelles and around the botanical collections of Europe. As someone who lives in Reunion, not far from La Vanilleraie, and who has also translated texts for a vanilla plantation, I was sure the book would interest me.

cover of
Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid

The book intertwines fact-finding mission, travelogue, natural history and biological detective story. I learnt a number of things about vanilla:
  • There are over 25000 species of orchids, and counting. Of all the orchids the vanilla family is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop
  • Vanilla is the most labour-intensive agricultural product in the world.
  • Unlike other agricultural crops, the amount of vanilla beans available each year is comparatively small - approximately 2000 metric tons.
  • More than half the world's vanilla beans end up in the United States. Half of those are used in the dairy industry.
  • Under the right conditions, an established vanilla vine is capable of long life in the wild, perhaps 1000 years.
  • Vanilla is the only economic area in which Madagascar has an opportunity to influence a world market. The island consistently accounts for half of the world's vanilla production.
The book follows a roughly chronological history of vanilla, starting with four chapters set in Mexico, then after a chapter in the botanical collections of early 19th century England, there are a further four chapters set in Reunion, where he discusses Edmond Albius' contribution to vanilla. I found this especially interesting as although I knew of the 12-year old slave who was the first to discover how to pollinate vanilla flowers had died in poverty, I knew little else about him. After a chapter in Tahiti the final four chapters take place in Madagascar, albeit with most of one of the chapters examining vanilla's importance in the US food industry. 

Edmond Albius (source)

References are also made to the Comoros (... notorious for its tally of coups d'état and mercenary-led invasions. 19 coups in less than a quarter of a century is still something of a record, I believe), and the Seychelles where the author lived for a time. He explains he chose this latter destination as he had developed an obsession with scuba diving and I enjoyed his remark "underwater I could always escape the claustrophobia of living in a society where everyone knew everyone else's business". He also refers to the south-west Indian Ocean as a region that "other English-speaking journalists didn't bother with [at the time] because they considered it too peripheral to world events. Whenever I made repeated visits to the islands, colleagues would sneer slightly at the idea that I was 'reporting from the beach again'."

vanilla flower, seen at St-Philippe

The author knows how to write and makes his subject matter very readable, however I did find some digressions less interesting or wonder whether they weren't just padding. In the penultimate chapter he also makes an amateurish mistake referring to cyclone wind speeds (almost 200 miles an hour) as the speed at which a cyclone (Hudah in this particular instance) was travelling. However all in all, a worthwhile book for anyone with an interest in the subject and destinations discussed.

Reunion's coat of arms shows a vanilla vine

Further reading:

wild vanilla growing at St Philippe

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wild vanilla growing at St Philippe

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Grande Comore

To get to our diving holiday in Moheli we had to travel via Grande Comore (Ngazidja), which you can reach via a 2-hour direct flight from Reunion. We spent a night there before and after our Moheli flights as it is advisable to have leeway of at least 24 hours either side of your flight, owing to schedules changing at the last minute due to inclement weather or overbooking.

Our last trip to Grande Comore was in August 2000 (see below), and on our outbound trip we revisited the capital, Moroni, to see how much it had changed in eighteen years. I would have liked another look at the stuffed coelacanth at the Centre National de Documentation et de la Recherche Scientifiques, but unfortunately the museum was closed for renovation. I've been told the coelacanth is still there, just with a bit more dust.

Photo of the coelacanth that I took in 2000

My other memory of Moroni was auditive, from the small harbour in front of the Old Friday Mosque: I remember hearing the sound of material being hammered into the spaces between the hull planks of the  wooden dhows that were used to unload merchandise from larger ships offshore. However these dhows have now been replaced by more modern fibreglass boats and so the sound has disappeared.

Old Friday mosque ("Badjanani Mosque") built in 1427

Not far away from the harbour is a sign proclaiming Mayotte est comorienne et le restera à jamais ("Mayotte is part of the Comoros and will always remain so"). This references the fact that the fourth island of the archipelago, Mayotte, is contested. It was the only island of the four that voted in referendums in 1974 and 1976 to retain its link with France and forgo independence (with 63.8% and 99.4% of votes respectively). A draft 1976 United Nations Security Council resolution recognizing Comorian sovereignty over Mayotte, supported by 11 of the 15 members of the Council, was vetoed by France. However since 1995 the subject of Mayotte has not been discussed by the General Assembly.

After Moheli on our trip back we had a car and driver meet us at the airport, and heading northwards our first stop was at the "Sceau de l'Islam aux Comores" a site dedicated to the first Comorian to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

wood carving above doorway, Sceau de l'Islam aux Comores

On leaving the site we came across a number of men making galawa (pirogues), and we stopped to watch and ask some questions.

making a galawa boat 

The next day, on our way to the airport, we saw some fishermen out in their galawa.

out fishing in galawa, just north of Moroni 

Our next halt, appropriately enough, was at the site of the former Galawa Beach hotel, where we stayed in 2000 and which at the time was the islands' best hotel. This is an aerial view of what the hotel used to look like:

former Galawa Beach Hotel

However despite being successful it was knocked down for political?/economical? reasons about ten  years ago, and now there is virtually nothing left.

looking over where the swimming pool used to be

beach at former Galawa Beach Hotel site

Our next stop was the Lac Salé (Salty Lake) or Niamawi Lake to give it its proper name. This former volcanic crater is located in the far north of Grande Comore, and is reputed to be bottomless :-)

salty Niamawi Lake

We carried on down the island's east coast, stopping to look at the attractive Chomoni beach, before heading back to Moroni by cutting across the island on the RN4.

Chomoni Beach

Once again we were destined not to visit Mount Karthala, the island's highest point (2631m/7746 feet) and an active shield volcano - the most recent eruptions were in 2005 and 2006. On this occasion it was due to lack of time, in 2000 it was because of the lack of organised visits available (which may still be the case). Perhaps we'll get to climb it one day on another visit.

Skipjack tuna for sale at Moroni harbour market

Further reading:

Suggested book:

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Monday, 22 January 2018


We recently spent 11 nights at a hotel on the southern coast of Moheli, Moheli being the smallest (211 km2/81 sq mi) and least populated (38,000 inhabitants) of the three islands forming the Union of the Comoros. It only sees about 400 to 500 visitors every year.

view from the beach looking up towards the hotel bungalows

Hermit crab on the hotel beach

As the hotel is located opposite Moheli's Marine Park we mainly went for the diving (see separate blog post) but we also had time to relax, read, sleep and generally unwind. The Marine Park encompasses seven islets.

sunset over another two of the islets

looking towards the hotel beach from further afield

The hotel is on a beach enclosed on either side by a headland, which virtually makes it into a private beach, and there is a another small beach (barely visible on the photo above) which is accessible at very low tide. A short walk away is the long public beach of the town of Nioumachoua, Moheli's second town with a population of approximately 6,000.

a small part of Nioumachoua's public beach

We took some strolls through the town (which is really just a large village) and were intrigued to see a grand mariage was taking place, which is a traditional wedding ceremony performed in Comoros. It involves an exchange of expensive gifts between the couple's families as well as a festivities lasting up to 9 days for an entire village, and can cost as much as the equivalent of US$50,000. The most elaborate sometimes require more than 3 years of planning. Only by participating in the ceremony is a Comorian man entitled to participate in his village's assembly of notables and to wear the mharuma, a sash that entitles him to enter the mosque by a special door. 

part of grand mariage celebrations 
women dancing as they take the dowry to the bridegroom's home,
part of grand mariage celebrations

We could have gone to see turtles laying eggs on the beach at Itsamia, a 90-minute drive away, but as that's something we'd already experienced in Oman, we preferred going to see the island's endemic Livingstone' fruit bats. The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers the species as critically endangered, and as of 2003 (no more recent figure seems to exist) the total population in the wild was estimated at 1,200 individuals. Due to their imperiled status, the bats have been identified by the Alliance for Zero Extinction as a species in danger of imminent extinction.

a Livingstone's fruit bat

We had to hike for an hour and a half through forest, but our reward was getting to see these magnificent 'flying foxes' relatively close. The bats are only found on Moheli and neighbouring Anjouan, and only 15 roost-sites are currently occupied in Anjouan and six sites at Moheli.

Livingstone's fruit bat with wings spread

Although the bats are predominantly nocturnal there is some activity during the day, so we were able to hear and see the bats fairly easily.

flying Livingstone's fruit bat

teck tree near Livingstone's fruit bat roosting site 

skink in the forest

Longhorn beetle (Coleoptera cerambycidae)

a deserted beach near Ouallah on the island's west coast 

Moheli is about 10° further north than Reunion Island, and while most of the vegetation was familiar to us, some of the dishes served in the hotel were not. 

Mkatre Wa Foutra - a flatbread made using yeast, eggs and flour

Kuskuma - another type of bread

Madaba: moringa greens mixed with coconut & some fish. A Comorian staple.

fried breadfruit, served as a savoury accompaniment to a main course

fried banana, served as a savoury accompaniment to a main course

I also asked whether there was a Comorian equivalent to the ranon'apango (rice water: water boiled in the pan in which rice has cooked) that I enjoy so much in Madagascar. I was served this dish, which was more akin to a rice soup; I don't know whether that's the way it's served in the Comoros or just the hotel.

Comorian rice water ?

At the time of writing getting to Moheli entails a domestic flight via Grande Comore (flights between Moheli and Mayotte are not currently operating), and it is advisable to have leeway of at least 24 hours either side of your flight, as schedules can change at the last minute due to inclement weather or overbooking.

a member of the passion fruit family

Further reading:

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