The main event this month was La Réunion — well, apart from Christmas, that is, but Christmas wasn’t engaging my professional eye. I was finishing the shoot that I started in June (and which I wrote about in the June newsletter). There’s no direct flight to the island, and as it’s not much more than half an hour’s flight from Mauritius, that’s the way I flew.
Just to remind, what began as a one-off book for my client LUX* Resorts and Hotels and their chain of boutique properties along southwest China’s Tea Horse Road has turned into a series of destination books that aim to show the location that lies behind the tourism gloss. The second book, on Mauritius, was delivered last month, and this is the third. There are more to come.
In each of these books I’m trying to capture the personality of place, and of course that doesn’t come ready-made. It’s a matter of interpretation, and in this case the interpretation has to be mine, for better or worse. From the start, I’ve been fixated on avoiding an obvious, tourist-centric approach, not on grounds of snobbery or snootiness but because the diet of imagery for tourist destinations like these is completely well-known. Why would anyone want to see more of the blue-green, sky-sea and white-beach images that have already been shot? All of that has already been done, and done well.
I’m not perversely avoiding the spectacular landscapes and beachscapes, but to make a book on a holiday destination worth even picking up and flicking through, I have to reach back further into the location itself. That’s why we call it the ‘behind the beach’ approach, showing guests (these books are destined for every room in every LUX* hotel) what they wouldn’t normally experience if they’re spending every day at the resort — but which they could if they’d like to get out for one or two days and explore.
Two friends just returned to the tiny harbour of St Leu from fishing for bonito
Even from 50km out, on the flight from Mauritius, La Réunion is a very physical island. All of it is volcano, the southern part of it active, and unless you’re sitting on the beach looking out to sea, the volcano makes itself felt. There’s the view, always upward from the island’s encircling coast road. There’s the daily weather, the cloud cap shifting and changing by the hour, usually sparkling clear first thing in the morning right now, but then suddenly, when your back’s turned, cloud and rain rolling down the slope.
And that’s only a hint of what goes on in the centre of this round-ish island about a quarter larger than Mauritius, which is to say the size of Luxembourg. The original volcano, occupying the northern two thirds, is now green and jagged, with three huge amphitheatres called cirques collapsed around the central peak — a landscape that mixes Jurassic Park with Avatar.
The southeast of the island is dominated by the active volcano, Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace). Well, dominated is hardly the right word; the volcano IS the southeast of the island, and adding to it every time there’s a lava flow, which has been 100 times in the last four centuries. The last big one was in April 2007, adding 3 million cubic metres a day.
This volcano had been eluding me for a couple of years. The weather is so unpredictable that I haven’t been able to reach it by helicopter — until just one day this month. It had been raining the day before, and the rainy season is just starting, so I didn’t have huge hopes, but on the Thursday, early, it was perfect. We left the Helilagon pad at 07:00 — with Nicolas my guide and Patrick the pilot from my June trip — and 20 minutes later we were over the crater. Even in clear air there’s often turbulence, but this morning it was completely calm, and we just drifted over and around for half an hour, as close as I wanted to the main crater and to the strange small craters on the southern flank…
A briefing from Patrick, and then door open and over the volcano
The Cratère Cassiens from the 1938 eruption, red with ferrous oxide
I always liked science fiction movies, anyway
So this outstanding physical side of La Réunion is definitely part of its personality for me. But I need another, not only to play off against this, but because I’ve slightly boxed myself in with the titles. I called the original, on the Tea Horse Road in Yunnan, Of Tea and Horses, but I wasn’t expecting to do a series, yet the title format stuck — and so we call it Of This and That!
Even so, the second personality trait arrived easily, because by just following my inclinations I was already fascinated by the creole culture here. The word creole has a whole raft of meanings, but here on La Réunion the definition is basically ‘island born’. And it’s an endless subject to explore, because this is on the one hand France (an overseas department), and on the other an oceanic island in the far south, and with a history that included rivalry with the British, slavery and the French Revolution, things were bound to become complicated.
The ethnic mixture is different from Mauritius, because the French didn’t do the same degree of indentured labour from India, but it seems to me also that there’s a special kind of independence of spirit. Nicolas and I talked a lot about this during days of driving. Maybe part of it comes from being a part of France, with the economic security that comes from that, yet with plenty against which to rebel.
Another part, up on the higher slopes and in the cirques, may be from a local history in which poorer settlers retreated from the organised island life to the physically isolated interior. I’m still writing the introductory essay for the book, and I don’t know exactly how it will go, but there’s surely some connection between remote volcanic island physicality and some desire for isolation and managing alone in a safe, wild place. It’s happened elsewhere. Meanwhile, back on the island, my last weekend was happily taken up with a music festival (for Réunionnaise rather than for tourists), and that offered creole culture in abundance. That’s why the title will be Of Creole and Cirque.
At the Festival Liberté Métisse 2017, on the beach at L’Étang Salé les Bains
Young dancers backstage watching a performance
Spectators, très créole
One charming part of the festival was that some of the dancers later walked the beach in 19th-century dress