And Back to Le Reunion

Where Next?
Bob Williams
Sat 7 Dec 2002 12:00

My sail from Mauritius back to Le Reunion was a lot slower than the first time.  The south-east trades had eased off now that we were in the cyclone season and winds while still predominantly from the south-east were a lot lighter.  I had decided to make for St Pierre rather than Port de le Galet, as it is a much nicer spot, and while the entrance has a bad reputation I had acquired a little local knowledge and felt comfortable with it.  Another factor in my decision was that when I left Mauritius the volcano on Reunion was active and I had heard that you could get a good view of it by going south about which was the way to St Pierre.

I had contemplated going straight to Africa or returning home from Mauritius but knew I was not ready to make that decision and Sunil’s cargo gave me a good excuse to put the decision off.  I felt a good vibe from Reunion when I was last here so thought this would be a good place to try and collect my thoughts.

Unfortunately the lava flows had stopped by the time I had raised Reunion, and I later discovered I was in the wrong place anyway, so I missed the volcano act.  I arrived off St Pierre at 23.00 on Friday 6 December and decided it would definitely be unwise to try to enter an unknown harbour with a difficult entrance at night, so I furled the jib, put a reef in the main and headed offshore for the night on a close reach, the plan being to tack at about 04.00 and then close the coast on a beam or broad reach to be off St Pierre again at 09.00.

Well the ride was comfortable and my alarms ineffective so I ended up sleeping from about 2 until 5, waking with a start wondering where I was, because it certainly did not feel like I was at sea.  Wits duly collected I realised where I was, tacked, set the jib, unleashed the main and we were off again on a beam reach back to St Pierre.  It was a glorious morning, the landfall perfect, the clouds had cleared from the island’s rugged interior, the town of St Pierre nestling on the shore, green fields lit in the morning sun rolling up and back into the mountains and a deep valley cleaving the fields down to the coast, its purple shadows and hard contours contrasting the soft green hillsides.  I took a few photos but knew I could not capture the real scene.

We entered the narrow entrance with waves breaking left and right and a few nasty rocks baring their teeth, but my directions proved sound such that at 9.20 I was secured alongside the berth a cruising friend had recommended.

Technically I was supposed to remain on board until I had cleared Customs and Immigration but I knew Reunion to be very relaxed (in fact I was to find it too relaxed with regard to formalities) so I did not restrict myself to the boat, and like any sailor I decided to make the most of my first night in port, even though it had only been two days at sea, and check out what St Pierre had to offer.  Wandering the streets I came across a place called the Tam Tam Café which Sunil had taken me to during my last short stay here.  I found that a band from Madagascar was playing at 9 pm so after one prission (beer from the tap) I went for a further stroll to return later when they started.

After the normal microphone problems that all bands seem to have they eventually got into their stuff which was surprisingly melodic, a cross between modern African sounds and 17th century chamber music, mostly pleasant but I have to say a bit on the dull side.  After they left another musician came on, Chico, from Spain.  He played Flamenco guitar, one of my favourites.  He had blonde dreadlocks swept back over his head and he played and played.

In the meantime in my corner of the bar a crowd had shuffled in, as the song goes, amongst them was a woman who I had to look twice or thrice at to be sure she was female, dressed in black baggy shorts, loose fitting oversized T shirt, short cropped red hair and no make up.  She was the extrovert of her party and she whistled and cheered the band on.  I could not help but notice her and once or twice had to smile at her antics and once, when she looked my way, I found myself averting her gaze.  Well before I knew it she came over to me, bought me a beer and, while I wouldn’t say she was chatting me up, that is how I felt.  Her name was Caroline, she was a little drunk but spoke good English and I was glad of the company.

Later when the blonde Flamenco guitarist was taking a break, he also came over to my corner.  I felt his charismatic presence and at some point he looks at me, his gaze totally focused, he stretched out his arm, cups his right hand about a foot in front of my face and says, “You know you have the most amazing face, and your eyes, the light just shines out of your eyes.”  He pauses, looks to the slim beautiful blonde girl behind the bar, gives her an irresistible smile which she almost manages to ignore, then returns to me.  I must have said something, for he says, “And your voice, it is so alive.”  He looks glumly away, “My voice, it is dead!”

He continues, “You know we are alike, all different yes, but alike.  Inside me I have this blonde woman trying to get out.”

I cannot help but respond, “Well she must be a beautiful woman.”  Where on earth have I landed?  As the Desiderata says, probably right where I need to be.

He ignores me and returns to the woman behind the bar.  Maybe she is who he wants to be.  My world right now is indeed a very confused place.

Well Saturday night ends very late early Sunday morning and I stroll back to Sylph as the sun is rising.

Monday I clear immigration, but not Customs.  Shortly after 11.00 some of my new friends turn up, they have invited themselves for a sail.  I explain I am waiting for Customs still and we cannot go unless they arrive very soon.  So we decide to have a few beers in the cockpit instead.  Kevin, a young man in his mid twenties with short, cropped hair, pulls out a tobacco tin with a slide top and proceeds to roll a large joint.  The laws are very relaxed in Reunion and most people grow their own and smoke it fairly openly.  Without wishing to offend, I ask my guests, “Er, excuse me, but what if Customs should turn up?”  They laugh, shrug their shoulders and Steven says, “No problem.”

The method of making a joint here, just out of passing interest, is to use two papers, joined to form an L shape, a filter made of cardboard is placed at the thin end of the L and then it is expertly rolled so as to form a slightly tapered cone.  The whole lot is tapped down firmly against the filter, the ends are twisted off and a long tightly packed joint is produced which Cheech and Chong would have been proud of.  Meanwhile I put some ‘Mobi’ on the CD player which seems to suit the mood, enjoy a few beers, and fortunately Customs did not show up to test young Steven’s “No problem.” 

During my stay here it becomes apparent to me that being able to roll a good joint is a rites of passage thing, and my friends are bemused when they realise I cannot for the life of me roll one.  Also there is clearly no active anti-smoking campaign at all as it seemed virtually everyone smoked (cigarettes I’m talking of now).

After they all leave, at about 3 pm, I move the boat to another berth.  That morning the Capitaine de Port had told me that my boat was too big for the berth I was in and I must move.  I had planned on moving as part of the day sail but when the Customs did not show, and the day progressed I decided it would be safer and less confusing if I just moved Sylph by myself after my guests had left.

A day later I met a nice couple, Teresa and Greg, who were walking along the wharf and had stopped to admire the boat and have a chat.  I invited them on board for a look around and we enjoyed each other’s company.  Before I knew it I had been invited to their place for dinner one night and to use their computer for email which of course I was very happy to accept.

The evening with them was delightful.  Teresa is Spanish, 42 years old, slim and beautiful with short black hair.  She used to be a ballerina but had to give it up to earn a living, and as I watched her make a paella her graceful movements and serenity captivated me.  Greg is much younger, 24 years old, he has soft handsome features with wavy auburn hair to the nape of his neck and a charming smile.  They clearly love each other and the atmosphere was warm and relaxed.

Teresa and Greg want to go sailing some day but Teresa also enjoys her current work teaching English.  I asked her whether she would miss her work if she went sailing.  She says no, she always enjoys what she is doing at the time, and if not, she will stop doing it.  I think where do these people come from?  I have so much to learn.  At the time I felt like I would have traded places with Greg in an instant.

A few days later I take Greg and Teresa for a sail, Greg has organised it as a birthday present for Teresa and I am happy to help out.  It is a pleasant uneventful day, though unfortunately Teresa was a little sea sick.

I go for another sail the following day as well, this time with Kevin and his friends.  This is also a pleasant day, fortunately nobody gets sea sick, maybe a medicinal side effect of the marijuana they smoke, but it is more eventful when on the way back we manage to run aground on a sand bar at the harbour entrance.  The water is calm so there is little stress, but due to Sylph’s keel shape she has ridden up on the bar, the tide is falling and we are stuck.  I drop the sails, apply maximum reverse power on the engine but nothing happens.

I consider options, waiting for the tide to float us off would take about 10 hours, rowing everyone ashore - what a hassle, but taking a line ashore to the breakwater and winching her off seemed to be worth a try.  Not wishing to bother with the dinghy which is firmly lashed on deck I pull the spare anchor warp out of its stowage and give instructions to Kevin and Steve to feed it out to me as I swim ashore with it.  I jump over the side in as manly a fashion as I can muster and in no time am scrambling up the concrete blocks which make up the breakwater and have secured a bight around one of them.  Back to the boat we take the line to a sheet winch, I direct Kevin to start winching in as I apply reverse power on the engine.  Sylph begins to move, all is going well when suddenly the engine stalls.  Damn!  I had failed to make sure that the end of the line was not hanging over the side and it had fouled the propellor.

Next step, don mask and snorkel, grab my rope cutting knife and again I go over the side.  After three dives I have most of it cut free but a tail is still wrapped around the shaft and I am running out of breath.  Fortunately Kevin dons the other mask and is quickly over the side to help.  I explain the situation and after a couple more dives it is free.  We climb back on board, continue winching and motoring and soon we are off.  One of the locals on the breakwater releases the line from ashore and a few minutes later we are back alongside, where we continue to enjoy more beers and much bonhomie.  A little excitement always adds interest to a day provided no one is hurt or things broken, which, apart from my spare anchor rode being a few meters shorter, is the case.  I was told later that the sand bar was a local joke and most everyone had gone aground on it at some stage or other.

A few nights later I am expecting to go to Greg and Teresa’s place for dinner again but they do not show up.  I am disappointed but figure there must have been a misunderstanding especially with the language difficulties (which later proves to be so).  Then I remember that Chico and his band are playing at Le Bistro so decide I will go there instead.  It is another great night.  Chico is very entertaining and brings the small bar alive.

Somewhere along the line here I had decided to shave off my beard.  On my first night Caroline had commented that my beard was very clever as no-one could tell whether I was smiling or not.  I had not seen my face for many years and thought, why not?

Many of my new friends were there and my new look is met with approval.  I had indicated to a few people that I was looking for crew and Caroline told me she would be interested in coming with me, not for sailing or travel but for me.  This intrigued me and I ask does she want to help me but she says, “No, for you.”  I like Caroline and am sure she would be a great crew so we give each other a hug in the way of saying it’s a deal.

The next day was my favourite during my stay in Reunion.  It started off quite strange.  I was waiting to be picked up by Greg and Teresa to go into the mountains for the day but again they did not turn up.  Now from the above I probably sound fairly cheerful but the fact is I was still depressed and lonely trying to come to grips with life without Ann.  I really have no idea how long this will take.   Being by myself too long is a nightmare and that morning I hate to admit I was feeling in a pretty helpless state, saying to myself over and over again, “God, please help me,” just wanting some of the pain to go away.  While waiting for Greg and Teresa I lay down on the settee and fell asleep for a short while.  I had a dream: I was standing at a caravan type cafe waiting to place an order talking to somebody.  The man behind the counter is trying to take an order from the man next to me and all of a sudden he says, “For God’s sake will you just shut up and listen!”  I put my hands over my mouth and say, “Yes, I must learn to shut up and listen.”

I wake up and think about the dream.  I conclude the man next to me trying to place an order is in fact me and the man behind the counter is God trying to take it.  He’s telling me to shut up, stop blubbering and listen and I might learn something.  Probably good advice.  Just then Greg and Teresa show up.  They had accidentally set their alarm late hence the delay.

One of the great things about Reunion is that it is never far from the mountains, no matter where you are and it is only a short drive before we are up into a beautiful valley, the road lined with banana plantations and dense foliage receding up the valleys walls. I am in a car with friends of Greg and Teresa - Christophe, Angelique and Arnaud.  To our right as the car winds its way up the steep and narrow road I catch occasional glimpses of a small rapidly flowing river.  We go up to look at a waterfall then back down a short way to find a spot for lunch.  Wood is gathered and Greg starts a bonfire big enough for a Guy Fawkes night, but it soon burns down, a piece of wire mesh is thrown over the coals and Teresa starts to make another great paella, the chicken freshly slaughtered by Greg that morning.

Rivers are always magical places, the sight and sound of flowing water calms the mind, something I felt very much in need of.  I found a moment to myself beside a particularly beautiful dish formation in the rocky river bed where the water streamed through in a large crystal clear jet.  I could have stared at it for hours, and it was a relief to be able to feel peace for a little while.

After a fantastic lunch, so this is what a real paella tastes like, the boys go for swim.  The water is cold but delicious.  Greg sets the challenge of fighting our way up against the rapid flowing water, to come tobogganing back down again over the rocks and through the natural water slides.

Then with the exception of Greg we all go for a hike down the stream.  This time Kristophe who is something of an expert rock climber, blazes the trail, silently challenging us to climb the tricky bits.  Others take up the challenge as they feel comfortable to do so.  This is a very nice group of people, no prodding or pushing, very little is spoken, strictly challenge by choice.  Indeed Kristophe’s form, his long lanky frame and wiry strength, not to mention experience and skill enable him to do things the rest of us could never do.

As we walked and talked and climbed and played it occurred to me this may have been what it was like to have been an early hunter/gatherer clan (when not in danger), interdependent yet independent, at one with their environment, at peace, content and happy to be alive, and of course full of delicious paella.  I am idealising a past we cannot know but I had a sense of belonging which I could not recall feeling before.

It was a great hike, a couple of hours went past in no time at all, and all too soon we had to pack up and head back to St Pierre.

I spent another week in Reunion as another cyclone built up and went past well to the east of the island.  I was enjoying myself much of the time and had a great offer to go canyoning but decided I was really pushing my luck staying as long as I had.  I had to make up my mind and get moving again. Despite my melancholic state my new friends were very tolerant and generous and invited me to a Christmas Eve party where with the language problems and my personal issues I continued to be thoroughly bad company.  A lady, Marie, decided to try and cheer me up and she did a magnificent job, even though we could barely communicate.

Another lovely couple I was to enjoy the company of was Ana and Roland.  Ana was also an English teacher, petite with short red hair and freckled fair skin, (her grandmother was Irish).  Roland was of medium stature, long dark hair, fit, a diving instructor and drama teacher.  They were confident and spontaneous.  They talked enthusiastically of free diving with dolphins and their teaching methods.  We visited some of their friends later in the evening and at one point Roland looks at a nearby tree and without a word or glance at anyone pulls himself straight from his chair up into the branches.  It seems it was just there to be done.

I went to one more party before leaving Reunion and again found myself depressed.  As I spoke no French I was often left to my own thoughts which at the time despite my best efforts continually spiraled inwards and down.  I realise how lucky I had been to find these wonderful people who decided to befriend me and who genuinely seemed to like me despite my depression.  It is strange how Caroline and I clicked, we obviously share an understanding with one another.  Others had commented on how well we communicate despite the language barriers.  In one of our chats I say to her,  “You know its hard trying to be a man all the time, sometimes you just need to let go and have a cry.”  She clearly understood what I meant.  At one point during the evening a guy named Titi grabs my head in the crook of his arm and says, “Bob, life is good.  I have AIDS and a child, believe me, life is good.”

Later that evening we go to the Tam Tam Café for a few beers.  I just seem unable to lift my spirits.  Kevin asks me, “Bob, what’s wrong?”  I look at him but cannot speak.  He gives me a piece of paper and tells me to write it down.  I write, “I miss my wife.” And draw a picture of a broken heart.  They are good people.  Steve takes me back to the boat where he makes sure I get to bed and stays until I have fallen asleep.  I suspect they were worried about my safety.

Since Ann announced that she was not coming back to me I find my confidence has crashed and I have begun to question my masculinity.  I know I have always had a sensitive nature, often construed as being feminine and weak in Australian culture.  Did I want to continue the struggle as a man or was I running away from the real me, whatever that was.  I realised in my confused state I couldn’t answer my questions unless I was willing to consider them with an open mind and heart. I have explored my past and worked out some of the things that have contributed to my low self esteem and lack of confidence.  No doubt my personality type is the reason I am passionate about sail training.  I have an empathy with those who struggle with life and I want to be able to help them and the best way I know is by example.  To be able to say honestly, despite the pain and misery, that life is fun and worth living.  It is proving to be a bigger struggle than I imagined.  All my props have been stripped away and I truly have to learn self reliance, to accept me as I am.  I have preached the principles of Outdoor Adventure Education for many years and now I find myself testing them to my limit, and I keep on saying to myself, have faith, never give up, just relax and let go, it will all work out and then you will be able to live life with honesty and integrity.  I said to a friend, Nathan, before my departure that this was about credibility.  At the time I did not know how true those words were and just how much I had to learn before I can move on in my career and life. 

For these reasons and others I had decided that whichever way I go, for now I go alone.  I am just too confused to have anyone with me and I still have to dig deeper to find the core me, to develop some self reliance and independence, somebody I will be happy to live with.  Caroline understood with a smile.  I felt I had achieved so much through the years with the Navy, especially Young Endeavour, and my life with Ann.  Now I was feeling much of it was a sham, my confidence a navy uniform and a wife who perhaps didn’t know me at all.  But this is not true of course.  My achievements have been real enough, maybe they come easy to others but that is hardly the point.  And I am sure that Ann knows exactly who I am.

After still more hassles trying to get clearance out, I said goodbye to my Reunion friends and finally got underway on Monday 30 December 2002, still not really sure whether I was heading to South Africa or back to Australia.  I felt the right thing to do was to go back to Australia and apologise to Ann for all the things I had done wrong in our relationship, then restart my circumnavigation on my own.  But right now I feel I do not have the strength to tackle 5½ thousand miles of rough ocean.  What’s more I am very low on kerosene and was unable to get any more in Reunion (an excuse as these sorts of practical reasons always are).  And then what of my dream to sail around the world.  Would I find the resolve to do all these miles again?  I am struggling to find meaning in it now, but having sacrificed so much I feel it a duty to myself to continue.  I know ultimately I will find myself, maybe that is what I am afraid of.  Teresa said if she wasn’t enjoying it she would just stop.  But I am not Teresa.  As Ronan says, “Popi ni zolib!”  A Brittany proverb which he translated as, “All people do what he want.”  And I still want to be a man, whatever that is.

So after a day out I cut my hair and decide to push on to Africa.   Am I running or trying to prove myself?  Probably both.  And at times I just think why me!  A wife and kids with a house in the suburbs would have been so nice.  But that is not my life.

I write on my white board - Never Give Up.