All posts by Jim St. George

The beach and the water by our resort was pretty wonderful

This was mostly a lazy stop. Mauritius is a little island nation a bit east of Réunion, still off the southeast coast of Africa. Formerly a colony of the Dutch, French, and – until independence in 1968 – the British, today it is multiethnic, multi-religious, multilingual. Moreover, unlike so much of Africa it as a highly stable country with the highest Human Development Index in the entire continent. The thing I was most struck with reading about the country is that when Arab explorers discovered Mauritius, they literally discovered it. Unlike Columbus “discovering” the New World – where lots of people lived and presumably knew they were there – there were no humans at all on Mauritius when the first Arabs happened along in the Middle Ages. And until the Dutch settled it in the late 16th century.

I’ll skip over that whole colonial period – first Dutch, then French, until the British took the islands during the Napoleonic wars – but for one little tidbit. Mauritius was the only known home of the famous flightless dodo bird. Having evolved over eons in relative isolation they had no fear of humans when we started arriving and were easy prey. By the last half of the 17th century, just a few decades after the Dutch started settling the island, they were gone.

That big rock was just behind our hotel and apparently is a World Heritage Site. Not sure why, though, and we didn’t climb it. But it made a nice backdrop for pictures.

We had five nights at a beautiful St. Regis resort and, because of that whole Starwood status thing, they upgraded us to a great suite. Made for a very pleasant stay. The one downside of a place like that is that you’re we’re always struggling to find good food that passes our low-carb threshold. And that isn’t crazy expensive. The best way to do that of course is to leave the resort and we did that for lunch a few times, going to a great little place called Mapalapaw maybe 30 minutes away. Other than that … we didn’t do much. Sat on the beach. Swam. Read. A little time at the gym. More time at the beach.

We were on the leeward side of the island, but maybe 300 yards up the coast you turned a bend and the wind was brutal. Not great for lying on the beach up there but there were a ton of kite surfers.

I could learn to like being here. I noticed, by the way, that there were all these pictures of me. I guess I’ve just fallen down on the “taking pictures” front; I’ll try to do better and get a little bit of Mark in here.

Pretty low tide just there

There were a couple very nice pools but for me, at least, pools are for looking at. The ocean is for swimming in.

Same view, not such great weather

The view on a cloudy day from our balcony.

The view from breakfast one morning

You could get some fancy food there

Nice flowers!

On top of the world, or at least that’s how it felt atop Piton de la Fournaise

From Madagascar we made a quick trip to the European Union. Who knew you could go from southeastern Africa to the EU so quickly?

Réunion, you see, just a little east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, is an “overseas region” of France so it’s really a part of France. The official language is French, they use the euro, and, driving around, it feels as though you’re in France. On arrival at the airport outside Saint-Denis, the capital and major city, we drove to a shopping mall to get SIM cards for our phones. We were just blown away by how different it was from Madagascar. The latter, of course, is one of the poorest countries on earth while there we were in Saint-Denis with big grocery stores, fully stocked with anything you might need. Plenty of shopping to be done, nice cars, people nicely dressed. The difference was almost unbelievable and certainly unexpected.

Our beach resort felt a lot more like Europe than Africa

SIM cards purchased and installed we headed around to the western coast of the island to our resort a little south of Saint Gilles. As we settled into our five-night stay at the LUX* (that’s the name, asterisk and all) resort one of the first things we noticed was that while Réunion felt more France than Africa, the restaurants also don’t have prices like Madagascar. Sticker shock! Not that it was all terribly expensive but definitely EU prices, not Madagascar prices.

What is there to do in Réunion? From our perspective there were two things about the island that stood out. One, Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace) is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, with the most recent eruption just last year. A major tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can hike up to the rim of the volcano if there is no risk of eruption.

Near the start of the hike you can see a little vegetation but it is gone not long at all after starting

So off we went. One of the remarkable parts of the hike was the drive up there; climbing up the mountain from the coast was just stunningly beautiful; I don’t know if the cows we saw grazing away appreciated the views they had but they sure should have. The hike itself wasn’t so beautiful, to be honest. The hike consisted of a long stretch across the empty, lava-crusted caldera, and then a long climb up, up, and further up to the rim of the volcano. No greenery or living creature to this amateur eye. Once we finally made it to the top I was figuring we’d see bubbling lava or at least smoke or something, but no, just a big open dry pit. The views from way up there were nice, but it’s not something one absolutely needs to do in life.

Mark at the top of the volcano. In the U.S., of course, they would have big chain fences or stone walls around the perimeter but here it’s just a painted white line suggesting it’s not safe to go beyond. Of course, lots of people did go beyond.

We didn’t learn the other important thing about Réunion – that it has a remarkable concentration of sharks in the water – until near the end of our stay. Possibly something useful to have known earlier, particularly when you’re staying at a beach resort and spending lots of time in the water. In just five years, between 2011 and 2015, there were 17 shark attacks recorded on the island’s beaches, seven of them fatal. That’s a lot! As a result swimming is banned on over half the beaches in Réunion. Fortunately, though, we were staying on the most popular and safest beach in the country so they didn’t bother us.

Funny story: we learned about the sharks from Ted and Todd, a couple we’d met back in Madagascar; they were at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park the same time we were and then drove back to Morondava and flew to Tana the same days as we did. They were the ones who told us about the attacks on the road out to the Park and thus explained the caravans we traveled in. Just as we were ready to start the hike on Piton de la Fournaise who do we run into but Ted and Todd again so we did the hike with them, during which they were amazed that we talked about swimming at our resort. They were staying on the other side of the island from us, explained there was no swimming anywhere around their place, and told us all about the sharks.

Here I am with Ted and Todd on our hike. Mark took a couple pictures but Ted always had his eyes closed.

We may need to spend more time with Ted and Todd if we want to stay safe.

Other than our one excursion to hike the volcano most of our time was spent hanging around the beach and searching out food. The meals at LUX* were pretty expensive so we sought out local places pretty successfully, including one Italian place that we kept going back to. And that was it. From here we fly a little further east to the island of Mauritius for more beach time. Life is rough.

An evening beach scene

We stayed right next to Hermitage Beach, the most popular (and shark-free) beach on the island. These are casuarina trees, beneath which the locals relax, play games, and have their barbecues.

Strange flora on the island

And long beautiful beaches

The vastness of the lava fields was impressive

As you climb the mountain there’s lots and lots of pretty much nothing up there

Selfie time!

Love the view from up here

This is near the very end of the hike (which would make it also the very start…). The greenery is interesting, but so are the clouds. They recommend that you start the hike early because clouds start rolling in pretty heavily around noon. Sure enough, by the time we got down the cloud layers were pretty heavy on the mountain. We saw lots of people just starting their hikes at this time and we could tell they would see nothing once they started climbing.

Mark crossing a bridge in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park

From Morondava our goal was Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, a six- to seven-hour drive north. This UNESCO World Heritage site is made up of an almost surreal landscape of limestone karsts (essentially limestone plateaus) that have been eroded into caverns and fissures creating dramatic “forests” of sharp limestone needles. Utterly unlike anything we’ve seen before. On top of the unique geological formations the park has an unusually large number of endemic species of both plants and animals, some existing nowhere on earth but in these karsts.

Standing amongst the tsingy

One thing that these pictures can’t (or at least don’t) display is how almost stunningly sharp the rocks were. As we spent three days tramping around the park with Francia, our local guide, much of the time was spent either walking through forests or through caverns. When we were actually climbing on the “tsingies”, though, you had to be genuinely careful where you placed your hands; it wasn’t quite knife-edge sharp but the tops were extremely hard and genuinely sharp. Let’s put it this way: if ever you were to slip and fall while you were in the tsingies you would be in a world of hurt. At least one definition of tsingy is “where one cannot walk barefoot.” To say the least!

Which made one of the sights we experienced particularly interesting: a group of lemurs hopping across an expanse of tsingies. (Tribe of lemurs? Family? OK, I looked it up and on one site they’re called a troop of lemurs while two other sites call them a conspiracy of lemurs. I’m going with conspiracy.) Francia seemed genuinely impressed; she indicated you rarely see lemurs on the tsingies themselves.

A conspiracy of lemurs crossing the tsingy. I pitied their poor feet!

Both getting to the park and then getting back to Morondava was quite the experience. As I indicated, it was something like a seven-hour drive up there, nearly all of it on gravel roads and much of it on roads in really rough condition. For a long stretch – a few hours – we seemed to be traveling in a caravan with maybe a dozen cards packed together kicking up an astounding amount of dirt. We had the windows open and after a while you couldn’t believe how dirty we were, just crusted in dust.

At one point, then, our car managed to break down, a broken fan belt or something. I figured that explained the caravan, as every single car in the group – even those in front of us – stopped to help. It took maybe 20 minutes to get us going again, with every driver there to help. My guess was that no one wanted to break down alone which explained the caravan. Wrong.

The collected drivers trying to fix our car. I was distinctly glad we weren’t traveling alone.

Just before leaving our lodge for the drive back people we’d met over our four-night stay explained that just the week before thieves had ambushed a driver taking German tourists up to the park. Apparently beat him pretty badly and robbed the tourists. So now drivers were traveling in a caravan. And as we learned on the return drive, with armed guards in the first and last cars. We happened to be selected as the last car so we traveled for a couple hours with an armed soldier riding shotgun. Literally. In the meantime as word got out about the robbery tourism was quickly drying up in the region which is a genuine tragedy for the people who make a living off the tourists.

As we traveled through some of the poorest, most remote villages you might ever imagine, lots of women had their faces covered like this. According to our driver it was their way to keep from getting too much sun.

And then eventually, after in this case maybe an eight-hour drive, we made it back to Morondava. For the return trip our driver had upgraded the car to one with AC so we could keep the windows closed; made a big difference. And this time back in Morondava I was feeling fine so I could enjoy our brief stop before a late afternoon flight to Antananarivo – visiting with friends we’d made in the park (a Bollywood director and his Bollywood actress wife!), a long walk on the enormous beach, lunch at a nice Italian restaurant. Genuinely pleasant. After another night in Tana we fly north to a beach resort which seems like a nice way to end our three-week trip through Madagascar.

We have lots of pictures of us hiking in the park

Some of the cliffs were pretty steep


On one of the hikes we had the kind of gear that allows you to clip onto safety cables. Just in case, you know.

Lots of time hiking up here

Back to them lemurs

Resting on what was kind of a natural throne

Can’t have too many pictures of climbing around the park

I think this is the last one

On the third day of our park exploration we took a boat maybe an hour upstream to get to our hike. Riding on that remote, peaceful river like that was bliss.

A group of Americans we got to know a little at the lodge, traveling upriver the same day

Francia, our guide

A local fisherman

Our boat, waiting patiently while we were hiking

We sometimes take a little break mid-hike to read but we still typically do the hikes a lot faster than the routes are supposed to take

The hike from the river up to the section of the park with the tsingies was steep and intense but the views were great

On each of our three days we would hike in the morning and then get back to the lodge for lunch. We were always the only ones there for lunch and then we’d head to the pool to relax. Felt very civilized.

Hours and hours of this, though sometimes the road conditions were a LOT worse

How the locals travel

Certainly one of the highlights of the road trip to and from the park was our stop in Belo Tsirbihina, a tiny no-account town. Except for the oddly named Mad Zebu restaurant. Here you are as close to the middle of nowhere as you can imagine and the most stunningly beautiful and delicious food you’ve ever imagined. Roughly halfway between Morondava and the park, so perfectly positioned for lunch both in and out. Amazing.

A street scene right outside the Mad Zebu in Belo Tsirbihina

More of Belo Tsirbihina

And more local travelers on our long road back to Morondava

Another highlight of the road trip up and back was the two ferries we took in both directions. Nothing fancy about these boats….

River traffic

Enjoying one of the long ferry boat rides

And of course there are always cute kid moments

You never give kids money, but sometimes you can give them pens. This little kid was cute and shy, but when I offered him this pen – from a St. Regis hotel! – he seemed pretty happy.

The route back to Morondava took us back through Avenue of the Baobabs, this time as sunset was approaching

Lots of people were going to hang out here until the sun actually set but we were ready to be done with this long day of driving so we enjoyed the fading light and then got back in the car to finish the drive

The sun setting at our lodge in Morondava

Our flight out of Morondava was supposed to be in the morning, but I still had time to walk down to the beach and enjoy the local scene. Then it was back to the room to pack, when we were informed the flight was going to be delayed four or five hours. That turned out perfect; we had time to go back to our favorite Italian restaurant for lunch before heading to our flight back to Tana.