Reunion (Ray-yoon-nyon, accent on last syllable as in French) is
the remains of undersea volcanic eruptions that occurred 3 million
years ago, which formed the Mascarene Archipelago. The main part
of Reunion was formed by the volcanic eruptions of Piton des Neiges
at least 20,000 years ago, which over time collapsed into plunging
curved ravines called cirques. Though now extinct, the peak of this
mountain soars 10,000 feet above sea level, but it actually measures
23,000 feet in height from its base on the ocean floor, making it
one of the world's tallest volcanoes. Reunion's other volcano is
Piton de la Fournaise, which remains active and spewed molten lava
in 1998 for 196 days, and most recently in January of this year,
adding substantial land mass to the island. This mineral rich lava
soil supports an extravagant jungle of tropical greenery that spills
onto her rocky coastline. Reunion is about 30 miles across and lies
several hundred miles to the east of Madagascar. The Arabs, who
traded throughout these Indian Ocean islands, probably reached here
as early as the 10th century. Reunion has had several names over
the years, reflecting the parade of nations that once claimed her.
In the early 1700s, French, English, Italian and Dutch colonists
established sugar and coffee plantations, which they operated with
imported African slaves. When slavery was abolished in 1850, indentured
servants were brought from India, as well as a few from China and
Southeast Asia, and their descendants inhabit the island today.
Reunion is an overseas French departement so that Reunionnais enjoy
the rights and privileges of French citizenry. The euro is the currency
and French is the language. Saint-Denis, her capital of 140,000,
is a picture book of well-preserved colonial and Creole architecture.
Roman Catholicism predominates, however many of the Indian population,
who are baptized as Catholics, continue practicing Hinduism simultaneously.
On Reunion, people from three continents blend graciously into a
fragrant blend of French-Creole, with a strong Indian-Hindu flavor.
Tourists, 80% of whom are French, come here to trek, mountain bike
and go canyoning in a breathtaking setting of mountain grandeur
that might be described as a tropical Switzerland. We drove through
miles of sugar cane, visited a vanilla bean plantation and carefully
peered over the edge of plunging canyons at Bridal Veil Falls tumbling
over the sheer granite shoulders of Piton de Neiges. An interesting
footnote to our web of life is that Reunion was home to the now
extinct Aepyornis, a flightless bird that grew as tall as an elephant
and could weigh a half ton, but whose docile nature made her easy
prey for hungry immigrants.