Crunching the miles

11th November 2016
Unlike previous years, we’ve been crunching the miles as we head for home. The next stop after Thursday Island, Darwin. We would normally have anchored but, with a tidal range of some eight metres, no dinghy docks and the ever present saltwater crocs lurking should you risk wading ashore to haul your dinghy through the mud, you can see why we decided to use the marina.
It also allowed us to hire a car, get off the boat and explore a bit of the Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks.The Kakadu has been continuously inhabited for over 50,000 – making it the longest such area on the planet.

The earliest inhabitants leaving their marks in the form of rock art, some of which can be we visited (the more sensitive and sacred sites aren’t open to the public).

This fact of occupation was over looked by James Cook as he explored the area and claimed the eastern seaboard of Australia for the Crown, advising it wasn’t populated. Remarkably, it took until the 1970s for the Australian High Court to rule that the country had been occupied before British settlement and that the aboriginals were the original occupants of the country.
After a long wait for the weather (what else is new?) we set off for Mauritius via Cocos Keeling – where? I hear you ask, well, like most Australians we met you are not alone in your query. But it is a part of Australia, a delightful coral atoll some 1000 miles west of Western Australia in the Indian Ocean. Sadly the weather wasn’t on our side and it rained torrentially most of the time we were there. We were now on a bit of a schedule as I had a flight home from Mauritius booked for mum’s birthday so we left Cocos Keeling on the day the weather changed and the sun came out – think Mike’s still pretty hacked off about that!
Over the years we have become so familiar with the Pacific it’s been a bit a shock getting used to a new ocean – yes oceans are different, each with their own characteristics. The Indian Ocean had us back coping with evening and early morning squalls - well Mike actually, as they tended to appear on his watches! So although we used the chute we never felt happy having it up overnight as it’s certainly not the sail of choice to have up should you get hit by sudden gusts of winds up to 20 – 30 knots. The other thing we experienced was these odd rogue waves that, seemingly out of nowhere, would suddenly wallop us from the side and drench our normally very dry centre cockpit. We did enjoy some wild life en route a red footed boobie amongst others who camped out overnight on the rails and then went through an elaborate half hour pre-flight warm up and stretching programme before disappearing the next morning without so much as a by your leave or thank you – there’s gratitude for you. A brief sighting of an enormous whale alongside for a few moments was wonderful and just a shame he/she didn’t hang around for a bit longer – no idea what it was other than big, very big.

Sailing into Port Louis in Mauritius felt very emotional as, had he still been alive, dad would have been on the dockside bouncing around irrepressibly as was his wont. Arriving by boat is very different from arriving by air and not great. The customs area was a concrete wall where you had to tie to the lamp posts and the rails put up to stop people falling in the water – not great for the boat. Thank heavens the tide only goes up and down by half a metre or so. Even then it wasn’t much fun. Won’t bore you all with the tedious details but, even having managed to talk our way into the marina, persuading them they didn’t really need to keep the place empty for two weeks before the a world rally arrived, we failed to manage to get someone to look after the boat so that Mike could come home with me. Mauritius being the only country we have encountered where you can’t leave your boat without a qualified skipper in charge!

The find of the visit had to be the Dholl Puri Palace where for about 70 rupees (£1.50 approx.) you could get a lunch of stuffed puri and roti plus gateaux piment that would leave you very pleasantly replete. Think Mike became something of a regular whilst I was away! He also manage a bit of sightseeing and, on my return we both went to Aapravasi Ghat (formally known as Coolie Ghat) where all the indentured labourers arrived in the 1800s. Was funny walking up the steps that both my grandparents had climbed all those many years ago after a tough sea crossing from India; both hopeful of a new life in a new country.

They would both have had to work hard for their new life as the indentured labour system the Brits had devised was basically one up from the slavery system which it had been brought into replace. They, like many, not only survived the system but went on to thrive and prosper, borne out by the fact that 70% of Mauritians today can trace their ancestry back to these indentured labourers. I scanned the photos on the walls to see if I could recognise either of them. Maybe one day I’ll go back and check the full archives for information on them.

In the marina we found ourselves comparing notes, talking about weather and the Agulhas current with other cruisers. It was the first time since being in Panama waiting to go through the Canal that there was a shared sense of a common destination – South Africa, the only variants seeming to be whether or not we were going via Madagascar, La Reunion or heading for Richard’s Bay or Durban. We had originally planned to go straight from Mauritius to Durban but friends had said we couldn’t possibly miss La Reunion – so a brief overnight later and we were tied up in La Reunion.
It is an extraordinarily beautiful French tropical island and sailing down the coast we felt like it was something out of Jurassic Park with soaring, forest clad volcanic peaks. The main peak being Piton des Neiges, a long extinct volcano with three glorious cirques surrounding it and a secondary volcano Piton de la Fournaise, still active and prone to blow its top unpredictably – most recently in September this year.

It also gave us a chance to catch up with Lili and Pierre, a young French couple we first met in Tonga in 2012, the family now augmented by Lucas rising 2. We enjoyed a couple of nights off the boat with them and they generously spent time showing us their island and some of its many beauty spots

We knew they were fit and mad keen on the outdoors, but had never realised just how much so.

They were both doing the Grand Raid – a race which makes the London Marathon look like a stroll in the park.

There are three levels – Mascareignes – which Lili was doing, a mere 65km with 3500 metres of climbing up and down in the cirques of Piton de Neiges, the Bourbon Race and the maddest ...

... the Diagonale de Fous, which Pierre was doing 167km with 9700 m of up and down that traversed the island from south to north.

Lili started at 0300 Friday morning, finishing that evening and Pierre started at 2200 on Thursday finishing about 44 hours later.

We did our bit by positioning ourselves with drinks, macatia – a local cheese bun and words of encouragement and support to help them on their way.

Unbelievably they were both still standing and walking the following week and even went rock climbing a week later.

We also explored the cirques, at a considerably more leisurely pace, overnighting in gîtes in Cirque de Mafate (been a long time since I walked with a rucksack!) and day trips to Cirque de Salazie and Cilaos, hairpin bends and French driving being good reasons not to be distracted by the beautiful scenery.

But the highlight has to be the early morning helicopter trip over the cirques, waterfalls and volcano. The pilot was brilliant and flew through canyons, up to waterfalls and seemed almost to be heading for the cliff face at one point. It was magic! Have to say a much easier way to see the wonderful scenery than scrambling over rocks and up and down paths – or is that heresy?

The only downside of our time here in La Reunion was that we both got food poisoning. I got it so badly that after five days, with no sign of any improvement we went and found a doctor. Of course all this meant yet more delays in moving on and we were beginning to approach the season where you really don’t want to be out in this part of the Indian Ocean with the risk of tropical cyclones, equally you don’t want to charge off as the weather along the route can be very difficult - like the five metre swell on the nose and the edge of a nasty low (which we are waiting pass). The final challenge of the passage is crossing the Agulhas current that runs down the South African coast at up to four knots – great you might say, which it is until a violent southerly gale blows when the wind over tide effect can produce waves of some 15+ metres – so you see why we’re kind of keen to get the weather and timing right on this one.
What has felt really weird and odd this year, after so many years of wandering around the Pacific, enjoying cruising between islands, time at anchor, with no specific plan to follow, is to find ourselves on a schedule crunching the miles – some 10,000 by Christmas. It feels like a marathon with so much time either on passage or in marinas, a very different experience. So having spent seven years in the Pacific we will have ‘done’ the Indian Ocean in a few short months and Christmas will see us in Cape Town and back in the home waters of the Atlantic, albeit at the wrong end of it!.

We couldn't resist putting together a selection of our memories from the South Pacific

And you can also enjoy more photos from our travels in Mauritius and La Reunion


Photo comment By Tania Sweet: Thank you for another lovely seamail, I love reading them and looking at your amazing pictures. Big hugs, Robert and Tania
Photo comment By Cheryl Taylor: Very interesting reading and catching up on your travels. Back from sailing with Ron and Annie in Fiji Vanuatu and Noumea. Just waiting to get away for xmas on my own boat. Need some sunny weather here in NZ.
Photo comment By Miranda: Loved the email - stomach bug sounded bad. La Reunion pics wonderful. xxx
Photo comment By Al (of the Rees kind): Love to you both, can't wait for the next instalment. Stay safe and well! xxx
Photo comment By Kerry and Ethan: Loved reading all this and great you are still having amazing experiences. Was hoping to find a listing from Cape Town as it's neatly Christmas? Hope you arrived safe and sound. Xk and e

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