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Sunday, 4 October 2015

Tropical Ile St. Marie

There is no doubt now that we are in Africa .... though please don't tell the locals that !  They are proudly Madagascan, proud also of their cultural heritage, which is a mix of Borneo (Austronesian) peoples and Bantu immigrants from Africa.  Add a little blood from European slavers, pirates and Arab traders and you arrive at today's "Malagasy" people.  Here on Ile St. Marie the pirates contribution is perhaps more substantial....

Outside the towns people are mainly subsistence farmers, except where they find work in tourism.  A young restaurant waitress might earn $1.50 per day here - good money by national standards.  Most families have livestock and vegetable gardens, we saw chickens, ducks, geese, goats, sheep and many Zebu cattle.

Touring the island by motorcycle, we found a very young population - half of them seemed under 25 years.  Children are everywhere, rolling old bicycle wheels along the roads or doing the serious job of collecting water from community wells.

We met Sylvio, a local school teacher, who while still studying at University on the main island, spends his vacation time here in Ambidofotatra teaching English and sport.  Sylvio took us to his home - a spotless but basic shack not far out of town.  He (and his students) were very keen to practice their English language skills.  This proved challenging when mixing with the cruising sailors - Aussie accents were mixed in with Irish, American and German / French versions of the language.  

Visiting a local cemetery reveals another fact about local life - many children do not make it to adulthood.  Children's graves are everywhere.  While access to health care is improving, and the Government spends almost 15% of its budget on health, the standard of care and access for the wider community is still quite low.

For tourists and travelers, if you need serious medical treatment the rule is to fly out to to South Africa.  One sailing friend received a very deep laceration on his lower leg, and was immediately repatriated to Johannesburg.  Of course repatriation can take time - flights and ferries are often cancelled, and the road system is (at best) dreadful - it can take days to cover just a few hundred kilometers.

Another boat crew member flew in from South Africa, but found the local connecting flights were cancelled - it took four days for them to connect with the yacht via rented taxis and small ferries.

Coiffure Anyone ?
Mobile Phone Doctor
In the towns and villages the standards of living and construction are on the improve, development is happening and we are optimistic about the future for this beautiful place.

The lifestyle is certainly relaxed - everything shuts down at noon and many stores and banks don't reopen until 3:00pm.  Curiously, even the ATM machines need a long three hour snooze at midday.

Tourism is making a positive contribution - the people are happy and well sustained.  More than half the population is Christian, with the balance following traditional animist or Islamic cultures.

We re-fueled Crystal Blues using our jerry cans and a hand trolley.  Standing in a crush of people at the gas station was a funny experience - people jostling for position, but in a good natured way, always with a smile.  Most were happy to recognise us as visitors and showed unusual courtesy.  I actually think they take pity on us as we don't speak French or Malagasy.  Of course you couldn't get diesel (or gasoline) every day - the pumps frequently ran dry, and the in-ground tanks were refilled manually from 44gallon drums barged across from the mainland.

From here we will move north up the coast of Madagascar and then around the northern cape to the sheltered west coast.  There are many other cruising boats on this same route, and we expect to meet with several friends when we arrive on the other side.
Inside The Reef, Children Play On Home Made Rafts

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Passage To Madagascar

Two weeks ago Crystal Blues sailed the 400 nautical miles from Reunion to beautiful Ile St. Marie on the east coast of Madagascar - one big step closer to Africa.  The passage took 64 hours and for the final day we were hard on the wind, delightful sailing, but pushing hard to stay ahead of a cold front that was heading up from the south.

The first 24 hours out of Reunion were truly unpleasant, a real washing machine sea state with fast moving swells coming in from the east - typical Indian Ocean nastiness.  By the second day the swell had eased and the passage became a race to beat the cold front that was fast approaching, bringing big winds and seas.

We motored into the anchorage behind the island late in the evening (just as the wind swung to the south), anchored on sand in around 10 meters of water, and slept soundly.  We were in Africa at last !   By next morning it was blowing hard from the south but we were safe and comfortable.

Ile St. Marie / Ambidofotatra

Ambidofotatra Anchorage
Ile St. Marie
Ile St. Marie is a long finger of tropical island just off the east coast of Madagascar.

Ambidofotatra (say that three times quickly) is the main town on the island, located on the sheltered west coast.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century pirates used the island as a base, preying on the trading ships coming from the far east.  Famous pirates such as William Kidd lived here, building settlements and establishing family communities in the area.  There is a unique pirate grave yard just across the causeway, south of Ambidofotatra.

Customs House
We spent our first day ashore seeking clearances and "stamps" from customs, immigration and the marine department, who all evidently learned their trade from the pirates of old.

Not surprisingly it didn't happen in a single day, perhaps because we refused to pay the big bribes that immigration was expecting.

However we did pay 60,000 Aryary (about US$30.00)  to the "Marine Department" who are really like a Coast Guard, for a cruising permit that turned out to be worthless - had to pay again (later) to the Port Captain when we arrived in Helleville.  It seems the Marine Department have a nice little scam running - but that is Madagascar all over.

Immigration (at the police station) wanted a "gift", and we got off lightly by offering a token US$5.00.  Others paid up to $40.00 for the "gratis" 30 day visa.  And of course there was the customs team - everywhere we go these guys are the masters of deception.  Another 60,000 Aryary and we were done with them !  We're not complaining, in fact we're very happy to be here.  If only that money could be distributed responsibly - this is a very poor nation, where 60% of people live below the locally defined poverty line of $1.00 per day.

Here on Ile St. Marie the eco-tourism push has brought some prosperity to the island, and while it is still definitely third world it delivers its experiences comfortably.  Chilled would be a better word - the whole island has a relaxed pace, the population is very friendly and the scenery is beautiful.

Fast ferries connect to the mainland, and daily commuter flights run to the capital.  Local markets deliver all the fresh produce, meat and eggs that we could need.

It is a paradise, with very many European nationals running small businesses, restaurants and resorts in their own slice of tropical heaven.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Mountains & Volcanoes

The moment you see this island, its volcanic heritage is brutally obvious.  Geologically younger than the other Mascarene Islands (Mauritius, Rodrigues etc), Reunion is agressively sloped, with level country only around the shore line.  There is a lot of flat land, however those flats are almost all tilted, being the long extended lower slopes of the mountains, and covered with sugar cane.  As you move higher into the mountains the sugar cane disappears.  Scattered dairy farms eventually give way to pine forests and then the rugged beauty of Reunion becomes evident.

Hiking trails are everywhere, the mountain villages are peppered with guest houses and it seems everyone escapes to the cool climate and staggering beauty of the hinterland.  Driving into the hills requires patience and perseverance, with hundreds of switch backs and hairpin bends and many one-way road sections.  The narrow one-way tunnel sections were a new experience - reversing out of those would be a nightmare.

We were lucky to meet a sailing family from Reunion  - Patrick, Valerie, Greg & Jonathan Lange - when we rafted alongside their boat in Port Louis, Mauritius.

They promised to entertain us in Reunion, which they certainly did.  Within 48 hours of our arrival Valerie Lange had us hiking through the dark across a massive lava flow to see the currently active volcano.

Right here I have to pause and make some facts very clear.  Firstly (on the plus side), Ley has always wanted to see a volcano - it was very near the top of her bucket list.  Secondly, we are not really keen or practiced hikers.  Finally, we were both carrying injuries sustained on our passage from Chagos to Rodrigues, and our mobility was questionable.

So we agreed to go when smiling and affable Patrick said the walk was "only 30 minutes or so".  Of course when we reached the end of the access road Valerie (also smiling) announced that it was "only a 90 minute hike each way".  Tricky understanding these French speaking Reunion people - it must be the language.  We just couldn't turn back .... and are glad we didn't.

 No, We Were Not This Close - This Beautiful Image Was Taken The Same Evening.

At 2631 meters above sea level,  Piton de la Fournaise is the world's third most active volcano.  Rugged is clearly an understatement here.  Stunningly beautiful is all we can say. For more images click here

New Life In The Lava
We hiked in to the crater rim in the late afternoon, along with several hundred other masochists, and stayed until after dark ... the hike back across the rough black lava field with no moonlight was "interesting".

Temperatures were dropping towards zero, a real shock to our systems.  Of course we didn't have enough warm clothing.  Valerie supplied "trail food" - sausage and cheese of course - and we used our Pelican waterproof flash lights for navigating. In fact it wasn't really a tough walk, and it ticked another one off Ley's bucket list.  Our thanks to Patrick and Valerie for sharing their spectacular island home with us.

Valerie & Ley, Before It Was Cold ....

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Passage To La Reunion

It is almost impossible to anchor on the coast of Reunion, as the sea floor drops away dramatically right at the edge of the reef on this steeply sloped volcanic island.  So we cooled our heels in Mauritius for over a week, waiting for a marina berth to be available, then had a relatively comfortable 150 nautical mile passage overnight to Le Port Marina on the north west coast of Reunion.  Jerome Belhuerne, the Maitre De Port and Ocean Cruising Club Port Officer, made us very welcome. 

The government operates two marinas in Le Port, with the latest facility developed using EU funding.  We arrived less than 7 days after opening, so not everything was perfect, however it is an excellent facility. 

There are two more marinas further around the coast, at St. Giles and St. Pierre, though these are usually full. Clearance formalities are very easily handled - the marina contacts the authorities, and two customs officials promptly visit the boat.  One single form is completed, they stamp the passports and they're gone in 5 minutes.  Need to clear outwards very early ?  No problems - the same officers attended the boat at 5:30am as we requested. Very civilised and very professional.

In Reunion you really are in Europe - very old buildings mix it up with the modern, infrastructure is high quality, salaries are high, life is a little hectic, even traffic jams are common.

On the plus side, everything is beautiful !  The cuisine is classically French with a tasty Creole twist. Of course this all comes at a cost - everything is more expensive than the places we have traveled in recent years.

Once processed we quickly rented a car and started our touring, visiting local markets and the lovely capital city of St. Denis.

Provisioning is, as expected, an exciting experience here.  Everything is available and the fresh produce at the weekly market in Le Port was outstanding.

Our almost non-existant French was not really a big problem - most people spoke some English, and were not afraid to use it.  The language snobbery of Paris doesn't exist here.

The port has an excellent range of marine services available,  a large travel lift and a very large ship lift.  We compiled a directory of these services and vendors for those following in our wake.  You can download the Reunion Cruising Services Guide here, in Adobe PDF format (you'll find all our published guides available in the tab at the top of this page).

This is a great stopover for cruising sailors, and a great holiday destination.  As you'll see in the image below, the biggest problem I had was choosing between the Spanish, Portuguese and French sausages in the deli.  Life is good here.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Yikes - A Kiwi Chef In My Galley!

Reece Checking Resources
Whilst driving around the south western coast of Mauritius, Neil spotted "Viande de Gibier", a specialist butchery selling wild deer, boar and pheasant.  The influence of French cuisine is strong here.

Half an hour later Neil emerged carrying a precious parcel of venison loin, which was stored in our freezer waiting for the right occasion ...

Then we met the Kiwi Chef,  Reece Smith, who was managing a Russian owned Swan sailing yacht berthed nearby.  Over sundown drinks I asked Reece what would be the best way to cook the venison. Not being a meat eater I had no idea how to prepare and cook it.  Reece had a quick look at the meat and suggested a dinner party where we would invite a few friends and he would cook the venison.  Sounded like a good plan.   

Friends were invited, a menu was planned and a shopping list drafted. Reece then had a quick look at my galley, opening cupboards checking on supplies and equipment – all looked good for the big night.  

Plating Up Was A Rapid Fire Art Experience
Reece rose early and started cooking up bones to prepare a rich, luscious jus to serve with the meat.   I went shopping for thyme, potatoes, apples, broccoli, pumpkin and bacon.   

The big night arrived, the Kiwi Chef took over the galley, laid out his knives, put on his apron and then dismissed me – I had to sit in the salon and entertain our guests whilst a food preparation frenzy played out behind me.

The Pheasant Plucker At Work
 Neil was enlisted as kitchen assistant, peeling and grating potatoes for the bacon rosti, passing utensils and generally supporting the production.

The venison was trussed and rolled in black pepper and finely chopped thyme, the broccoli was prepared and the stems peeled (who peels broccoli stems?), the pumpkin mashed whilst the jus kept simmering away.  The rosti was cooked ( I had to ask Neil later how that was done as I was still banned from the galley). 
Then finally the venison was quickly pan-fried and volia, a gourmet meal for seven.  A scrumptious apple crumble dessert followed.

And the best part of the galley invasion – Neil washed all the dishes!

Monday, 31 August 2015

Mauritius Race Day

Close to down town in Port Louis is the Mauritius Turf Club, the second oldest horse racing course in the world.  We're not big racing fans, but a day at the races was recommended and sounded like fun.  With crew from three other boats we dressed up (somewhat) and headed for the track.

The day was fine and sunny, the track was fast and the racing was impressive.  With a population of just over a million people, Mauritius takes it's horse racing very seriously.  Well dressed club members (suits for the men of course) and their beautifully presented partners created a major fashion scene, and the "people watching" in the mounting yard and members area was spirited - not to mention the horses.

The club celebrates its history, and retains old fashioned values that charmed us completely.  Most impressive was a private box (or "cabin") inside the members grand stand provided on a complimentary basis to foreign visitors.  What a delight !

We were very efficiently hosted by long serving staff member "Lalah", who arranged entry to the stand and cabin, and also provided access to the bar so we could order food and refreshments.  This was Mauritian hospitality at its very best.

At Lalah's assistance we then met with the club's General Manager, Benoit Halbwachs.

He continued the hospitality by arranging for us to watch one race from the photo finish booth, where radio and television broadcasters called the race live for local and foreign media.

Great racing, good food and wine, a marvelous day's entertainment.  No, we didn't win any money, losing only a little ...... however the hospitality was fantastic, and we strongly recommend a day at the races in Mauritius.  Contact details for the club are included in our Cruising Services Guide - download it here.  If you wish to take advantage of the club's hospitality do call Lalah in advance.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Passage To Mauritius

We arrived in Mauritius some weeks back, with an extra crew member on board - Sally Kempson, a marine biologist working with an NGO in Rodrigues.  Sally manages education projects for the the local fisherman and research on the local octopus habitat in Rodrigues. This was her first serious ocean passage.  Once again the Indian Ocean showed its ability for delivering nasty cross swells and very uncomfortable conditions, and Sally certainly had an aggressive baptism into ocean sailing, with 20 to 25 knot trade winds for most of the voyage.

Sally & Ley Celebrate Arrival In Port Louis, Mauritius
It took us two days and two hours to cover the 350 nautical miles from Rodrigues.  There are no navigational challenges and we sailed inside the outlying northern islands on approach, though I wouldn't do that if the sea state was up.  The final 16 nautical miles were a marvelous beam reach along the sheltered north west coast of Mauritius, fast sailing in flat water with an off-shore breeze, a great way to arrive.

Entry in Port Louis is simple enough, and after obtaining permission from Port Control we motored into the harbor and tied alongside the designated clearance berth - a concrete dock hosting a gaggle of restaurants.  We tied to the hand railings and awaited the formalities - Health clearance was first, followed by Immigration then Customs and Coast Guard.

We stayed two nights at the clearance berth, enjoying the excellent local Indian food and the beautiful view across the Caudan waterfront, while waiting for a slot to become available in the Caudan Marina.

To be perfectly frank, the word "marina" is perhaps not applicable here, as the basin is surrounded by a fixed concrete wall with a nasty overhang that is just waiting to trap the unwary gunwhale at low tide - careful fendering is required.   However the cost is reasonable, water and electricity are not metered, and if you don't mind being berthed in the middle of car park with no security, it is very good .....

The Unmarked Danger - Click To Enlarge
A word of warning for those following in our path - a rocky shallow patch in Port Louis Harbour is not marked by any buoys.  While it is shown on the charts, many sailors let their guard slip once safe within the harbour confines and three boats hit the rock in the week that we arrived, one needed slipping to undertake repairs.   A direct transit from the clearance wharf to the marina entrance will intersect the rock, so stay well north until you are opposite the marina entrance.

After a week in Port Louis we headed north to Grand Baie, anchoring in 6 meters over good holding sand with excellent protection.  Grand Baie Yacht Club provides a complimentary one month free membership, so we were able to use the club facilities including a dinghy dock, restaurant and car park - now that's our kind of club.  The club also has fuel and water available at the dock. The local National Coast Guard base also provides secure dinghy berthing in Grand Baie.  We rented a car and toured Mauritius from there, whilst also provisioning at the excellent western standard supermarkets.

Grand Baie has a very shallow entrance, around 2.5 metres at low tide, so arrival should be timed for the high tide.  The waypoints we used worked very well and can be downloaded with an entry chart here.

Our Mauritius Cruising Services Guide is now complete, and can be downloaded in .pdf format.  We'd appreciate any additional references for inclusion in that document - email us please !

Grand Baie Yacht Club - Cruisers Haven

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Rodrigues Rhythm

Sega / Blues Session On Board Crystal Blues
Music is an international language.

Since we don't speak French or Creole, it was music that helped us connect on a very personal level with the local folk in Port Mathurin, Rodrigues.

Rodrigues has its own distinctive form of creole music, known as Sega, similar to that played in Mauritius.  The accordion  is the lead instrument, with drum and guitar accompanying.

You can taste the French and maritime musical influence in the Sega music.

This video clip shows a great sample of the local Sega, filmed on the balcony of our favourite cottage in Port Mathurin.

Ley says the Sega music is toe-tapping and contagious - it sure had us up and dancing.  The locals may go to church Sunday mornings, but on Sunday afternoon many head straight for the local night club, opened up to the "older" crowd at 2:00pm with a live Sega band.

Sunday Afternoon Sega Dance In Port Mathurin
The bar serves local pork delicacies and beer, while the patrons fill the dance floor with twirling, hip wriggling Sega movement.

There is also a strong jazz scene here, always served with a tasty twist of the local culture.  Local friends Bev and Sylvio introduced us to his jazz band "Razzamajazz". 

After a fun night's rehearsal I joined Sylvio, Song and Jean Michel for a Friday night performance at Ti Piment Rouge, a popular local restaurant, singing jazz classics and playing percussion.  The audience swelled with cruising friends from yachts in the harbour, it was a memorable night for all - the joy of music !

Friday, 7 August 2015

Tortoise Love - Adventures In Rodrigues

Competing For Attention - Some Of The Smaller Aldabera Tortoise In The Park
Did we say we love Rodrigues ?  OK, we really do.  This tiny island delivers great experiences. Perhaps most surprising was the way these the huge tortoises craved interaction with us humans.  They'll do anything for a neck rub.

Land tortoises were wiped out here several hundred years ago - they're apparently very tasty.  A tortoise breeding program in the south of the island is now re-introducing them, though admittedly they are a slightly different species.

A tour of the Francois Leguat Reserve was perhaps our most memorable experience on the island, a beautiful park set in limestone ravines where hundreds of tortoises roam.  The breeding program is extensive.  Escapee's from the park - apparently they are very cunning creatures - are now populating the heathland around the ravines, and are the subject of separate scientific studies.  We came across one of the bad boys as we walked around the extremity of the park, fairly obvious with the radio transmitter epoxy glued to his shell....

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Port Mathurin, Rodrigues - Old Fashioned Cruising Hospitality

MV Anna, Unloading In Port Mathurin, With Cruising Yachts Anchored In The Basin
From the old fort on the hill above Port Mathurin the tiny harbour can be seen clearly.  All fourteen visiting cruising boats plus the bi-weekly supply ship make it a crowded place, and the yachts must move every week or so to provide clearance for the ship on arrival and departure.  When the ship is away the wharf is open to the visiting yachts.  This "accommodation" is typical of the courtesy shown to visitors here in Rodrigues. 

Port Mathurin Catholic Church
We feel very welcome here.  The local people are friendly and courteous, committed church goers with a strong sense of community.

Rodrigues is home to just forty thousand people, and we are told it feels like the Mauritius of fifty years ago. Fishing and agriculture sustain the population, with tourism adding to the local economy in season.

Though we are still in the tropics, the 1000 nautical mile passage from Chagos has brought us into a cooler more comfortable climate.  The sea temperature has dropped from a simmering 32 degrees in the lagoon at Ile Boddam to a more human 24 degrees here in Port Mathurin.  The lower sea temperature has a direct effect on our daily life - the refrigeration systems run much more efficiently, though the reverse osmosis water maker produces some 10% less water each hour.  C'est la vie.

The most welcome change is the reduction in humidity and daytime temperatures - the "winter" climate here is most agreeable.  For the first time in years we are breaking out trousers instead of short pants, and even occasionally a jacket for the cooler evenings.  We are very happy not to be sweating continuously, as we were in Asia.

The Port Captain and his staff are incredibly helpful to us.

In a typical example of local hospitality, Port Captain Yvan Manuel last weekend organised an outing for us to the kite boarding championship event, held at Port Dud Est in the south of the island.  The walking wounded (Ley and I) were transported in his car, while others used the local bus service.

On that final day of competition we hoped to see the spectacular freestyle finals, but the wind failed us and most of the event was postponed.  The Port Captain has also arranged for local shopping expeditions, whilst dealing with all the other day-to-day issues of managing small vessels and crews from six different countries. 

So what facilities are available here for visiting sailors ?