By TD Fuego
Most of us have probably heard of Cilaos, but perhaps not all know much about it. Of course, it is that curious, cool, picturesque place in Reunion Island that nestles up high in the central Highlands on the slopes of one of the many mountain ranges, in the shadows of Piton de Neiges. At 2,500 metres above sea level, Cilaos is by far the highest village on the Island.
The present population of 6,000 is made up mostly of what is locally known as Les Blancs des Hauts (The Whites of the Highlands). But it was not always so. Originally, Cilaos was settled by runaway slaves who had made their way up there on foot, carving out a narrow, rough path as they went along. Having got there, they believed that they were on top of the world and, therefore, safe from their persecutors. However, most were soon captured by slave-hunters, whilst a large number got killed in the hunt.
After all the slaves had been recaptured/killed, the place remained abandoned until 1850 when, after the abolition of slavery, some whites decided that they did not wish to live amongst the blacks. So, they made their way to Cilaos and lived there in near seclusion until 1936, when the present road was built, making the place easily accessible to one and all. Even so, Cilaos continues to be predominantly white, and there is a kind of barely-concealed antipathy towards non-white intruders.
This is a most fiendish piece of civil engineering, with 40 km of twists and turns. It has been built by carving out a ledge on the sheer side of a deep canyon, which is found in a mountain range with a multitude of vertiginous peaks, including the Piton de Neiges (3,069m). The primordial torrent responsible for the formation of the elongated, deep gorge is now all but a dry river, except during the rainy season and cyclones when the gushing waters sweep everything and anything to sea.
With its 500 bends, even experienced foreign drivers admit to getting the heebie-jeebies driving on the Cilaos road, whilst locals tend to zip along with the seeming nonchalance of an alpine mountain goat. In the steepest places, the road comprises several hairpin bends so that, in a matter of yards, it ends up doing several 360 degree turns. The driver almost has to turn his vehicle on a penny piece!
Yet, the most hair-raising bit must be the sharp, blind bends that taper into near-single lanes. As one cannot see properly round the corner, it is almost a matter of faith and the sixth sense prevailing, with plenty of help from the horn to tell oncoming drivers to get onto the lay-by and make way for you.
For those who do not wish to take the road themselves, there is a regular bus service, and plenty of tourist coaches with pleasant, knowledgeable guides aboard. However, any way you travel to Cilaos, it remains one of the most fascinating, hair-raising experiences you are likely to have in your life. Memories of Trollslingen comes flooding back every time I travel this awesome 40-km road that snakes interminably like a giant anaconda along the Cirque de Cilaos.
The Metropolitan French, that is those coming from mainland France, are known locally as Les Oreilles (The Ears). There are several versions of how they came to be called this, but the following not only makes perfect sense – it also happens to be my favourite.
The legend goes that, whenever a slave ran away, the slave-owners would send their henchmen to look for them and bring them back dead or alive. If they returned with the runaway alive, the proof was there for all to see. However, the difficult terrain made it impossible to carry the dead slave’s body back. Also the distances meant that it took several days to return to base, by which time the body would be decaying and humming of rotting flesh and insects. So, it was agreed that the bounty hunter would cut off the ears of the dead man and bring those back as proof that the slave had been taken.
Thus it was that the white slave hunter acquired the name of Oreilles!
During a recent group tour to the Island, we stopped for lunch at a pristine clean beach in the south. Each of us was given a plastic container full of rice and curry and a small PET bottle of fizzy drink. As we sat down on the grass, my friend remarked how peaceful and quiet it was, although there were several locals enjoying a picnic.
“In Mauritius, with all these people and food on the beach, there would have been a pack of diseased canines circling us by now,” I agreed. “Here not a single stray dog.”
“The place is so clean, there isn’t even a stray fly!” my friend exclaimed.
I am ashamed to say this but, when it was time to leave, some members of the group just rushed into the coach, obviously finding it ok to leave their plastic containers, PET bottles and tissues exactly where they had sat down to eat. This in spite of the fact that the tour manager had told us to put all our rubbish in the card board box that had been provided, and that there was a heavy fine (I think 60 Euros) if caught littering.
With that kind of mentality, it is little wonder that some of our sister-islanders think we are environmental illiterates. Unfortunately, that does not apply to the uneducated only. I am sure many readers would have seen university educated people — avec certificats longeur la semaine, as my friend Keshraj would put it — throw their spent plastic containers out of the windows of their limousines as they zoom past, breaking all speed limits along the way.
* Published in print edition on 11 November 2011