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The freewheelin all stylin Graig Anderson finds some room to stretch out on the endless walls of St Leu.

The freewheelin all stylin Graig Anderson finds some room to stretch out on the endless walls of St Leu.

The Forgotten Treasures of Reunion Island

Jordy Smith and a turn that can only be described as pure violence.

Jordy Smith and a turn that can only be described as pure violence.

Story By | Jock Serong
Photos By | Tom Carey

Reunion Island is a strange and beautiful creature. If you could somehow launch yourself 6,000 kilometres across the empty Indian Ocean from Perth, straight towards the setting sun, this is the first and only landmass you'd strike. The concrete and glass of a modern European metropolis, perched on a delicate ring of arable ground at the foot of a giant volcanic spike…adrift in the ocean off the wildest coast of Africa. A modern society in the middle of nowhere, a mirage built on the industry of freed slaves. Frequented by wealthy South Africans and Frenchmen, and bearing the marks of the first world like architecture, traffic jams and the euro, yet subject to plenty of the ills associated with the developing tropics: mosquito-borne viruses, stonefish and cyclones.

Much like Oahu (with which it's often compared), the island is beguiling, and more dangerous than it looks. In the absence of a continental shelf, swells ram in out of deep water and unload on the fringing reefs. Live coral and lava are the playing surface, and sharks are a constant presence. Big white urchins colonise the inshore lagoons, every one of them bearing a thousand curses for the soggy feet of foreigners. But all of this is framed by swaying palms, decked in glorious blues and greens, draped in fruit and flowers. The stone churches of the missionaries stand in stark relief against tropical skies. Massive charcoal rivulets of lava meet the sea between towns, snaking under the highways and furrowing the surface of the land. Towering volcanoes watch silently over all, awakening every few years to turn the night sky blood red.

The smells and sounds of this place are those of a lost world.

When the ocean and a man with a moustache collide the result is an awesome explosion of power – especially if that man is Mitch Coleburn.

When the ocean and a man with a moustache collide the result is an awesome explosion of power – especially if that man is Mitch Coleburn.

The culture onshore is an enigma: French is the official language, but it's made opaque by a rich stew of Creole slang, spoken by a populace blending North and South Africans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Madagascans, Comorians and Europeans - even a handful of expat Aussies. On the whole, there's great harmony between these diverse communities. Although the island experienced three days of severe riots in 1991 in which ten people died, this had more to do with an outbreak of anti-French government sentiment than any grudge between ethnic groups. The French had closed a pirate TV transmitter, Tele Free Dom, that was popular for its porn and karate films.

Rip Curl's Neil Ridgway, a man well travelled in the surfing cosmos, organised the Search event on Reunion in 2005. He was seduced by the improbable mix of cultures on the island. "It was tropical, but with a good dose of France," he recalls. "You could eat high French, or Creole from a cart on the side of a road. I can remember chicken marinating in these kind of eskies - they'd cook it up in a 44-gal drum and you'd sit under a tree stuffing yourself." Rob Machado, who's built up a long and intensely personal relationship with the island since surfing there in the 1996 Tour event, describes it as his favourite place in the world for food.

The prospect of outsiders influencing the island is not a concern held by many. If anything, the island seems to work its spell on visitors. "It woke us up to using the local culture in our events" says Ridgway. "When we presented the trophy at St Leu in '05, a local band turned up and started playing - tin drums, the works! We didn't even organise them."

An expatriate Aussie with a 35 year history in the waters of Reunion, shaper Mick Asprey loves the ethnic diversity of the island. "It's Indians, Africans, Madagascans, French, Chinese and more. And it's been this way for 200, 300 years, in the context of big Catholic families reproducing fast. But there's no tension at all here - they're like Australians, everything's a joke to them."

The famous left of St Leu.

The famous left of St Leu.

The mainland French have a tendency to claim the Reunionnais as their own, a bit like the Australian penchant for claiming Kiwis (until they give us the shits, at which point they resume their former identity). Just as we've adopted Rusty Crowe and the Finn Brothers, so too the French have cunningly inveigled aviator Roland Garros into their national pantheon, along with dozens of novelists and poets, and 2007 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Flores. The natural footer was brought up on the island, but also on Madagascar and mainland France, before relocating to Australia. His abilities on coral and sand probably owe more to the itinerant lifestyle than to an island childhood.

Reunion has produced some of France's best surfers: Flores, Boris LeTexier, Fred Robin and Anne-Galle Hoarau. The standout youngsters on Reunion like Adrien Toyon, Hugo Savalli, Romain Cloître, and Christophe Allary tend to congregate in the competitive environment of St Leu. Two of the most heralded exports from this scene are Kieran Bulard, the recent runner up in the ISA juniors at Piha, and the newly crowned ASP World Pro Junior Champion, 17 year old Maxime Huscenot.

Craig, Jordy and Mitch share a laugh.

Craig, Jordy and Mitch share a laugh.

The human engine
Between 1671 and 1848, the island's economy depended on slaves. Brought in from Madagascar and East Africa by European traders, they were put to work in the coffee and sugar plantations that provided income for the tiny outpost. Even the Catholic priests on the island owned slaves. They held a legal status akin to farm tools, and were in fact nicknamed "pickaxes" by the landowners.

The success of this brutal trade depended on a very delicate balance of power: in 1818, there were 16,400 whites on the island, and a staggering 70000 slaves. Despite the dangerous imbalance of numbers, the slaves only once rose up against their masters, during the British occupation of the island in 1815. There were deaths on both sides, but nowhere near as many as the numbers would suggest. The damned souls whose bones still lie on the island - far from their African homes - contributed a great deal more than their labour. Their music formed the backbone of the Sega and Maloya traditions, which have now grafted onto reggae and other styles and created a uniquely Reunionnais sound. Their language was so pervasive their masters spoke it too. Their martial art, moring, is still practiced today. And their ingenuity changed the place: twelve year old slave Edmond Albius figured out how to fertilise vanilla plants by hand, a trick which had eluded agricultural science up till then. His discovery made the island the world's most successful exporter of vanilla, but Albuis received no recognition and died in poverty.

The French government banned slavery in 1794, but the islanders helped themselves to decades more of free labour, finally ceasing the practice and freeing the remaining slaves in 1848. What happened immediately afterwards has an element of karma to it: the white landholders went broke and fled into the hills, fearing persecution. Their descendants still live on the high slopes "It's cooler up there" laughs Mick Asprey. "That's why they haven't come back down."


The most striking aspect of Reunion seascapes is the blue - an intense cobalt pigment that fades to a gentler sapphire inshore, a chromatic product of lava, coral and tropical sun. The water temp hovers somewhere between 23 and 31 degrees throughout the year, so that, boardies aside, you can expose your entire hide to the live coral any day of the year. After half a dozen trips there, Luke Egan takes a springsuit for the early surfs, but his description of the reef seems to call for motorbike leathers: "It takes a gutsy approach. The whole place is treacherous - really sharp live coral reefs, bloody urchins. The bottom of the ocean there is super alive, really potent. I hit the bottom on my first trip and opened up my foot. It bloody festered, took a long, long time to heal." (French photographer Erick Regnard has had his share of scrapes with the urchins. "They normally are due to the pollution and increase in algae in the water" he says. "That's why places like St Pierre, which is next to the port, have a million urchins waiting for you."). Machado's done the human pincushion with the urchins too, but he's more afraid of the fire coral. "That stuff is crazy" he says. "It doesn't take much to feel the burn when you just brush up against it".

Reunion lies in the path of Antarctic groundswells that arrive one after the other throughout the southern hemisphere winter, along with a constant southeast tradewind. Mornings are often glassy, but by afternoon the breeze is well established and the rum has begun to flow. The cyclone season between November and April brings with it plenty of destructive power, but rarely any of the swell effect that Goldy surfers enjoy. The balance of the year is consistent, peaking in midwinter for six weeks either side of Bastille Day in July. Most of the name breaks on the island, particularly on the west coast, are offshore fringing reefs, separated from the shore by a lagoon. The marine life along this stretch is a riot of colour and movement, thanks to the declaration of a marine park along the length of the west coast. The majority of waves are lefts, a high performance fun park for a goofy with an armoury of big turns; "Narrabeen on steroids" according to Luke.

There’s beauty to be found in every corner of Reunion.

There’s beauty to be found in every corner of Reunion.

Cute when you're mad
One of the hurdles facing the contest organisers on Reunion has been the island's well-earned reputation for localism. Creole hospitality ends at the water's edge; in part because of previous bad feeling over major events in the mid-nineties requiring exclusive access to the best surf. "It got really out of control at one point" recalls Rob Machado. "It might have been '96: they had a series of contests - longboard world championships, body board contests, the WQS, and then the WCT. By the time the CT guys got there, the locals were on edge and I don't blame them. You've got your spot that only really breaks for a few months out of the year and here comes four contests in a row and they're running heats all day long. Recipe for disaster." The difficulties were cleared up in 2005 when a deal was struck between the Search organisers and a St Leu local named Tarzan. Just Tarzan. Occy recalls meeting the same character seventeen years previously - SW: What'd he look like? Occ: (laughs) he looked like bloody Tarzan. SW: What, loincloth and everything? Occ: Full on. Even wore it surfing. Radical guy - he's a friend of mine. But you don't want to bump into him in the jungle…

Newcastle goofyfooter Craig Anderson surfed St Leu in June last year with "Jordy, Mitch Colborn and 20-30 angry locals." After waiting hours to work his way up the crowd to the takeoff, he was unceremoniously sent back down the line by "a big guy who had no English - the only bit I caught was "fuck off"." Erick Regnard's seen it too: "St Leu is a bit crazy now… I've seen fights, tyres slashed, windows broken."

Mick Fanning experienced it in 2005, but took it in his stride. "They're very protective, and they will drop in on you. It gets worse at contest time, when everybody's fighting for waves. But if you act like a dickhead, I suppose you'll get singled out. I never thought it was because they recognised me."

There's a silver lining to every traveller's cloud, and on Reunion, the locals might be angry, but they're very attractive. Erick Regnard's francophone English captures it best: "Since everyone are inter-racial mixes, it makes it a place with very good-looking people, hence beautifull women." And between drop-ins, Mick seems to have noticed it too. "Hey, the mix brings out the best in everyone."

St Leu is the surfing jewel of Reunion, bursting into international consciousness with Billabong's PUMP in 1989, featuring a then-22 year old Occy. Though he later returned for contests, Occy remembers that first trip for Bong, on a spontaneous stopover from J-Bay, as something special. "This was before anybody was really going there to surf," he recalls. "I was there with Munga and I think Ronnie Burns. Oh man, we were going out to all these little bars, there were Creole girls, friendly people…one of the best trips ever."

There's a long fringing reef at St Leu that follows the west coast for miles before curling into a sudden arabesque at a rocky lefthand point. Such is the curvature at the reef's end, that the wave actually turns back towards its origin in the southwest, so an offshore wind at the top of the line is almost an onshore by the end section. The bend in the wave face is so pronounced that the simple takeoff morphs into a much larger, escape-proof bowl on shallow reef. Not for the fainthearted. Fanning describes it as "Angourie in reverse". It's endlessly variable, but comes up best in a west swell at around 6 to 8 foot. It was here that Fanning took out the Rip Curl Search event in his comeback year; here that Mick Asprey lost his right eye when he tried to straighten out of that bowl and got caught on the coral by his legrope, trapped and thrashed in shallow water while his eye hung out of its socket on a string of shredded tissue. And it was here that Neil Ridgway witnessed a surreal moment in the Search event - "one of the Brazil nuts, maybe Peterson Rosa…"streaking through an impossibly shallow bowl section, the wave transforming into a snarling foamy whiteout: the clearly audible sound of fins grinding at high speed over coral.

Asprey can see the bowl section from his shaping room, and he knows St Leu about as well as anyone, having surfed the place almost daily since 1975. Interestingly, he's never seen a shark there - for him, the reef is the bigger concern: "It's okay when it's big" he says, "but in a small swell, it breaks razor blades. Not a good place for beginners…" The west side of the island is dry, and what look like riverbeds in aerial photos are in fact the path of dried lava flows. According to Asprey, this lack of freshwater runoff allows rampant coral growth on the point at St Leu, "so there's columns and tunnels in it. It's not just pounded flat."

There's a wealth of options aside from St Leu. At L'Hermitage, a photogenic left and right peak just south of St Gille, the suction through the lagoon's keyhole is so strong that the paddle out is really a matter of lying on your board and waiting ten minutes. But the paddle in against the flow is so arduous that someone's installed pylons in the lagoon with dangling chains, so French surfers can relax momentarily and light up a Gitanes while they recover.

There's the Archers right at St Pierre, which locals compare to Haleiwa. The wave is just off a pretty fishing port where tourists lounge in the cafes. Craig Anderson surfed it in June last year. "There was no-one out there, and we went for it - only found out later it's super sharky. But it had this big air section at the end, and the tradewind was just blowing perfectly straight into it every day for three weeks. The way Jordy was surfing it, it was just ridiculous, high performance surfing. That's what sticks in my mind from that trip - how high, how hard, how technical Jordy was surfing at that right."

St Denis breaks in a muddy rivermouth, a place with such a sharky reputation that it isn't surfed much these days. Besides these, there are deepwater peaks which are just experiencing the beginnings of tow-in exploration, and at the other end of the spectrum there are beachies where sunburnt Germans and Jo'bergers cannonball in the foamlines. In all, there's nearly forty named and described breaks on the island, concentrated around St Gille and St Leu, but stretching in a wide arc from Manapany in the south to St Benoit in the east. "I'm sure there's waves there that no-one ever talks about", says Mick Fanning. "The locals are very tight-lipped."

Just go over the volcano, down past the steaming lava pits, turn left at the patisserie, right at the cathedral, crawl over a half mile of urchin covered reef and bingo! Pumping waves with only 200 territorial locals out.

Just go over the volcano, down past the steaming lava pits, turn left at the patisserie, right at the cathedral, crawl over a half mile of urchin covered reef and bingo! Pumping waves with only 200 territorial locals out.

Morsels and Dorsals
Réunion's Kelonia Marine Observatory confirms 24 shark attacks around the island since 1980, resulting in 13 fatalities. These are reasonably serious numbers, when set against a population of 880,000. Like everywhere else, timing and location can go a long way towards avoiding disaster - despite the story above, St Leu's reputation is good, and locals who've surfed it all their lives report never having seen a shark. St Denis, on the other hand, is a murky rivermouth outlet with a world of bad vibes happening. "I used to windsurf there in the seventies" recalls Mick Asprey. "I swore at the time I'd never surf it - there were dead dogs and cats in the water. There's bloody millions of sharks in the dirty spots like that, but in the clear water you're pretty right." Other locals boycott all the wet season beachies and rivermouths on the east coast. Machado's seen enough to avoid St Denis: "I've definitely been spooked" he says. "Paddling out on the northern side of the island, at a black sand beach break where you can't see the bottom, murky water - very sketchy. I saw a big fin cruise through the channel at another spot, and paddled straight in."

In the unlikely event of a flat day, Reunion offers diving, snorkelling and fishing on a world class scale, particularly around St Gilles des Bains. In the forests around Bebour-Belouve, Madagascan lemurs dart through the canopy, and chameleons... well, they change colour a lot.

There's respite from the coastal strip's maddening traffic in a multitude of cathedrals, mosques, temples and pagodas. Reunionnais are a religious melange: you can thank the deity of your choice for all the barrels. Or you could go visit Mick Asprey's 'Mickey Rat' surf shop overlooking St Leu. Asprey is applying some progressive design ideas in deceptively laid-back surrounds. He's doing asymmetrical tails and stylish twin fins, glassing them up with a technique known as IGT, which he says is "painstaking, time consuming, but incredibly strong". When you're the only guy shaping on a remote island, and you're doing it well, you get to name the likes of Slater and Occy on your client list.

With so much great surf on offer, the hinterland is often overlooked by visitors. "If you don't see the mountains, you're an idiot," says Mick Asprey. "They've got to be the most spectacular place on earth." The steep interior of Reunion gives it a bizarre climactic range. The volcanic peaks and calderas soar to over 10,000 feet, meaning that any rain-bearing front that swings across the Indian Ocean towards southern Africa will trip-wire on the jagged landforms and dump vast, biblical amounts of rain. On one feted day in March 1952, the world's largest-ever 24 hour total - 1.87 metres -fell on the little town of Cilaos, nestled between the volcanoes.

The volcanoes are very much an active influence on island life. The easternmost crater, Piton de la Fournaise, or "Furnace Peak", last erupted in January this year. The three main craters are monitored around the clock by men in dark-rimmed glasses who smoke Gauloises while they pore over seismographs.

The Virgin and the Buzzard
The pirate vibe on Reunion is as real as the volcanos. In 1721, a flamboyant French buccaneer named Olivier Levasseur - known to terrified sailors as The Buzzard, turned his one good eye towards the cliffs of Reunion. He'd been chased out of the Bahamas some years before, and was now based on nearby St Marie Island. Word came to him that the Portuguese vessel Nostra Senhora Do Cabo or The Virgin of Cabo, had been damaged by a storm and was moored at St Denis on the northern coast of Reunion, awaiting repairs. She was carrying the Portuguese viceroy and the Archbishop of Goa, who were both returning home to Lisbon. They had with them a staggering amount of loot: gold, diamonds and religious artifacts of prodigious value from Goa's fabled Saint Catarina Cathedral. The Buzzard's ship eased through the murky waters of St Denis by night, the slimy timbers sliding quietly past a wave that wouldn't have a name for another 250 years. He struck without firing a single shot, because the Virgin's crew had dumped all of her 72 cannons overboard to avoid capsizing. The Buzzard took the entire treasure, including the 'Flaming Cross of Goa', made of pure gold, diamonds, rubies and emeralds. It was said to be so heavy that it required 3 men to carry it over to The Buzzard's ship. Estimates of the value of this cache vary wildly - between US$200 million, and $5 billion Euros - and it has never been found. It is the largest haul in the history of piracy. Levasseur was caught several years later and hanged at St Denis. As he stood before the noose, surrounded by a crowd, he produced a scrap of parchment and threw it in the air, shouting "My treasure will belong to he who understands!" The parchment still exists, and for 300 years, bounty hunters have tried to figure out the meaning of the 17 lines scrawled on it. The best theory is that the code replicates the twelve tasks of Hercules, and that the treasure is buried in beach caves on the main island of the Seychelle group, Mahe. Centuries of obsessive searching in the cave complex has revealed only two skeletons... with gold hoop earrings.

Away from the prying eyes of the mainland, surfers do odd things under cultural seduction like this. Erick Regnard recalls a pro surfer (take a guess - you won't need many) "walking down the main street of St Leu with a tree of marijuana", and total strangers wandering through his house to check the surf.

There's a recurring theme among the surfers who recalled the island for this article. Each of them was there for a purpose: Occy and Craig Anderson to get footage, Mick and Luke to surf the contests, Neil Ridgway to organise one. All of them expressed a desire to go back, on their own time, to get lost in the place a little - no schedule, no promises. It's the siren song of Creole culture, to surrender to a forgotten world. For Ridgway, "it's an outpost - the once great and glorious empire of France, and you're at the end of it."




SURFING WORLD 302
LOVE IS AN ISLAND – REDUX


Surfing World 302 retraces its island roots for this issue dedicated to all things land mass surrounded by water. Well not all, but a lot of ’em. Scope out the surprising empty riches of swell soaked Ireland, revisit the long winding walls and urchin riddled reefs of Reunion, feast your eyes on the beauty and terror of Jon Frank’s Hawaii and share in the incredible story of Brendan Margieson and Neal Purchase Jnr as they rekindle their friendship in the Caroline Islands. There’s the story of Dave Rastovich’s TransparentSea mission down the Australian East Coast, a pictorial gander at Puerto Rico, a tale of terror at 20 foot Cloudbreak and Joel Parkinson’s near-marriage ending honeymoon to Moorea where the waves were going off! Fantasy, adventurism and isolated perfection, Surfing World 302 delivers the ultimate island escapes for every landlocked rider of the sea.

- Vaughan Blakey (Editor)
Find out more at Surfingworld.com.au




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