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REUNION | Monday, 5 May 2014 | Views [99] | Scholarship Entry

The Indian Ocean. Reunion Island. The isolated cirque of Mafate. A girl crouching by a fire, warming her hands.

"You'll smell like boucané if you stay there too long. Like the kitten - she sits in the fire all evening."

I move from the heat and feel the coolness of the mountain air. What a relief after the humid stickiness of the coast! Now that the tropical sun has fallen behind the plummeting walls enclosing the cirque, the family and I are cooking. A carri poulet is bubbling in the pot, the smell of chicken mixing with the smoky tang of burning damp twigs.

Cyclone Bejisa hit the island three weeks ago, tearing up their toilet and soaking the firewood, but otherwise leaving the family and their abode unharmed. They live simply beside a majestic waterfall in a collection of four huts, one of which I'm sharing with the daughters. The thunder of the water and the buzzing of the beehives lull me into a sense of home.

How did we all end up here? The father was brave enough to leave Cilaos, another of the volcanic cirques of Reunion, when his life was reduced to foraging in bins for food. With only a tent, some supplies and a few seed packets on his back, he set off for Mafate in search of a better life.

Fifteen years later, I nearly jump off the path as a Creole-inflected "Bonjour" from the undergrowth interrupts my solo-hiking rhythm. A man in overalls with gruff weather-beaten eyes and an out-of-nowhere smile stands at the lopsided gate of a well-kept garden: luscious flowers, herbs and spices, banana trees, two dogs on chains. Maybe it's his curiosity or my taste for the unusual, but before long, he has invited me to stay with his family for a week to teach English to his daughters. "Not 5 star here though", he warns.

Only accessible by foot or helicopter, Mafate was, not so many years ago, a refuge for slaves escaping from their masters in the coastal regions of Reunion. Now, it is simultaneously an epicentre for trekking tourism and a rare example of life in its most natural form. Some settlers receive weekly air-deliveries of supplies, use internet and washing machines and host paying clients every day in comfortable, renovated accommodation. Others trek for six hours to reach their dwelling with the week's food in their rucksacks. Clothes cleaned in the river, vegetables home-grown.

I wake in the night, the droning sound of water louder than it should be, a heavy feeling in my head. Purring. The kitten is curled up in my smoky hair. Home.

Tags: 2014 Travel Writing Scholarship - Euro Roadtrip

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