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Above The Fray: Mafate Offers A Roadless, Island Isolation


We take you now to the remote French island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa. In its center, 800 people have made their homes in a giant collapsed volcanic caldera or crater, known as Mafate. The only way in is on foot or by helicopter. NPR's Emma Jacobs made the journey.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Jean-Sebastian Hery lands his helicopter at the foot of the green mountains that ascend into the clouds from the coast. The former French military pilot moved to the tropical island of La Reunion eight years ago.

JEAN-SEBASTIAN HERY: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: "I tore up my passport and couldn't fly out," he jokes. Today his mission is to deliver school lunches. Here he picks up supplies from the heavily-populated coast and flies them up to the heights of Mafate. Giant plastic sacks filled with vegetables, baguettes, even frozen foods, hang like a pendulum from the helicopter's skids.

HERY: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: "Compared to the old days - carried on the head - it's nothing," he remarks. This same trip on foot would take you 15 hours. By air, he'll reach the first school in 10 minutes and finish the trip in 45. The residents of Mafate live in tiny villages scattered among the jagged peaks and valleys of the crater, which is now lush and green. The difference in altitude between the highest village and the lowest is more than 3,000 feet, and many of the paths between are inaccessible during the rainy season. Chantal Begue, who's in her early 40s, says things have gotten a lot easier. She laughs at people on the coast who still think of Mafate as isolated.

CHANTAL BEGUE: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: "They say we've never seen the sea, but don't you say that here, or people will get mad." Begue helps run the helicopter company that's done the most to transform this landscape, started by her late brother, Andre Begue. He was the first pilot based in Mafate. Until he died in a crash four years ago, he flew-in construction materials that replaced thatched roofs, bigger solar panels, then refrigerators, stoves to replace wood fires. Today for 160 euros you can fly-in about 1,800 pounds, roughly the weight of a Smart Car. Father Stephane Nicaise, a Jesuit priest, flies-in by helicopter as well. But before the helicopters became common, he used to hike five or six hours.

STEPHANE NICAISE: (Through interpreter) A young person of today is incapable of imagining the La Reunion of the 1970s.

JACOBS: Father Stephane has his congregation in Ilet a Malheur, meaning place of unhappiness. The earliest residents attracted to Mafate's isolation came 200-odd years ago. They were escaping from slavery on the coastal plantations and had come to hide out. Place of unhappiness refers to an event in 1829 when slave catchers massacred dozens here. In contrast, living here today is very much a choice. Gilette Libelle is a current resident of Ilet a Malheur.

GILETTE LIBELLE: (Through interpreter) Me? I've lived in the heights, at the bottom, in metropolitan France - a little bit everywhere, but my place is in Mafate.

JACOBS: She likes living between the mountains. She likes sharing her life here with hikers who stay for a night or two in the hostel she runs beside her home. Though sometimes, she confides, between her business and her five children she also dreams about getting away. She has her own spot in mind. It also has mountains, calm, and quiet. For NPR News I'm Emma Jacobs in La Reunion.

SIMON: Emma Jacobs is an NPR Above the Fray fellow sponsored by the John Alexander Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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