21 May 1996 - Ile Juan de Nova, Mozambique Channel, Indian Ocean
In South Africa, a man with bright inquisitive eyes introduces me to Nelson Mandela. I am shaking my head because I can't really believe this is happening. This man's name is Harry Oppenheimer, and he has invited me to visit his library of Africana. He then invites me to have dinner at his house. On the walls are many paintings. I ask him which one he likes the most. He points to one of a pretty girl with soft eyes. "I like this one," he says, "because it looks like a girl that one might seduce." He smiles at this. "But I also like that one," and points to another woman with different eyes, "because that looks like a woman who might well seduce you." I step softly through his library to a room full of very old African maps. I love to watch the progression and discovery of this continent though its maps. I am amazed that a Greek cartographer in 150 AD - when no European ventured into Africa - could have depicted the "Mountains of the Moon" as the source of the Nile. The Bakonjo call these mountains "Ruwenzori" - which means "rain-maker" - and they are the source of the Nile. Mr. Oppenheimer shows me the first edition of Gulliver's Travels, and then his collection of the English romantic poets. There are many books, and I become lost in them for hours. I find one about him. "If you don't take risks," he says, "then you end up keeping out of precisely those areas where the greatest achievements are possible."
For some reason, these words surface in my mind. It was 69 years ago today that the pilot Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris. It had taken him over 33 hours to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and he was alone. I wonder how someone can stay awake for that long, and I wonder if he thought about risk.
I am sure that I have chosen this day on purpose. Perhaps, in a small way, I want to feel what Lindbergh must have felt. Maybe also, it is not such a bad day on which to disappear, if one must. I climb up through the thick wet air and turn East. I am aware that I don't look out behind me now. I don't want to; it is too far away. There is only windswept dark blue water beneath me and in every direction as far as I can see.
Olivier Le Vasseur was the last pirate of the Indian Ocean. His infamous nickname was "La Buse," and on the 7th of July in 1730, he was executed by guillotine on Reunion Island. I try to imagine the life of a pirate on the waters below from a time long ago. I think I might have enjoyed such a life. I romanticize the images of shipwrecks, tropical islands and buried treasure. These days, there are too many people in this world to find such deserted places anymore, or so it would seem.
For some time, I have noticed a small dot on one of my maps. It must be an island. It has a funny name, but I can't find anyone one who knows anything about it. The map says that it belongs to France, but when I walk into the French Embassy in Lilongwe, no one has ever heard of it. The polite Frenchman that I am speaking with obviously doesn't think that this is a matter of great consequence. He doesn't wish to send me up to see anyone higher, and he hands me his business card with no objections to me going to this island - wherever it is. I am not sure if this island has an airstrip or not. The windswept blue becomes lost amidst a sea of puffy white clouds, and for a while, I imagine that I could be anywhere.
As I near the position of 17 degrees 3 minutes South by 42 degrees 43 minutes East, I descend down into the misty white. I am excited and nervous. Through one sea and out across another, I am looking for an island. It is only a speck on a map. I don't think I really believe that it will be there. But then just ahead of me, as I descend through the clouds, is Juan de Nova. This was the island refuge for pirates in the days of "La Buse." The tiny island is a windy green surrounded by brilliant white beaches and shimmering lagoons. Captain Juan de Nova first found this place almost 500 years ago aboard the Spanish vessel "Hidalge de Galice." I can't imagine how he did though. It is only four kilometers wide and not very high. There is the massive shipwreck on the reef and several others scattered along the beach; they certainly didn't see the island. From the air, this looks like a deserted tropical paradise, and I almost wonder where one might have buried the treasure.
There is a white airstrip down the middle, or at least it looks like it. I circle over the shipwreck and touchdown between the coconut palms. A very excited Laurent Valbert comes running out to meet me. What in the world am I doing here, he wants to know. I produce the business card of my friend from the French Embassy and explain that he had no objections. The 14 French military men soon arrive on foot. They had been on a run around the island. There is only one military vehicle on the island - a tractor - that also soon arrives. The Gendarme, Guy Chaneto, is in charge of protecting the Meteorological station, but Laurent is the chief Meteorological officer, so he appears to be in charge of everything.
This is one of those funny little islands which you feel a big wave could just wash away. But the real problem here is cyclones, Laurent tells me. The cyclone season has just ended, and there were 10 cyclones this year in the Reunion area. 150 kilometers per hour is the maximum wind speed that Laurent will venture out in during a cyclone, "but you have to hold on," he says. There have been some cyclones where Luarent hasn't left his concrete house at all for fear of being blown into the ocean.
We spend a fair amount of time contacting "Mr. Le Delegue du Gouvernement Charge de L'Administration des Iles Eparses" on the HF radio. My arrival is highly irregular, I am told. These little islands are the responsibility of Meteo France, so this must all be approved. Laurent is studying the name on the small French Embassy business card I had given him - the one who did not think this was a matter of great consequence. Laurent looks at me and tells me that this guy is going to be in trouble, but that I am now formally welcomed to the island for the night. The sun has just set through the coconut palms, so I am grateful for this.
If there is one thing that the French can do well, it is cooking. I haven't really eaten for a few days, and I don't think I have had a finer fish meal in my life. Not everything on the island is so friendly though. Laurent shows me a picture of "conus tulipa" - the snail. "It is extremely dangerous," he says. The yellow shelled snail has a poisonous trunk that looks like a 4 inch long elephant's trunk. The tooth at the end is the most poisonous, he assures me. Laurent spent several months on the Isle Tromelin before coming here. "There are no trees there," he says. It seems this is a strategically mysterious island, because it drops off steeply to the ocean floor and is a good place to resupply submarines if need be. The other island, Europa, to the south, seems even less hospitable. It is here where the rare salt water mosquito lives, and they are protected. All of the meteorological staff have to live in mosquito headnets. "It is not so comfortable when it is hot," Laurent tells me, "but this is the only place in the world where this mosquito lives, so we can't kill them."
The following day, Lieutenant Rene Mercury picks me up in the military tractor and takes me across the island to the military base for lunch. Madagascar believes that this island belongs to them, so ten years ago, when the Malagash Navy showed up off the coast of Juan de Nova, the French sent in this military presence to discourage the Malagash. "Back then, we had a 24 hour watch on the beach," Rene tells me, "but I don't know if the Malagash even have any fuel for their boats these days."
The forest has an open airy feeling with fresh sea breeze rustling the palms overhead. The mossy path leads from the beach along an abandoned railroad track to the Maison Lemarchand. The grand but crumbling French colonial building used to house Mr. Patureau's administrator. From 1952 to 1967, slaves took out 16 thousand tons of phosphate from the island which was exported to South Africa and Mauritius. Then the slavery was stopped, and the salt air began to crumble away all the steel rails and machinery.
Along the beach, Rene tells me about "La Dame Blanche." The slaves on this island used to be very superstitious. There were no women. If you look off far in the distance and see a gray heron with its wings and feathers blowing in the wind through the blinding light, it does look like a beautiful white lady in flowing robes. On the Iles Glorieuses to the north, they have egrets, and people still see the white lady there.
Across the lagoon, I can see the skeleton of the "charbonnier" wrecked upon the reef. It is black and ghostly in the strong reflected light. Guy, the gendarme, takes me to another wreck - a Korean vessel - high and dry on the sandy beach. As tragic as these wrecks must have been, they are beautiful. I wonder if people died, or if great fortunes were lost. I am sad that there aren't earlier wrecks and remnants from the days of "La Buse" and his fellow pirates to discover. Guy walks up to the wreck and places his hand upon it. The wind is filtering through the filaos trees and pressing past the wreck. There is no one in sight. I don't know if Guy has ever been to a deserted place like this before, but I ask him if he likes it here. He smiles and says, "it has taught me to listen to the wind." We both pause to listen. I can hear only wind, but I sense that if one remains here long enough, one can hear other things from the wind. It can be like a friend who talks to you when you are lonely.
I keep thinking that the entire two days and a night that I have passed on this island will still be less than the time Lindbergh spent in his plane over the Atlantic. Although I don't mention it, it seems somehow fitting that this time be spent with Frenchmen. I think again about risk and why I would even want to come to this island in the first place. The "Little Prince" comes to mind. He liked to explore and to meet people. He was always making fun of St. Exupery's concern with "matters of consequence." I am pleased that my polite French Embassy friend was not the least concerned with matters of consequence, for it has permitted me to come here. But in a cautious way, I remember an elderly man named Ian Player who I visited in South Africa. He had said to me, "be careful." There is a thing called "puer aeternus" - eternal youth - and it can be dangerous.
The Puer has a fascination for dangerous sports - like flying and mountaineering - and wants to get as high as possible - perhaps, to get away from the mother. The Puer likes to ask deep questions, then go straight for the truth. The Puer never commits to the mundane, and once serious about something, becomes greatly impatient. The concept of the Puer that interests me the most is that "when one has suffered enough, one develops." I wonder if risk is not an invitation for suffering in some way. "He who goes to the place of fears has overcome fear."
Laurent invites me to help him launch his daily weather balloon. When it is cloudy, he releases a little red one, and if it is clear he releases a big white one. He takes this very seriously. We watch the big white one rise into the sky at 150 meters per second as he records the altitude and azimuth every thirty seconds. I watch the balloon change its direction 180 degrees with altitude. In the end, Laurent hands me a list of wind directions and speeds at various altitudes. I think he is a little sad for me to have to leave. I had broken the monotony for a little while. I had been like the Little Prince asking all sorts of simple and naive questions about his world. And now I climb back into my plane for it is getting late. I am going to a place called Madagascar. They probably don't know that I am coming there either. It may even be a hostile place. I try to avoid the thought, but again I think about risk, and an old poem comes to mind:
I don't know who wrote it, and I don't know if it is true. The 14
members of the French Army show up with their tractor. I say goodbye, and I look
out behind me to watch the little island disappear.