The Marion DuFresne is a French scientific research vessel, run by the Terres Australes et Antartiques Francaises (or TAAF for short) in conjunction with the French Navy. Five, sometimes six times a year, it completes a round trip from the volcanic island of Reunion; transporting supplies and scientists to three groups of remote islands in the southern Indian and Antarctic Oceans; including Iles Crozet, Iles Kerguelen and Iles Amsterdam and St Paul. At any one time it may have 120 scientists on board, plus up to 12 fare-paying passengers.
The taxi is jam-packed with bodies and luggage. I have exchanged names and shaken hands with my fellow passengers, but with the formalities over we drift into a polite silence; each of us wedged upright in our shared space; each of us trying not to get too familiar with the stranger at our side. The taxi lurches along the busy road through the beachside resorts of St-Gilles-les-Bains and St-Paul. With horn blaring and exhaust fumes belching, our driver skilfully avoids various toes, kneecaps, voluminous beach bags and roadside vendors who have the temerity to stand in our way. Finally the taxi emerges onto an open road and with a short burst we are hurtling around the northwest corner of the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, free from the encumbrances of beach life. Unlike its sister island Mauritius, Reunion will never be found as a holiday destination in any British, German, Dutch or Scandinavian travel brochure, for this is a secret jewel the French like to keep for themselves. Although the air-conditioning is on, the pungent reek of garlic and wine-soured breath quickly fills the air, as a passenger in the front seat begins to suck in and blow out through what must be tightly clenched teeth. He is either not happy with our driver’s navigation skills; or the three course, gourmet meal he insisted on finishing, before being squeezed into the taxi, has got the better of him. Mercifully the journey is short and, to everyone’s relief, we are soon winding our way through the various gates and checkpoints of Port les Gallets to emerge onto the docks. Above the neat rows of rusting containers, I can see a large vessel in the distance, with loading winches and the letters TAAF on the side of a funnel. Given this is the only visible hive of activity, with various sized crates and oil drums being winched on board, I conclude this must be our destination.
Once at the dockside, I open the taxi door and extricate myself from the now very pungent interior, only to be immediately enveloped in a clammy, warm blanket of air. I breathe in deeply, in the vain hope of finding some fresh air; but a new combination of sultry smells, from rotting seaweed and fish, to salt and rusting metal, wafts through my nostrils as I try, rather unsuccessfully, to catch my breath in the humid heat. Above me towers the black and red hull of the Marion DuFresne, my home for the next three and a half weeks. The other passengers worm their way out of the taxi, one by one; as assorted hard and soft black suitcases and bags are thrown onto the concrete. The face of the gourmand, sour-breathed passenger changes from puce, to a pale shade of green. He waivers and rocks from side-to-side, seemingly not sure whether to hold his breath, or make a dash for the dockside and the reeking water that laps the ship’s hull. From some unknown depths, he acquires the strength to overcome his desire to be sick and totters off towards the ship. Meanwhile, several stocky, sunburnt men are already lifting our luggage and carrying it onboard. They gesture for us to follow and I eagerly clamber up the wooden gangplank, with my ‘titre d’embarquement’ clutched in my clammy hand. I step up and over an iron threshold that marks the entrance to the main inside deck area. This is no obstacle on a calm day like today, but it’s not hard to imagine the boat being thrown about in the rough seas of the Southern Oceans and gallons of water rushing along the gangways. Not for nothing is the threshold so high, or the door a watertight fit when firmly shut.
Once inside, I can’t help but notice a group of rotund and very loud Frenchmen talking animatedly together near the doorway of what must be the purser’s office. I later learn this office is the administrative hub for the trip, where all key decisions about the logistics, transport, loading and disembarkation of all passengers and freight are made; and Claude is the man that makes these things happen. He is the one to turn to when the plumbing doesn’t work, or there’s a query about helicopter transfers to the islands. He also runs the little shop and is the one we settle our final bills with before we leave. Claude is clearly a very useful man to know. He has a welcoming smile as he invites me in and points to a seat by his desk. His well-washed, faded blue T-shirt has the letters TAAF still decipherable on the front, as it stretches across a large, well rounded stomach that can only have been cultivated over many years of indulgence in good food and wine. I hand him my passport, my insurance papers and my titre d’embarquement; and he in turn gives me the keys to cabin number 6023 on deck F; together with a small, well-fingered booklet for passengers, with information about the facilities available onboard. Using what I believe to be my best, albeit somewhat rusty French, I ask him if it is possible to make a phone call home to say I have arrived safely. He explains there is a public phone next to the shop, but it only works with phone cards issued by the Radio Officer; and these will not be available until tomorrow morning after we have set sail. Then without a second glance, he smiles, gives me his mobile phone and tells me I can use that. I explain I will be calling Scotland and offer it back, but he is insistent, so I endeavour to keep my call very short. A familiar voice answers at the other end, as I vainly try to make myself heard over the rising wave of sound that is engulfing me, as more and more people squeeze into the small office. Claude shouts something indecipherable in a guttural French accent that is unfamiliar to my ears and I’m immediately aware of several pairs of eyes looking in my direction. The noise level drops to a low hum. I quickly finish my call, aware there are a number of strained ears apparently listening in on what I had hoped would be a private conversation. As I make my way out through the throng, Claude reminds me of two things. Firstly, the evening meal is at 7.00pm in the dining room, with drinks available beforehand in the bar. Secondly, each day I should check the operations notice board in the corridor, because that is where daily passenger information is posted. I later learn I am the only English-speaking person on board.