The Cirque de Mafate, one of three calderas on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, along with Cilaos and Salazie, is a valley more than 1,000 metres deep surrounded by huge cliffs and steep peaks which, for nearly two centuries, have been home to the descendants of the “maroons”, slaves who fled sugar cane plantations.
The community of 700 Mafatais lives here, almost self-sufficiently, amid palm, banana and filao trees. But there are only two ways to get to the cirque: by foot or by helicopter.
Every week, René-Claude and Cyril, the two postmen of Mafate, walk the 90 miles (140km) of paths that crisscross this out-of-time region to deliver mail and small parcels.
René-Claude and Cyril have an essential role in the life of the Mafatais: they are the bearers of good and bad news, and provide small services such as writing letters.
Their mission in these remote and hostile territories is to accomplish the primary task of La Poste, France’s universal postal service; namely the delivery of mail. Every week, they deliver and pick up letters from 300 households spread over small villages, each one more inaccessible than the next.
On these two postal routes, considered the most difficult and longest on French territory, it is said that the postman always rings twice – to avoid walking back with his heavy burden.
39 years old
Elevation of his route: +1,500 metres
Distance per week: more than 160 miles (100km)
9 islands covered
Duration of the route: 3 days
Number of households delivered to: 160
Average bag weight: 20kg
Professional perk: 3 pairs of shoes paid for by La Poste
René-Claude can walk 12 miles (20km) a day with up to 15kg of letters on his back. His route, a loop of 160 miles, lasts between 3 and 4 days. On 4 January 2021, René-Claude walked 35,157 steps and climbed the equivalent of 350 floors.
Every Monday morning, René-Claude takes the helicopter near the port’s postal sorting centre with his weekly postbag, heading for Aurère where he begins his tour.
René-Claude sometimes distributes parcels but, considering their weight, he asks residents to pick them up at the helicopter’s first drop-off point.
He often finds cash in the mailboxes to be converted into stamps. The letters are often nibbled: snails love the glue on stamps and envelopes.
René-Claude drinks little on his tour, despite the effort and suffocating heat. But the locals often offer him water.
For a very long time, Mafate letter carriers have had a mission as public writers. Today, they continue to provide small services when they can.
31 years old
Elevation of the route: +1,300 metres
3 islands covered
Distance per week: 17 miles (27km)
Duration of the tour: 2 days
Number of households delivered: 150. Average bag weight: 10kg
Professional perks: 2 pairs of shoes and a backpack financed by La Poste
Cyril completes his journey in the southern part of the caldera in two days, at a steady pace.
Cyril’s father, Yoland, works at the postal sorting centre in Salazie. He helps him to prepare his mailbag before leaving for his round.
He has noticed an increase in the caldera’s population, leading to a multiplication of mailboxes. According to him, many young Mafatais return to the caldera after leaving, because they cannot find work in the “city”.
Cyril has a habit of staying at Mme Pauline’s lodge, or gite, in Marla for the only night he spends in the caldera, before continuing his tour at 6am in the direction of La Nouvelle.
Mme Pauline, 67, Cyril’s lodge keeper, has always been in contact with the caldera’s letter carriers. She remembers that, as a child, they used to carry the mail in bertelles, braided bags made of vacoa fibres.
Cyril delivers his mail to Yolande, in Marla. She takes the opportunity to give him a shopping list for a housekeeper living outside the caldera. Cyril says: “I do service, like the letter carriers before me; it’s a mission to help the community.”
After a walk of more than 3 hours, Cyril finally reaches the plateau overlooking Marla. He is welcomed by the donkeys that graze around the small chapel of the island.