La Réunion

Réunion, France

Oct 1st - 6th, 2017

This is a blog post about my hiking trip on the island of Reunion together with my good friends Crystal, Cristiane and Philippe.

Reunion is a tropical island in the Southern Indian Ocean located between Mauritius and Madagascar. It is an overseas region of France, and has a population of about 850,000. The island has only been inhabited since the 17th century, as it did not have any indigenous population when Europeans first arrived in the early 16th century. Today Reunion has a very ethnically diverse population, which is due to the influx of workers (and slaves) from Africa, India and China throughout the 18th and 19th century. Slavery was abolished in 1848, but import of indentured workers mainly from India continued into the 20th century. The island used to be an important stop-over on the Asia to Europe trade route, but lost some of that importance when the Suez canal opened in 1869. Today sugar cane and the rum produced from it are the main agricultural and export products, and tourism is a significant part of the economy.

The geology of Reunion is quite similar to Hawaii, in the sense that it is a volcanic island even though it is not located at the boundary of two tectonic plates. Its volcanic origins and activity are due to a hotspot under the Earth's crust. It also has a similar climate to Hawaii. And in particular the steep and green walls around the cirques as well as the varied vegetation reminded me a lot of Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands. The island is surrounded by beautiful beaches and there is a large coral reef on the Western side with huge waves coming in from the ocean. Reunion used to be a major surfing spot up until a few years ago. However, you see very few surfers out in the waves now, since the island has been plagued by a serious shark problem. For some reason shark attacks have increased significantly with more than 20 attacks and 9 fatalities in the last 6 years, and some of the best surf spots are now considered off limits.

There are direct flights from Paris to Reunion, but to get there from most other parts of the world you would fly via Mauritius. I left Singapore on a Saturday afternoon direct flight to Mauritius, which took just under 7 hours. I had a three hour stop-over in Mauritius and then a 45 minute flight on a turbo-prop plane to Reunion's Roland Garros Airport, which got me in at 11:00 pm local time. My friends, who had arrived are few days before me, had arranged a car pick-up for me for the 40 minute drive to La Saline les Bains, a small town on the West of the island.

We all spent Sunday together celebrating the baptism of Crystal and Philippe's younger daughter, which was followed by a wonderful and opulent family lunch at Philippe's parents' house. We started our hiking trip on Monday morning with a two hour drive to the beautiful little town of Cilaos. The drive up into the mountains was stunning albeit not for anyone prone to car sickness, as the road was very windy and narrow.
We parked the car in Cilaos, bought some last minute supplies and had an early sandwich lunch. And after the obligatory selfie, we started the hike around 10:30 am.

The first part of the trail went along a road, but after an hour we turned down into a ravine, crossed a river and then started a long and steep climb up to the crater wall of the Cirque to Cilaos. Our hike over the next three days would takes us across the so-called three Cirques - the Cirque de Cilaos, the Cirque de Mafate and the Cirque de Salazie. These are three huge calderas surrounded by almost vertical crater walls and each one of them has its own distinct flora. The three cirques are part of the Unesco World Heritage site called "Pitons, Cirques and Remparts of Reunion Island", which received its world heritage dedication in 2010.

Half way up the climb, we were surprised by a little hut next to the trail that served rather nice and strong French coffee and various pastries and coconut sweets.

After climbing uphill for nearly three hours, we reached the ridge that separates the Cirque de Cilaos and the Cirque de Mafate. From here we had a long hike down to the town of Marla. As almost every day in the afternoon clouds slowly moved in when we were on our way down, but we were lucky as it never started to rain.
From here it was an up and down hike for another two hours mostly along a river to the town of La Nouvelle.

Crystal and Philippe had done this hike several years earlier, but somehow did not remember how long it was. They had prepared us mentally for a four hour hike today, which we realized about half way in was a vast underestimation. The whole hike from Cilaos to La Nouvelle took about 8 hours in total and we arrived just before darkness. We stayed at the beautiful Gite de Tamareo in La Nouvelle. The four of us shared a nice and very comfortable room. And we had an amazing three course dinner, which was particularly remarkable, because unlike the other two cirques the Cirque de Mafate is not accessible by any roads. Which means everything we ate, either grew right here, was carried in by foot or flown in by helicopter.

After a great night sleep we woke up to a perfectly blue sky, and we were ready for another long day of hiking. Our goal was to reach the town of Hell-Bourg in the Cirque to Salazie. We didn't quite get the early start we had planned, but still managed to start hiking around 8:30 am.

The first part of the trail out of La Nouvelle took us up to the Col du Fourche. The climb was fairly gentle, with only a few steep sections, but nothing as steep as yesterday. After about two hours we reached the Col, from which we had amazing views back into the Cirque de Mafate and ahead into the Cirque de Salazie.

From here we had a long and at times fairly steep descent mostly along a small river. We had amazing views of the little towns in the distance and the surrounding steep crater walls of the Cirque to Salazie. There were numerous little waterfalls snaking down the steep walls on the other side.

The lower we got down the more muddy and slippery the trail became. And all of us slipped a few times, but unfortunately Philippe injured his knee on one of those slips. He managed to carry on slowly for the rest of the way, and we found a car to take him the last hour along the road to Hell-Bourg. We stayed at the gorgeous Hotel du Governour in Hell-Bourg, and finished our evening again with a great three course dinner, that this time was preceded by several rounds of flavored rum.

Because of Philippe's injury (and general exhaustion on the part of some among us), we changed our plans for the Wednesday hike to something a bit less ambitious. We had originally planned to hike from Hell-Bourg to Piton de Neige, and climb to the summit early in the morning the following day. Instead Crystal and I decided to do a day hike to the Foret de Belouve, which is located on a high plateau about 500 meters above Hell-Bourg. The hike to the plateau was quite steep and took us about 1.5 hours. But it was absolutely worth it, as we had beautiful views of the valley and the towns below.

We also could see Piton de Neige in the distance, which is a huge volcano and the highest point of the island at 3071 meters. Piton de Neige is dormant, but the other main volcano on the island, the Piton de la Furnaise, located on the South-east coast, is highly active. In fact it is currently so active that we were not able to visit it.

After a two hour easy walk through the Foret de Belouve, we went back down to Hell-Bourg the same way we came up. Hell-Bourg is a very pretty little town, consisting mainly of old but nicely maintained wooden buildings and the whole town is covered in beautiful flowers. It used to be a popular and thriving spa town throughout the 19th and early 20th century after a hot spring was discovered nearby in 1830.

Crystal and I had a nice lunch in a local creole restaurant and then took a car back for the two hour drive to La Saline. The first part of the drive out to the coast went through the town of Salazie which is flanked by very steep crater walls on each side.

We had a lovely seafood dinner by a small harbor in Saint Gilles that night and then spent our Thursday relaxing by the beach along the lagoon in La Saline.

I left Reunion on Friday afternoon to visit a friend in Johannesburg over the weekend. Reunion is a stunningly beautiful place, and five days was not nearly enough to see all of it. I hope to be back there and then get a chance to climb to the top of Piton de Neige.

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