by John Gimlette, The Telegraph, September 12, 2017
Nowhere makes me feel so inert as La Réunion. I discovered my inner sloth while hiking up to the great cirque or caldera of Mafate. I’d hired a mountain guide called Alexis Vincent, and at first everything seemed relatively normal. As we climbed the long ravine, we came across giant snails, a creeper that was pretending to be dead (“Trompe la Mort”), and a helicopter parked on the riverbed.
But then we came to a natural gateway, almost a mile high, and runners appeared. Beyond them, through the portal, there was no obvious run, just a jumble of canyons and jungly peaks, all walled in by the vast blue rim. Alexis told me he often ran races through this bowl of mountains. Next week, he’d be doing 34 miles (55km) in six hours. I ask if he will be running “Le Grand Raid” on October 22, when 2,500 runners set off across the island, climbing the equivalent of 25 Eiffel Towers (and 100 miles/162km) in 22 hours.
“Non,” said Alexis, “you have to be fit for that.”
Perhaps the Réunionese love these challenges because, most of the time, their landscape defies them. Much of the island is uninhabitable; too steep; too remote; too dry; too wet, too unstable or too volcanic. This is partly explained by youth. Réunion only bubbled out of the Indian Ocean eight million years ago. Originally, it was two volcanoes but later they merged. One is still active, erupting on average every nine months. The other blew itself to bits 200,000 years ago, leaving only three vast cirques, up to 10 miles wide and a mile deep. With these great works still in progress, most Réunionese live on the coast.
So why do people come here? For the French, it’s easy. This is the outermost part of the EU, and everything’s French from the policemen to the butter. For les Metros, it’s like home but with sugar cane and coconuts. “They come for the beaches,” said the lady at the tourist office, “while the British come to walk.” And that’s why I was here, for the next three weeks.
To better appreciate this upended playground, I took a helicopter ride. Réunion is only the size of Dorset, and so, within an hour, I’d plummeted through a full spectrum of geography from livid turquoise to cinder-black. Violence has created a heart-stopping variant of beauty. One moment, we’d be buzzing round the highest peak, Piton des Neiges (10,069ft), and the next we’d be spiralling into a deep green abyss. One of these, the Trou de Fer (Iron Hole), was so dark and so abundant with waterfalls it felt like the scenic route to the centre of the earth.
Réunion was no less exciting on foot. Everywhere I went, the outer rim of the world seemed to be a mile above, or its inner workings a mile below. Forty per cent of this vertiginous land is protected by Unesco, and it is criss-crossed by more than 600 miles of marked trails. If you want, you can take the GRR2 route, and spend 12 days crossing the island. I decided to go straight for the ancient calderas, and set out for the Cirque de Cilaos.
There, the forest life was intriguing. I came across trees that whispered (casuarinas) and blazed (flamboyants). There were the runners too, of course, but also an older generation, with their bundles of firewood. I often found their shrines by the path. Some housed little Marys and others a tiny Roman soldier, called St Expédit. Around here, he’s still the master of curses and cures, and sorcery steps in where modern life falters.
If anything, the walking was even better in the next cirque, Salazie. With its gigantic epiphytes and tree ferns, it all felt pleasingly extraterrestrial. Way above, I could always see long spindles of water tumbling down from the rim. The French had always loved it here, and in the 1860s they perched themselves among the pinnacles and built a little town of pastel-coloured mansions. Happily, Hell-Bourg is still as fretted and frilly as ever.
Of the three old calderas, the last – Mafate – is probably the wildest. Alexis told me the only way in was by helicopter or on foot, and that’s how we found ourselves climbing the ravine. Even the cows had to be carried out by chopper, he said, and the rubbish. Once inside, there are no services or roads, and yet it’s still home to some 900 scattered souls. We met a few that day; a lentil farmer; the postmistress (with her lava-red hair), and Jeff, who kept eight cats and a tiny tin bar. There was also an old woman who watched us from the shadows. “Until the Eighties,” explained Alexis, “the Mafatais seldom met outsiders. And many had never even seen a car…”
My reward for all this walking was a few days on the coast. It felt odd having a horizon again, and not to be climbing. I stayed at The Lux near L’Ermitage-Les-Bains. Built in the style of a planter’s mansion, it had vast, chirpy gardens that led down through the pines to the sea. Although the lagoon seemed mirror-calm, beneath the surface there was a carnival of fish. It was like swimming around in a shoal of Picassos.
I spent my last week on the other volcanic massif, the active one. Piton de la Fournaise (or “Le Volcan”) has erupted 250 times in the past 350 years, most recently in 2016. It’s one of the most active outlets in the world – and accessible on foot or by road. It’s a disconcerting drive that begins with hayfields and woods, and ends on a desert of bright red ash.
The road ends on the edge of a vast firepit, almost the size of Guernsey. I parked, and peered down through the clouds. Some 98 per cent of the island’s eruptions occur here, in the Enclos Fouqué, and way out in the middle is the main cone, Dolomieu, looking beguilingly pink and symmetrical. It’s a six-hour walk to the rim and back. There’s only one path down into the Enclos, and if the volcano is too active, they simply lock the gate. But that morning it was quiet, and so I spent the day wandering the lava. Often it was coiled up like rope, and in one area it had boiled up and formed a grotto, known as “The Chapel”. But my favourite spot was Formica Leo, a small, anthill-shaped Strombolian cone. It’s as orange today as it was the day it rose up, hissing and spitting, in 1753.
Thanks to a giant landslip (450,000 years ago), most of the lava now flows east, out of harm’s way. Before leaving Réunion, I drove round to meet the great coulées (or flows) where they reach the sea. I often had to pull over and stare. These were no mere trickles. The 2007 eruption had disgorged 105,944,000 cubic ft of lava a day, enlarging the island by 60 acres. Even at sea-level, the flow is 50 times the width of the Thames at Westminster, and stands five storeys high. Walking on it was like clambering around in an enormous river of petrified cake.
Living with le Volcan can’t be easy but the Réunionese insist it never kills. They once had a close escape out in Piton Sainte-Rose. In April 1977, the lava came pouring down the hill at 40mph and a temperature of 2,192F. The sugar cane vaporised, and 34 houses followed. The lava then burned through the church door before coming to a miraculous halt in the nave. Even now, I had to clamber over a vast hummock of basalt to get through the door. I asked the locals if thoughts of a recurrence worried them, but they merely shrugged. On one of the most spectacular islands in the world, a little lava is just the price you pay.
Things to do in Reunion
Climb one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Piton de la Fournaise (see main story).
Hike the cirques with or without a guide. Guides’ daily rates vary, but expect to pay between €45 and €60 per person (in a group of three to four). Alexis Vincent can be contacted via ayapana-reunion.com.
Spend five days walking Mafate, the most remote cirque. The tourist board (see Essentials panel) will help book guides and gîtes accommodation.
Take a helicopter ride through Réunion’s vast calderas or cirques. Trips cost €260 (£239) for 45 minutes with Corail (00 262 262 222 266; corail-helicopteres.com).
Visit the hi-tech volcanology museum, Cité du Volcan, in Bourg Murat (museesreunion.re; entry €9/€6 concessions).
Drive the N2 or “Route du Volcan”, through enormous fields of recent lava. The coulée (or flow) from the 2007 eruption is almost a mile wide.
Go canyoning, mountain biking, paraplaning or riding. Again, you can book through the tourist board.
Head to L’Ermitage-Les-Bains for white sandy beaches and some excellent snorkelling in the lagoon.
Take a whale-watching cruise from Saint-Gilles (00 262 262 332 832; grandbleu.re; €30 per person).
In Saint-Denis, eat at trendy Vapiano, housed in some stylishly converted Victorian barracks.