FIR­ING THE IMAG­I­NA­TION – RÉUNION IS­LAND

ARAB TRADERS, FROM PER­HAPS AS EARLY AS THE 12TH CEN­TURY, WROTE OF AN IS­LAND IN THE MID­DLE OF THE IN­DIAN OCEAN – AN “IS­LAND OF FIRE”.

In Flight Magazine - - IN THIS ISSUE - { TEXT: NICKY FURNISS

Cre­ated an es­ti­mated three mil­lion years ago by the erup­tion of the vol­cano Pi­ton des Neiges – which was also in­ci­den­tally re­spon­si­ble for the is­lands of Mau­ri­tius and Ro­driguez – the is­land smoul­dered and burned for cen­turies, and even more so when its sis­ter vol­cano, Pi­ton de la Four­naise, added its erup­tions to the spec­ta­cle. Today, the be­he­moth of Pi­ton des Neiges is long since ex­tinct, while Pi­ton de la Four­naise still flares up from time to time – much to the de­light of the lo­cals. But while the is­land is no longer on fire, th­ese two vol­ca­noes still in­flu­ence life on this small is­land, mak­ing it a fas­ci­nat­ing place for trav­ellers to ex­plore.

While many South Africans are fa­mil­iar with neigh­bour­ing Mau­ri­tius, Réunion is less well known, though this looks set to change as news starts to spread of its dra­matic scenery and end­less op­por­tu­ni­ties for ad­ven­ture and ex­plo­ration. While there are lovely beaches and plenty of candy striped um­brel­las to lounge away your days un­der, Réunion is so much more than just a des­ti­na­tion for beach bums.

THE WILD SOUTH

Liv­ing in the shadow of an ac­tive vol­cano may sound less than ideal, but as Pi­ton de la Four­naise has a ten­dency to ooze lava in­stead of ex­plod­ing in dra­matic and dan­ger­ous fash­ion – and is also the most mon­i­tored vol­cano in the world – the lo­cals al­ways look for­ward to the next erup­tion. Although, as our guide Ni­co­las Bar­niche of Tours Réunion told us, they don’t bother mak­ing a trip to the “Wild South” of the is­land to see the lava flow un­less it’s flowed over the main road. “If it does that, then it’s a good one!” he smiles.

The “good ones” have hap­pened a fair amount in the last cou­ple of decades and as you drive along this ruggedly beau­ti­ful part of coast­line – char­ac­terised by quaint lit­tle vil­lages, and dra­matic beaches of basalt black sand – mark­ers along the road de­note each “vin­tage” of lava flow: 2006, 2008, 2010. Some of th­ese black land­scapes have al­ready been colonised by lichen and ferns while other flows carve a solid black strip down to the sea.

THE FIERY ONE

Once you have seen the re­sult of its labours, it is even more ex­cit­ing to ven­ture to Pi­ton de la Four­naise’s sum­mit and see the beat­ing heart of this be­he­moth for your­self. Start­ing at sea level, the road snakes it way through sub­ur­bia, be­fore climb­ing into a belt of pine trees – un­ex­pected af­ter the trop­i­cal veg­e­ta­tion of the coast. Even more un­ex­pected are the swathes of im­prob­a­bly green farm­land that nes­tle on the hills above the trees. With farm­ers walk­ing their an­i­mals to be milked to the sound of chim­ing cow bells, you would be for­given for think­ing that you had some­how been trans­ported to the French Alps. The plum­met­ing tem­per­a­ture aids this im­pres­sion – Pi­ton de la Four­naise rises 2,631 m above sea level, so it is quite pos­si­ble to start your day in a bikini and end it in wooly jumpers and gloves!

The scenery starts to change as you as­cend the tree line, and look­out points be­gin to open along the road. It’s wor th it to hop out to have a look, for it is only then – as you gaze down on deep val­leys with soar­ing sides and match­box-sized vil­lages – that you re­alise the kind of power this vol­cano has to sculpt its own land­scape on this side of the is­land.

A LU­NAR LAND­SCAPE

Should you be lucky enough to have some­one else driv­ing you – which I would highly rec­om­mend – ask them to let you know just be­fore to turn the cor­ner to la Plaine des Sables. It just makes the im­pact of this spec­tac­u­larly des­o­late lu­nar land­scape that much more im­pres­sive when you close your eyes in green moun­tain scenery and open them to find that you have wan­dered onto the sur­face of the moon.

Fi­nally, the road tops out at Pas de Bel­le­combe where a look­out point gives you a bird’s eye view of En­c­los Fouqué, the vol­cano’s last caldera and also the scene of all the ac­tion, should it erupt. It can be a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing to look out onto the silent and des­o­late vol­canic plain of the slum­ber­ing vol­cano – es­pe­cially af­ter vi­sions of fire and brim­stone have been cir­cling

your head since you landed on this fiery is­land. This vol­cano, how­ever, doesn’t linger long in its sub­mis­sive state – the lat­est erup­tion was in July this year – so you may get lucky and ar­rive in Réunion in time to catch the next one.

THE SLUM­BER­ING ONE

Like an old man who has slowly grown out of his fiery tem­per, neigh­bour­ing Pi­ton des Neiges – the fa­ther of the is­land – qui­etly sur­veys the In­dian Ocean from his sum­mit of 3,071 m, the high­est in the In­dian Ocean. He can no longer pro­vide ex­hil­a­rat­ing erup­tions but in­stead there is the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore his three dis­tinct calderas, or cirques, each with its own beauty, per­son­al­ity and even mi­cro-cli­mates.

Cirque Ci­laos is fa­mous for its dra­matic scenery of soar­ing vol­canic walls. Mafate is a hik­ers’ par­adise – a lucky thing, as the only way in and out of it is on foot! De­spite this seem­ing in­con­ve­nience roughly 900 peo­ple call Mafate home, and of­ten band to­gether to hire a he­li­copter to do sup­ply runs. “It’s not un­usual to see a he­li­copter fly­ing over­head with a fridge hanging off it!” Ni­co­las said. The in­hab­i­tants here clearly en­joy a sim­pler life with fewer of the com­pli­ca­tions and stresses of city liv­ing – although, ac­cord­ing to Ni­co­las, they all have Wi-Fi, so per­haps they are get­ting the best of both worlds!

THE SOUND OF WA­TER­FALLS

My favourite cirque, Salazie, is per­haps the green­est place I have ever been to. Like the other cirques, Salazie boasts im­prob­a­bly high sides, but here they are cov­ered from head to toe in lush veg­e­ta­tion, in­ter­rupted only by the wa­ter­falls that reg­u­larly punc­tu­ate th­ese moun­tain walls. As we drove into Salazie – un­der the aptly named Pis­seenl’Air (piss­ing in the air) water­fall which gave the car a good soak­ing – Ni­co­las told us to wind down our win­dows. “Vis­it­ing Salazie is all about the sound,” he said, and in­stantly the car was filled with the sound of the tin­kle and rush of cas­cad­ing wa­ter. Wind­ing our way to the sum­mit, we stopped to mar­vel at th­ese wa­ter­falls, each more im­pres­sive than the next, un­til we came to Le Voile de la Mar­iée, eas­ily one of Réunion’s most beau­ti­ful.

Windy roads make for thirsty mouths and the quaint town of Hell-Bourg – which is noth­ing like its name would sug­gest – is the per­fect spot for a cof­fee, be­fore stretch­ing your legs with a wan­der around this pretty Cre­ole town with its 19th cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture and flour­ish­ing gar­dens. It is such a pic­turesque lit­tle place that it has won the ti­tle of France’s most beau­ti­ful vil­lage more than once – and it’s not hard to see why.

THE BEST PLACE TO LAY YOUR HEAD

Af­ter all of that dra­matic moun­tain scenery, as we me­an­dered down to the coast, the salty sea air snapped us back into the re­al­ity that we were in fact on a trop­i­cal is­land. Peel­ing off lay­ers, we be­gan to look for­ward to a sun­downer cock­tail on the beach of our lovely re­sort LUX* Saint Gilles, the is­land’s only five-star beach re­sort. It’s French colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture greeted us as we ar­rived, as did the ever friendly staff. Af­ter wan­der­ing back to our room to pop on our swim­ming cos­tumes, we slipped through the slid­ing door into the gar­den and strolled to L’Her­mitage beach where we or­dered a cock­tail and sank down into gi­ant bean­bags. Chil­dren were play­ing in the calm shal­lows of the coral-reef-pro­tected waters, while other cou­ples were also en­joy­ing the ro­mance of dusk.

Af­ter the sun set we went for a quick dip in the pool – the largest on the is­land – be­fore head­ing back to dress for din­ner. We had sam­pled the beachy La Plage restau­rant the night be­fore, so we booked a ta­ble at Orangine, the ho­tel’s fine din­ing restau­rant. Af­ter we were wined and dined as if in an epi­curean’s dream, our bed was call­ing, and it was heaven to sink into its soft sheets and dream of moun­tains and wa­ter­falls, vol­ca­noes and erup­tions.

Réunion may no longer be the is­land of fire, but it still cer­tainly lights a fire in your imag­i­na­tion.

| IMAGES © ISTOCKPHOTO.COM & LUX* HO­TELS }

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