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”.
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.