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Walking on Ile de Réunion

Kevin Martin, Perth, WA

Ile de la Réunion is a small tropical island in the Indian Ocean, about 220 kilometres west of Mauritius.  The centre of the island contains three extinct volcanic craters that have collapsed by several hundred metres, and which have eroded over the millennia. On one side of the island is an active volcano that still erupts frequently. So:

  • If you enjoy walking the Bibbulmun Track.
  • If you appreciate climbing hills that go on forever.
  • If stunning mountain scenery excites you.
  • If scrambling along narrow pathways carved into sheer cliff faces doesn’t faze you.
  • If you can deal with rough rocky tracks and mud scrambles.
  • If walking through rainforest, watching waterfalls plunge into deep ravines appeals.
  • If standing on the crater rim of the world’s second most active volcano sounds good.
  • If you have the spirit for real adventure in a very unique natural environment.
  • If you also like comfortable budget holidays.
  • Then you should try a hike across the island of Réunion.
Rugged terain across the Cirque
Rugged terain across the Cirque

The island records some of the highest annual rainfall in the world which, combined with the rich volcanic soils, results in lush vegetation and rainforests. It has a population of around 800,000 who live mostly in towns and farming areas around the coast.  Much of the interior is protected within a national park.

The main walk trail across the island (known as GRR2) is 160 kilometres, but our party chose to deviate onto several of the side trails to include a number of special features.  From water’s edge on the north side to the same on the south side was about 230 kilometres.

The organisation Maison de la Montagne et de la Mer provides excellent assistance with planning and booking accommodation along the way. Payment is in advance, which has the advantage of your not needing to carry much cash.

A tough climb.
A tough climb.

This means you require only a small day pack for your change of clothes, water bottles, and any luxuries. Accommodation is available along the trails and consists of dinner, bed and breakfast at an average cost of €36 (about $50) per person per night.  The quality and value is very good and the hosts are friendly and entertaining.  A little French vocabulary can help. One special feature is the rum liqueur they serve with the evening meal.  After two of those, all pain disappears!

Our first day involved a climb of 1850m in an 18.5 kilometre walk—an average grade of 10% for the whole day.  Next morning we got to the rim of the first crater (Cirque de Mafate) and stared in amazement at the massive hills and deep ravines, wondering how we could walk through such terrain.  Our accommodation was set on the edge of a high hill looking back down over the bright lights of the port town 10km away. 

On the following day we descended steeply to cross a swift flowing river and then made a long climb up to a small plateau housing two tiny farming villages. In this terrain access is by foot or helicopter only; all supplies are brought in by a constant relay of choppers. 

Day four was a big test.  A long day was made longer by a big rock fall that required a long detour.  After constant ups and downs, the route took us up a side valley; a long steep climb in the hot sun.  By the time we finally got to the top we were almost spent. We could see across to the village we were aiming for, which meant another steep  descent of 700m, a river crossing and a precipitous scramble, zigzagging 800m up the other side (and that is elevation, not just distance). To make matters worse night closed in as we started that final climb along the narrow ledges on the cliff face. Chris noted that he felt more secure in the darkness because he couldn’t see how far it was to fall. We got to explore the depths of human exhaustion, and we look back on it and laugh now, but it was poor planning.

The main street in the tiny village of Cayenne.
The main street in the tiny village of Cayenne.

After yet another long climb up the steep wall of the cirque we strolled through beautiful rainforest to the iconic Le Trou de Fer, where many streams cascade down the slopes and then plummet 400m into the depths of the ravine.  The views are to die for but you must be patient, waiting for a gap in the clouds that constantly sweep in. 

Not far away is the other great icon—Piton des Neiges (Snow Peak)—the highest peak on Réunion.  To beat the clouds and get the best views from here you need to get up and leave your accommodation by 4.00 am.  It is an eerie sight, reminiscent of fireflies, as a hundred or so people scramble up the rocky slopes with just their headlamps to guide them. 

When we got there first light was just noticeable through the thick cloud cover.  Finally, like a window passing across the sky, the clouds parted momentarily, the clear early morning sun shone through and the view was breathtaking, but scary.  For a brief instance we got a view across to the coast in two directions, just 20km away.  Then it was back down the mountain, a late breakfast and heading off for our next destination.

At the active volcano (Piton de la Fournaise) we were able to walk right up to the rim of the main crater, look down into the misty depths and see the steam and smoke rising.  As on the top of Piton des Neiges, it was freezing in the biting wind and the rarefied atmosphere, but the spectacle of this great lava block was absorbing.  We walked past several small side cones where eruptions had occurred in the past, and could also see where the molten lava had flowed down the long slopes and dropped into the sea.  That rare sight would be something quite special, but it wasn’t there for us. 

The previous night, as we slept in our accommodation about six kilometres distant, we felt a number of earth tremors and were told another eruption was expected in the near future. It occurred two weeks after we returned home. Good observation data ensures that all access is closed off when an eruption is imminent.

Waterfall plunging into the depths.
Waterfall plunging into the depths.

On our final descent back to the coast we came across a very slippery chute in a rainforest section.  The greasy slopes were as slick as oil on a mirror and I fell down eight times in about 500m, much to the entertainment of the rest of the party.  What a way to finish off a momentous trek.

After our walk we hired an eight-seater van to drive around to the other many attractions; the beautiful beaches along the west coast, the forest drives, the lovely little Creole villages and the seaward end of the big lava field (Le Grand Brûlé).  The 37km drive up the valley to the town of Cilaos (elevation 1100m) involved over 400 twists and turns, many of them very tight hairpins on a zigzag up the steep hillside, and three tight one lane tunnels.  My fingerprints are forever firmly embossed in the steering wheel!

Having seen such wonders at ground level we couldn’t resist the helicopter ride ($400) over the three cirques, the volcanic crater and the lagoons of the west coast.  Those pilots are fantastic and if you are game they will take you deep down into some of the otherwise inaccessible gorges to see and experience the full spectacle of the myriad of waterfalls and then fly low over the volcanic crater.  This capped off a great adventure for us, putting the whole island into proper perspective.  A significant cost, but an unforgettable experience.

While we thought our great hiking feat made us superhuman, it pales into insignificance against the island’s great footrace—the Grand Raid.  This 160km event follows the GRR2 trail over the impossible hills and ravines we had struggled through, including many rocky and muddy sections and ledges carved into the almost sheer cliff faces. I have run several ultra-marathon races over that distance, but the thought of doing it in those conditions just blows my mind.  The 2500 starters, from all over the world, set off at 10.00pm and approximately half the field finishes inside the 72 hours time limit.  The winner this year took just 23 hours.  We saw many of the locals training for it, bounding over rocky sections that we were crawling over on all fours.  Unbelievable!

The best time to visit weather wise is May to November, but make sure you miss the French holiday periods (July/August) or you will find accommodation very difficult to find. The local Creole population are a very lively, friendly community and our stay was safe and peaceful.  All up our trip cost us just over $3,000 including airfares, accommodation, meals, car hire, fuel, helicopter ride and incidentals.  The memory will be with us forever.

Mission accomplished.
Mission accomplished.