As sunrise lights the huge cliffs to my west, turning them from a dull grey into a golden yellow ripple, the small village and the guesthouse I sit at is lost in the immensity of jagged peaks, ridgelines and forest as far as the eye can see. Hiking into La Nouvelle is a surreal experience, reachable only by foot or by helicopter, yet it is a mere 15km south-west of the nearest major town. Owing this remarkable landscape to its identity as a volcanic island, Reunion is an island of many personalities.
Reunion is a French overseas department with French and Creole for its languages. You may have heard about it last year when a piece of debris from flight MH370 washed up on its beaches, but it is so much more than this small news piece. It is a tiny island (google it, you’ll see) in the Indian Ocean with Madagascar and Mauritius as its closest neighbors. The Reunion Tourism Board calls Reunion “l’ile intense”, which means the “intense island” in French. This title may be due to the Piton de la Fournaise, the world’s most active volcano. This title also relates to the extreme variety of activities on offer- from relaxing tropical beaches at sea level, through cloud forest and alpine vegetation right up to the highest point in the Indian Ocean, the Piton des Neiges at 3069m.
I was lucky enough to live on Reunion during my teen years and I still return to visit and photograph its natural beauty. Nature photography goes hand in hand with hiking and with over 1000km of trails crossing the island, I am spoiled for choice. One of the most incredible things to do here is to hike across the dried lava and volcanic rock surrounding the Piton de la Fournaise. To get there you drive across the Plaine des Sables (Plain of Sand) which is a flat valley of pure desolation resembling the surface of Mars. This area is accustomed to fog which creates an otherworldly sight. This is a good reason to head there early in the day, where you can walk to the volcano with the clouds beneath you. The road climbs upward and you can park at the top of the outer rim of the volcano. The hike then takes you down some 600 stairs to the start of the dried lava flow which extends for kilometers to both sides. To the front, it slowly inclines to the rim of the active volcano which you can hike to in a couple of hours at a good pace. This area is usually off limits for safety reasons during eruptions but, if you are very lucky, there might be a protected spot where they let you approach.
Another incredible hike and one not for the faint of heart is the climb to the Piton des Neiges. The hike is usually done over two days so that you reach the top at sunrise. Waking up at 3 am in the dorm room of the guesthouse, throwing on some layers to brave the chill and hiking to the top is well worth the view. As the first rays of sunlight illuminate the many sharp ridges, then creep downwards to show the steep cliffs, working their way down into the deep ravines, the view is truly incredible and so rewarding. From here you get a great view of the many small villages of the Cirque de Mafate and Cirque de Cilaos. Some of these small villages and hamlets are only accessible by foot but the locals use helicopters for groceries and other supplies they can’t carry in.
Being a tropical island, summer on Reunion can be very hot and humid. Great places to cool off are the coral reef enclosed Lagoon of La Saline but for a more adventurous experience, you can head to one of the many ice-cold waterfalls that can be found in several spots around the island. Some can be reached quickly, others are quite hidden and require a good sense of orientation! Either way, you can count on a refreshing dip in crystal clear waters.
Photo Credit: Nicolas Rakotopare