Reunion Island: a Little (Volcanic) Piece of France in the Middle of the Indian Ocean

Living in Madagascar, people would sometimes ask, “Don’t you get island fever?” Of course, this never happened – given that it stretches the distance from New York City to the tip of Florida, it’s more like a small continent than an island. Still, from time to time, it’s nice to visit some of the smaller nearby islands, like the Comoros, Mauritius, Mayotte or – in this case – Reunion Island.

By Eric Gaba (Stingfr:Sting) – Own work Topography: NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM3 v.2) (public domain) ; Bathymetry: SRTM30 Plus ; Shorelines: NASA SWBD (public domain)., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

“Ile de la Reunion” or “Island of the Reunion” is a French overseas department and region, with the same status as metropolitan France. Except it’s a rock out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s formed from two volcanoes – the long-extinct “Piton des Neiges” (Peak of the Snows) to the northwest, which last erupted in 20,000 B.C.; and “Piton de la Fournaise” (Peak of the Furnace) to the southeast, which remains one of the most active volcanoes in the world. When we passed along the eastern edge of the island, we could see recent flows that had crossed the road and were still smoking in places; and since then, the volcano has begun erupting again.

Landing in Reunion from Madagascar is a bit jarring – given that the French have been here since the 1600s, it really is just like stepping into France, in many ways. We rented a small, fuel-efficient French car from a surly attendant at the airport, and as I saw there was a McDonald’s just ten minutes away, I had a sudden craving. There, I got into my first car accident. Turning left, I was startled by a loud bang and a motorcyclist came tumbling over the vehicle. He left a large dent in the rear left and tried to bully me into accepting fault and paying him off, but when I insisted on calling the police, he fled the scene. By this time, a crowd had gathered, some of them a bit hostile, and a young French woman took pity on us and led us to the police station. There we waited, made a statement, and eventually reached our AirBnB place in the hills along the south of the island well after midnight.

The next morning we went out to explore. We had an amazing view of the landscape below, with its winding road leading to the sea, and the volcano rising up behind us. It was cool, just a few miles from the sea, due to the elevation change. We decided to get up and explore, and about a quarter mile down the road, I moved left to avoid a vehicle parked on the outside of a curve, when another car whipped around the corner and smashed into us. The driver apologized and I told her “no worries” – at this point it was almost funny – and she said “but the damage to your car!” Turns out she had hit me exactly in the same spot as the motorcycle the night before, and she was relieved when I explained that it really was no big deal. But now I was definitely spooked – coming from chaotic Madagascar traffic to supposedly “orderly” France was not supposed to go like this. Needless to say, the rest of our trip, I was accused multiple times of driving with an overabundance of caution.

It’s a charming little island though – lots of green, interspersed with small villages connected by narrow roads winding through the hills. In the tourism world, it’s known for its challenging volcano climb, and shark attacks. That night, we decided to go for the former, waking up around 1 am to drive about 45 minutes to the trailhead. The idea was that we would reach the edge of the crater around sunrise, but alas – it was not to be. First, finding the actual trail in the dark was not easy. Then, the trail itself started off with a loooong descent down narrow stairs and pathways. And finally, once we got moving, it was constantly raining. But still, we forged on.

Not far from the parking lot is the metal gate leading to a long descent, followed by a long climb around the laft and rear of the volcano in the distance.
By Sebastian Appelt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

With head-mounted flashlights, it’s not too difficult to follow the trail once you’re on it – the black rock is marked every few meters by a dash of white point. We passed a few hikers coming the other way (this should have been a warning) but saw relatively few people as we made our way gradually upward. But we were definitely not going to make it by sunrise. In fact:

We hiked for hours and hours, and as the morning wore on, the intermittent rain turned into a steady drizzle. We were soaked, but by this point, determined to make it to the rim of the caldera. Which we did – and here’s the amazing view we had before heading back and passing all the hikers who had chosen a more reasonable time to start their trek.

But we made it!!
and here…a look over the precipice…into the depths of the volcano!

Returning to the cabin exhausted, we decided the rest of our trip would be much more relaxing. We took some scenic drives and ventured out onto the rocky beach – it’s illegal to swim in the ocean around Reunion because it’s pretty much the world’s shark attack capital. The one exception to the rule is the small lagoon on the west edge of the island. More about that later. But here some of the scenes along the coast:

One day we took a drive inland, to a waterfall that was supposedly spectacular – the Grand Galet. We followed the winding road along the river to Saint-Joseph, where we could park near a platform overlooking the falls. But what we were after was a trail to take us to the pool below the falls. We headed down the road a few hundred meters, and eventually picked our way through the trees, clambering over (and under) rocks until we reached the spectacular pool where the river, having sunk below its rocky bed, sprays out of dozens of crevasses and caves in the sheer cliff wall.

The water was chilly, but bearable. For a bit. Refreshing!!

To round out our trip to Reunion, we checked out of our cabin and headed up the road a few hours to St. Gilles-les-Bains and Hermitage Beach, which is protected by a coral reef. As it was a Saturday morning, it turns out that half the island had the same idea, and we searched to find the last bit of parking before picking our way down to the crowded beach. And then the oddest coincidence of all, as we bumped into the same young woman who had helped us find the police station our first night there! We spent a few hours at the beach, where we were not bitten by sharks…but instead by triggerfish, protecting their nests! It seemed that nobody else was having any issues, but after a couple drew blood on my finger and on a toe, I decided a jog on the beach would be more fun than a swim. By the time it was time to pack up our wet clothes and head to the airport, there were so many people on the beach we practically had to step over them to get back to the car!

If we ever make it here again, I hope we can try the volcano again. Preferably when it’s not raining!

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