Flung out in the Indian Ocean, it wasn’t until it hit the headlines in 2015 that this mysterious isle started to pique travellers’ curiosity. From deserts and waterfalls to volcanic landscapes, there's plenty to discover...
The cliff walls were definitely getting closer. Looking out of the helicopter window at the impossibly steep-sided gorge, thickly coated in an array of green vegetation so near that I felt I could lean forward and pluck a leaf from one of their branches, we edged closer still.
I glanced towards the pilot nervously. Beyond him the canyon walls seemed to be closing in further and I had to work hard to steady my breathing. The blades whizzed above, slicing through the air with every rotation, and I stole a second to peer ahead only to see yet more slabs of vertical rock coming fast.
Speaking would have been futile: the only voice I could hear in the helicopter was that of the pilot, so all I could do was watch as we slalomed through yet more precipitous bluffs. Then, suddenly, there it was. The rocks dropped away beneath us to reveal a trio of waterfalls, each one cascading down into a single gouged pit, frothing white. This was the Trou du Fer (the Iron Hole).
The Iron Hole, Reunion Island (Dreamstime)
If the scene hadn’t been so mesmerising, I think I would have screamed. Just as our proximity to the water started to feel unbearable, we began to corkscrew upwards. With each spiral we gained lift, pulling our way out of this naturally formed pocket in the folds and pinnacles of the greater volcanic landscape. We emerged back into open airspace just in time for me to spy what looked, from a distance, like a toy helicopter snaking its way along the gorge below us.
It was a dramatic and exhilarating introduction to Réunion Island, the French-owned territory seemingly dropped into the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mauritius. Though something of a hotspot for our cousins across the Channel, outside of France, very few people have heard of it. At least that was until 2015, when the first piece of the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared in March 2014, washed up on its shores.
While the lemur-filled forests of Madagascar are well known and Mauritius will always be the last refuge of the dodo to many, Réunion was a blank to me, like finding a place you never knew existed on a map. My interest was piqued: what would France’s most far-flung easterly département, an 11-hour flight from Paris, offer the intrepid traveller?
I’ll admit that, on arrival, Réunion was something of a shock at first. Driving from the capital of Saint-Denis, with its high-rise buildings, stuffed baguettes and Carrefour supermarket, it was as though I’d spent a day’s travel to reach a smaller, albeit slightly more tropical, version of France. That all changed, however, once I left the ease of the coast road and began heading inland, into volcano country.
Formed over two million years ago, when a heat spot under the ocean began seeping out magma, Réunion Island only took shape after a series of major eruptions. First came the Piton des Neiges, which has since become extinct, then the still-active Piton de la Fournaise. When the smoke cleared, what was left was a 2,500 sq km blot of land around the size of Luxembourg, protruding from the Indian Ocean like a round, puckered pimple on an adolescent’s face.
Piton de la Fournaise (Dreamstime)
Volcanoes have shaped everything here. When the Piton des Neiges collapsed a long time ago, it created a trio of depressed calderas in its centre – the cirques of Salazie, Cilaos and Mafate – in which communities have sprung up. It was these that I set out to explore, as I drove first to Cirque de Salazie, snaking along the highway that followed the valley floor.
A single main road circles the circumference of the island, with other, smaller carriageways veining off it into the towns and communes of the interior. Crossing gorge-spanning bridges, I found my way up into the village of Hell-Bourg (within the Salazie cirque), where the road ended. Although the official language here is French, as soon as I began strolling along the main street I could pick out the sing-song intonation of a different tongue – Creole.
When the French first claimed the island in 1642, there were no humans living here (despite the Portuguese discovering it first in the early 16th century). And so a new nation was formed, made up of European settlers as well as African slaves and, later, workers from Madagascar, India and China. With the different populations mixing over time, the island’s national identity became a blend of peoples, and those born here proudly declare themselves Creole, to distinguish from those recently arrived from the European mainland.
This Creole spirit had even seeped into the architecture of Hell-Bourg, in the colourfully mismatched houses that lined its streets. The village itself was created around a hot spring that was discovered in 1830. People would come from miles around to bathe in what they thought were its healing waters, bringing money to the town. However, over the century that followed, the water cooled significantly and nowadays most local residents farm to earn a living.
After a lunch of chou chou gratin – the signature gourd grown in this caldera, smothered with cheese and grilled – I headed back down towards the coast, still in awe at the lush landscapes that greeted me at every turn. I had to constantly remind myself I wasn’t in the Caribbean or Costa Rica.
My search for the even more exotic side of Réunion next took me to Cirque de Cilaos, the second of the collapsed calderas and another once famed for its natural hot springs. Its name is a bastardisation of the Malagasy word ‘tsilaosa’, which – fairly ominously – means ‘a place that you do not leave’. It makes sense once you realise that this was once a sanctuary for escaped slaves in the early 1800s, long before the abolition of slavery in the French colonies (1848).
Nowadays, as I would soon discover, it’s the wine and walking that keeps most visitors from leaving, either those or the nerve-shattering 200 hairpin bends that line the 34km road leading up to it. My way in started easily enough, following the flow of a spooling river along the valley floor, but soon the ascent kicked in and the tarmac narrowed to little over a car-and-a-half’s width, chicaning backwards and forwards like a bitumen concertina.
I was relieved when I emerged from what must have been my fourth or fifth tunnel to find a lay-by to rest in, where an old man had set up a small fruit stall. The sweet smell hit me as soon as I opened the door: its source was hundreds of tiny yellow fruits stacked atop each other.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” I asked, but couldn’t understand the reply, so I asked him to write it down instead. It turned out that these were bibasse, also known as loquat or Japanese plums. They tasted as explosively sweet as they smelt, erupting on my tongue like a bag of juicy sugar, giving me the energy to continue.
After passing through some truly tiny hamlets and the bustling but miniscule Salazie town centre, where a wedding was in full swing, I reached a spread of vineyards clinging desperately to the sloping hillsides. This was Cilaos, and a festival celebrating the harvest (lentils, apparently) had taken to the streets.
“Try the wine,” a stall vendor advised as I passed, and I stopped to sample some white. I winced as I sipped, its taste even sweeter than the bibasse I’d tried on the road. As I meandered, music began to play on the bandstand, an upbeat fusion between the horns of traditional Gallic ditties and the rhythmic drumming of Caribbean beats. It was hard not to move my feet.
After all that driving and feasting, the next day I thought I’d give my legs a proper workout and left the town on foot, walking a trail called Cascade du Bras Rouge. Thanks to its proliferation of saw-toothed mountain ridges, the island is something of a mecca for hikers, with several Grande Randonnée (marked walking trails) spanning its rocky centre, while the neighbouring cirque of Mafate is only accessible on foot.
Bras Rouge (Neil S Price)
After seeing the Iron Hole waterfalls of Mafate from the dizzying heights of a spinning helicopter, I was keen to visit one in Cilaos with my feet firmly on the ground. It only took a couple of hours to walk, on a trail almost as narrow and dramatic as the road I’d taken to reach the village.
The path edged along a chasm that dropped to unknown depths on my left, while the lush forest extended high up to my right. It deposited me atop Bras Rouge (the Red Arm), the source for the Saint-Etienne River that crashed into the sea at Saint-Louis on the north-west coast. Sat on the edge, as the water plummeted into the rock-strewn valley below, I peacefully watched bright vermillion fody birds search for crumbs left over from walkers’ picnics.
On the walk back, I heard a rustling in the leaves. Stonechats flitted between branches, but this was something bigger. Peering further, I was thrilled to come face to face with a tenrec, a small creature that looks a little like a tailless hedgehog, even if the mammal is actually genetically closer to an aardvark or – more bizarrely – an elephant.
Its nose twitched as it looked up at me curiously, perhaps sensing another soul far from home. Like the peoples of Réunion, these animals were not native to the island (bats are the only endemic mammals here), but arrived smuggled aboard ships bound from Madagascar hundreds of years ago. I couldn’t help but smile as it wriggled off into the undergrowth.
“You know we used to eat them,” said my guide Sully Chaffre, when I told him of my encounter the following morning, as we drove out of Cilaos. “Tenrecs?” I asked quizzically.
“Yes, older people on the island still do, but the younger ones aren’t so fussed. We should be protecting the mammals we do have here anyway. We only have a few after all,” he confessed.
A tenrec foraging (Neil S Price)
Endemic mammals may not be so common on Réunion, but it has plenty of other sights to compensate. After an early start, we arrived at the access road to Piton de la Fournaise, the island’s volcanic centrepiece, which had been active just a week before my visit.
Sully pulled over to show me a view that looked down a giant crack in the landscape that had formed along with the cirques. It formed a plateau that ran as far as the eye could see and was covered entirely by vegetation.
Further on, the landscape changed again, this time to a Martian-style desert, completely flat and coated with thick red sand. We drove through it while the wind gusted, spitting up mini whirlwinds despite the sunny conditions. At the end of the road, we walked to the viewing platform, perched on the edge of a giant crater that only a few days earlier had been filled with magma.
The pyramidal volcanic peak loomed on the horizon, its slopes a mottled shade of brown. From our elevated view it was difficult to get a sense of scale, but Sully was quick to help. “Look down there. They must have re-opened the path. You can see people hiking on one of the volcano’s vents.” I looked to see a much smaller circular depression. In comparison with the summit, it seemed barely a molehill, but then I realised that what looked like little ants crawling over it were actually people.
Sully explained to me how locals were still bewitched by the volcano’s power, and gathered to watch it explode in the spot we were now stood. “In the early days of settlement, people used to believe it was embodied by the spirit of a local plantation owner who had died; she would cause it to erupt if she was angry,” he explained.
Later that day, below the volcanic slopes in the town of Piton Sainte-Rose, I saw a more tangible reason for why such beliefs persist. There sat a little pink church, Notre Dame des Laves, that, during an eruption in 1977, while the rest of the town burnt, was spared when the lava seemed to part ways at its doors.
Leaving the church, I passed the ruins of old brick sugar plantations – once the main income on the island, now crumbling and unused – and smelt the unmistakable scent of chicken being cooked at several roadside stands. Then the buildings and greenery stopped and everything either side of the road turned a silvery grey; a hoary wasteland.
I had reached Le Grand Brûlé (The Great Burn). This was the area where lava from Piton de la Fournaise spilled down to the sea, and with such regularity that it’s now forbidden for people to build houses in the so-called ‘exclusion zone’.
I pulled over and set out on foot, studying the hardened lava up close, which still had distinct ripples embedded within, as though it had only recently cooled. My boots crunched noisily as I hiked towards a sign that advised me that nearby was the entrance to a lava tunnel. As I hunted for it, eager to peer inside, I noticed little green shoots starting to appear between the cracks in the lava. Despite the great burn, life was still finding a way.
A few steps further on, I reached an arch-shaped hole in the terrain, just big enough to peek inside. As I did, I felt the same sense of exhilaration whizz through my body as when the helicopter had been navigating through the narrow gorge, and indeed when my plane first landed here on this mysterious island.
It seemed a fitting way to end my visit, staring down into the darkness of the unknown. It may have taken a piece of debris washing up on its far-flung shores to get me and the rest of the world to notice it, but Réunion’s blend of European history, African culture and geothermic power deserves to be better known. I knew that it wouldn’t be long before more people discovered its volcanic seductions.
The author travelled with Rainbow Tours (www.rainbowtours.co.uk; 020 7666 1266), who can arrange a similar eight-night trip to Réunion with accommodation (including breakfasts), car hire, a 45-minute helicopter flight with Corail Hélicoptères and return flights in economy class with Air Austral. Contact the company for the latest prices.
Main image: Cirque de Mafate, Reunion Island (Dreamstime)