Volcano treks & lava caves on the island of Réunion

Volcano on Réunion Island

Almost everyone I told I was going to Réunion replied simply: “Where’s that?” Had I asked a French person, the response would have been different because Réunion is a department of France and therefore part of the European Union. It just happens to be in the Indian Ocean, between Madagascar and Mauritius.

The island has been ruled by the French near continuously since the seventeenth century, though it was first settled by Arab traders. It is, pretty much, the Côte d’Azur transported to the tropics. So it is safe, as well-ordered as anything in France, and with similar prices. (Among the great things about Réunion is that, as part of France, it has an efficient public health service, free to European Union nationals, so for those of you lucky enough to still live in the EU it is a wise precaution to bring your European health identity card with you.)

There are English speakers, but a working knowledge of French is definitely useful. There is not much to buy in the way of souvenirs, apart from locally grown vanilla. Unlike in neighbouring Mauritius, I saw no pestering beach traders and no endangered shells or corals on sale. It has relatively good, fast roads and little obvious poverty.

A relatively recent land-mass, Réunion sits on a volcanic hotspot. It has one frequently active volcano and lots of volcanic mountains, which make for spectacular trekking. The tectonic plate on which Réunion rests has previously given rise to the Chagos Islands, Mauritius and Rodrigas. Isolated and relatively recent, it has a limited original fauna and flora. The only mammals before colonization were bats, which remain in profusion.

I stayed at the Hotel Boucan Canot at St Gilles, about 35 minutes by car from the airport. Quite what made it four-star I’m not sure as the swimming pool was small, the rooms spartan, and there was no gym. The restaurant lived up to the star rating, and the staff were friendly and obliging, and the beach (one of very few on the island) with its small promenade was quaint. With hindsight, I would have chosen the Hotel Lux, the only five-star place on the island, a few kilometres down the coast.

I arranged in advance guides for various treks I wanted to do. I had the option of three-day treks or longer, staying in mountain villages, but opted for a series of one-day trips, costing between 60 and 75 euros per head and based on the guide being able to find at least three people to share the cost. Given the amenities in the villages and the lack of porters, this was probably a good choice.

Mafeta Valley

My first trek was into the Mafeta, a steep valley named after escaped slaves who survived there in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This must have been a hard and brutal existence, subject to raids from French bounty hunters. During the second World War, atrocities were carried out by German troops. Nowadays, the entire area – in fact, almost all the interior of Réunion – is a National Park or a World Heritage Site, with the few people still permitted to live there severely restricted in what they can build or grow. In sharp contrast to the modern, manicured coast, these hill villages are still relatively primitive. I spotted one concession to modernity (a modern toilet block), which the locals have turned into a chicken coop.

Choosing day treks means a very early start. A 30-minute drive along a rough trail in an open 4×4 takes us a few kilometres up the valley. The path takes us wading back and forth across the river until we find a steeper route up the hillside, with its mix of native plants and imports, such as bamboo and iron wood. Giles, our guide, a Frenchman from Provence who arrived in the 80s and liked it so much he stayed, provides a detailed and authoritative commentary on the history and ecology of the area. (He can be contacted on [email protected])

Mafeta Valley

Our trek takes us to the village of Cayenne, where we are studiously avoided by the locals. The only building of note is the tin-shack church with a much-travelled bell. Gifted to another village even higher up the valley a long while ago, it was one of the few artefacts to survive when a landslip created a new lake, with the village underneath it. We are able to sample a variety of native fruits from the bushes and trees as we go, but are warned not to eat anything from the ground because of the danger of contracting Weil’s disease from rats.

We stop for an excellent lunch prepared by Giles at a picturesque bend on the river called Grand Place. Being careful to leave nothing behind that might feed the rats, we continue back down the valley until we reach a beautiful green rock pool. Here we swim upstream into a cave that opens out into another deeper pool underground with a waterfall rushing into it down a narrow channel. In spite of the noise of the cascade, this is a tranquil place and we leave it reluctantly to head back to the waiting 4×4. The trek itself was about eight hours, but allow at least another three hours to and from the hotel.

The top of the volcano

The road from St Gilles to Réunion’s volcano in the south-east of the island takes us rapidly through multiple landscapes and climates: tropical, alpine meadows, conifer forest (an import partly for soil stabilisation), then dense mountain scrub. As we ascend, we look down on thick beds of cloud with fingers of mist attempting to haul themselves up by grasping the sides of the valley. Here we are in the region of Tampon, which means the land between the coast and the mountains.

A sharp turn through worn basaltic cliffs brings us dramatically to a view from above the Plain des Sables, a vast, flat land of dark ash and sand. A few twists and turns later, we reach the floor, where an unmade and pitted road leads us to a small visitor centre overlooking the caldera of the Piton de Fournaise. Here we are at around 2,500 metres. The summit before us is slightly higher. Today there is no lava flowing, but small eruptions are frequent: there had been four in the previous year alone. As the entire area is National Park and this is not an explosive volcano, the impact of the tectonic activity on life in Réunion is small.

Volcano Crater

To get there, we first have to descend 200 metres into the caldera, using dilapidated stairs cut into the cliffs. Now we are walking on old lava fields, distorted and contorted in all directions, some smooth and almost gentle to the touch, some sharp and crunchy underfoot, like walking on granola. We pass by a small, anthill shaped cone and crater, no longer active, and assume that strange random gait essential for crossing such a complex and unpredictable terrain.

As we follow the marker stones up the ghost of a path to the summit, the advantages of being a small party with a professional guide become apparent. Our route to the top is ours alone. And so is our view into the crater itself. Steaming quietly, it seems harmless, but this volcano is constantly active, with frequent small lava flows further down the slope, and the occasional more violent event when the magma chamber we are overlooking expands and collapses in on itself.

Under the volcano

While, of course, it’s not possible to access the molten core of the volcano, the lava fields at the foot, near the coast, are stable and provide a gateway into the interior.

In heavy rain and overcast skies I make another early start. Although the island is relatively small and has a good road system with large sections of dual carriageway, it takes a couple of hours to get to our starting point on the south coast. We stop for a coffee and pastry at a roadside boulangerie, to stoke up on energy, before entering the truly desolate landscape of the lava fields that extend for kilometres along the coast. I am struck by how the different colours indicate different sequences of flows, with newer flows looking brownish and older flows (a few decades old) rendered white and grey by the ghostly grip of lichen. Fortunately, the skies are now clear; typical for the season.

We kit up with safety helmet, liners, knee pads, gloves and head-torch, then head out across the lava field of a flow from 2007. In parts it looks like stirred chocolate; elsewhere like tangled roots and branches of stone trees. Already, after just ten years, there are hardy trees taking root and everywhere we look we see white lichen beginning to colonise the rock.

The lava tubes we are heading for form because hot lava flows more slowly at the edges and so cools faster and solidifies. Gradually, the sides build and completely enclose the lava below, which is now insulated from the colder air. As the hot lava drains away, it leaves a cave behind it. This may eventually collapse, or be covered by further lava flows, burying it deeper.

Lava Tubes

The entrance to the caves is not obvious and gives no clue as to what might lie below. The initial chamber, in which we congregate, doesn’t hint at how low the ceiling will become further on. Inside the tubes there are many strange shapes formed as the flow of lava ebbs and rises. The effect everywhere is as if a mad chef had been splashing liquid chocolate. Drops from the ceiling indicate rapid cooling. In places, there are stalagmite-like drizzles rising to meet them — the product of the last drips from above as the tubes emptied. In other places, thin shiny surfaces cover the rough material of rapidly oxidised rock, courtesy of splashes as parts of the roof collapsed into the closing lava.

There are about 12km of lava tube here, making it arguably the third largest example in the world. (The largest lies in Hawaii, which has very similar basaltic rock.) Descending through a pit, we begin in a cavern with headroom, but much of the time we have to crawl and occasionally to slither inch by inch through narrow gaps 35cm or so in height. It is hot and humid, with constant drips of rainwater seeping through the porous roof. Expect to bang your head a few times!

There are numerous light effects here from the combination of reflection from our head torches, the strange shapes, and the varied composition of the rock. Flash photography also brings out weird incandescencies. At the exit, too, the light from outside creates opportunities for imaginative photographic effects.

Our guide, Ludo, leads us carefully through the maze, pointing out hidden curiosities, providing just the right amount of commentary, and advising on photography. The actual lava tube experience takes around three hours, but allow at least twice that overall to include transport to and from the site.

Around the island

Taxis are expensive but there are good bus services all around the coastal areas. A local tuk tuk service operates along the coast around the towns of St Paul and St Gilles. It is cheap (€12 return) and nowhere near as white knuckle as its counterparts in SE Asia. I took it into the Friday market alongside the beach at St Paul. While there are the usual touristy stalls, most of the market is aimed at locals. It is clean and inviting; if I were self-catering I would certainly buy supplies there.

The handful of restaurants in Boucan Canot are mainly creperies and fast food outlets. However, Le Bamboo, a Creole restaurant, offers a varied menu of local cuisine, with enormous platters of contrasting and complementary flavours. The nearby village of St Gilles, about a 40 minute walk away, has more to offer, both for its scenes and for its dining. I was impressed by lunch at Au ti’ Marche: two courses for €12, with a seafood salad as good as (and much larger than) any to be found on the Côte d’Azur.

Six days was adequate to see the island’s highlights and get a taste of its culture. I visited in early June, at the end of the winter season, when the weather is variable, but found the conditions when dry to be ideal for trekking.

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