Zwei Personen beim Wandern auf La Réunion.


La Réunion: round the island on foot with a tent

  • #Travel
  • #Hiking
Portraitbild Michael Neumann, Autor
Editor, 4-Seasons
© Fotos

Welcome to the jungle – the volcanic island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean is a trekking paradise for fit globetrotters with a head for heights.

Your first big trip is a bit like your first love: you never forget it. I lost my heart pretty early on to a tropical island in the Indian Ocean that is reachable by a domestic flight from Paris. It’s called La Réunion, a French overseas département near Madagascar. I first went there as a 20-year-old in the mid-90s with a kayaking group. We had heard that the rainy season in January/February on this 50-by-70-kilometre oval turned the rivers, some only 20 kilometres long, into raging torrents. We didn’t have a lot of information, except for a video from an Italian paddling group who were probably the first whitewater paddlers on the island, which clarified things a little. In it, one participant aptly summarised the island’s charms: ‘Come la corsica ai tropici’ – like Corsica in the tropics. Back then, the Mediterranean island was the hotspot for European kayakers. But at Easter, when the streams had enough water during the snowmelt period, it was often still miserably cold. So, what could be better than perfect white water in 30 degrees and sunshine? Well, I can tell you that there was only sporadic sunshine on my first trip. Instead, it poured down in buckets – just as we wanted.

When it wasn’t raining, we used the dry days to hike in the heart of the island. And this proved just as exciting as the rivers. The three rugged valleys, grouped around the Piton des Neiges in the centre of the island, rising over 3,000 metres up, are a trekking paradise of the highest order. Hiking through the jungle with a backpack for several days would be worth the journey, even without a kayak.

  • Wasserfall auf La Réunion.
    Photo © Michael Neumann
  • Schlucht auf La Réunion.
    Photo © Michael Neumann
  • Zwei Personen wandern durch den Dschungel auf La Réunion.
    Photo © Michael Neumann
  • Zwei Personen in schroffem Gelände unterwegs auf La Réunion.
    Photo © Michael Neumann
  • Campen auf La Réunion.
    Photo © Michael Neumann
  • Zwei Personen wandern auf La Réunion, die Sonne geht auf.
    Photo © Michael Neumann
  • Eine Person kocht mit dem Gaskocher, im Hintergrund steht das Zelt.
    Photo © Michael Neumann
  • Stadt auf La Réunion.
    Photo © Michael Neumann

In the years that followed, it was difficult to forget my first love. Two more times I had a rendezvous in the rainy season, I had left my kayak behind just in case, but again there wasn’t enough time for hiking.

A postage stamp in the Indian Ocean

Twenty-five years later. The fourth chapter of pleasure. I land at the airport near the capital Saint-Denis in mid-November. Depending on where you sit, you get a full view of the volcanic island as you approach. The question inevitably crops up as to what you’re going to do on this wee patch for the next two weeks. But don’t be fooled by the area – the rugged surface makes it many times bigger.

The island originated around three million years ago when the Piton des Neiges volcano rose out of the ocean. While the ‘hot spot’ responsible for this remained in place, the island slowly moved over it, steadily growing in size. Today, the snow mountain is extinct, but the Piton de la Fournaise right in the south claims the honour of being one of the world’s most active volcanoes every few months.

And what Réunion will look like in ten million years’ time can be seen on the older neighbouring island of Mauritius. The volcano there is extinct; wind and water have eroded the mountains, once similar in height to those in La Réunion, down to 800 metres and ironed out the contours.

Having flown out in the gloomy grey of November with temperatures around freezing point, the contrast couldn’t be greater as my two fellow travellers and I exit the air-conditioned airport building. The intense humidity and snug 28 degrees make us really need to acclimatise before we lace up our hiking boots. We first dip our feet in the Indian Ocean and marvel at our first sunset. But then we take our small hire car up the winding mountain road to Piton Maido. From zero to 2,190 metres up – and from 28 degrees to 8 degrees – in around 45 minutes. Once here, we spread out our sleeping bags in a picnic hut, gaze up at the spectacular starry sky and shiver a bit before falling asleep.

Next morning, I guide Marianna and Jobst in the semi-darkness a few metres further to a cliff edge with a view of the Cirque de Mafate. We are speechless. The roadless basin, where a few small villages are perched on tiny sunny ledges, is criss-crossed by gorges that are hundreds of metres deep. It is the hiking paradise bar none on La Réunion and also top of our to-do list. One thing quickly becomes clear, though: in the Mafate it’s either down or up. Even if the destination seems close enough to touch, two small gorges in between can mean another 1,000 metres in altitude and a three-hour hike.

Rain is liquid sunshine

However, with the weather wetter than normal at this time of year, we have to bake some small rolls first. Up until lunchtime, it is mostly sunny and frequently cloudless, but spring clouds then suddenly appear, and soon it’s pouring down in buckets. Once the sun fades in the late afternoon, the fun is over. We are left with muddy hiking trails and a steaming jungle. These showers hint at the kind of superlatives La Réunion produces in the rainy season. There is no other place on earth where so much rain falls so quickly. On 16 March 1952, a total of 1,870 millimetres of rainfall was measured in 24 hours on the east coast. In 2007, 3,929 millimetres of rain were recorded in the space of three days. By way of comparison, Switzerland’s average annual precipitation is around 1,000 millimetres.

La Réunion – getting there

The journey to the island starts via Paris, where the ‘domestic flight’ departs from. The tedious change of airport in the city centre from Charles de Gaulle to Orly is nowadays generally no longer necessary due to flight schedule changes.

The best time to travel is from May to November – even if the latter did prove unusually wet on our trip.

Our first day tour takes us from the end of the road into the Takamaka canyon. Waterfalls from all sides here cascade down into a deep canyon, and it’s anyone’s guess where they end. The hiking trails here are seldom used, which explains why the thick vegetation quickly left us with plenty of minor cuts and scuffs. The flipside, though, is that we didn’t meet a single soul during the entire tour – and we had the warm pool at the end of our route, which has another waterfall thundering into it, all to ourselves.

We then took three more one-day hikes that you definitely shouldn’t miss out on: ‘Trou de Fer’, the Piton de la Fournaise volcano and lastly ‘La Chapelle’. The Bras de Cilaos stream carved this ‘chapel’ hundreds of metres deep into the basalt rock. And when the sun’s rays pour into the opening from above at around 11 am, the whole thing feels far more like a ‘cathedral’.

Freezing in the tropics

With the weather still refusing to cooperate, we have to cross Mafate, our planned grand finale, off the list. However, we don’t want to miss out on the Piton des Neiges, what is (literally) the high point of the island measuring 3,069 metres up. With our backpacks fully packed, we climb up from the Cirque de Cilaos to the Gîte du Piton des Neiges. The path leads practically straight upwards through a mystical rainforest. Once we reach the hut, the afternoon rainy spell strikes and it rains dogs, cats and ponies for two hours. But unlike the two dozen other hikers at the hut, we know from the last few days that after the rain comes sunshine. So, an hour and a half before sunset, we just trudge through the clouds towards the summit in the wet. It’s 1,700 metres up from the valley to the roof of the Indian Ocean.

Along the way, we are met by torrents of water, but when we reach the summit at around 5 pm, it actually starts to clear up – and does so in style. The clouds in the basins bubble as though a devil is cooking a soup in them. Time and again, wisps break off, rise up and disappear into the atmosphere as water vapour in a matter of seconds. Rain for tomorrow? Even the sun comes out for a moment and bathes the surreal scenery in a golden light. Now is the time for our full rucksacks. Instead of descending back to the hut as darkness falls, we set up the tents and are lying in the down less than an hour later. The sky is clear and the temperatures drop towards freezing. We consider putting on all three pairs of socks we still have in our rucksacks. Corsica ai tropici is definitely not up here, that much is certain... but we are still in love with this island.

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  • #Hiking

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