Réunion is a huge culture shock after travelling in mainland Africa. Arriving from eSwatini I’ve been catapulted right back into Europe. Four lane highways, modern suburbia and very, very French, from the moment that I step onto the Reunion based French airline, Air Austral, in Jo’burg (very good food for an airline.)
Despite its European aspect, Réunion 's dominant sugarcane industry results in poorly-distributed prosperity amongst its 840,000 inhabitants. As in many countries some have wealth, too many live below the poverty line.
Head inland to the volcano parks and waterfalls and down south for the incredible coastal scenery, again shaped by the volcanoes. There are beaches - but disappointing ones - and check there's a shark net.
A small dose of Europe was just what I needed after my month in the bush; it’s been a welcome and enjoyable few days. Downsides? It’s horribly expensive here. Set dinner with no choice - 29 euros. And it’s also one of those areas of France where inability to speak French is treated churlishly. The service at the hotel has varied, even when delivered by the same person. I find some of their accents hard to follow and my hesitation has often not been well tolerated.
What more apt place to reunite with (Doctor) Tino from last year’s Central Asian train journey? (To my slight bemusement) Tino announced a few weeks ago that he was coming to Réunion too. He’s in a bar, in the capital, St Denis, when I arrive and my driver, Sully, collects him on the way to my hotel. ‘Fancy meeting you here!’
I've flown in from eSwatini.
Tino has booked Airbnb an hour and half’s walk out of town. ‘It’s cheap’. Though not when taxis to the centre cost 50 euros. He takes a bus to my hotel today, but is still wending his way towards us at the arranged pick up time. It takes Sully and me another twenty minutes to find him using Google and GPS, but we eventually head off.
The scenery is more Moorea meets Taiwan than France (or Africa for that matter), quite different to its flatter (and considerably older) neighbour Mauritius and today’s drive takes us into the northerly volcanic caldera of Salazie on Piton des Neiges. This is a riot of lush emerald vegetation covered peaks and plunging waterfalls. Absolutely beautiful – once the rain has stopped and I can enjoy the views. Hell Bourg, up top, is a charming and colourful little creole town with clapboard, ethnic restaurants and chic shops.
Tino experiments with his drone, skimming the waterfalls. On the first trial there is a very near miss, as he skirts too close to the undergrowth. It’s not easy to guide the vehicle and observe its path simultaneously, especially as it’s windy. It catches a branch, bounces and recovers. Undeterred, the drone makes another outing at our last stop, Niagara Falls. This Niagara doesn't really reflect its namesake and is a mere trickle in the dry season. In addition, the light is fading.
‘Just one more run’ Tino decides. However, we’ve already noted that the drone, from a distance, looks remarkably similar to the black and white birds roosting on the rock face. They have clearly decided that the drone is an unwelcome intruder and appear to be launching some intercepting manoeuvres. It eventually makes an unplanned landing into the depths. The device has already been lost once before, in the sea off the Seychelles. It seems that that the Indian Ocean isn’t very safe territory for Tino’s drone.
Tino has arranged to taxi over today, bringing his gear, so he can stay at my hotel tonight. That sounds much more convenient. Except that his taxi doesn’t turn up and another has to be commandeered. Suffice it to say it’s another late start.
More fabulous scenery today, in the area of the second caldera, Piton de la Fournaise, in the south. This one is very much alive and is one of the most active in the world. The volcano has erupted on more than 100 occasions since 1640. We climb through the clouds and differing climatic layers, sugar cane plantations, English style pasture land complete with Guernsey cows, heathland with bright yellow budding broom, up to rocky scrub, pincushion flowers and enough blue sky to make a pair of sailor’s trousers.
It’s refreshingly gorgeous, peering through the clouds scudding across the winding and precipitous path. One car we pass has managed to end up in a gully, but fortunately, not on the slope side of the road. Winding onwards we reach the mouth of the volcano itself, a sheer sided olive green and cinnamon coloured bowl, topped by more crests. The soil above is striped and scattered with little hummocks and cairns. It’s exactly as you would imagine the surface of Mars.
There’s a bumpy track across the caldera and up to the sheer face of the main peak, but that is stubbornly obscured today. Most of the recent volcanic activity has been to the eastern edge of the peak and we lurch back, journeying almost to the southern tip of the island, to see the fields of lava abutting the sea and a pumice surrounded church, named Our Lady of the Lava. The Madonna inside, said to protect the locals, is equipped with a blue umbrella. We’re a bit perplexed as to how useful it’s going to be come the next eruption.
Tino’s navigational skills are catching. I dropped my iPhone down a toilet and it’s a little poorly. I’m leaving it in a bag of rice (best quality long grain) overnight. Fingers crossed.
Tino has talked me into a helicopter trip today. A (literally) 360 degree view of the waterfalls is promised, as the machine descends into the volcanic cone and spins round. It sounds more than a mite scary to me, though I’m keen to view the panorama of the caldera, and indeed, the whole island, which isn’t huge, from above. We have planned to fly from the west coast, so that we can then explore that side of the island. However, although it’s not raining there’s still a fair amount of cloud cover and Salazie is not open for aerial viewing today. I’m both disappointed and relieved.
There’s a dual carriageway across the north and down much of the west edge of Réunion. An incredibly engineered new highway is being constructed out to sea, in the most northerly portion, as the current, mountain hugging section is continually damaged by falls during the cyclone season. We speed down south to view the sections of lava flow that were omitted yesterday and traverse more or less to where we finished yesterday. Here there are lava tubes and arcing swathes of grey rock disappearing into the water. Tino is a little frustrated - he isn’t confident we have done a full circumnavigation and wants to drive even further east to complete the loop. Sully (to my relief) rules that we don’t have time.
Along this piece of jagged coast there are rocky headlands to discover, the swell of frothy sea spray and azure water contrasting superbly with the dark basalt. There are some appropriate local place names. The region is called Le Sud Sauvage and one of the headlands is known as the Cap Méchant (Naughty Cape), so presumably there have been a few wrecks here. There’s another picture postcard worthy waterfall at Grand Galet. I think it’s fair to say that Réunion’s attractions centre on the hinterland and volcanoes rather than the beaches. The seaside town of St Pierre is touted as an upmarket location, but the sands here aren’t enticing. They’re a little scruffy and the cluster of stalls serving Réunion delicacies, such as bouchons (similar to dim sum), is of greater interest. Well it is to me. Tino is protesting that he would prefer a McDonald’s.
The best beach in Réunion is the Ermitage, south of St Gilles. This is golden sand fringed by casuarina trees, very south of France, with chi-chi beach bars. Clearly, everyone else thinks so too and it’s crowded. There’s some reasonable snorkelling in the lagoon, with stone, weaver and puffer fish and a few patches of live fern coral. There’s also a very strong current and it’s almost easier to observe on foot, especially as I’m on my own.
There are huge nets at the entrance to the lagoon. Sharks are a major problem in Réunion currently, (probably another good reason why it’s not a popular beach destination). I’m on my own in the struggle. Tino has eschewed the water, postponing his swim until tomorrow, he says. We’ve been assured it’s safe. Maybe he’s paying me back as I’ve refused his very vociferous demand that I stay the night on the west coast, where he has booked in. He’s going to give the helicopter another go. And he's going to add a microlight trip and some paragliding, not to mention some trekking and climbing. I’ve already paid for my hotel in St Denis and I fly out to Mayotte tomorrow afternoon. I think a little peaceful relaxation is in order.
Read more about Réunion here.
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