The Highs and Lows of Réunion

“If we started running now, we might just make it” I said, staring at the summit of the volcano looming over us, then back across the desolate wasteland of tortured lava behind. The steps to safety were no more than a faint zigzag hacked into a distant black cliff face.

My friends laughed at me, and carried on walking up the side of the active volcano. I followed, facing imminent immolation with a grin. After all, this was why I was in Réunion in the first place.

Réunion would seem like an odd holiday choice for a bunch of young South Africans. It’s not cheap, it’s not well-known (so it’s difficult to brag about), and hardly anyone there speaks a word of English.

Supposedly we were there for the surfing. The backpackers we had booked ourselves into was just across the road from one of the most famous left breaks in the world. In truth, only Carl had brought his boards. The rest of us weren’t capable of catching more than Muizenberg mini-waves.

I don’t know what persuaded the other six to come. Perhaps it was the thought of lying on an African beach and pretending to be on the Côte d’Azure. Maybe it was everything we had read in our guide book about the Incredibly Strong Rum.

I know exactly why I was there, though. It’s because Réunion is weird.

Réunion is as close as Mauritius gets to a neighbour. Like Mauritius, it’s a smallish francophone island in the Indian Ocean. Unlike Mauritius, it’s almost completely undeveloped as a tourist destination and its president lives 10,000 miles away.

Réunion isn’t a country, you see. It’s a far-flung province of France. It might sound sad that the Réunionais never managed to obtain their independence, but I have a feeling they knew what they were up to.

For one thing, there are the roads. Réunion is effectively a heap of more or less steaming volcanoes piled on top of one another and tumbling into the sea. Although some lovely white beaches manage to cling to its edges, most of Réunion tends towards the vertical.

The ring road that surrounds the island is an astonishing feat of modern engineering: a four lane highway carved into cliffs and swooping over waves. According to our guide book, it’s France’s most expensive road. Considering that Réunion’s chief exports are sugar, a few cases of the Incredibly Strong Rum and some particularly undrinkable wine, singing La Marseillaise is a small price to pay for being able to get around without crampons.

Dealing with French bureaucracy, however, is not. We arrived in Réunion late at night along with a plane load of French tourists and Botswanan rugby players. The French tourists and I breezed through immigration control (I have an EU passport). My friends and the rugby players were never seen again.

Okay, that’s not quite true. But it did take over an hour and a half for the Réunion passport officials to deal with the 30 or so ‘foreigners’ who wanted to get onto their island. By the time my friends emerged into the blessed freedom of baggage claim it was almost midnight and the airport was deserted. Now it was only a matter of getting hold of our hire cars and driving halfway around a strange island on the wrong side of the road in the middle of the night.

The cars were Peugeots, of course. Since the French government gets to choose exactly what reaches the island from the outside world, French automobiles are de rigueur. Fitting two surfboards, four hundred suitcases and eight people into three tiny Peugeot 106s was a fun game, although we would have enjoyed it more if we weren’t so tired and hungry.

Luckily, it wasn’t hard to find The Dodo Spot. It was right on the main road, next to some impressive road works. The owner was a chilled-out surfer and took our late arrival philosophically. He also took pity on our state of near starvation and supplied us with a midnight feast of beers, bananas and baguettes.

I always love arriving somewhere in the dark because the first morning is a surprise. The sun seems to say ‘ta da!’ as it whips away the hood of darkness and shows you where you’ve ended up. Sure enough, there was the beautiful wave, right in front of our deck, glowing a delicate pink and sporting a lone surfer.

Marc and I had booked the honeymoon suite, so called because of its total lack of privacy. It came with a cute outside kitchenette that doubled as a bar and a comfy sitting area on the deck where everyone could eat, drink and play charades while keeping an eye on that wave. So our room became holiday HQ.

First on the agenda was coffee. Then breakfast. Then some kind of activity that involved wearing next to nothing and doing next to nothing. We mosied along the promenade next to the beach, found a café that served coffee and beer at nine in the morning, and soon forgot we’d had a plan at all.

Réunion’s combination of Gallic charm and Indian Ocean ease are seductive. We met more than one person who had arrived for a holiday and never left. We found our local supermarché and bought lots of the local beer known as ‘dodos’. We picked a regular local restaurant, where the owner took a liking to us and sent free rounds of flavoured rum to our table. We even found our favourite beach, where everyone was incredibly good looking, tanned, and in some cases, topless.

Under the circumstances, it would have been easy to stop exploring and become idle creatures of leisure. But it would have been a shocking waste. So, early one morning, on Garron’s thirty-somethingth birthday, we piled into the Peugeots and set off to conquer The Volcano.

Piton de la Fournaise can be directly translated as Peak of the Furnace. It’s an apt name. Le Volcan, as it is simply called by the locals, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Our guide book said that the last time it erupted, the people monitoring it had only had 45 minutes’ warning. Our guide book also said that it was overdue for another eruption. Cool!

It’s a long road to le Volcan from St Leu, particularly if you get stuck in morning rush hour. Since there’s really only one road, and everyone in Réunion owns a car (or better still, a truck) and they all drive round and round the island for fun, rush hour on Réunion is a serious affair.

Eventually we left the palm trees and sugar cane fields and honking vehicles behind and turned up into the mountains. It was bizarre. The higher we climbed, the less like a tropical island it became and the more it seemed we had been teleported to the French Alps.

The road took a steep and determined angle as we drove up and up and up, the cars crawling along valiantly as the air became thinner and colder. Chalets clung to slippery slopes, cows and goats grazed diagonal fields, mountain streams tumbled headlong downhill. Gravity was a force to be reckoned with in a place where the island’s ambition had overreached itself. (Occasionally, gravity wins. The three Cirques on the island are calderas formed when volcanoes collapsed into themselves.)

We stopped at a couple of lookout points that perched on the edge of vast precipices and gazed across jagged peaks or down into depthless gullies. Each time, we found it hard to believe how far down we had been, how far up we had come, and that there was still more ‘up’ to go.

The vegetation had changed from tropical coastline to alpine forests and meadows and then to a sparse scrub that looked like it was built to survive anything. But at last even that ran out. A vast expanse of brown and blasted rock lay lost beneath lowering clouds. We had come to the plains of Mordor.

Well, that’s what it looked like to the Tolkien fans among us. It was, in fact, an old lava flow, and we were now getting close to our destination. But all the stupendous scenery we’d already taken in couldn’t prepare us for our first sight of The Volcano. We parked in the empty visitors’ parking lot and sauntered over to the edge of a cliff.

Encircled by the high ramparts we were standing on was a writhing lake of solidified lava too enormous to comprehend. Just below us was something that looked like a little ant-lion’s den. Until we realized the white specks on it were people. And swelling like an unbelievable black boil in the middle of it all was The Volcano. It was squat and huge and really quite scary. We couldn’t wait to get closer.

There are several walking options when you visit the volcano. You can do a short walk to the ant-lion’s den and back. (It looks so much like one that it’s actually called formica leo). You can walk to the top of the volcano and turn back in terror. Or you can do the complete round trip that goes to the top of the volcano and all the way along the edge of its craters, taking in the full fearsomeness that you’ve come so far to see. No prizes for guessing which route we chose.

We stepped onto the lava lake at the bottom of the cliff and confronted the gut-clutching prospect of a mountain of rock that could blow up at any moment. Our natural reaction was to start prancing about pretending to be Charlie’s Angels and the crew of Star Trek. We kept careful scientific records of this psychological phenomenon in the form of photographs.

Our records also documented weird lava formations that reminded us of HR Geiger’s designs for the movie Alien. They prove that we stood on top of a volcano with the sea far below us on one side, and a terrible crater on the other. They show the thin but definite streams of smoke rising from the vents inside the crater.

Unfortunately our photographs could not record the thrilling smell of sulphur that wafted across to us. Nor could they describe what it was like to find a path into the crater and debate whether it would be a good idea to pretend that you didn’t understand what a sign saying ‘Access FORCEMENT interdit’ meant.

I suppose I felt a bit peeved that Garron’s birthday was Volcano Day. That left the Cirque de Cilaos for mine. All I knew about Cilaos was that it was where some truly bad wine we had bought from the supermarché had been made, and that it is famous for selling embroidery done by nuns.

Nevertheless, we set out again on our second (and final) mission of the holiday with some excitement. The volcano had given us a taste of Réunion’s unlikely interior, and we were eager to see more.

Once again, the drive was memorable. By this time, the boys were comfortable with driving on the wrong side of the road, so hairpin bends, blind corners and knife-edges were an irresistible invitation to race. The narrow road wound over rivers, under overhangs, into tunnels, along ridges, around pinnacles and up, up, up.

We had to stop several times. Firstly to regroup, because Carl kept winning the race. Secondly to avoid getting carsick. And then, of course, to stand and stare at all the impossibly higgledy-piggledy places we found ourselves in.

When we reached Cilaos, our grand plan of going on an epic hike in the mountains was abandoned. We were hungry. There were restaurants. We strolled through the town of Cilaos, fighting off words like ‘quaint’ and ‘picturesque’ and taking photographs of puppies and cats and postboxes. It’s that sort of place.

We stopped for lunch at a quai…, I mean authentic Réunion restaurant, and sat on a sunny verandah next to the main street. Not a single car drove past in the hour or more we were there. We drank our daily dodos and ate mammoth portions of carie. We watched the quiet life of the town tootle by. Then we decided to go on that hike after all. It was such a nice day, and the mountains were singing like sirens.

For the record:

• Piton de la Fournaise erupted two months after we climbed it. The eruption lasted from August 2006 until January 2007. Then it erupted again in February. And again in April.

• While we were in Réunion, there was a massive outbreak of the Chikungunya virus, a disease somewhat less funny than its name. The French government sent 500 troops to Réunion get rid of the mosquitoes spreading it. Not quite sure how military training prepares you for an insect enemy…

• Between 15 and 16 March 1952, Cilaos received 1,87 metres of rainfall. (That’s more than 6 feet.) This was the most rain in 24 hours ever recorded anywhere on earth. It was a lovely day when we were there.

• Réunion was the first place in the world to use the Euro. The first thing ever bought using the Euro was a bag of lychees at the market in Saint-Denis.

• The first official French residents on the island were a dozen mutineers who were deported there in 1642. The locals have improved a great deal since then.

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