Reunion - fantastic mountains, waterfalls
Trip Start May 16, 2006
13Trip End Jul 11, 2006
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Took some late photos of the lights of the town, then arrive at the modern terminal with airbridges, lights, paint...
Reunion, population 750,000 is run as an overseas department of France, making it one of the last colonial possessions in the world. France spends the money to bring all the infrastructure up to the standard of France, which is immediately obvious after our other destinations. The official language is French, the main religion is Catholicism, the currency is the Euro, and unemployment is 30%, though one would suspect this is much higher right at present because of the very serious outbreak of chikungunya, which is very similar to dengue fever, on the island. Since it started earlier this year, 266,000 have had it, and 238 have died. Later on, we see that the TV runs regular updates on it, and there were 600 new cases last week, and 200 the next week, so it is just about under control, but we'll be hyper-sensitive about mosquitoes while we're here!
Didn't take long to get our bags, out to get info, helpful girl on the desk could not find us two consecutive nights at a budget hotel, so settled for one at the Le Mascareignes, recommended in the book, then get E300 cash, and a flash mercedes taxi for an E20 comfortable ride to our hotel.
Manager is very friendly, speaks good English,
Up in the room we decide we won't take a chance on a cancellation, and get him to book a room at the Fleur de Mai, renamed Phoenix, for next Friday night when we return. A 140 bed hotel close recently, and this is why the tight accommodation. Tourism has dropped 80% since the chikungunya (from now on we call it chiki for short) outbreak.
Decide we have had tea on the plane, and are pretty buggered, so MP does a heap of washing, and we hit the sack after a good mosquito check. Nice quiet night, good to be back in civilization.
Fri 30th June Karthala Reunion (St Denis)
Fairly late start, usual breakfast, but good quality, talk to manager about Chiki, one in 3 have had it, not him, and the town is heavily sprayed. Some have mild symptoms, some die.
Stick our heads out into the street for a look, find it interesting, so go on another great internet hunt, walking the main shopping mall, Rue Marechal Leclerc in the process, finally using street names, numbers and addresses to track it down into a typically run-down, half unoccupied shopping centre. It is a big, games oriented centre, but run efficiently, and reasonably priced, so say we'll be back. Head back to the hotel to pack and vacate by 10.
The new hotel is halfway across town, but with streets without potholes, and real sidewalks, and being downhill most of the way, we find it no problem. On the way, we locate the address of another internet, but this one is just a blank roller shutter.
Glad we can go straight to the room at the new place even though we are early. DP decides it is time for a real rest and stays resting and reading while MP sets up our Reunion tour.
The Interlocation car rental agency man was Indian, very helpful, and with fair English. MP decides to go with 7 days, maybe 10, told we have a brand new car, 26km on it. Doesn't remember what living in a car does to a new one, so goes along with it. Fills in the form, but can't find enough Euro travelers cheques in his name, so puts
off the finalisation till later. This all happens a block from our hotel.
Next, find the address of the accommodation organisation, Maison de la Montagne de Reunion, down near the waterfront. Find it has moved, but stop to look at the waterfront park. The sea is rough and muddy, the shore is rock and concrete armouring, but at least the grass is mowed, there are no shitters' ditches, and no signs of garbage disposal into the sea. We have come a fair way in 2 hours on a plane.
Walk up to the Maison -have to wait quite a while, killing time leafing through the impressive glossy brochure. There are two major mountainous areas on Reunion. The older of the two covers most of the western half of the island. The highest mountain is Piton des Neiges (3069 metres). Surrounding it are three immense amphitheatres: the cirques of Salazie, Mafate and Cilaos. These long, wide, deep hollows are sheer-walled canyons filled with convoluted peaks and valleys, the eroded remnants of the ancient volcanic shield that surrounded Piton des Neiges. The smaller of the two mountainous regions is in the southeast. It comprises several extinct volcanoes, and one that is still alive, Piton de la Fournaise (2632 metres). We're about to head off to explore these regions, and because this is supposedly getting close to the height of the tourist season, decide we'd better book accommodation.
The woman he talks to has fair English, and we manage to settle on two nights in a gite at Hell-Bourg, near Salazie, to cover the weekend rush problem, and one at Le Volcan de la Fournaise, with finalisation to be left till the afternoon to enable DP to put in her 10 cents worth, plus pay with traveller' cheques. Had to verify twice by phone that we could pay by TC's.
By the time we get organised to go out together to sort out everything, it is quarter to two. Call into a good looking restaurant full of people, to find the doors locked. They take their 2pm closing pretty seriously around here.
Sort out the Maison with a new girl, with less English -settle for Wed, Thur in Cilaos, and meals only at the Volcan, pay E200 in TC's, E2 in cash, get our paperwork, and head off to Macca's, just up the road for an expensive Mac Deluxe meal each for E17 total, $A29, pretty savage, but a lot cheaper than a restaurant mid-day meal offer.
Settle on 9 days with the car, but leave payment till tomorrow.
Decided as we were out and about, we would confirm Air Austral, then Air Mauritius, then do Internet, then walk to the Botanic Gardens. Walked through some middle class streets, with nice housing, but a real graffiti problem.
Following sign for car traffic we took the long way to the garden, but got in about 5, put on our anti-mosquito, and looked at a nice display of plants and trees, plus a couple of local weddings.
As we were near the supermarket shown in the book, we walked the grand street, Rue De Paris, past an outdoor buffet being set up for an arts premiere, and some flash colonial buildings to get to it. Stocked up on essentials, such as mosquito spray, plus as many provision as we could carry in the small daypack. The supermarket was quite busy, 20 minute lineup, no real urgency shown by shoppers or staff with packing or paying. DP's banana buying nipped in the bud, as the checkouts didn't have scales and didn't want to hold up the show by going back.
While she was waiting outside, DP witnessed some sort of street crime going on, so we were careful walking back, but decided to walk past the cathedral on Ave de la Victoire, the bottom end of the main drag.
Back at the hotel, kept a low profile with our provisions on the way in, had dinner in the room, MP watching Germany v/s Argentina while doing diary, big spray with the new anti-mosquito before setting up the small mosquito net by torchlight after the main light was turned off.
Sat 1st July Reunion -St Denis to Hell-Bourg
Continuing our theme of holidays in Hell, down to the car rental by 9.30, make our final arrangement of 9 days at E26 per day, plus airport drop-off for E12, paid with E250 in TC's, change in cash. Car is indeed new, so, with the manager holding up traffic, make a nervous start. Couple of stalls in the first 100 metres because the gear is sprung to second, not first. Use wipers instead of blinkers, a usual with a LH drive hire car, but fluke the right side for filling at the Esso just down the road. Tank is only 2 notches full, take it up to full with 36.57 litre for E49, at E1.34 per litre. This is pretty savage, but it should see us a couple of times around the island, if we don't do too many detours.
Straight onto the main road out, no hassles, gradually getting the speed up to something that doesn't give other road users a hard time. Soon we are keeping up with the right lane traffic, and making good time.
Our first detour is to have a look at the waterfall out of St Suzanne. Passing through the town to the waterfall turnoff, we see a decent size supermarket and a bank, but no parking, so continue on to the waterfall. The road reduces to a narrow concrete strip through sugarcane, with the leaves brushing the side of the car.
The waterfall, Cascade Niagara, is a little less than that, but is a good 60m drop into a large pool, with semicircular cliffs around, and a good picnic area.
Back in St Suzanne, we negotiate the parking sign, find neutral ground and walk back to the bank first for E300, this time with our debit card, real civilisation. Avoided a group of youths, having just drawn money, and into the supermarket for further provisions, including bread, cheese, sardines, butter at last, fruit juice, big coca colas, water -everything for survival in the remote areas without booked meals.
Back on the expressway, we were now up to 90 kph out of 110 when we get off the expressway into St Andre to follow the signs to Cirque de Salazie. Almost immediately we start to see spectacular scenery as the road follows the Riviere du Mat through its gorge.
Our first stop is at a new bridge over the river, with the remains of an old bridge approach, a nice park, a kiosk not yet open, and a chapel with the door open. More civilisation. The traffic is faster than MP would like, but we find places to let it past,and proceed sedately to Salazie, where we walk the town, admiring the view, and the green profusion of Choko vines everywhere there is vacant ground. Check out the hot food van, find prices reasonable at E5 for a main course. Decide to take the turnoff to Grand Ile and head eventually for the viewpoint at Col de Boeuf, where you can see into Cirque de Mafate, which has no road access.
On the way, we take photos back at the sheer face of the east wall of the cirque, with waterfalls streaming down through bright green vegetation, suspected of being choko vines.
At Mare a Vieille Place, we stop at a view point, and find a row of picnic shelters, water tap, loo and garbage bin. Civilisation again. Stop for a good lunch of bread, tomato and dried ham, with vitamin fortified fruit juice. Life on the road can be good when you can carry decent provisions.
At Grand Ile, decide to give one of the Routes Forestiere a try, as we hope to use these to access all the interesting areas. The road to Mare a Martin is tar-surfaced, wide enough for two car to pass anywhere, and is well graded, although pretty winding, with lots of switchbacks. The road appears to go on forever, but downhill in the direction of Petit Ile, so after passing the Mare, which looks like a shallow pond, we turn around and head back to tackle the more challenging road to Col des Boeufs carpark. This is a rural road as far as Le Belier, with appropriately named stop for the "Car Jaune" minibus system, but beyond here becomes a private road controlled by the forestry department, with a list of conditions on a sign, and a 40 kmh speed limit. At the turnoff to this road, there are also signs to Hell-Bourg, and there looks like there may be a route forestiere here so we don't have to retrace our route.
The road to Col des Boeufs is beautifully maintained, with mowed verges and numerous picnic pavilions with car parks. At one, there is even a children's playground. This is the road we were worried about taking a hire car on!
We are not interested in doing the 20 minute walk past the security car park at Petit Col, so stop below it and wait for the cloud to clear. We are rewarded with spectacular views into the Eastern side of the Cirque de Mafate, surprised that the guide didn't mention this at all. We take photos when it clears,
wait in the car when it clouds over. We drive right up to the car park to make sure this is as far as the road goes, look at the "table d'orientation' to identify the features, drive down to the car park for the Pic de Marmite, where we figure we may get views back into the Cirque de Salazie. The path up is steep and rocky, with mud patches. It is right on a razor edge spur, and we can stand on the edge and look into a thousand metres of space. Unfortunately, the space is full of cloud, but the trees, flowers and vegetation are superb, so the climb is worth it.
Back at the bottom of the hill, we try the road to Hell-Bourg, but it peters out into a gravel track. We ask a walker, who tell us it is a walking track only, so retrace our path back to the main road. Not far from Grand Ile, we pass for the second time a silage shed, with an unbelievable "Eau de Camino" odour, which permeates the car, and takes a long time, with the windows dow, to dissipate it. Brings back bad memories of farmyard smells on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella in Spain.
Crossing the river before climbing back to Mare a Vieille Place, we stop for some local produce, but E5.50 for a small bucket of passionfruit is a bit rich. Vendor can't understand why we don't take a reduced offer of only E5.
Do some illegal parking behind another car to take more photos of the spectacular east wall, the people in this car are actually staying where we are. Getting back on the main road, almost come unstuck at a tight, blind, un-signed junction, but survive to carry on up the tightly winding road along the river at the base of the east wall to Hell-Bourg, taking a photo of the world's biggest choko jungle. It should be explained that choko, from South America, is the world's blandest vegetable, absolutely no taste, but prolific and highly aggressive. MP has choko nightmares from his childhood, both from eating them and controlling their vines. Here, being the choko capital of the island is considered a blessing.
Do a loop through Hell-Bourg, having seen a sign to our Gite on the way in. The town has a series of one-way streets,
there are a few commercial establishments in the main street, but nothing obvious. Take a loop around, find our gite, shown parking around the back, given the pick of the rooms, and choose the end one which has a side window. Unload the car, and head down into the town for a look. Can't see any inspiration for eating, apart from the expensive menu at the hotel. See that France is playing Brazil on the big screen at the bar at 10, then retire back to the room for a dinner of bread and scratchit. Out later to see what is going on in the social area of the gite, find the dinner crowd being entertained by the manager on guitar and his young son on the drums. The guests take lots of photo of the creole experience, one woman gets up and does a fair dance to the drums.
Talk to the couple we met on the road. French from Haute Savoie, but very Germanic. Get treated to glasses of the local traditional flavoured rum, DP on Guava, MP on vanilla. Pretty savage.
Woke by celebration after the soccer, then a good night's sleep on a good mattress with a cozy spread and doona, through till about 5, then till about 8. Could hear rain on the roof during the night, and still raining in the morning, so not in a hurry to get up.
Sun 2nd July Reunion - Hell-Bourg
Sort out our gear for a day walk, MP cuts sandwiches, including Vegemite with Butter, and on the way to Col des Boeufs by 8.45, repeating yeterday's route, and taking the same photos, as can't resist this landscape.
It is raining and cloudy all the way up to the carpark, so we are not all that hopeful. Decide to gear up in our thermals, with trousers over and 300's, raincoats on top, find it is only just enough gear for comfort. Pay our E2 parking in small coins, head up the carpark to check out the map,
and head up the road hopefully towards the Col de Boeufs, but rudely informed that the Col des Boeufs is closed because of risk of rockslides, and we have to detour via the Col de Fourche, 1942 metres, which, while lower, involves a long walk down before climbing back up. We can only just see our hand in front of our face, so have no idea of the extent of the landslide problem, so reluctantly head off down a gravel road to pick up the GR which comes from Le Belier, and up over the Col de Fourches.
There are signs, and lots of GR coloured marks on the rocks, but MP is not convinced, as we seem to be going either the wrong way, or in circles. Once we get off the gravel road, the path is good, well maintained, with mowed edges, and quite pretty from what we can see through the fog and rain.
Later it becomes viciously steep, with switchbacks, and in places, like a spiral staircase.
Through the fog, we can see a lot of air below us. We run into people coming the other way, and signs at the junction where the GR to Hell-Bourg splits off, and are confident we are going to the right place, if not the right way.
By the time we get to the top of the col, it has eased off raining, and we start to see some spectacular scenery.
There are groups of people resting at the top from what has been a horror climb up from the Plaine des Tamarinds. We think seriously about carrying on, but can now see the views on the far side,
and the weather is easing, so head down the steep, rocky, muddy path. Pass a lot of young people labouring on the way up, so are not looking forward to the return journey.
From here we can see the settlement at Marla, under the towering cliff of the Grand Benare, and the sheer wet rim of the cirque, plus towering peaks to the east, so we are encouraged to go on. Near the base of the descent, we come upon a tee junction, with the level, smooth path to the right leading to col des Boeufs, and wonder how dangerous it can be.
From here, the path levels out onto the Plaine,
but a lot of the path is wood corduroy, some old, some brand new, and it is uneven and hard walking. The landscape here has a lot in common with the Blue Mountains, only the vertical scale is several times greater.
There are excellent views north from the rim of a deep ravine here, and there is green grass, scattered Tamarind trees, and the odd wetland.
We then climb a ridge to overlook the village of La Nouvelle, and the west face of the cirque.
There is nothing we need in La Nouvelle, no better views than where we are, and people coming up are looking pretty distressed, so we settle down on the grass to do lunch, write a bit of diary, and take it easy, sitting in what down here is a lovely sunny day.
Surprised to see a blonde 8 year old girl climb up the hill past us on her own, but shortly followed by her father and, a long way back, her mother with a big pack.
Fairly warm on the way back, gradually divest our warm gear. Passing the turnoff to the Col de Boeufs, are tempted to take the nicely graded red gravel path and take a risk on the falling rocks, but prudence prevails. The climb up was surprisingly quick, if not all that easy, a lot better than we were fearing. We must be getting fitter. Still had a good rest at the top, admire the views of the Grand Benare, and check out the sharp peaks beside the col which we could only guess at in the morning.
Beyond the col, the clouds had lifted, and we could see clearly back to the car park, and around the wall of mountains we climbed along in the mist. The path down, while steep, was beautifully maintained, with mown edges, and good views out over the pine forest which justifies the term route forestiere for the road. The trees would have to be worth 10 thousand euros each to justify the cost of the road.
We toil up the road to where we can see the carpark and the road to Col de Boeufs, with the family group now behind us. We can now see, without the mist, that the whole road had fallen off the mountain about half a km from the detour, and it is now clear what the problem is, but a bit of explanation at the information board at the start would have helped a lot.
At the carpark, it has fogged in,
but we wait a while, and get excellent views back to the Col de Fourches, and the cirque wall which continues past it.
It is pretty foggy on the way down the mountain, can't see into the Cirque de Salazie until we are well down the mountain. Long drive back to Hell-Bourg for the second time, but the cirque wall with all the waterfalls and brilliant green choko patches still looks amazing.
Back at Hell Bourg, we try some different ways to get back to our gite, and look at the hotel which may have internet and food. Circle around the town half a dozen times before heading up the hill to look at the village of Vidot.
It rains most of the evening, so settle for bread and scratchit again. There is possibly one other room occupied, but the dining room and social area is closed up tight. Another cosy night in our good bed, after a chastening experience with the tepid water in the freezing bathroom.
Mon 3 rd July Reunion - Hell-Bourg - Gite de Volcan
Pack and out by 9, buy bread in town, then head down the now familiar road to Salazie, and on down the valley, planning to stop at the bridge and picnic area, but a group of workers there and the picnic pavilion is pretty run down, so continue down the road to the big waterfall, whose name, Pisse en l'Air,
we noted on the way up. Because of the waterfall dropping into a hanging basin well up the rock face, you only notice it on the way down the hill. The total drop must be a thousand metres.
Take the minor road, rather than the expressway to Bras Panon, then pick up the minor road up the Takamaka valley, which is supposed to be wild and untouched, but most of the way is through sugarcane fields. As we get into the ravine proper, there is good forest, and a big waterfall, but the rain has set in, and we can just see the other side of the valley, and we turn back.
In St Benoit, we encountered heavy traffic in the main street, so took a leg down to the waterfront, and ended up beside the river. The river was wide and flowing strongly through beds of boulders and out to sea, to meet a discoloured surf.
From here, picked up the main N3 road across the island, rising through sugar cane fields to meet the mountain in a series of switchbacks to a shelf, where we should have turned off to the Grand Etang, but missed it. There were a lot of parking and picnic areas beside the road, with fruit and other produce stalls, obviously a favourite day drive for the local from the coast, but pretty deserted today. Can see some grand vistas on the way up, but can't get any good photos, as either no stopping spot, or clouds.
La Plaine des Palmistes is a pretty ordinary spot, and the Creole architecture is nothing special. Talk to the Tourist Office, making reasonable ground in French, but they run on a German, so-called English speaker, who won't stop talking. We do, however, get a town map and directions to the Foret de Bebour along a route forestiere which took about 20 years to finish. The road takes us through some spectacular scenery,
but most of it is shrouded in mist. Also, they are not keen on giving you views from the road, you have to walk the tracks to get to the edge of the gorges. It is raining pretty consistently, but we gear up for the long, wet 400m walk to the Gite de Montagne de Belouve,
which has an old aerial ropeway down towards Hell-Bourg, which is only a 2-hour walk down the mountain. The rain is still set in, and you can't see into the Cirque de Salazie at all, so we resist the temptation to do the 3.5 km walk to the spectacular waterfall at Trou de Fer, as we don't want to look at a hole full of cloud.
On the way back to the N3, we encounter two cars parked in the middle of the road and a gang of teenagers having a war with small red guavas. We also see the driver of a bus out picking them, so stop and gather a bagfull.
Take a shortcut past La Plaine Des Palmistes, named after the palms which give "heart of palm" salad, but they have all been eaten, then up another spectacular set of switchbacks to the top of the island saddle. Here the landscape changes to green field, pine groves, fat dairy cattle, and general rural prosperity.
Pass the turnoff to the volcano to go into Bourg Murat for a look, buy some bread, then carry on through the town and out the other side on the slope down to the south coast, get lost in a very strange commercial development, look at the impressive, but closed volcano museum, then head out of town via the tourist info, which we decide we don't need. A couple of kms from town, MP decides he doesn't like the way the fuel gauge has suddenly dropped, so head back in for E20 worth of petrol.
Heading up the slope of La Fournaise volcano, pass through lush dairying country,
climbing towards good views from the heights until we run into fog thick enough to use the lights and slow right down.
Get onto the high plains, still in fog, stop at the Crete de Commerson, a hole 200 metres long and 100 deep, formed by a volcanic explosion. Difficult to get a photo as cloud swirls in and out of it. MP has been driving all day, and feels the need to have a kip in the car. DP also nods off for half an hour, then carry on on the bright red tar road toward the volcano, through clearing skies. Stop at the top of the switchback pass down the outer caldera at Plaine des Sables, from where we can see the straight, gravel road stretch below toward the volcano. Decide to be particularly careful with the car here, and carry on all the way to the carpark on the rim of the inner caldera. Walk to the guarded edge, then along to the raised viewpoint for photos of the volcano and caldera while we can, in case tomorrow is clouded over.
Drive down to the Gite, find the staff civil, but not very welcoming. There is a fair group of young people in the private, warm kitchen, possibly the builders of the new extension, but we end up 50 metres on, and another 50 metres down stairs to the unheated dorm area, where we get our own room with 4 bunks, and access to the loos and cold water washing facilities.
We make the beds straight away, then sit downstairs in the big kitchen and common room. There is a big fireplace, but no wood, and no indication that a fire is likely.
Sit on the balcony for a while before it gets too cold, then hole up under 3 blankets until 7pm, dinner time.
Dinner is set for 2 on one of two tables for 20. There is a big fire place, but no fire, and restaurant facilities for a large number of guests. We get one of the traditional rum based firewater drink, then a very good soup, and a stir fry chicken dish with a small mountain of rice, and a sea of brown beans. Dessert is a banana mousse. No table wine. Not a bad meal, better than we make ourselves with bread and scratchit, but at E30, and a gas stove available in the kitchen in the bunkhouse, we definitely made the wrong decision in booking dinner.
MP hit the sack with 3 blankets, thermal underwear and the 300 jacket on and zipped up, and just managed to stay warm enough to sleep. DP did better with 4 blankets and not too much clothing. MP has trange dreams, possibly because of the wild, remote location, plus a lot of trimmed hedges and topiary which remind him of the Steven King story, "The Shining". At one stage, thinks he has gone out to the common room to find it full of new guests, instead of just us and the local brother and sister who turned up late, and didn't have dinner. If it wasn't for chiki, we probably wouldn't have been able to even get a bed, as this place is so popular.
Sat 1 st July Reunion - Piton de la Fournaise - Baril
Up and packed before 7am. Could have been up at the pass to the volcano instead of waiting till 7am for the usual, boring, breakfast of hot drink, juice, bread and jam - for E10 this time. It didn't look likely we would get any useful help from the staff, so decided to take the car up to the top carpark and walk down to the Pas de Bellecombe, rather than walk up from the gite.
Start walking to the pass about 8, with good views to all the mountains, including the Piton des Neiges in clear view behind us. We can see the summit of the volcano completely cloud free,
and looming a long way above the caldera rim, let alone above the base.
There is a half km downhill walk, with some stairs to the gate at the top of the pass, then a savage switchback set of 527 stone and concrete steps, with wood and wire guard rails, down the face of the cliff, with an angle of about 70 degrees. We can see a cute little sandy crater below (Formica Leo - 2218 metres), near the wall, which turns out to be 20 metres high, and about 200 metres out.
The walking across the gentle upslope at the base of the volcano proper is gently folded porous lava,
with tiny pine-like trees growing in the cracks. Some of the lava here was formed into rope-like strands. Take a photo looking back to where we've walked.
At the start of the climb, there were features such as sink holes and a hollow cone, called the Chapelle de Rosemont, maybe 15 metres high, and 20 metres diameter, with contorted shapes and bright colours.
At the division of the paths up the cone, we took the shorter, steeper 1 hour path to the right, and toiled up the slope of solidified liquid lava, with occasional patches of granulated loose cinders. The climbing was relatively easy, with the path marked by white paint patches every 5 metres, in a fairly direct line, not necessarily the best walking path.
Still pretty cool in the light breeze, but eventually get out of the warm gear by the time we get to the top. Fabulous views back over the caldera rim and all the way to Piton des Nieges and the Grand Benare, plus down the cone. First views of the first, smaller Bory crater from the west side weren't all that impressive, compared with Kathala on Grand Comore, but further around, in Dolomieu, the main crater,
we could see into the active inner cones, from quite close, much closer than the authorities in their wisdom, had placed the white markers. The local girl who was staying at the gite was having trouble keeping her teenage brother off the cracked edges of the rim here.
There were signs forbidding entry into the crater, and a lot of telemetry equipment around the rim and across the base. (On the TV that night there was mention that there had been seismic activity that day, and we later read that there was a 2.4 magnitude earthquake here the next day). On the east side, the markers took us well away from the crater, nearly to a large secondary cone, then back up near the rim, where there was a sign. Naturally, if you see a sign, you have to read it. The sign forbade entry, right where there was a very well worn track down a cinder slope into the crater.
The nature of the lava was quite different here, possibly newer, multi-coloured, almost like pottery, with yellow crystals of sulphur, and metallic looking cinders. The rim of the crater here was bright red, almost like molten lava.
Further around, we were able to climb to the rim, to another keep-off sign, with a large unstable area near it fenced off with steel poles and wire. This looked serious. Not long after, the path down split from the path right around the rim, and took us down over a massive fracture line, and a zone of fresh, still warm lava from six months ago,
with a sign to stick to the path and keep moving. From here we could see the outer rim and the car park, but there was still a lot of lava-leaping before we reached the Capella at the bottom of the cone, where the paths linked up again.
Here we talked to a French couple who spoke good English, and were walking just in front of them when DP took a nasty head-over-heels tumble, possibly because of an ankle collapse on an uneven ledge. They were very concerned, but DP checked herself out, and didn't appear to have anything broken.
This could have been real trouble, as we still had to cross the lava base, and climb the 527 steps to the top of the pass, plus the climb to the car. However, we were lucky, as apart from the loss of a big patch of bark, a sore knee, a hole in the thermal pants, and a suspect ankle, she came out of it pretty well, and managed the walk and climb with all her gear and daypack.
Having reached the kiosk at the top, after walking about 13 kms, we got out of our thermal gear, checked out the magnificent lava photos in the display, and took photos of them, then jumped into the car and headed out, lunching on the go with vegemite and butter sandwiches.
The visibility on the way back was much better, and we stopped for some amazing views, particularly looking at the gorge of the Riviere des Remparts.
From here we hurried back over the N3 to the sugar cane lowlands where we took a minor road along the upper slopes, through minor village and rural areas to Sainte Rose, where we took a side road down to the boat harbour. This was the first bit of pretty coastline we had seen, with basalt column headlands , a man-made boat harbour, and the unusual situation of having a hydro electric plant discharging straight into the sea.
From here we passed the church at Piton St Rose, where the lava passed either side of the church, but it is no longer obvious that it did, or that it was a big deal when it did.
Next stop was Anse des Cascades where the waterfalls are supposed to drop right into the sea. Maybe they do in the wet season, but not now, although there was one just near the shore. This is a fishing port, with a boat ramp exposed to the open ocean, and some pretty big waves coming in. They have a fixed electric winch to bring the long, narrow fibreglass boats in, pretty quickly, one would imagine. We just missed a landing, but a van at the ramp had a basket of fresh looking bright red fish in it.
From here we crossed the Grand Brule, not nearly as much a burnt-out cinder landscape as we would have expected, but with large swathes of black lava through bright green cane or forest, sometimes right to the road, and the sea. The volcano itself was obscured by cloud down to below the tree line.
The road carried on through pleasant volcanic island scenery, lots of flowers and greenery, small villages, sugar cane on the slopes, some very pretty rugged black lava seacoast, with large, clean green waves and brilliant white foam.
By now we were looking for a bed, with not much on offer until beyond St Phillip, except the Baril Hotel, which didn't read all that well, but seemed large enough to be open, and not full. We had to overshoot it and return, due to traffic, but found it closed for exceptional circumstances, just for 5 days, but these 5 days. We had been told that this is the Chiki capital, maybe it is a 5 day disease. Either way, we were in strife. A long shot from the book brought up the PinPin d'Amour, just as MP saw the sign on the roadside so give it a go It is a long way up a narrow concrete road through the sugar cane, and we see some unlikely establishments on the way, but are very pleased with the building and gardens when we get there. When we enquire for a room, then a meal, and get an OK on both we are pleased and when we see the common room, and the bedroom, are doubly pleased. Check dinner is at 7.30, shower and hit the bed till 7.15.
Dinner is a tour de force of the "pinpin". This is the fruit of a local version of the pandanus, which has been championed for many years as an important food staple by Mr D'amour, whose name has been incorporated into the gite name, PinPin d'Amour.
The meal starts with a selection of the traditional home-made rum aperitifs, and we try a coco, which is very smooth and "Malibu", the Jack, which is savage, and the passion, which is smooth, and nicely passionfruit flavored. Hors'douvres is bread with a pin pin savoury topping, the entree is a gratin aux pinpin, tasty enough to be the main course, but the cheese and bechamel source make it difficult to taste the pinpin, which has the texture of potato, in this application.
The main is a chicken dish, with brown beans and pinpin and/or heart-of palm vegetable on the side, and for the adventurous, a pimento garnish. The dessert was a tasty passionfruit flan, and the wine a good French house red. Altogether, as good as the Maison d'Hote experience gets, and certainly far better than any other we had. We suspect pin pin would taste nowhere near as good if it wasn't in the hands of such a good cook.
We talked about the tourist experience, a total disaster, according to Mr, who had 18 locals to lunch, and just us staying, and by sheer chance at that, when normally he would be full. He maintained that we were high enough up the mountain to be chiki free, as no moustiques, but we sprayed the room anyway. Said 40 people had died in the town, presumably in St Philippe, which is only a small community, and that it is worse down on the coast, with the higher populations. We'd thought it would have been better away from the sugarcane etc where it could breed, so we're doubly lucky the other hotel was closed.
In the common room, they had an interesting cast aluminium wall hanging. MP asked if it was from Madagascar, as they do that sort of thing there, but he said, no, it is from the engine of a Rover which burnt, with another car, and he has the ignition key hanging on the same nail.
The Maison d'Hote experience continued with an excellent night sleep on a good bed, probably helped by a 13 km climb in the morning.
Wednesday 5 th July Reunion - Le Baril to Cilaos
Good, not great breakfast, and on the road and down to the local internet by 9 am opening time. Pleased to find the centre is free, reasonably fast, with plenty of computers, so we could sort out business, clean up both internet accounts, read the SMH, and transfer photo files between SD cards to clear some room for the big camera. In the classic fashion, only one computer was fully functional, so there was a certain amount of competition for it.
On the road about 10 to look at the deep ravine made by the Riviere des Rempart, at the western limit of the volcano massif, after having taken some good photos along the coast
and called in at the Tourist Info at St Joseph, a medium sized, attractive town. Toil up the flank of the mountain towards Grand Coude, through sugar cane fields, getting good views over a wide blue sea, and can see the horizon, a long way out.
The road is not as spectacular as we were hoping (and fearing), but lead to some good dairy farming country on a high shelf, with ravines and towering cliffs on either side. Unfortunately, the clouds closed in on the East ravine so a drive right up into the narrow concrete roads didn't yield much in the way of views, but driving west across the saddle brought us to the hiking track up to top of the valley. We were able to walk along the rim of the ravine, chancing the occasional penetration through the bushes on the edge to stand on shaky vegetation and take photos. We finished off our Plaine de Palmiste guavas on this walk, then headed back down to find, with difficulty, view points at the narrowest part of the shelf to look at the ravines on either side.
Back at St Joseph, we happened upon a massive Champion supermarket, god's gift to the would-be gourmand, and bought supplies for the rest of the week, including smoked salmon as a bit of a luxury.
Stopped off to look at the probably man-made bathing enclosure of lava boulders for protected swimming, and the big surf outside at Manapany-les-Bains, then stopped at a belvedere above to look at the view and have smoked salmon lunch. Shortly after, stopped at the very popular Grand Anse, where for the first time we see mass tourism, and a genuine beach resort, but not many people in past their knees, as the surf was pretty big by any standard. Beyond the east end of the beach, there was a good headland and a small offshore rocky island.
From here, we head toward St Pierre, and the turnoff to the Cirque de Cilaos, as it is getting late in the afternoon. St Pierre looks like a big city, and we take the motorway to avoid it, but still end up in a traffic jam, and hairy double lane roundabouts with a minimum of information. Get up to about 90 on the motorway, as we need to get off somewhere. There are exits, with no information, and we can see the ravine which has to be the way to Cilaos on the right. The mountains and green slopes look fabulous in the afternoon light, and DP takes some shots on the run.
Not wanting to go too far on the motorway, MP takes an unsigned exit onto what used to be the main road, and is now a minor road. Unfortunately, this is just before the major Riviere St Etienne, and the only bridge across is on the motorway, so we have to do a long loop, and rejoin the motorway. Fortunately, just the other side of the bridge, there is a clearly marked exit to Cilaos, and we get on our way up the valley. It is 4 pm, and peak hour, so we don't get much chance to take it easy, and are in the base of the ravine quite quickly. The road is actually cut into the vertical cliff just above the river bed, before climbing in spectacular fashion up the side of the gorge, around switchbacks, up one loop switchback, through two tunnels to the pass into Cilaos. The switchbacks are not too much trouble, as the road is generally wider here, but there are narrow sections one car wide, with blind bends which are scary. We use the horn, which isn't easy on the Renault, as you have to push hard at the bottom of the wheel hub, and when you are on full lock, the bottom of the hub could be anywhere. Hear another horn in one of these tight spots, and have to back back, with a motorbike right behind us.
The tunnels are also one car wide -the longer of the two has a passing point in the centre. By the time we emerge from the last tunnel, it is already too late for photos, so make our way to Cilaos, which is quite a big town (population 6,000) in an amphitheatre in the mountains.
We have only vague directions to our gite - a street address, and the fact that it is close to the church. The church is an imposing white structure, with a tall spire, with an illuminated blue cross on it, and is hard to miss, but our gite not so.
After scouring the area behind the church, and ending up halfway up the mountain, we descend into the town and start to ask. A woman just getting into a car explains, in French, then says, this is too hard, follow me, and leads us up some steep, narrow streets to our gite.
The driveway is savagely steep, and we manage to scrape the front of the car, and stall out. With a running start, we get all the way up the drive to the gite, which looks pretty deserted, but, when we stop, we are greeted by our host, who shows us round. The room is rustic, but nice enough, with a good doona, plus a spare, and a tiled bathroom. There is a big dining room and basic kitchen with a fridge and microwave, and there is a well equipped separate kitchen, which we may be able to use, not entirely sure, as it has a full supply of food and cooking supplies.
After a rueful look at our car with the plastic trim hanging off, we retire early before having a basic bread and scratchit dinner, then walk down into the town, as MP is wary of trying the driveway again.
It is not as far down as we fear, and we brave the packs of teenage hoons in fast noisy cars with duff-duff stereos, hoons on painfully noisy trail bikes, and the poorer type sitting around killing time, drinking.
Considering it is about to be peak tourist season, the town looks like it has, indeed, been hit by the plague. Only a couple of restaurants are open, with no customers. Having walked the length of the main street, see just near home, an oasis of light and warmth, with patrons, and a big TV. France has just beaten someone, Portugal, we think, and are now in line for either the semis or finals, so the mood is buoyant, but the party is breaking up. Confirm the results with some French tourists, then walk back home past the savage dog and up the hill, for a session on the diary, and reading till midnight, followed by a good sleep in a comfortable bed.
Thursday 6 th July Reunion - Cilaos
MP up while the sun is just touching the top of the mountains. Has a quick look at the car, sees the damage is field repairable, buys a big coffee from our host, and settles down to a vegemite, vache qui rit, and smoked salmon breakfast, with yesterday's bread. Takes photos as the valley lights up.
Over the church, can see the Grande Benare, and further around, can see the conspicuous three towers of rock on the skyline we could see during our La Nouvelle walk.
Small world, indeed - a mere 6 hours walk up this side of the cliff, and down the other side, and a lot shorter to Marla, in the same cirque. It's taken much longer to drive around though.
Get our act together, DP does washing, MP uses our boy's own tool kit to straighten out the staples used to fix the plastic skirt on the bumper bar - open out the staple holes, push the clip back in and bend the staples back over. Had to smooth off the ragged edge on the bottom of the skirt, but otherwise good as new. Still scraped even going dead slow on the way out, but the repair held.
Decide to take the easy way out of our street, and surprised to find just over the hill a large ornamental lake, with a decorative fence all around, and a rustic timber restaurant built out over it. In town, the deserted look had gone, and it looked like a real town.
Got good bread at a nice patisserie - have worked out that the thicker "pain", is better bread than the thinner baguette, and better priced. Walk the main street, surprised to see all the tee shirts, souvenirs, local crafts out on display, as though the tourist season was really happening.
At the tourist information office, get local information on day trips and walks, get the caltex service station marked on the map, and walk back via the supermarket for drinks, butter, packaged readymade soup, then to the covered market for tomatoes and mandarins, plus a look at the local produce, including lentils, a speciality of the area, for E10 a kilo, in presentation packages.
At the Caltex, E15 doesn't seem to put much tiger in the tank, maybe there is a high attrition rate on tankers coming up the 500 bends from the coast (or just our imagination, as we later find out that petrol price is set by the government at 1.34 euros per litre all over the country). Decide to head out towards Ilet a Cordes, which we can see perched on the side of the cirque, across the ravine from the town, reached by a narrow road around the cirque cliffs.
The road starts as a series of tight, downward switchbacks, spectacular, but hard to photograph, then across a sloping face which is gentle enough to hold soil for a lentil farm.
Swinging around and up toward the head of the valley, we cross the face of the Piton de Neiges, 3069 metres, hiding up in the clouds. Excellent photo from a small bridge over the upper gorge of the Riviere St Etienne, with waterfalls and cascades descending a thousand metres. From here we climb the face of the Grand Benare, 2896 metres, and can see the top of it. We pass the spur which carries the hiking trail up and over the Col du Taibit, and reach an interesting rock formation split a couple of hundred metres deep by a narrow stream and series of waterfalls. Stop at a picnic area, from which they are canyoning this split rock. We have to elbow our way to the viewpoint past two road workers in their fluorescent jackets. Their shovels and brooms lie neglected, and they are watching something in the ravine through binoculars. An hour later, when we return, they are still at it.
From here the road runs fairly level across the face, with a sheer drop to the ravine base of maybe 500 to 1000 metres. There are 3 full size buses using this road regularly so it is a bit exciting around the narrower bends. MP uses the horn regularly, but with the air bag in the steering wheel, the horn area is offset from the centre, and can be anywhere. May have winged about Renault before in this epistle.
On the way across the face, we check out the green fields we can see from the town, turn out to be the famous lentil fields, set on 45 degree sloping irrigated fields. Maybe they are worth E10 a kilo!
Try a couple of alternative roads after passing Ilet a Cordes, but none leads to the spectacular viewpoint down the valley we were hoping for. We can, however, see the coast under clouds, and check out the neat lentil fields, and ramshackle grape trellises. The Chambres de Hote out here look particularly prosperous, but we haven't seen any tourists, apart from at the canyoning.
A lot of the locals we see look very similar. There are not many different names in the list of Gite owners, and this area has been traditionally very isolated.
Back at the canyoning area, a local hoon passes us, and almost runs over a group of canyoners who are walking back along the road after climbing back up from the base of the cliff. And they thought hanging on 100 metres of rope was dangerous. They speak pretty good English, and recommend that we do it. However, we stop for a while to watch, and can see one canyoner who is not looking all that confident, hanging around just over the lip of a waterfall for a long time. We can only just make him out through the 48X telephoto, and can hear some shouting, and see him getting rid of some of the gear he is carrying. Decided we would give it a miss. Later, from the other side of the valley, we could see the canyoners like ants climbing the ridge.
We stopped at a nice picnic area near the base of the climb to Col du Tabit, where we had apretty good sardine and tomato lunch, washed down with fruit juice, then climbed back up for a quick look at the trail. While taking photos of the notice board and signs, DP looked in a plastic bag sitting on the ground near the sign, and is surprised to find a speckled black and white chook looking out at her.
Climbed a couple of hundred metres up the trail to get the feel of it, figured we were fit enough to do the 2 hour 50 minute climb over the top and down to Marla, but didn't fancy the return. We now appreciate that we could do the 4 and 5 day walk here with no problems, as the gite bookings allow you to travel light, and the day treks have a lot of up and down, but are pretty short. Alternatively, it would work well with a non-walking driver and a few cell phones. When we get down, the chook and bag have disappeared.
Back in town, we carry on up the hill towards Bras Sec, and are surprised to see a route forestiere which goes all the way to the Roche Merveilleuse, after which our gite is named, and to which we nearly did a 2 hour round trip walk. There are probably good views from the lookout, but at this time of day the cirque is full of cloud.
Return to the gite for an afternoon nap, followed by apple and cheese, and a dinner of soup heated in our plastic battery charger kit container using the gite microwave, then to bed surprisingly late again. Apart from one particular offender on a scooter, the hoons seem to be taking it easy tonight.
Friday 7 th July Reunion - Cilaos - l'Hermitage-les-Bains
Up pretty early but not as early as we think as the church clock bell only goes to 5. The morning sky is clear, so pack and head back up the hill to La Roche Merveilleuse, from which the view is pretty good, with the peak of Grand Benare in full sun, and the shelf across the valley at Ilet de Cordes just lighting up.
Back through town to check the price at the Caltex for our records, but find it is the same as elsewhere on the island. Get lost in the back streets of the surprisingly large town, then head down the hill, stopping where possible for photos,
occasionally walking to vantage spots, and listening carefully for the tinny horns of the small cars, and the loud blasts from the big trucks. One particular walk back was for the loop and bridge they required to make one of the switchbacks work. Go past a likely picnic spot, so do a U-turn where safe, and head back up for breakfast of vegemite on French bread, with thick butter. This is the life!
The road is in several sections, split by tunnels through the thin dividing ridges. The lower sections are the scariest, because they have narrow places where you have to blow the horn. At one particularly narrow sharp bend, we hear an answering beep, and end up nose-to-nose with a van. The reverse is hard to find at the best of times, so MP manages to stall the car, has to restart and back back. No harm done, and a friendly wave from the other driver. There are full-size buses and timber trucks coming both ways, so it is pretty exciting.
Stop in La Riviere at the end of the gorge proper for photos of the lower gorge, and the big volcano stretched across the skyline. Everything is so close, yet such a long, hard way by road.
Decided we had had enough mountains for a while, and headed down to the coast for a change. The first coastline we reached was at le Gouffre, presumably describing a deep slot in the rocky shore, full of white water from the large waves coming in from the south. Next, stopped at Etang-Sale-les-Bains, a beach with casuarinas along the shore, and an offshore reef breaking the power of the waves, providing reasonable swimming conditions. We are starting to see lots of holiday makers, probably local, and it is starting to look like a resort coast. Take a leg back to Etang Sale, which is just that, a lagoon cut off from the sea by a reef touching the shore at the east end, then heading along the beach for 500 metres, and out about 200. The water looks clean and clear, but the rocks, while covered with some marine growth, are definitely not coral. There are big waves breaking on the reef, and some intrepid boatmen out in the surf zone, but it looks a strange place for fishing.
Back on the main road, we are being hassled along by fast traffic, not sure what the speed limit is, but finding it difficult to keep up and still find spot to stop. Haul off the expressway with difficulty just before the Point au Sel, where there is a blowhole. Having crossed the road alive, walk along to get some good photos of the blowhole in action, and the coastline. Now realise the terrace of ponds on the point were solar ponds for salt. 500 metres along the road, we find a turnoff to the point, which we could have used for a safer look.
The landscape is looking drier, a rain shadow area, with cactus and succulents growing alongside the road. There is still sugar cane on the slopes above, but everything else looks pretty dry. Drive through the centre of St Leu, if only to get off the expressway, and run into afternoon traffic jams. Town looks a bit more like a resort than previous towns, but not all that interesting. Take every side road to check out the coastline -starting to see genuine coral reef lagoons, with clear water, and coral-like patterns in the water colours.
Decide, as we are close to where we will stay tomorrow night, we will try to have it for two nights, and call in about 12, after checking the beach and the town of lHermitage-les-Bains. Couldn't get the room till 4, as it needed cleaning. Pressed the girl doing cleaning in the front house to do it by 2, and she reluctantly agreed.
To kill time, went to the supermarket for lunch supplies, bought a local paper, and repaired to the local beach to sit in the shade, and have lunch.
Back to the Guest House, La Villa de Tisserins at 2pm. Find our room still not ready, now back to 4 pm. DP shat, but we have to cop it. Realise that we're the first customer of the season, and the cabin needs a MAJOR clean. Decide to drive into St-Gilles-les-Bains for a look at the real tourist trap, before the compulsory snorkel.
St G. looks like a typical Mediterranean resort, modern marina in the probably dredged ravine, breakwater and fishing boat harbour. The beach has better looking sand, but not enough reef to stop the waves coming right in, and setting up a vicious westerly current along the beach. Some hardy souls are out surfing the big waves, and we can see some Hobie-Cats, or similar, becalmed out from the harbour. Behind the town, we can see rows of stark modern condo's up on the hill, well beyond walking distance to the beach. Typical package holiday country.
Back at l'Hermitage, we drive to the east end of the beach, which looks pretty good, but has a big sign, prohibiting swimming because of the channel out through the reef, and currents.
Further west, we select a spot, in the sun now, as the breeze off the water is quite cool. MP has drawn the short straw, and has to wind himself up to get into the water. After the first shock, wasn't too bad, especially a there was something worth seeing.
The water was too shallow to do over-arm, except in the clear channels, and there was a strong current coming in from the reef and sweeping west, so it was pretty hard paddling to get out toward the reef. Plenty of live coral, mainly branching, with good mauve and pink coloured tips, plus some plate and boulder coral. Lots of small fish. Black and white vertical striped fish in the branch coral, lots of brightly coloured trigger fish, various coloured urchins, and a lot of the striped, snake-like worms, but nothing big, or special.
DP was disappointed to learn it was worth looking at, as she had to then do her stint, shorter than MP's for once. Dried off in the sun, MP having his afternoon kip. Back to the guest house at 5 to find our room ready.
It has a small kitchen, fridge, microwave, hot plate. Start to think we should have bought up bigger at the supermarket. There are over-attentive dogs in the yard, a Rottweiler and a boxer. MP was well-licked by both. The boxer is an "ankle biter". Hope they do not have "la Rage".
Have a lot of coffee using the microwave, run down our food stocks for tea, and watch Tour de France coverage in French for want of something better. The room is quite warm, and think it will stay that way, so are unconcerned by the lack of a blanket. In the middle of the night it gets quite cold, not enough to crack out the sleeping bag, but get the warm coats as covers, and MP gets into his thermals. Make a note to ask for a blanket tomorrow if we can find the words and the "host".
Saturday 8 th July Reunion - l'Hermitage-le-Bains
Lazy day, up late. Breakfast doesn't appear, and we work out that we don't get it in the "studio". Can't find anyone to pay, or ask for la couverture, so head down to the shops for some good snail pastries, yoghurt and bread. Decide to go looking for the Internet at Sale-les-Bains, so back down the main road. Miss the turn, but find the internet on the way back on a minor road. E3.60 a half hour. Catch up with mail and the SMH, and try the local beach for a couple of hours, MP drawing the short straw to snorkel. Similar to yesterday - good coral and visibility, a lot of small fish, especially trigger fish, down to tiny size, but area is spoilt by the shallowness, and strong current, making it difficult to use the channels through the branch coral.
Stop at a Champion supermarket on the way back, get drinks, soup, and frozen lasagne. At the studio, catch up with the hostess. Suspect she may be the daughter of the owners, has girlfriends the same age visiting, and reluctant to do such menial chores as looking after guests. Pay the money, get across the cold, no blanket situation, but she is unable to comply straight away for some reason. Wouldn't think a blanket was all that big a deal.
Lounge round all afternoon, reading the last of the depressing books we have brought with us. Late in the PM, bring all the gear in and start to pack. DP gives our host a late reminder about the blanket, still hoping.
Cook our soup and lasagne from the supermarket. Nice touch of luxury. Watch more Tour de France, then the general rubbish on French provincial TV.
The promised blanket never turns up, but fortunately, there is cloud cover, and heavy rain later, and we don't need to do more than spread the coats over us.
Where I stayed
La Villa De Tisserins