For our first post-covid trip outside of Africa... destination Reunion Island which is an overseas department of France. Thus the language is French but with a strong influence of the East which resulted in a particularly interesting language... the creole.
Of course there is no direct flight from Windhoek to St Denis, capital of Reunion, so we are obliged to transit through Jobourg.
We decided to split the trip in 3 parts : a road trip around the island with a rented car, then hiking in Mafate circus (only accesible by foot or helicopter) and climbing the highest peak of the island, the Piton des Neiges and finally chilling in markets and bars along the beaches, with a bit of snorkeling in between. In total 3 weeks with roughly one week for each part.
Our first treat when we arrived early morning at Roland Garros airport was a nice coffee with croissants au chocolat from the food truck Case a Pain parked outside as advised by a local lady.
We then took our rented car for a drive East. We were still so early that the mall was not open yet... so we decided to check the first waterfall on our list, the Cascade du Chaudron. As the gate was locked, Paul sent the drone to have a look but it was a so far that the drone decided that it was safer to return home. Incredible technology! Anyway the first image of the gorge du chaudron with its vertical cliffs covered with luxuriant green vegetation was quite impressive and very appealing.
As part of France, Reunion Island's currency is the Euro... which already translates to something expensive. Then most of the goods are imported into the island which makes it even more expensive for us, poor tourists coming from Africa! We were aware of that but most supermarket prices were even more chocking... except French cheese on sale. Paul easily convinced Lisa to buy a few cheese he remembered from his youth in Belgium... in particular the blue cheese Fourme d'Embert which was absolutely to die for!
From that day, most of our lunches and even some of our dinners were simply cheese, charcuterie and bread with a French baguette and, of course, French wine.
Our first hike was a gentle stroll through a dense forest on the path to Cascade & Bassin Boeuf & Nicole.
One thing we were extremely surprised when we arrived in Reunion, was the traffic, not only between the major cities along the northern coast but also in the intricate network of small roads on the slopes of the mountain... and the roads were so narrow at some places that crossing other vehicles, especially trucks and busses was quite a challenge. From day one, Paul was driving our little Hundai 20 while Lisa was constantly checking how close the car was from the deep straight ditch on the mountain side.
As Jean-Jacques (our host for the third night) had told us, it takes time to drive around in Reunion!
On our way to Hell-bourg, which was listed as one of the most beautiful French villages, we drove along the Cascade du Voile de la Mariée which is visible from the road. As we were driving up to Salazie circus, the cloud cover became denser and denser. We learned later that the clouds start building up around 10 am every morning from the East side of the island, so it was a good idea to start the day early around 7 am.
The next morning, after a traditional delicious coffee and petits pains au chocolat at the food truck in Salazie, we were on our way to the Bridal Veil waterfall we saw from a distance the day before. According to maps.me (the most amazing offline map app for android), the trail was crossing the river and then passing through Ilet (a small village) des Bananiers and then along some farming fields.
People are incredibly nice in Reunion and often willing to go the extra mile to reply to our questions. One farmer explained about the cresson he was growing in the field where hundred of water streams were running through. Another man showed us the fruit of the chouchou which is overgrowing everything in this area. Chouchou young stems are also edible and similar to swiss chard. Later we had chouchou in various culinary preparations, gratin, soupe, patato-like dish...
Again maps.me was showing a trail to the lower part of the same waterfall which appealed very much to Paul. We followed the trail along the river but then we had to cross it, so Paul did some scouting and managed to convinced Lisa to join him to cross the river du Mât six times. The second crossing was quite a challenge with the flow of water but a tree was helping us to go through the coldish water up to the belly. The many waterfalls were spectacular and worth the adventure.
We spent 2 nights at the gite Mendoze but never met the host, Patrick, apparently a talented musician. We can also recommend the restaurant Chez Alice where we enjoyed the menu of the day, obviously including chouchou.
The sun was shinning on the town of Hell-Bourg the next morning when we were ready for a long drive along the Eastern coast of the island, including the well-know Route des Laves which crosses all the recent lava flows.
On the way, we stopped at some little coastal highlights, such as the Marina of Sainte-Rose, the Anse des Cascades with its impressive forest of palm trees with large foot.
On the path to the natural arches such as the Quai de l'Eglise, we crossed a plantation of vanilla which climbs on the vacoa trees growing all along the coast.
Along the national road which crosses the igneous rocks formed by the dry lava flows, it is interesting to see the pioneering vegetation including lichens and ferns.
Again with the help of maps.me and the astonishing exploring skills of Lisa, we found the entrance of a lava tunel well hidden in the forest. With our headlights we could see the variation of colors and textures of the lava on the walls and ceiling of the tunel and spotted some tree roots coming through.
When we reached the forest of Mare-Longue, it started drizzling so we only hiked for half an hour along the botanical path through that amazing forest where all the trees trunks were literally covered with mosses.
It was raining hard when we arrived at the gite de la Cascade du Grand Gallet. We were the only guests and that did not stop Jean-Jacques to be extremely welcoming and to cook a delicious 4-course meal : beignets de cresson for aperitif with a traditional small glass of rhum arrangé, gratin de chouchou, 2 main courses I can not remember and a fruit salad for desert. We really enjoyed sharing the meal with him in his kitchen.
The next morning JJ insisted to give us all the left-over for lunch. This was by far our best meal served at a gite... highly recommended.
The Cascade du Grand Gallet on the Langevin river is also the most amazing waterfall we have seen on the island although we did not see all the 2000 of them... so we could be wrong. Anyway the waterfall as well as JJ gite are worth one or two nights.
This wide waterfall is also spectacular in the way the water flows through many cracks in the cliff creating a wall of multiple waterfalls. And the cherry on the cake was to see some adrenaline junkies rapelling down the waterfall and sliding along a rope down to the large turquoise pool... I wish now we had booked 2 nights there.
On our way down the coast we hiked along a short path to see the Cascade du Trou Noir.
People are very religious on the island and we often see oratories along the roads or even the mountain paths.
JJ also advised us to hike to the Cascade Jacqueline near the mouth of the Langevin river. There we saw a lot of the white tail tropic (paille-en-queue) birds flying as they nest in the cliffs in the trees of the same name.
Baguette and cheese with a glass of wine... another delicious lunch sitting in the shade along the coast near the Trou du Souffleur d'Arbonne.
Our next night was booked at the gite du Volcan, so we could hike down the next morning to see the crater of the Volcan de la Fournaise. The drive along the forestry road late afternoon was very picturesque but then the clouds were getting heavier and heavier so it was raining and cold when we reached the gite at 6 pm... we were the last guests. It is already a big gite and they are even building another one 3 times bigger. Quite a big project! We were surprised at dinner after having a second serve of the pasta dish we though being the main course, to realised that it was only the starter and that a copious main course and desert were following... so we eat a lot that evening!
The next morning, our alarm rang at 5:45 am so we would be the first to have breakfast at 6 am... unfortunately it was still raining... the gite was totally in the clouds. We drove the car to the parking a few km away and found the same unwelcoming weather there too. Anyway we dressed up for the rain and started hiking down the path from the Bellecombe pass. We were totally in the clouds and it is only when we arrived almost at the bottom of the 500 m descent that we could see the lava flows and the close-by crater Formica Leo through the mist. We walked through the drizzle hoping that the clouds would open up for the sun to shine... but after taking the wrong path and being completely soaked and cold, we decided unanimously to turn back. Even though the weather was not ideal, Paul managed to take some interesting pictures of that mysterious ghost-like environment under mist.
Back in the car, the crossing of the Plaine des Sables was also interesting with the wind blowing the mist on that moon-like landscape.
Then the sun started to peep through the clouds as we were driving down the forestry road. On the way, we stopped at several viewpoints to see the clouds moving over the valley of the river des Remparts and meet some totally un-shy Reunion stonechat birds.
We thought it was a good idea to keep two nights unbooked in advance... bad idea in fact, as we struggled to find a place open or with space for the two of us. In despair there is always light and good fortune... so we finally found a very nice little room in Saint-Pierre and our host, a charming and very interesting well-travelled indian woman, Shila. When we told Shila that we had decided to stay a second night, she insisted to invite us for dinner.
In Saint-Pierre, we discovered Decathlon, a huge sport warehouse which has everything any sport person would dream about, especially for us from Africa. It is only in the US or Canada we had seen similar stores... certainly not in Namibia, nor even in South Africa!
Paul insisted we drove to Cilaos with the car. The road is well known as the 400-curves road and is often not large enough for two cars, and certainly not for two trucks or busses! The drive was very interesting with many viewpoints to see that amazing landscape of gorges and abrupt mountain peaks called pitons on the island. It is also extraordinary to see that any little plateau in that rough mountainous environment is home of a few houses or even a small village called ilet. We drove through two tunnels and only realised afterwards that they are just just wide enough for a bus to drive through.
At the exit of the last tunel, we discovered the circus of Cilaos where the road stops and where we will come back in a week to start the hike to Piton des Neiges.
We drove the car around the small villages and explored this beautiful area. Paul managed to fly the drone to get closer to a nice gorge and waterfalls.
En route to Saint-Gilles, for our last two nights with the car, we stopped at the Domaine du Caffé Brulé for a walk through their garden. Do not go there for their coffee, it is expensive in in our opinion not even worth it. However, the gardens are amazing. They gave us a book with pictures of most of the plants and flowers... so you can imagine Dr Godard, botanist photographer in that little paradise!
We reached our destination in the afternoon, met Jack and settled in our little flat. Later we walked on the beach, had 2 very expensive beers (up to 7 Euro for a nice imported belgian pint) on a terrace in the harbour, and an absolutely amazing 3-course dinner at the DCP restaurant, recommended by Jack and his neighbour. It is a shared menu for two people at 70 Euro, including a starter with a large variety of sashimi (raw fish), a main course with 3 different cooked fishes of the the day and each a huge portion of home-made desert: a 3-scoop sorbet for Paul and a decadent profiterol for Lisa.
The next day, we drove to Maido viewpoint. Apart that the light over the Mafate circus was a bit disappointing for nice photography (blue haze), the forestry road through the tamarind trees was a bonus for Paul.
Day 8 was to return the rented car to the airport. We had planned that day very well as not only we had to beat Saint-Denis traffic before reaching the airport, return the car, take a first bus to Saint-André and, then another bus to Le Belier, we had to hike 4 km on the road to the Col des Boeufs and finally down the Sentier des Scouts to reach our first gite ilet à Malheur. Despite the first bus being 40 min late due to traffic, we reached Le Belier before mid-day and were extremely lucky to get a lift from a guy dropping 105 chicken and 600 kg of chicken food a the helipad at the end of the forestry road.
In Mafate circus which was our destination for the next 5 days, everything including food, drinks and building material has to be brought by foot or helicopter. The chicken guy told us that 900 kg bag was costing 140 Euro... so imagine the mark-up on food, drinks and accommodation.
After a quick bite at the top of the path, we started our hike in the mist which Paul liked as it gives such a nice soft light to the forest, better than full sun for good photographs.
The hike seemed so long... although it was only 6 km! The descent seemed never ending. Well, it was our first hike and we had big backpacks! Anyway we were very pleased to reach our first gite after 18970 steps according to Google Fit app. We were also pleased to find that our gite was also the local shop of the village... so a cold Dodo beer (the nice local beer) was very welcome. There was quite a few people at the gite, including 4 guys installing solar panels, 6 locals and 2 tourists... so the conversations – partly in creole – around the table were very interesting. The meal was very nice and abundant. There were even 2 bottles of red wine included and of course the traditional rhum arrangé to start with. We certainly can highly recommend this gite.
We knew that the next day hike would be longer but our brain did not really registered that the second half was mostly going up hill... and I can tell you, we were finished when we arrived after 23904 steps in ilet des Orangers. Living in Namibia does not allow a lot of walking exercise... mostly game drive sitting in the car and walking around the car at the campsite. So we were definitely not fit for the job... strangely however, Paul's hip was not bothering him too much, although he had to walk down the big steps down like a crab and use his monopod as a strong walking stick in the first few days.
Everyone is so nice in Reunion. Even though the gite Chez Stephane who married a Malagasy lady is not very luxurious, they tried their best to make our stay very pleasant. Even when Paul asked for fruits and juice for breakfast, they were on the table the next morning.
In the evening, we walked to the local bar for a few beers (only 4) and listen to the advice of the locals who were really considering Paul's hip issue and Lisa's knee pain as a major challenge for our planned next hike. Going to ilet La Nouvelle would entitle a very very very long and steep ascent at the end as the trail was going down to the very bottom of the gorge, following the river Grand Gallet and then up to the village. So we decided to drop our booking there and find a gite at the next village at Roche Plate.
We managed and it was the right decision as we arrived early afternoon after only 12500 steps and so we could rest our old bodies in the afternoon. Gite Gravita was ok but expensive (especially due to the fact that we had a few beers after our nap and a half-baguette sandwich at 7 euro!) and also not the same atmosphere as the other gites.
Again we started early morning with no clouds for a few hours. The hike took us through a lot of different sceneries including some tsingy-like hills along the deep gorge. It was a bit longer than the day before but quite easy as a good part of the trail was along the river Grand Gallet after Trois Roche.
Trois Roche is a very nice stop-over for lunch as the river flows over large flat stones before diving into the gorge 30 m below. Paul flew the drone a few times that day to get shots impossible otherwise... he is getting better at it everyday!
On the trail, we crossed path with a lot of crazy people running like maniac up or down, no matter. We learned that they were training for the next Grand Raid in October, a race across the island, one of the most challenging races in the world. La Diagonale des Fous is the longest and most impressive of the 4 races : 164 km with 10210 m of climbing. Apparently the 2021 winner did it in 19 hours! Insane...
The last part of the trail was a gentle climb to Marla and to our nice surprise, gite Mafate a Pat was the first house we came across. An amazing little cottage with its private garden was expecting us and we found that the owner was baking fresh bread... it was so good to eat a few pieces of fresh bagette before dinner! Definitely a place to recommend with many different budget accommodation options, from tent and dormitory to our private cottage. This was our last night in Mafate, and it was a very good one, just a bit chilly due to the 1600 m altitude.
The last hike was mostly going up from Marla to the Col des Boeufs, through the Plaine des Tamarins. These tamarind trees are spectacular. Paul was taking so many photos of them and then only realised back home that they were all missing! Very strange... some gremlins maybe? Anyway he got some nice shots from the drone. Paul also lost his 24 mm lens when we had the rented car. To this day, we still can not figure how this could have happened. The result was he had to use his 50 mm to take multiple images instead of a wide angle. More than 25 panorama to stich! AutoPano Giga is an incredible software to do the job in no time.
On the way up, we met many people going down to La Nouvelle or Marla, some only for the day. We arrived quite early at the pass and then walked down the 2 km to the parking. There once again, we were lucky... as we were finishing our lunch, a car stopped to drop 3 people. When Paul asked the driver for a lift, the answer was immediately yes although it was not the driver's car and we realised later that he was not used at all to a manual transmission!
When we arrived at the gite Ti Kaz Lontan, we had to call the host as it was closed. We had to wait outside for 1 h... bad feeling... then it started... As soon as they had shown us the premisses in a very strange robotic way, they had disappeared only leaving our bedroom door open, everything else was locked... no food, no drink as advertised. We had to walk 3 km down to the next village to find a bar open! On our way back at the gite, other guests had arrived but as soon as they were shown their room, the hosts had disappeared again only to re-appear at 19:30 with the food for dinner. Nothing had been prepared on site. We had a very small meal to share within 11 guests and as soon as the hosts decided it should be over, they turned the gas heater off, removed everything from the table, turned the lights off and then they were gone! Absolutely incredible... if you are not made for such kind of business... honestly, stay away from it! What happened the next morning is even more mind blowing... we did not order breakfast as we were going to catch the first bus down to Saint-André and enjoy nice petit pains au chocolat in town. However the other 9 guests did and we found their breakfast dropped at the gite...only a few pieces of rubber-bagette with jam and a pot of coffee... with nobody to serve it... what a shame! Glad we were not part of it!
The bus drive down to Saint-André was as exciting as the one to Cilaos with many hairpin curves and a few challenges on the road. I don't remember how many busses we took but we arrived quite early back at Jack's place. Jack was so nice to allow us to keep the bags we did not used for the hike... and on top of that, as we could not find an affordable flat to rent for the coming night (as his flat was sold out), he very kindly offered us to stay in his guest room. We bought him a nice bottle of wine and had another cheese and charcuterie lunch at his place. Then Lisa decided that the previous dinner at the DCP restaurant was so good that it would be wrong not to repeat it... and it was delicious once again. Lisa even went for the crème brulée flambée desert and was reconciliated with it... it was so nice, she said!
For the first time, Paul dared to fly the drone over the sea and sent it more than 2 km offshore to film the boats full of tourists on their way to watch the whales and the dolphins. Unfortunately, we could not join the crowd as every boats were fully booked until end of October as the whale season was extraordinary this year... with more than 200 whales breeding in Saint-Paul bay.
The next day, we were on the bus with all our luggages en route to Cilaos. Paul was still on to climb up to the Piton des Neiges while Lisa decided to rest an extra day at the gite La Chapelle in Cilaos. So we were again driving on the 400-curves road, in the bus this time. At some stage the bus came across a delivery truck at the end of a curve and the two drivers had to use their best driving skills to pass each other. We could literally see the wheels of the truck half way over the ditch. The bus driver also had to manoeuvre his vehicle perfectly in line with the tunnel to get through it without a scratch... a bare 5 cm gap on each side of the folded mirrors! Nevertheless we arrived safe in town before lunch, just in time to get some nice cheese, dry saucisse and fresh bagette as well as a nice French wine from the local supermarket and enjoyed our late lunch on the terrace of the gite La Chapelle. Yammi!
Strangely the town seemed to be totally deserted after 7 pm... so we could not even find a bar to have a drink! Good thing in a way as it saved us so euro by buying a few beers at the supermarket at a third of the bar price.
Paul prepared his gear for his last hike. He woke up at 5:30 to catch the first local bus to take him at the bottom of the trail, 4 km from the gite. Starting at 1250 m, the intention was to stop at the refuge de la Caverne du Four located on the ridge at 2400 m. The hike is advertised as a 3 h walk and Paul managed to do it in about 2 h and 40 min. Well done!
As Paul arrived so early and the staff at the refuge only allowed him to use his room from 3 pm, the best option was to continue the hike to the top of the Piton des Neiges at 3070 m, meaning another 670 m higher. So that is what he did and good for him as the clouds which were surrounding the refuge, were quickly clearing up as he was climbing up. The people he crossed confirmed that is was "plein beau la haut". Most of the trail from the refuge to the top required jumping from one big lava stone to another, which make it a bit slower.
Nevertheless, Paul arrived at the peak long before lunch time and stayed over there for 4 h.
The views were absolutely amazing, especially the ones over the rough lava peaks behind the meteorological station, a view that many people missed as they were in a hurry to get to the top without exploring around. Certainly a moment to remember for a long time!
The hike down to the refuge was quick and the clouds were again at the rendez-vous.
The dinner was nice but the after dinner party was even nicer when one of the staff took a huge bottle of rhum arrangé and decided to share it with the people staying over. Most of the people had left the cantine to go to bed as they were planning to wake up at 4 am to get to the top before sunrise. We (2 French young couple and Paul) were the brave ones... listening to crazy stories mostly in creole and testing sweet fruit wine, rhum arrangé and even a cold beer to finish up!
In the middle of the night, when Paul was going to the toilet, he met quite a number of people who had arrived from the town. They had left at midnight in order to reach the top before sunrise... and they were completely soaked as the rain did not stopped during the whole night. This was also the time, the people sharing Paul's dormitory were leaving to reach the summit before sunrise and, braving the rainy weather.
Paul had been very wise to go to the top the day before. So Paul could sleep a few more hours and when he went for breakfast in the cantine, there were more than 20 people completely soaked and shaking. They had hiked to the top just to see nothing else than clouds and rain and came back wet to the bones. It was sad but what can you do against mother nature?
When Paul was ready to walk down, one of the nice couple he had met at the rhum party last night decided to come along. It was nice to walk down the muddy slippery path together with Sophie & Sebastian, under the rain that did not stopped until they reached the parking.
Despite the weather conditions at the end, it was really worth it for Paul.
Back to the gite where Lisa was expecting Paul with a fresh sandwich and a cold beer, it was time to tell each other adventure. Then it was our last drive through the 400-curves from Cilaos to Saint-Paul with another experience bus driver. This marked the end of the adventure part of our trip to Reunion as the last few days were to be dedicated to relaxation along the Southern coast.
Our first stop was Saint-Leu where we had booked 2 nights in a flat at Dodo Spot near the beach. The little town was booming as there was a big celebration going on over the week-end. we spent some time in the open-market, had another cheese and bread lunch at our flat, got fresh fish for sashimi for dinner and went snorkeling in search of sea turtles. No turtle but plenty of fishes in very damaged coral reefs. Who causes more damage... the local fishermen who walk on the coral pretend that they only walk on dead coral and that the culprits are the hotel pool chlorine that is flushed to the sea. Not to sure about that... what is for sure is that fishing and tourist activities have had a large role in the destruction of the coral, as well as the violent cyclones that occur every year and may-be the warming up of the ocean due to climat change.
For our last 2 nights, Lisa had booked a luxury apartment (compared to all our previous accommodations) in Saline-les-Bains close to Saint-Gilles. The bus dropped us 1.5 km away from the flat and the lady in charge of the flat came to rescue us along the road.
Our last 2 days consisted of walking on the beach, snorkeling, a bit of shopping and of course nice but expensive imported belgian beers in between each activity!
Good bye Reunion Island and thank you creole people to be so friendly and nice with us!