Reunion Island has got this raw charm and beauty that has not yet been impacted by urbanisation. Many parts of the island, especially the cirques or valley-heads created by the volcano eruption, are not even accessible by road.
The main component of this lavish nature are its volcanoes. There are two of them, a sleeping one – the Piton des Neiges and an active one – the Piton de la Fournaise. The latter is considered to be one of most active volcanoes in the world.
About 500,000 years old, the volcanoes have been listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
“The Piton de la Fournaise is about2,631m high and erupts around once every nine months,” explains Raynald, our guide. Luckily for us, it is in eruption during our visit here and of course we are not going to miss it!
We wake up early and take a meandering road till the view point at the Plaine des Cafres. On our way, we discover that the island is composed of multiple micro climates. Moving between two spots barely a kilometer apart, we move from sunny to rainy to fog and to sunny again.
As you reach the volcano, there are no more houses around, the vegetation is dry and the terrain is mainly composed of brown and black volcanic rocks. “Try to lift this,” says Raynald, while pointing at a black volcanic rock that’s almost a metre broad. I raise my arms in surrender even before trying. But when he lifts the corner of the rock with just one hand, I rush to try it myself and manage quite easily as it is rather light. “Volcanic rocks, also called lava stones, are not heavy. Some people believe it gives energy. You’ll encounter many trekkers and runners in the area saying that the soil is giving them power to push their limits and go further,” says Raynald.
“I wish it gives me energy too!” I say in a whisper when he tells me that there is a 14km walk under the hot sun, till the point where the lava can be observed.
Equipped with bottles of water, a hat, my sunglasses and a jacket (you never know when the weather will change), I start walking through the rocky valley. With nothing on the horizon, the flora is arid and mainly composed of dry trees with greenish yellow or white leaves that contrast sharply with the black and brown soil.
Walking on the Moon
“It’s like we are walking on the moon or on Mars,” I exclaim.
The walk to the view point is long and tedious, the way is indicated by small red stones placed by the authorities, so that people are not lost. There are some other trekkers as well as some families with young children, who packed their picnic and will spend the day here.
A last ascent and we finally reach the top of the hill. Far away, I notice smoke. No, wait, it’s red, and it is actually moving. I take out my binoculars and see the fire literally moving slowly like a river. Under a small mound, I can see something red, bubbling like it is struggling to come out. “It can explode at any time,” says Raynald. I decide to sit here for some time, completely hypnotised by this view.
The hillside is steep and one must be careful while standing, walking or even taking pictures. The trek is at people’s own risk but many mountain guides are available to accompany them, alone or with a group. The price ranges from EUR 100-200 (around INR 8,000-16,000) for a day.
Around the volcano
There is a lot to explore around the volcano, including the lava tunnels and the major lava flows that have gone all the way down to the ocean and created a unique landscape over the years. I wonder if it is dangerous. Raynald responds that the Piton de la Fournaise, despite its regular eruptions is accessible to all. For the locals also, the eruptions are not dangerous as the flow is usually very slow and often in the same area. Also, the authorities have time to predict and evacuate the people if there is risk.
“Once in 1977, a village was completely submerged by the lava and strangely, only a church was saved. The magma is said to have stopped at the door and flowed on both sides of the church without harming the edifice,” he says. We decide to go and visit this unique place. And as expected, in the middle of magma flow stands a church.
We notice the depth of the magma flow as the church is situated almost three metres down from the level of the road. “Many tourists come here as a pilgrimage but also some locals who believe that it’s a miracle. They come to pray to Our Lady of Lava,” says Raynald.
Discoveries around the volcano have no end.
If walking or trekking is a problem, there are other options, notably the heli-tours that take you for a unique experience to the Cité du Volcan on top of the main craters but also through the remote areas, with extremely dense vegetation, huge waterfalls and untamed gorges. Companies like Helilagon propose tours from EUR 90-300 (around INR 7,000-24,000) per person, according to the routes.
That night, after a 26km trek to the volcano and back, we sleep with a content heart… like babies!