Above the Clouds In Reunion Island. Natalie Wadsworth Tells Us About her Recent Visit.

Reunion Island. – My time in Reunion Island in December last year showed me a vibrant destination that makes for a perfect active holiday, be it hiking in the mountains or dancing the night away to the local Malayo music. Unfortunately I only scratched the surface of possibilities, so when Natalie Wadsworth contacted me and asked if she could tell me about her recent Reunion Island experience, I welcomed it. Here, is her guest post for your enjoyment.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us Natalie.

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My Reunion Island trip started out as a birthday present to my dear mother, but ended up being
something even more amazing. From our first glance of the tiny island from the airplane window, to
summiting
 Piton de la Fournaise. This is the story of our achievement of making it
to the very top of one of the worlds most active volcanoes, and the eruption aftermath that
followed.

In early March, I was struck as to what to get my mother for her birthday. I knew I wanted to get her
something extra special, and something about Reunion just stood out for me. Without hesitation, I
booked our flights for a week’s stay in August, and it wasn’t long before we were on the plane
headed towards the tiny French island.

We were instantly awe-struck by the island. The magnificent
landscapes you lay eyes on as the plane swoops down onto the landing strip are absolutely
breathtaking. It’s quite amazing how such a small place, can hold such a magnitude of beauty. I’m
a cultural traveller
, I rarely book hotels, and I wasn’t going to make that exception for Reunion, as
its a total melting pot of culture and diversity, so I booked a small cottage to call home for the next week.

After a hair raising 12km drive of hairpin bends and 20 degree turns from the Les Avirons turn-off
on the N1 highway, we finally arrived at the typical creole style cottage, way up in the hillside. It
was around 7:45PM, adrenaline was rushing through our veins after the drive up, and we were
without supplies. Nonetheless, we were greeted with open arms by the lovely French family who
owns, and also stays on the property. 

We had planned magnitudes of activities and places to see during our week on the island, but the
one that stood out the most, and was of course the highlight of the vacation, was our experience of
Piton de la Fournaise.

My week preceding our holiday was spent researching everything I could about what to expect on
our hike, and of course seeing if the actual trail was available to hike. My hopes were not very high
when each day I checked the trails were closed, but to our delight, as if the island was trying to
please us, the trails opened the day we landed. Saturday had now been planned out, we were
going to hike that volcano.

Friday night was spent packing our backpacks with supplies for the day ahead. After all the
researching, we know that we needed a couple litres of water each, some snacks to keep you
going, a torch in case the mist came over and obstructed your view or if you managed to get stuck
once dusk had arrived, good hiking shoes, which we casually ignored and claimed our trainers were good enough and of course a camera.
We set our alarm for 4:15, so we could be out on the road by 5:00, as we had a
good 2 hour journey ahead of us to the volcano the next morning, and we didn’t want to have
weather obstructing our views once we set off.

If you ever want to see something absolutely spectacular, set your alarm for the early morning
hours in Reunion

Something about the night sky just before the crack of dawn seemingly attracts
every star the universe can offer. Looking up into the pitch black, and seeing the generous
sprinkling of stars lighting up the night sky is really something else. I’ve never quite seen the sky
the way I did that morning. 

Word of advice, really take your time with your drive to the volcano. There is so many scenic spots
to stop over with your car to snap some of the most beautiful photos.

We set off towards Le Tampon, the multi-cultural town you pass through on your drive to the
volcano. The roads were very quiet this time of morning, with a few Renaults buzzing towards the
main centres to arrive at work bright and early. The morning mist hung over the mountain scape
alongside the freeway. When you reach the farming town of Bourg Murat, this is when you really
get a feel for the other side of Reunion culture. The vast farmlands envelope the south-eastern part
of the island, with long rolling hills of grass, quaint little farm houses and the most scenic views.
Once you reach this point in your drive, you actually see, and feel the contrast of this tiny island.
From the sweltering heat on the west coast beaches, to the icy wind blowing on your cheeks as
you head more inland. What this island has to offer is absolutely mind blowing, and what lies
ahead, may blow your mind even more.

Following Bourg Murat, you head towards Pas de Bellecombe, the lookout point of the volcano.
On the way to Pas De Bellecombe, the drive is through a beautiful and lush pine forest, simply
named Forêt de volcan (Volcano Forest). 

Once you make that final curved turn before heading onto the dirt road up to Pas de Bellecombe,
you will be amazed how two completely different sceneries, can exist in such a close proximity, but
be exactly what they are, polar opposites. On one end, you have the lush mountain side, reminding
you a little bit of the South African Winelands, and the next is like something out of a apocalypse
movie. Not even a blade of grass in sight. 
The dirt roads continue for about 15km before you reach the parking lot at the lookout point.

Once you arrive at Pas de Bellecombe, there are toilet facilities for you to use before you
adventure out, as well as a few information boards.
There is no other guides there other than the
white streaks of paint on the volcanic rock under your boots to direct you to the very top. As far as I
know, this hike is completely self guided, so for your first time up the volcano, choose to go in a
group rather than alone.

Make sure you have a warm jacket on. It can get very cold during the hike, especially as you
ascend. Your jacket will also protect you from the harsh rays above the clouds, which magnify off
the black volcanic rock. SPF is essential. Don’t make the same mistake I did, thinking that I am
better than the sun. Should you decide not to make your way home after the day out, there is a
little cottage near the lookout point, for €16 per person, per night. If you plan to do the full hike, put
aside atlas 6 hours for a return trip, but longer if you take a lot of rests or stop often for photos.

Once you leave the carpark area, you walk along an “entrance” to the park, down a few hundred
stairs, taking you back down to 800m, before arriving at Formica Leo. This is your first landmark.

Formica Leo is an 18th century crater, that is entirely composed of slag. The entire area around it
is a lava plateau with the Piton de le Fournaise standing tall in front of you. Now to my mom’s
surprise, we had to start the actual hike, climbing to the crater of the volcano. She was under
the impression that the dune that is Formica Leo, was the volcano crater. Our hike had only just
begun.

Continuing to follow the foot paths, you will reach a point where you can either go right (shortest
route, all the way up to Crater Bory, at 2631m, taking you around 45 minutes) or go left (longer
route, taking you along the flanks of Crator Bory, eventually arriving at Crater Dolomieu, taking
around 1 hour and 30 minutes). We chose to go left, because I felt like we would see a lot more,
getting a full view of Saint-Benoit if you have a clear day.

We quickly realised how important a good pair of hiking shoes were as the volcanic rock is quite
harsh on your shoes and ankles. But nonetheless, we were determined to reach the top. There is a
magnitude of landmarks along the way, from Chapel Rosement (a volcanic chapel like structure) to
hand built lava rock shrines.

Because my mom isn’t in her 30’s anymore, we obviously took more breaks than the rest of the
hikers on the day, who were all under 35. After about an hour and a half, we decided to have a little
sit down, eat some grapes and simply take in the beauty of where we were. By this time, around
10AM, the clouds had already rolled in and covered most of the view out to the coast. The sun was
absolutely scorching, but that didn’t stop me from trekking in my vest, which I was clearly warned
not to do. My skin thanked me later.

A thought crossed my mind, seeing as though this was my first rodeo, and I didn’t know the ropes.
How do we get back down? So I brought it to my mom’s tired attention, who laughed at the idea,
telling me we were going to have to make our way back. No ways mom. They have to have an
easier foot path to follow back down. There is no ways they can make us go down a sharp
incline…or decline for the matter in reverse. There has to be another way. And there wasn’t. Hikers
who had lapped us earlier, were already making their way back, the same way that got them to the
top. 

As you flank around the side of the volcano, you can see the thick, black volcanic rock painting the
sides of the mountain from the freshest flows of magma. The more black the rock, the newer it is.
The last eruption before we arrived was 31 July, so the rock we were climbing over was still very
fresh. Its actually quite mind blowing that you are actually climbing over rocks, which came from
the scorching magma from inside the earth only two weeks prior. Although the views are desolate,
they are absolutely magnificent.

People hiking the volcano were also very friendly, greeting with a soft “Bonjour” as you passed
them. From young couples, to fitness fanatics, there was an array of personalities that were
attracted to the hike that day.

A small signboard posted “Piton de la Fournaise 20min”, so we knew our ascending journey was
almost at an end after around 2.5 hours. The last stretch of climb is probably the most rewarding,
knowing you have made it all the way, and you are now on top of one of the most active volcanoes
in the world. White paint cordons off the sections right at the edge of the crater as they are still
weak from the Dolomite collapse in 2007, taking the crater down to 300m below. Dare-devils pose
over the line to capture the moment of achievement for reaching the top. There was only about 15
people at the top, as many hikers chose to leave their adventure at Formica Leo. It was an
outstanding feeling to know we had conquered Piton de la Fournaise. But…now we still had to trek
back.

We stayed at the top for around 15 minutes, just enough time to have a quick lunch and snap
some good photos. We knew the journey back would be longer because you have to be careful
climbing down the sharp rocks making sure your footing is right so you don’t stand on any loose
rocks.

As we made our way back, the mist had already set in on certain sections of the walk, making it
hard to see where our guidelines were. Luckily, the mist was only in certain sections, which we
managed to pass over quite quickly. The cold, wetness of the clouds was a relief to my skin after
such a scorching day above the clouds.

The walk back was a very quiet one. The silence was a story of how our bodies were starting to
feel from the full day of elevated heart rates and tired ankles. One syllable answers was all my
mother and myself were getting out of each other. “Mom, will you do it again?”, I asked her jokingly.
“Not a chance” was her sharp reply. She had conquered it, and at 54, never having hiked before, I
was proud of her.

My mom at this point was making landmarks to reach to make the trip back not seem as tiring as it
was. She would find a large rock or turn in the distance, and make that her next landmark to reach
before taking a quick breather. Before long, we had realised we were almost back on the plains
that stretch back toward Formica Leo, and the flight of hundreds of stairs up to the parking lot.
Exactly what you want to remember you have to climb after giving your body a beating for the day.
We eventually passed the Formica, where now a good 50 people we visiting and taking photos of.
Most visitors don’t actually do the full hike up the volcano, rather visiting the sites and smaller hikes
in the area.

If anything was a killer, it was the last stretch of stairs we had to climb to get back to the parking lot.
A few hundred stairs takes about 25 minutes to climb because of the physical toll it takes. Mentally
forgetting how we felt, we rose ourselves over the last bunch of stairs, and found ourselves back at
our little Twingo. 

We could do nothing but feel pride at the fact that we had conquered it together,
Mom and daughter, 54 and 19, unfit and fit, to the top we went.

Driving back through the now misty and fogged mountain-side roads down towards Bourg Murat,
we chatted and reminisced about our expedition, filling with excitement to phone our loved
ones back home to get them up to speed on what happened today. Arriving back at our cottage before sunset. We kicked off our battered shoes and lay down for the night. At this point, my skin was as red as the devil. I should’ve kept my jacket on….

Fast-forward to Tuesday evening, 3 nights after our initial climb. A gentle knock on the door and a
large smile from our neighbour, there to inform us that the volcano had begun erupting and would
be on the news. We patiently waited to watch the update of what had happened, and yes,
she was erupting alright! Streams of cars filled the small dirt roads leading up the view-point where
spectators could watch the beast blow lava into the night sky. Brave souls were also doing a 2 hour
night hike to get to another viewpoint to get the best look at the eruptions. We knew at this point it
would be somewhat pointless to struggle the drive to the volcano. Instead, we had a lovely viewpoint from slightly higher up in Le Tevelave, where we spent the night spectating mother nature at her very best. 

This was the
perfect opportunity for passionate photographers with their advanced equipment to capture the
moment, as our cameras could only get the darkness of the night captured. Earlier that day on
E’tang Sale, the black volcanic beach, I was almost sure that I felt small earth tremors, but now
sitting and watching the eruption happen before my very eyes, I was sure of it.

Sitting there watching her erupt was quite a surreal feeling knowing that 3 days earlier we were on
that volcano, hiking to the top. While we were on it, there was seismic activity taking place right
under our feet. The fresh streams of lava rock we climbed over were now getting covered with
another, fresher layer. I don’t think many get the opportunity to climb the volcano and have her
erupt only 3 days later like we got. Its an experience we’ll never forget.

Reunion Island definitely captured our hearts, and will always be a special place for us. From the
warm hearted people, down to the delicious local beer, Reunion Island will be a regular holiday
destination, being only 4 hours away.

I hope this story inspires more people to take the journey to the top of the volcano, as nothing
can be quite as rewarding as reaching the top.

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Follow Natalie on her Navigating the Atlas to read about more of her travels.

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Read more about my time on Reunion Island. #GoToReunion

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Dawn Bradnick JorgensenDawn Jorgensen
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The Incidental Tourist

The Incidental Tourist is a Personal Travel Blog of a conscious traveller with a deep love for Africa, its people and the environment.

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