Bow down at the peak - Reunion Island

Published Traveller, The Age and SMH. Online at www.theage.com.au/travel/bow-down-at-the-peak-20091204-k9s7.html

Walkers file like ants across a barren volcanic plain towards a black hole in the landscape. The dark hole is rimmed with earth like the entrance to an ant colony but it is wide enough to swallow a house.  Beyond the hole and the distant rim of the crater,  a blue ocean reaches out to the sky.


It is a timeless, primal scene but I’m not entirely convinced humans should be here.


The active peak on Reunion Island, La Piton de la Fournaise (The Peak of the Furnace), rises above one of the earth’s “hotspots” and is one of the world’s most active volcanoes.  The last lava flow occurred early last month and there are small eruptions almost every year.  


I am only slightly bemused to find locals revere their volcano like a national symbol. Images of the last big eruption in 2007 are proudly displayed all over the island. 


From the air, Reunion looks like a giant turtle floating in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. The oval-shaped island, just 65 kilometres long, is backed by 3000-metre, volcanic peaks that shoulder the sky.


On the first day we are driven straight to the active volcano and our guide almost persuades us it is safe.  We are told observatories monitor the volcano’s every mood and eruptions only cause flows in the uninhabited south of the island. But it is a few days later, when we visit the site of the 2007 flow, that my insecurities change to reverence.  


The 2007 eruption cut a black swathe through rainforest and disgorged new earth into a smouldering sea. It’s there I realise volcanoes don’t destroy earth – they create earth. Lava eventually becomes soil.  Walking across the top of the lava is like walking on pottery baked with the first patterns on earth.  We are amazed to see young green plants already growing on these ceramic fields.


Reunion is a young island created by recent eruptions two million years ago and its rich soils and flora are studied as present examples of the geological past of many countries on earth.


Not far from the 2007 lava flow, Le Jardin des Parfums et Des Epices is a testament to this fertility.  The garden of perfumes and spices is a botanical rainforest garden green with every species of flower and tree, both ornamental and agricultural, grown on the island.


There are elephant trees with wrinkled trunks and flowering heliconia and orchids throughout.  Our passionate host and plant farmer, Patrick Fontaine, teaches us to respect the intelligence of flora. He points out medicinal plants and shows us indigenous plants that only grow in these six square kilometres on earth.


Plant oils such as geranium used in French perfumes and vanilla are still important exports. The magical orchid, vanilla, perfumes the whole island and came to scent the world after a Reunionnais slave discovered how to manage its pollination.


Slavery is often linked to drugs and exotic substances. Reunion was also farmed to grow sugar cane for rum and the drug which now ironically enslaves western civilisation - coffee.


The French East India company settled the uninhabited island in 1665 but generations of slaves and indentured labourers from Africa, India and China now enrich the blood and culture of the people.


Réunion has remained a remote “departement”, or state, of France. Though 12 hours flight from the mother country, the island is also very French and in true French fashion, very proud of it.  A local trucking company vaunts the logo “La Passion du Transport”. The Reunionnais commonly enjoy Bordeaux with long lunches on vine-shaded patios overlooking the Indian ocean.


Reunion has been kept a French secret for centuries and 80 per cent of visitors still come from France. Only 700 Australians travelled there last year but that number is rising quickly after the launch in April of Air Austral operations in Australia and the first direct flights from Sydney to Reunion and onto France.


The Reunionnais love good wine, barbecues, picnics, seafood, beaches and sports so Australians should fit right in. Restaurants serve Creole and French cuisine. Vanilla duck curries, samosas and rice share menus with delicately herbed swordfish, salad vinaigrettes, French cheeses and wines.  Guava, lemon, goyavier, coconut, pineapple, banana, lychee, and vanilla rum punches festoon restaurant tables and bars even at lunchtime.


In France, life is an aperitif for eating. In Reunion, rum is an aperitif for life.

And just as the rum is infused with tropical spices and fruit, French culture in Reunion is infused with Creole joie de vivre and tropical languor. 


Roses and bougainvilleas flower over white paling faces around cottages painted in bright tropical  pastels. French signs in traditional blue cursive fonts hang over streets alive with Creole children. Strawberry, tomato and garlic roadside stalls are as common as tropical fruit stalls. In cemeteries, the deceased rest beneath Catholic crosses and frangipani copses.


I am charmed and intrigued by the Creole blend of cultures. The Reunionnais live in a tacit racial harmony that is a model for a  racially mixed-up world. The people just accept others to have different racial backgrounds.


There are 24 towns named after Catholic saints, including the capital, St Denis, but the Reunionnais also observe the practices of a range of religions: Muslim, Hindu, African and Catholic. Our guide, Sully Chaffre,  himself part French Brittany, Tamil Nadu, Cantonese and African, says he tries to “inspire [himself] with the positive aspects of each religion and many of the new generation are doing the same thing”.


Like the rainforest on Reunion, syncretism and Creole culture may also be an example of the future of the world. The population of Reunion is also quite literally young with half the 800,000 residents under the age of 25.


Living on the sides of an active volcano also gives the locals a good sense of humour. Michael Asprey, alias Mickey Rat, is a resident Australian surfboard shaper and the official warden for Australian travellers.  “Creole people get together and they just laugh,’’ he says outside his surf shop in St Leu, ‘‘All day they crack jokes. It’s one of the things I really enjoy here.”


The coast is frequented by giant leatherback and loggerhead turtles but the national animal seems to be the gecko. Images of the lizard with a cheeky, youthful spirit appear everywhere: on houses, cars, clothes and jewellery.


This youthful spirit expresses itself in thriving bars and nightclubs and a wide range of sports on offer. With a summer sea temperature around 30 degrees, travellers and locals keep busy big game fishing, diving, paragliding and surfing.  


From a paraglider above St Leu on the west coast, surfers look like coloured reef fish on a dappled coral sea bed.  Soaring at 800 metres, I feel like birds feel and see like birds see. The entire coast. The entire ocean. The entire sky.


From the shore, every view of Reunion is backed by the peaks of three collapsed calderas, or “cirques”, that form the volcanic high country. Still relatively uneroded, the sides of the cirques are unnaturally and spectacularly vertical. Villages and roads cling impossibly to razorback ridges.


The island is famous in Europe for hiking and canyoning. An annual, 150-kilometre running race, the Grand Raid, starts in the Riviere des Ramparts beneath a fairytale village on a plateau in the clouds. 2000 competitors run day and night through the high country.  But short walks through national parks, around ridges and volcano craters are accessible to all walkers.


I discover a new extreme sport when I hire a car and drive to Cilaos. This sport involves driving on the wrong side of a single lane road with 300 blind turns, 50 hairpin bends and unlit, one-way tunnels between cliffs with 300-metre drops.   Cilaos is the reward, a beautiful Creole mountain village with two hot springs and a popular starting point for the best walks in the high country. 


Locals buy helicopter charter flights over the volcanoes for their loved ones. This didn’t sound too extreme until we took a chopper sideways through a vertical canyon to the waterfall in Le Trou de Fer (‘‘the iron hole’’). We escaped the iron hole by screaming.


There are two distinct environments to explore: the volcanic high country and a  diverse coastline of cliffs, white and black-sand beaches, coral reefs and rocky stretches punctuated by blowholes.


The sheltered west coast, known as “la côte sous le vent”, has 22 kilometres of coral lagoon overseen by deck-chair resorts like the elegantly renovated, French colonial Grand Hotel du Lagon. There are glamorous sunbaking beaches and lively bars and nightclubs around nearby Saint-Gilles-les-bains.   


Réunion is a member of the EU, with French infrastructure and wages in euros. This means the country is not too reliant on tourism and there is little of the ugly divide between international tourist culture and local culture that pollutes many tropical destinations. The Reunionnais enjoy the best of their island. And this Australian was delighted not to let French travellers have all the fun.


Andrew Bock travelled courtesy of Air Austral and Naiade resorts.



Getting there  Air Austral flies non-stop from Sydney to Reunion for about $1187; Melbourne passengers pay about $1400 and fly Virgin Blue to Sydney to connect. (Fare is low-season return including tax.) For the same fare you can fly onto Mauritius, though the tax will vary. It is also possible to fly via Mauritius with Air Mauritius.

 Staying there The four-star, Grand Hotel du Lagon at L’Hermitage-les-bains has rooms, pools and coral beaches from 300 Euros; see www.naiade.com. The three-star, Hotel le Recif has rooms from 240E; see www.naiade.com.  Gites de Bardzour, a typical farmside hostel 200 metres above sea level has simple cottages and ocean views from 65E.

Things to do

* Tandem paraglides with Parapente at St Leu are 75E and easy for beginners. See www.parapente-Réunion.fr.

* Corail helicopters conduct 45-minute flights over volcanoes into the Trou de Fer for 240E. See www.corail-helicopteres.com.

* Réunion Fishing Club at St-Gilles-les-bains charters game-fishing boats. See www.Réunionfishingclub.com.

* La Maison Folio at Hell-Bourg is a restored, 1860 French colonial timber mansion and garden that has survived 100 cyclones.

• Ethnix Tours has good English-speaking and Creole guides. See www.ethnixtours.com.

© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.