Hikers on the Plaine de Tamarins on Reunion Island, which provides a respite from the steep hills elsewhere on the trail to La Nouvelle in Mafate. The coast of this former French colony is plagued by sharks, but its interior is an outdoorsy paradise. Picture: Gulshan Khan/The New York Times.
Hikers on the Plaine de Tamarins on Reunion Island, which provides a respite from the steep hills elsewhere on the trail to La Nouvelle in Mafate. The coast of this former French colony is plagued by sharks, but its interior is an outdoorsy paradise. Picture: Gulshan Khan/The New York Times.

Why hiking beats surfing on Réunion island

By Rowan Moore Gerety Time of article published Jan 27, 2020

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On our first morning, we drove up from the coast into the Cirque de Salazie to Hellbourg, a quaint hamlet of narrow streets and gingerbread houses perched below the crater’s rim. A spur that connects to the GRR1 is one of several trails that leave right from the edge of town.

From the trailhead, we passed stands of giant bamboo and vast tangles of chayote squash, which grows wild throughout the wet, eastern side of the island, and followed switchbacks carved into a cliff face up to the Bélouve Forest.

There, you can stop for coffee at the Bélouve Inn (or even order a meal, if you call ahead) and tour a garage-sized exhibit on the forest’s history.

From there, the GRR1 heads north-west into a dense and impossibly wet woodland wreathed in arborescent ferns and carpeted with beds of moss nearly a metre deep.

The trail, maintained by the French forest service, is tricky but impeccably maintained. There are aluminium ladders and short bridges stretched over the most treacherous bits, and long spans of boardwalk covered in steel mesh to get through what is essentially a high-altitude marsh.

Look up and you may spot one of more than 160 species of orchids native to the island; look right and you may get vertigo - if you’re lucky. Réunion is barely 50km across.

But in the centre, the ancient volcanic peak of the Piton des Neiges rises above the clouds to a height of more than 3000m, creating myriad tiny microclimates on its slopes, and splitting the island into “wet” and “dry” sides. In Cilaos, we arrived at Case Nyala, a charming five-room bed-and-breakfast. Here, you’ll find local specialties like chicken stewed in vanilla and Gruyère gratins made with chayote squash or fresh hearts of palm, and plenty of options to wash them down - a bottle of local Cilaos wine or a pint of the island’s signature lager, the “Dodo”.

We shortened the next phase of the hike by taking a magenta-coloured city bus to a trailhead up the road. Here, at last, we were treated to a view as we climbed, tracing cloud shadows over the long, winding canyon that leads from Cilaos down to Réunion’s west coast, home of the island’s forbidden surf spots. Two hours of steady uphill brought us to the Col du Taibit, a knife-shaped outcropping marked by a trailside shrine to the Virgin Mary.

This rocky pass marks the southern entrance to Mafate, the third and most inaccessible of Réunion’s cirques.

There are still no roads that enter Mafate. Instead, the 10-odd villages scattered throughout the crater floor are supplied entirely by foot, by pack mule or, increasingly, by helicopter. Today, Mafate’s economy relies heavily on the hikers who pass through looking for rural relaxation and jaw-dropping mountain views.

Overhead, the buzz of helicopters bringing groceries and construction materials up from the coast has become a regular accompaniment to the sounds of rushing streams and bleating goats.

One of the true joys of backpacking in Réunion is that you don’t have to sleep in a tent if you don’t want to - or, for that matter, carry more than a change of clothes and snacks for the trail. In the dense web of highland hamlets dotting Mafate you can spend the night in a or bed-and-breakfast, where a hot meal awaits and a warm bed, too.

After a break, we hiked up to the ramparts separating Mafate from Salazie, where the fog had foiled our earlier attempts to see much of the eastern side of the island. At the pass, we were finally met with a view that matched the topography; waterfalls fell from every bright-green crevice of the peak overlooking Hellbourg, where our hike began.

When I first landed in Réunion, the mountains had been my refuge from homesickness on weekends when I didn’t have anyone in particular to see. It felt nice to come here with company. 

The New York Times

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