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French flavours — volcanic setting

25 January 2013

Réunion Island is little known as a tourist destination - but that is only part of its charm, says Nicki Grihault


Valley: Plaine des Sables, near the active volcano Piton de la Fournaise, in the centre of Réunion Island

Valley: Plaine des Sables, near the active volcano Piton de la Fournaise, in the centre of Réunion Island

THE helicopter banks to the right, skimming over the top of the mountain. I draw a sharp intake of breath as we career over a vast caldera, thousands of feet beneath. Venturing lower into the Cirque de Mafate - one of three calderas on Réunion Island - tiny hamlets can be seen on top of "ilets", or volcanic plugs, not yet reached by the morning sun.

Mafate means "lethal" in Malagasy, the language of runaway slaves that once hid in this caldera, the least accessible of Réunion's cirques, created by the collapse of a shield volcano 2.5 million years ago. They were later joined by white farmers, and a 700-strong solar-powered semi-self-sufficient community now lives here.

With no roads, the children of Mafate draw pictures of helicopters before they ever draw cars; the cirque is one of Réunion Island's most popular tourist attractions.

Although just a 40-minute flight from Mauritius, Réunion Island, a 30-mile-wide French outpost in the Indian Ocean, is less widely known.

Good roads for self-drive, the French language, and the euro provide the comforts of mainland France; but the Jurassic Park-like scenery is the island's main draw.

This untamed volcanic landscape covers 40 per cent of the island, and is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed National Park. Within it lie primary rainforest, cloud (or fog) forest, and heathland that shelters wild orchids and endemic birds in 200 microclimates.

Although Piton des Neiges (Snow Peak), in the centre, gave birth to the island, it is the one-day hike to the 2631-metre-high eastern peak Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace) - one of the world's most active volcanoes - which is the most exciting.

"I'm hoping for an eruption," our guide, Mathieu, says, as we follow him across a kilometre-long plateau of twisted, rope-like lava to the base of Le Volcan (The Volcano), as it is known locally. He tells the tale of how, as a teenager, he was standing near the peak during an eruption when a volcanic fissure opened beneath him, and his mother had to yell "Run!"

Click to enlarge


Stunning: www.reunion.fr


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