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.
"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
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!"