Unpacking after a short stay on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, I came across a notepad tucked under a pair of damp, smelly sneakers in the bottom of my suitcase. On the cover of the notepad were the words: “Rum. Friendly People. Vanilla. Rainbow Nation. Mad Driving.” The remaining pages were blank. Thanks to the excessive amounts of rum concoctions I consumed, I had only a vague memory of writing these words. The name Réunion could not be more appropriate – everywhere one visits one is welcomed like a long-lost friend.
Although only 200km from Mauritius, Réunion is seen as a sister island to Hawaii, as both formed at volcanic “hot spots”, where magma broke through the Earth’s surface. The island’s Piton de la Fournaise (“Peak of the Furnace”) is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Three calderas have formed from the volcanic action and erosion on the island, each with their own unique scenery.
Starting the exploration of Réunion at its northernmost point, the capital city of Saint-Denis, I met my guide, Nicolas Cyprien. Our plan was to do a clockwise whistle-stop exploration of the island, ending back in Saint-Denis.
As we wound up the hair-raising hairpin turns into the largest of the calderas, Salazie, the air became crisp. One never knows how to dress in Réunion. Driving from the warm beach weather in St-Denis, we searched for jerseys as the car climbed through the clouds into the village of Hell-Bourg, which holds the Guinness world record for the most rainfall in a single day. Waterfalls appear out of the clouds and cascade down every crevice in the cliffs surrounding the village.
The island is a melting pot of cultures. Colonised by the French in the 17th century under the name of Bourbon Island, its name was changed to Réunion after the fall of the French monarchy during the revolution. Most of the early inhabitants from China, India and Madagascar have created their own dialects. “You think South Africa is the rainbow nation,” Nicolas comments as we walk through the streets of Hell-Bourg. “We have been the rainbow nation for hundreds of years.” Nicolas points out that residents originating from the French mainland, like himself, are known as “les Oreilles” – big ears, as they have to listen carefully to understand the local Creole.
On the eastern slopes of the island, the Piton de la Fournaise continues to shape the landscape . The people of Réunion are very proud that the red-lava volcano is one of the safest to live on in the world and volcanologists come from around the globe to study it. The volcano is largely safe due to the type of lava that erupts from it and the fact that the caldera has naturally formed two walls stretching from the summit out towards the sea, directing the lava flows away from the island’s interior.
The “sand-pit”, caused by thousands of years of ash and lava spewing out, gives one a sense of the scale of the forces that created the island. It stretches for many kilometres and is devoid of any life, barring the occasional car, brim-filled with tourists headed towards the volcano. The volcano itself is an awe-inspiring sight and had me grabbing at the widest possible camera lens to fit the massive cone in the frame.
I am convinced that the people of Réunion have evolved a sixth sense when it comes to driving the twisty, narrow roads that cling precariously to the cliff faces. Drivers face the fate of hundreds of metres of sheer drops if they make one mistake, yet they all manage to keep the wheels on the road while driving at speeds that at times had me closing my eyes, expecting the end.
On the road from the small, mountain village of Cilaos, we came to the location of the highlight of the trip: canyoning down Fleurs Jaunes. Dressed in thick, rubber wetsuits, we descended waterfalls connected by ropes and harnesses. Perched atop the highest abseil, some 50m, where the pool below looked like a mere puddle, one feels insignificant in the grandness of the landscape. Réunion really is the best of the world found on one small island.
Asked what the word paradise means to them, some people have visions of themselves on a warm beach, sipping a mojito while listening to the waves crashing on the shore. Others may think of hiking in alpine countryside. Adventurous types might imagine perching precariously on the summit of a mountain after a gruelling climb. I’ve always thought of paradise as a mix of the best there is out there, from the beaches to the alpine landscape – it’s the feeling one gets from being immersed in something that is beyond what they could even imagine. I found my paradise in Réunion. – Heaven’s Hotspot – Daniel Born