I felt excited as I stepped onto the plane. I hadn’t been on an adventure since Angela and I finished our year-long bicycle trip in April last year. Of course in the meantime we had planned a wedding, but that was an adventure of a different kind, where the journey isn’t quite as enjoyable as the destination, if you see what I mean. I wouldn’t even have been getting on that plane if it wasn’t for a random discussion with my friend Zsolt earlier in the year, during which he told me that Aurélie, Arnaud and him were planning a two-week hike on the French island of La Réunion in Autumn. I thought nothing of it at first, but after doing some research and seeing some photos of the place I quickly got itchy feet and felt the need to go and explore.
Arnaud, who had arrived some days earlier, came to greet us at the Saint Denis airport. “Pas de temps à perdre, we have a bus to catch in five minutes”, he told us. Feeling guilty for having wasted time at the arrivals (for some reason I had failed to recognize by backpack until it had done three loops on the conveyor belt) I rushed out of the building into the hot and humid air of the island’s biggest city. That’s right, hot and humid. In case you didn’t know, La Réunion is situated in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. The climate is tropical and the summer was just starting as we arrived. This isn’t the main reason why I chose to go there though. As a matter of fact I see myself more as an Eskimo: I would rather draw angels in the snow than sweat my balls off in hot temperatures and stuffy air…
Once on the bus we finally had time to catch up with Arnaud. I hadn’t seen him in almost four years! Passionate about paragliding, he had arrived earlier than us in order to enjoy some of the prime flying locations offered by the island. Unfortunately the weather had been awful so he had spent time exploring some of the cities instead, until we arrived. After a while we sat back in our seats and observed the scenery through the grubby bus windows. If it wasn’t for the humidity and the palms trees, I would not have guessed that I had left continental Europe. Everything looked exactly like in France: the signs, the roads, the billboards, the supermarkets and even the boulangeries. I started dozing off when the sound of clapping hands startled me. What was going on? There was no music playing inside the bus and the locals were certainly not applauding the driving abilities of the driver, who seemed to think he was taking part in the La Réunion Grand Prix. It turned out to be the gesture used everywhere on the island to indicate that one wishes to get off at the next bus stop. No fancy buttons inside buses here, we were definitely not in the “metropole”, as the inhabitants of the island call France. We arrived in Hell Bourg, in the Salazie caldera, and after a late lunch found the gîte that Arnaud had booked for the night. We organised our bags, sharing some of the common equipment , had a quick bite for diner (during which Zsolt almost crushed one of my toes under his chair) and finally went to bed, all excited about starting the hike the next day.
In retrospect I think we bit more than we could chew on that first day. Our aim was to reach the village of La Nouvelle, which meant crossing from the Salazie to the Mafate caldera over the Fourche saddle (1946m). We started rather late (by hikers’ standards) and baked in the blazing heat as soon as we left the shaded city-centre. After about twenty minutes we met a couple of hikers coming from the opposite direction, with a dog. The dog wasn’t theirs but it had followed them for a couple of hours. We parted ways and soon realised that the dog had decided to come with us instead. Maybe because of the huge saucisson that Arnaud was carrying in his backpack… Even though we all suffered from the heat, the first part of the day was rather easy, the trail either going downhill or remaining flat. It was however way past midday when we reached the bottom of the mountain separating the two calderas and we still had more than 900m altitude difference to climb. We were still getting used to our heavy backpacks so it was quite hard work but thankfully the temperature cooled down significantly as soon as we reached the clouds. When we reached the saddle the clouds decided to let some sun shine through and were rewarded with beautiful views of the mountains forming the Mafate caldera. Unfortunately reaching the top of a mountain doesn’t mean you can rest your legs… As opposed to cycling, where you can just sit back and let the gravity work its magic, hiking downhill still requires a lot of effort and concentration. Ask any hikers and 90% will tell you that they prefer going up than down. Actually that’s a lie. Most of them will probably tell you that they prefer flat trails! As we started the descent a sign at the top of the saddle indicated 1h30 to La Nouvelle. Exhausted and hungry, we felt like we were making good progress until we came across another sign, after half an hour later, stating that we still had another 1h25 left! We arrived in La Nouvelle just before dusk and headed straight to the campsite; once the tents were up and standing it was completely dark. The little village was obviously not connected any the electricity grids and the few lights we saw were provided by fuel generators. Using our head lamps we made our way to the centre in search of something to eat, unfortunately the one open place we found only served food to hikers who had booked in advance. We had almost given up when one of the boys working there told us that they had lots of left-overs and we could buy some! We agreed and he came back with four dodos (the Réunion beer) and four take-away boxes filled to the rim with rougaille saucisse, a traditional dish of the island consisting of slices of sausages, rice and diced tomatoes mixed with very spicy chillies. It felt like heaven after such a hard day. Interestingly the dog, who was a she, was still with us. She didn’t look like a stray dog, she had a collar and a tattoo inside her right ear, so we had assumed that she would have turned around at some point and gone back to her owner. We had purposefully not given her any food, as we knew that she wouldn’t have left us otherwise, but it seemed that she had decided to go on an adventure too, so we gave her the name Chouchou, after a local vegetable.
Our destination for the second day was Roche Platte, another small village west of La Nouvelle but on the other side of a deep valley. We packed everything up and after some porridge started the descent towards la Rivière des Galets, a small river at the bottom of the valley. We reached the water by lunchtime and enjoyed a cool swim with Zsolt while Arnaud and Aurélie relaxed on the massive boulders lining the river. We then followed the river for a while, climbing up and down rocks, sometimes using steep ladders. Chouchou was obviously not used to this sort of terrain, and on a few occasions she could not find a way down high boulders so we would carry her. The passage over the river was quite tricky and earlier that day we had met a hiker who had fallen into the water there (I had wondered why his shoes were wet and why he was walking almost naked) so we crossed it carefully. The climb on the other side back to the top of the valley was as strenuous as the one of the previous day but with my short and hefty legs I was generally quite fast going up, which earned me the nickname “the Machine”… Though I always took regular breaks and waited for the rest of the group to catch up. The scenery was magnificent and sometimes reminded me so much of the opening scene of Jurassic Park that I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a Velociraptor hiding behind a bush… Clouds had gathered (as they did everyday from about 11AM) by the time we arrived in Roche Platte and the village was hidden in a thick fog. We found a campsite, pitched our tents and then made our way to one of the shops we had at the entrance of the village. It was still closed when we showed up the owner popped his head over the fence of his house and informed us that he would open in five minutes. We bought some snacks for the next day and some food to cook for the evening; prices were high, but there were no roads leading to those parts of the island and supplies had to be brought in either by foot or helicopter. The owner then told us he was about to play pétanque with a friend and invited us to join him. Judging by the thrashing we received, I suspect them to lure innocent and tired hikers into playing against them every day just for the pleasure of showing off… Still, it was another great way to finish off a hard day.
We woke up early the next day to a wonderful and clear view of the caldera. The previous evening we hadn’t been able to see further than five metres and now we realised how much of the scenery had been hidden in the clouds. By the time we left the village the sun was already burning and after half an hour we bumped into the owner of the shop, who was walking back towards Roche Platte with many bags of supply. What time must he have woken up? We headed north and up towards the Orangers crest and then down again into another valley and along another river, Chouchou still accompanying us. She was always the centre of attention every time we met locals or other hikers and everyone was always surprised to hear that she had been following us for three days now. After another swim in the river followed by a bleak coffee break in Les Orangers, we reached Ilets des Lataniers early in the afternoon and stopped for lunch. Grand Place, our aim for the day, could be seen on the other side of the valley. We looked for a restaurant but none of them would serve food unless you had booked a meal in advance. That was generally the case in the more remote parts of the island and a source of great frustration, at least for me. The same applied to gîtes where you could sleep: most hikers booked those places months in advance and all the ones we saw were full. So the only way to choose and adapt our route on a day to day basis was to carry a tent and your own food. A heavy backpack was the price to pay for flexibility. After lunch we continued down until we reached the bridge crossing the Rivière des Galets, by which point we were at an altitude of 350m. This was the lowest we had been since the beginning of the hike and the most humid the air had felt ever since coming out of the airport. By the time we climbed back up to Grand Place we were naturally all sweating profusely. At one point we were following a high vertical stone wall when suddenly we heard loud noises above our heads. Arnaud quickly grabbed Zsolt and Aurélie and shouted “quick, against the wall!” while I stupidly ran away, probably screaming like a little girl. Luckily the rocks crashed a couple of meters ahead of us, the biggest one probably the size of my head (and I have a big head), otherwise it could have been fatal for one of us. Remember that scene in Lord of the Rings, when the Fellowship tries to pass the mountain of Caradhras but fails because of falling rocks? Well it was almost as scary as that. Almost. No need to say we got out of there as quickly as possible! Upon arrival at the village’s campsite, we were told that a helicopter was about to land on the highest pitch in order to pick up a cable that had been left there a couple of days before. We all gathered as close as possible, excited like puppies at a picnic. I don’t know if any of the others had ever been that close to a moving helicopter, I certainly hadn’t. The pilot landed the beast, the cable was loaded and everything was over within a minute. Fast but impressive! While taking turns to shower, we chatted with the owner of the campsite, who can’t have been older than sixteen. He had been expelled from school, for “complicated” reasons and now earned a living partly running the campsite but mainly selling weed. He seemed quite happy with his life. Once dry and clean we all headed back to the village’s shop for some well deserved beers, but after a while a group of local men arrived and directly took a great interest in Chouchou. One of them even offered to buy her in order to train her as a hunting dog. Chouchou got scared and nervous so we left and went back to the campsite to cook dinner, worried that someone might come and kidnap her during the night. Nothing happened though, and all I heard during the night was the owner coming back from the shop and offering Zsolt some “cannabis”…
The aim for the fourth day of the trek was to hike to the city of Dos d’Ane and catch a bus down to Etang-Salé les Bains, a little town on the west coast of the island where we could have a rest day. We left Grand Place and made our way back down to the Galets River again, following it downstream towards the north-west of the island. The sun was strong but the path initially followed the east side of the valley so we were in the shade most of the time. Zsolt and I made it our duty to go for a swim as soon as we could, and that’s exactly what we did once the path crossed the river two hours later. After that the valley opened up and the path followed the river bank for about three kilometres. I realised at that point that it was the first time since the beginning of the hike that the terrain had remained flat for longer that 200m… That Sunday walk in the park was however soon over and we started the long and steep four-kilometre climb back up the side of the valley towards Dos d’Ane. It was extremely hot and humid for the first part of it and we all struggled, even Chouchou: she would lie down as soon as she could and have a little nap. The trail became very technical and difficult in some areas, with massive boulders to climb and ropes or ladders to help you up and down. It was hard work (imagine doing hundreds of squats in a row with 15kg of your shoulders in 30°C heat) but I actually really enjoyed it. I would concentrate on my breathing and try to climb the countless switchbacks as quickly as I could without burning myself out (probably some leftovers from my rowing days…). The rain had started when we finally arrived in Dos d’Ane so we took shelter under a roof in front of a church, feeling wet and cold, and addressed the elephant in the room: what were we going to do with Chouchou? We had really enjoyed her company during those four days but as much as we would have liked it, we all knew that she could not continue with us: dogs were not allowed on buses or at the campsite where we were going to stay the next couple of nights. We also didn’t want to just abandon her on the side of the road, it would have been too mean. We first looked for a veterinarian in Dos d’Ane but the only one we could find was out of town. Aurelie then made a few phone calls and eventually found the number of a vet in the next big city. The lady who picked up the phone sounded taken aback at first that someone would actually bother reporting a missing dog but soon made it her mission to find the owner. Eventually she sent a friend over to look after Chouchou for the night, until she could pick her up herself the next day. By that point our bus was about to arrive, so we just had enough time left to pick up our gear, say goodbye to Chouchou and rush to the bus stop to catch our ride. Everyone in the bus was silent, tired after the day’s efforts but also sad to have left the dog behind. I would not admit it at the time (I didn’t want to risk losing my nickname “the Machine”) but I had to swallow hard to suppress the tears in my eyes. But the mood quickly improved when we got our first glance of the Indian Ocean through the windows, and once we reached the beach in Etang-Salé les Bains just in time for sunset with a beer, we were damn-right cheerful!
You can see more photos of the trip here!