After a rest day which involved a lot of eating, swimming in the ocean and eating again, Aurélie, Arnaud, Zsolt and I took a succession of buses and travelled back to the centre of the island up the N3 road (the only one that crosses from west to east). The last bus dropped us off next to a football field where the driver said we could find water, one or two kilometres before the intersection with the GR R2 hiking path. Our plan was to wild camp the next two nights on our way to the Piton des Neiges, the highest point of the island at 3070m.

We knew that there were not going to be any water points during the first day, so we filled up all our bottles as well as a four-litre water bag. The first five kilometres on tarmac took forever and felt rather boring compared to what we had experienced until now. As good as they were going uphill, my short and beefy legs proved useless on long flat sections, and I soon found myself miles behind everyone else. The extra four kilos of water I was carrying made the walk harder than usual, so I put my earphones in and listened to the Lord of the Rings audiobooks to distract my mind from my painful feet. “If that ring weighed anything near what my backpack does today, no wonder Frodo kept whining all the time” I told myself. The hike became more interesting as soon as we left the road but low trees on each side of the trail blocked the view of the surrounding landscape. We had no idea where we were in comparison to the Piton des Neiges and not once saw an adequate place for camping. Eventually, after five hours of tiresome walking, the forest opened up a bit and we walked onto a large clearing with a small pond and thick ankle-high grass. A bunch of hikers had arrived before us and were already gathered around a big camp fire, so we pitched our tents not far and went over to introduce ourselves. They were a group of friends who all worked on the island and often hiked to some remote parts of the island to wild camp and party. We spent a nice evening with them, talking, laughing and enjoying some cheap red wine out of a plastic bag and some “rhum arrangé” (homemade flavoured rum). Although we all had warm sleeping bags and wore all the clothes we owned, that night turned out to be the coldest of the whole trip, with the humidity slowly creeping through all our layers until it reached our bones.

La Réunion The beach at Etang-Salé les Bains.

La Réunion Another day, another sunset!

La Réunion The gang enjoying the last traces of daylight.

La Réunion Back on the road towards Piton des Neiges.

Another long hike all the way to the top of the Piton des Neiges awaited us the next day so we set our alarms early. The tents were drenched when we woke up, but the warm sun quickly dried them. The trail first followed a mountain ridge, which offered stunning views of the Cilaos caldera and the city of Cilaos right below us. Around lunchtime we reached the gîte du Piton des Neiges and stopped for a short break to have some food and replenish our water supplies. Normally hikers would call it a day there and wake up really early the next morning to climb the rest of the mountain and watch the sunrise, but from the start we had all agreed that it would be more fun to camp at the summit. Our only concern was that, once at the top, we would find ourselves in the clouds again and miss out on the views. Luckily the fog that surrounded the gîte had cleared up by the time we reached the summit and the sun was shining brightly, while all around us white fluffy clouds covered the island. We set up camp not far from the peak inside two of the many circular stone walls that a succession of hikers had built over the years to protect the tents from the wind. With only four or five other hikers up there that evening we had the whole summit almost to ourselves. It was blissfully quiet and the air had that enjoyable crispness and clarity typical of higher altitudes. We just sat there and enjoyed the dramatic surroundings until sunset, feeling exhilarated and proud. I could have flown over there just for that wonderful evening at the top of the Piton des Neiges…

La Réunion Morning view from my tent.

La Réunion The temperature dropped below zero the night.

La Réunion The top of the Piton des Neiges in the background was our goal for the day.

La Réunion Arriving at the gîte du Piton des Neiges, together with the clouds.

La Réunion The only photo of myself in action!

La Réunion Setting up camp at the top of the Piton des Neiges.

La Réunion Mordor.

La Réunion Arnaud on top of the world!

La Réunion The mountain’s shadow above everything else in the east.

La Réunion The gang at sunset.

La Réunion And it’s gone…

La Réunion I was not the only one enjoying the photographic potential of this amazing place.

It got dark very quickly but the full moon gave me some excellent natural light for a night photo-session. I decided to wake up again at 4AM the next morning to take some photos of the stars without the moon, but soon realised that I wasn’t alone. Outside the tent was a long uninterrupted trail of headlamps zigzagging up from the bottom of the mountain all the way to the summit. I asked a man who was walking past me where he had come from: “From Cilaos” was his answer. “We left the city at midnight”. It made for an impressive view, but I couldn’t stop thinking how determined some people were to get the best seats for the sunrise show. It also convinced me once and for all that we had made the right choice when we deciding to camp at the top. The sky in the east was already turning red so I quickly woke up my companions and together we walked to the highest point of the island and waited patiently for the sun to rise. The clouds had completely vanished and once the sun appeared we were rewarded with a wonderful 360° view of the whole island and the ocean surrounding it. We could see as far as Mauritius to the north-east and, we think, Madagascar to the west (although someone later told us it was impossible). After a quick breakfast we packed up our gear and started the hike down the mountain on the same trail we used the day before. Following another quick break at the gîte we left the mountain ridge and headed down the side of the Cilaos caldera along a steep and rocky path all the way in into Cilaos. We were pretty fast going down, with Arnaud setting a monstrous pace, and actually arrived in the city early in the afternoon, just in time for a rougaille saucisse lunch. The buses from Cilaos back to the coast were not very regular, leaving every two hours or so. We had the choice between catching one in half an hour or hanging around until the next one came. Someone had told us that there were thermal baths somewhere north of the centre so we decided to stay a little longer and set out to find them. As it turned out they were quite far and, even worse, quite high up. By the time I got there I was the last man standing, everyone else having dropped out along the way, waiting to see if those baths actually existed before taking another step forward. As a matter of fact they did exist, but were not at all what we had expected: no swimming pool, just beauty treatment in different sorts of bath tubs… Damnit! It had taken me twenty minutes to get up there and now we had seven minutes left until the departure of the first bus. Could we still make it? I quickly ran back to inform the Arnaud and Zsolt, who in turn signalled to Aurelie in the distance to backtrack. She got there just in time and used just enough cunning tricks (“what ze hell, I forgot my wallet in the baggage hold!”) to delay the bus and allow us to make it too. Good girl. The bus ride from 1220m back to sea level required some excellent skills from the driver, with a lot of switchbacks and tunnel crossings, one so tight that there were only a couple of centimetres of space left on each side of the windows. Apparently a circus truck got stuck in the middle of that tunnel a few years back and had to be cut in half in order to be pulled out…

La Réunion Sleeping under the stars.

La Réunion The crowd gathers at the summit for sunrise.

La Réunion The Piton des Neiges gets the first sunrays of the day.

La Réunion The shadow is back, this time in the west!

La Réunion The sun rising above the Piton de la Fournaise.

La Réunion Arnaud looking very much like a sherpa after a week of hiking.

La Réunion On our way back down.

La Réunion Wonderful views of the caldera and the city of Cilaos.

La Réunion A pink house in Cilaos.

La Réunion A tight fit…

La Réunion Waiting for our next bus in Saint Louis.

We went back to Etang-Salé les Bains and this time we enjoyed another day break at the beach. We really liked that spot, it was quiet, had shops and good restaurants and a little snack-bar right next to the ocean. What else can you ask for? The campsite was cheap, clean and empty but most importantly had not one but TWO ping pong tables (the wrath of Aurélie’s forehand will be told in legends for centuries to come). It was also really close to the only beach on the island where you could swim without having to worry about your head getting ripped off by a shark. There had been a lot of shark attacks on humans in the months leading to our stay on the island, the last one just fifteen days before our arrival. A surfer had decided to ignore the swimming and surfing bans and had his leg nipped by a shark. Apparently all that was left when the paramedics arrived were the bones… But the beach in Etang-Salé les Bains was protected by a long coral reef so it was safe to swim there. For our last day of hiking we decided to rent a car in order to save time getting to the start of the trail to the Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano that last erupted in December 2010. We woke up early that morning, hoping to beat the crowd, but by the time we arrived there the car park was already packed with small white rental cars. That trail is the only famous one on the island that is accessible by road, so we knew what to expect, but I turned out to be a lot worse than we thought. From the start of the trail we could see a continuous line of hikers, as far as the eye could see, heading in the same direction. It felt like a German autobahn: a lot of traffic, with some fast cars but also some really slow ones which are always a pain in the backside to overtake. On the positive side the scenery was like nothing I had ever seen before: an area around the volcano of at least four kilometres in diameter covered in nothing but reddish solidified lava. This lunar landscape extended even further towards the east, where the lava had trickled down the slope of the island into the ocean. Many craters and spatter cones could be seen on the surface everywhere. We also noticed a lot of helicopters flying about and soon understood why: once on the slope of the mountain the volcanic rock turned into loose gravel, which causes many hikers to slip and fall. At some point along the trail I was ordered to stop in order to let a girl get winched up into a low-flying helicopter. Quite an impressive view. Nearly as impressive as the view of the Dolomieu crater that awaited us at the top of the volcano. It is almost a kilometre wide and if you look closely you can see smoke still coming out of it at the bottom. The trail was supposed to go around the crater and back down on the other side, but some of it had collapsed inside the volcano so we had to hike back the same way, together with the million other hikers…

La Réunion On our way to the top of the volcano.

La Réunion Walking on solid lava ripples!

La Réunion One of many spatter cones around the volcano.

La Réunion A woman being rescued after injuring herself.

La Réunion Panoramic view of the Dolomieu crater.

La Réunion The gang on top of the Piton de la Fournaise.

La Réunion The amazing road to the volcano.

Aurelie, Arnaud and Zsolt decided that we should go and visit a fish market in Saint Gilles the next day. They told me we should leave really early because the market didn’t stay open for very long. I thought nothing of it, quite happy to do something different. The next morning I took a bit longer than expected to get ready, thinking that the market wasn’t going to disappear if we were a quarter of an hour late, but the guys seemed a bit stressed and kept asking me to hurry up. We drove off in a hurry towards the north east of the island but after a while Arnaud left the main road and headed back towards the coast. I still didn’t suspect anything, simply thinking that we were taking the scenic route instead. I first realised that something was off when the car suddenly turned into a car park and everyone started yelling and ordering me to get out of the car… I followed them, wondering what was going on, until I saw the sign over the building in front of me: “Paragliding School”! The cheeky bastards had made up the fish market story just to get me out here and take me on a maiden paragliding flight for my birthday. Brilliant! The flight itself was an amazing experience, with a good adrenaline rush during take-off and stunning views of the coast and ocean once in the air. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me, deciding instead to rely on the instructor’s GoPro, but the silly bugger realised after takeoff that he had forgotten to put an SD card back in the device… It didn’t matter, I still had a great time, thanks for the amazing birthday present guys!

La Réunion Zsolt. Because he’s worth it.

La Réunion Local kids playing in the Indian Ocean at dusk.

La Réunion Fishermen back in Saint Gilles les Bains after a successful trip.

La Réunion Black sand and city lights at night.

La Réunion On the bus back to Saint Denis.

We enjoyed one more sunset on the beach in Etang-Salé les Bains and one more delicious dinner at Le Bambou restaurant (the owner, who knew us personally by that point, kept trying to charm Aurélie by offering her sweeties after every meal) and the next day travelled back to Saint Denis the long way around (i.e. along the coast anti-clockwise). It was time for us to have one last rougaille saucisse (and for Zsolt to kill his last cockroaches) before catching our flight back to Paris. Those two weeks on La Réunion Island had been wonderful experience and no one really felt like going back to work in the miserable winter weather. Actually that’s a lie: I was by then quite looking forward to making those angels in the snow. But don’t tell the others, they’ll think I’m mad.

You can see more photos of the trip here!