We stood on the rim of the caldera, the immense volcanic amphitheatre of the Cirque de Mafate, on the French island of Réunion. As far as the eye could see sheer walls of lush green vegetation encircled the seemingly endless and mythical world before us.
Technically part of France, yet sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Réunion is a land of contrasts. The perimeter of the island is hot and sunny, with sandy beaches and warm water. Whereas the mountainous interior boasts the highest point in the Indian Ocean, Piton des Neiges, and is cool, damp and regularly shrouded in clouds.
A huge part of Réunion’s appeal is found high above sea level, inside the towering volcanic calderas left behind from the island’s violent volcanic history. These calderas, or cirques, offer amazing hiking opportunities and have more than 1,000 kilometres of hiking trails.
Cirque de Mafate, on the rim of which we now stood, was formed when the magma chamber of Piton des Neiges, or ‘snow peak’, collapsed some three million years ago, and is unique in that the entire cirque, which contains over 200km of hiking trails, has no roads and is accessible only by foot or helicopter.
The name ‘Mafate’ comes from the Malagasy word ‘mahafaty’, which means ‘lethal’ or ‘the one who kills’, an allusion to the difficulty in accessing this cirque.
The first settlers arrived in Mafate’s lush volcanic crater in the 18th century. Today, Mafate’s roughly 800 inhabitants (known as Mafatais) live in tiny villages called îlets, a local Creole word that comes from the French, îlots, meaning ‘islands of greenery’. Approximately ten villages in the cirque consist of just a handful of colourful, tin-roofed houses. There is no electricity or water grid in the entire (approximately 100km²) valley.
Doctors, police officers, teachers or foresters, if or when needed, either have to hike in or be brought in by helicopter and the same for the residents’ provisions. In 2010, UNESCO designated Mafate (as well as Réunion’s two other, more accessible cirques and all the island’s pitons and ramparts) as a World Heritage site, and this has led to an increase in tourism in the area.
You could spend days hiking the network of beautiful trails covering Réunion Island, visiting rainforests, volcanoes and waterfalls while camping out or staying with local villagers in mountain gîtes (small cabins). Many people do multi-day or even week-long hikes through the cirques, but sadly, as we were challenged for time, our only option was a day hike down into Mafate.
Hiking is an excellent way to experience this wild and isolated area, though the hundreds of kilometres of trails are definitely not for those suffering from vertigo and should not be hiked alone. Fortunately I was was accompanied by Nico, a local Réunionese guide, who not only knew the way but also filled me in on all kinds of information as we descended through the gathering clouds and headed off into the wilderness of Réunion Island.
The amphitheatre-shaped valley is accessible from a half-dozen trail heads, some leading over steep mountain passes, others along rivers and gullies, which lead to the network of narrow hiking trails that connect the hamlets. We planned a steep, sharp decent to Roche Plate (1110m) which was somewhere way below us, tucked out of sight.
The sun slipped in and out from behind the clouds, and the temperature alternated from pleasantly cool to hot and humid. We were overtaken by some young, enthusiastic, rucksack-laden hikers who quite literally ran down the mountainside.
As we were only intending a day hike and had no intention of mimicking their frighteningly breakneck speed, we moved over and let them pass. As we descended we met red-faced, breathless hikers making their ascent back up the rugged steep valley walls – I tried not to think too much about the fact that this would be us in a few hours’ time!
We had planned to eat at one of the local gîtes when we reached Roche Plate, but the view was too breathtaking to contemplate eating indoors. Stopping at a vantage point just above the village we ate the traditional sweet potato cakes and pain au chocolat we had brought with us. The view was mesmerising and we spent an hour contemplating the vast expanse of the green volcanic crater in front of us.
Finally dragging ourselves away we began the steep ascent back the way we had come – fortunately arriving at the top a lot less red-faced than some of the other trekkers had been!
Hiking in an extinct volcano is definitely something to add to your bucket list, it is just as fantastic as it sounds.
My trip to Reunion was arranged by The Reunion Tourism Board whose website has a great deal of helpful information about the many aspects of this amazing destination, and Nicolas Cyprien was my guide while hiking Cirque de Mafate.