Tue Nov 1st, 2011 at 05:49:01 PM EST
Last October, my wife and I visited the island of la Réunion, both for a vacation and a family visit (my brother lives there).
La Réunion is a volcanic island in the Southern Indian Ocean, about 200 km from Mauritius.
While both islands are volcanic in origin, la Réunion is much younger - geologically speaking - than its neighbor Mauritius where the erosion has smoothed the terrain over the ages, allowing for a large coral reef lagoon and white sand beaches to develop. La Réunion on the other end is barely three million years ago, created out of two volcanoes: Piton des Neiges and Piton de la Fournaise (all mountain peaks on the island are called "pitons"). The Piton des Neiges is no longer active and three volcanic calderas around it have collapsed over time, creating the three main cirques in the middle of the island: Cirque de Salazie, Cirque de Cilaos and Cirque de Mafate. The Piton de la Fournaise is still very much an active volcano: no eruption while we were there (sadly), but the last one was in December 2010. The two mountain ranges are connected by high plateaus called "plaines": La Plaine des Palmistes and La Plaine des Cafres.
So the terrain on Réunion island is much more rugged than in Mauritius: there are only a few coral lagoons and a limited number of beaches, mostly on the West coast (also called "côte sous le vent" - leeward coast), such as Boucan Canot or Saint Gilles. Actually, the most spectacular features of La Réunion are inland: in 2010, the "pitons, cirques and remparts (cliffs)" have been officially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors and natives alike are hiking the mountain trails, and Sunday family picnics up in "les hauts" (the heights) are a strongly rooted tradition.
Satellite view of Réunion island, from NASA (via Wiki). More pictures to follow below the fold...
The population in La Réunion is very diverse: many slaves were brought in from Africa. After the abolition of slavery in 1848, at the behest of Victor Schoelcher, the plantation owners looked for contract workers from Madagascar and India; there were also a lot of immigrants from mainland France. Although most cities on the coast are named after a Catholic saint, the main cities like Saint Denis in the North or Saint Pierre in the South have all kinds of places of worship: a cathedral on one block, a mosque on the next, then a Hindu temple followed by a Buddhist temple, a Catholic church and so on...
Tamul Hindu temple in Saint Pierre
A few buildings:
City hall in Saint Pierre
Old sugar cane mill near Saint Gilles
Creole house in Hell-Bourg, cirque de Salazie
Note: Hell-Bourg was named after Louis de Hell, governor of the island around 1840 and is actually a pleasant mountain resort where people from Saint-Denis come to escape the heat during the summer (Summer is December-March; this is the Southern hemisphere, remember).
I mentioned a few beaches on the West coast; unfortunately many of them were closed, following a series of shark attacks: one surfer killed in Boucan Canot last July and another one in Saint Gilles in September, a few weeks before our visit. Local authorities launched a shark fishing campaign, but only one fish was caught (300 kg still...); other beaches , such as Saint Leu or Saint Pierre were still open (and surfers moved over there).
Les Roches Noires beach in Saint Gilles: closed to swimming despite the school break, following a shark attack last September
School picnic under the filao trees in Saint Leu
Saint Leu is a renowned surfing spot. The West coast is well exposed to the trade winds and the small coral reef with the quasi-absence of a lagoon allow some good waves to develop.
Outta my way shark! I'm off surfin' !
Incidentally Saint Leu is also the spot for paragliding (the landing place is on a beach right next to the surfers).
Most of the island coast has no sand beaches at all; there are some natural basalt rock tide pools, such as this one in Manapany on the south shore:
The Southern hemisphere contains even less land masses than the Northern one: here in Manapany, on the southern shore, we are under tropical latitudes (21 degrees South); if we sail south from here, it's open seas all the way to the Antartica, some 8000 km away... Similarly open seas to the east: the Western Australia coast is a good 6000 km from there.
Up in the mountains
La Réunion is a mountainous island: the highest point is the Piton des Neiges, topping at 3070 m (10700 ft).
Piton des Neiges (3070 m) on the left and Gros Morne (3019 m) on the right.
Around the giant mass of the Piton des Neiges, three large circular valleys (cirques) have been formed. The Cirque de Salazie is on the northeast:
Cirque de Salazie seen from the Bélouve forest, early in the morning before the clouds move in...
There's plenty of water in Salazie: the cirque is facing the rainy east coast (windward coast) and is often filled in with clouds. Two big waterfalls, Cascade Blanche and Voile de la Mariée are flowing inside the cirque; I've posted the pictures in last Friday's Photo blog.
The Cirque de Cilaos is in the South:
Another valley called "Grand Bassin" near Cilaos:
Grand Bassin and the coastal town of Saint Louis
A tropicbird (named "paille-en-queue" in Réunion and Mauritius)
The third cirque, Cirque de Mafate, in the northwest, is a special case: Mafate has no roads of any sort; it is only accessible by foot or helicopter. Settlers moved there in the 19th century having been ruined by one of the many economic slumps and started planting their crops. Nowadays, Mafate is a hiker's haven (unfortunately disturbed by frequent helicopter flights). We haven't hiked it in its entirety, but we could see some of it from a viewpoint named Roche Verre Bouteille, reachable after an hour's walk.
Cirque de Mafate seen from Roche Verre Bouteille
Swallows (Mascarene Martin) and spiders are waiting for insects pushed over the rim by the trade winds
Plants and Trees
As in Mauritius, the main crop in La Réunion is the sugarcane, covering hectares of fields on all coasts; other crops also include some vanilla (Bourbon vanilla) and geranium used in fragrances. Local produce includes both tropical plants (mangoes, papayas, pineapples, oranges,...) and temperate plants like tomatoes.
On the coasts, the commonly found trees are the filao trees and the inevitable coconut trees and palm trees.
Up the mountains however, the forests are totally different: highland tamarins and some very unique tree ferns.
Highland tamarin trees and tree ferns in the Bélouve forest
Tree ferns in the forest near La Plaine des Cafres
Tree fern on the rim overlooking the cirque de Salazie
Rain forest near La Plaine des Cafres. Wild orchids are growing on rotting tree trunks
Arum wildflowers in the forest
Platane tree near Cilaos sprouting new leaves: it's spring time in the southern hemisphere!
OK, enough pictures for a single diary. In the next part, we'll visit the volcano (hot stuff!).