I love hiking. Well, I love the idea of hiking. Even now, thinking about going on a hike seems like a good idea. It’s the act of hiking I’m not so keen on. Post-hike memories are also pleasant, but the actual part where you have to put one foot in front of the other up steep mountainsides and down again, that’s the part I don’t like. And it’s this fondness for the idea of hiking that lead me to arrange a three-day trip into the mountains of Reunion Island.
Ever since my first visit to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of hiking to the small cirque of Mafate, which is only accessible by foot or by air. So, in October of last year, I had the opportunity to hike one of the easier routes on the island. With over 1000km’s of hiking trails, Reunion has routes for everyone from your average office worker who likes a stroll on the weekend, to the hard-core hiker who annoyingly refers to the activity as “trekking”.
Hiking on Reunion Island requires a bit of commitment, an appetite for adventure and a moderate level of fitness. I was not fit by any stretch of the imagination (I was just emerging from a winter of sitting in front of my computer, eating hot chips to keep warm), but all my limbs are in a working condition. Yes, there were times when I just kept repeating “I hate hiking, I hate hiking” over and over again in my mind (ok yes, and out loud). But those parts only happened every couple of hours, and when they did, our hiking guide Veronique, would casually hand me a fig biscuit and I’d be happy to carry on for a while.
I think what makes the aching muscles, sore feet, rivers of sweat, tears and sometimes even blood worth the effort, is the extreme level of satisfaction that comes at the end of a hike. It’s that first cold beer at the end of the day, the dip in an icy mountain rock pool, the view from the top of an incline you never thought you’d see the end of. It’s the thought that you’ve been to places that few people will ever see, and your very own capable body took you there.
Hiking to the remote cirque of Mafate
Our 3-day hike started in the cirque of Salazie, and took us up and down some pretty steep routes, into the heart of the almost mystical Mafate; a cluster of small villages, completely cut off from the rest of the island and home to only 800 people. Here, groceries are delivered by helicopter once a week. Everything is recycled. Electricity is solar-powered. Locals speak mostly Creole, and only sometimes French. Kids who live in Mafate hike to school, or teachers hike into the village each week. The one preacher hikes from village to village, spreading his Word. Thousands of people travel from France every year to hike to this unique place. It’s a place unlike any other I’ve experienced – remote and secluded, yet not primitive in any way.
Accommodation is offered at hostels, known locally as gitês. There are private rooms available at some, but most often the accommodation is in shared rooms of 6-8 people. Meals are shared at a long table; dinner is at 7pm. After 9pm, the electricity is shut off for the night. But I was so tired that I hadn’t made any plans other than to sleep anyway.
The food served at dinner is a selection of local dishes; a starter of choux-choux gratin (an adaptation of a potato bake, made from a vegetable that tastes a bit like marrow) and a main meal of rice, lentils and duck or sausage stew. It’s all washed down with a shot of rhum-arrangé; local rum, infused with whatever the owner likes. Sometimes guava, sometimes vanilla, sometimes the fragrant leaves of a local orchid, know as Faham.
Breakfast is a very local offering of dry baguettes, yogurt or apple purreé and coffee. It seems to me like the French aren’t wild for butter. Before heading out for the day, you can purchase lunch at the local bakery, of which every village has at least one. Your choice is baguettes. Make sure you don’t leave without one, or you’ll be very hungry, since there’s nowhere to buy a snack along the way. Also make sure to carry light, small snacks like sugary biscuits, and lots of water with you. If you’re anything like me, double up on the snacks.
At the end of our first day of hiking, we put down our backpacks, opened up a few cold beers, and reflected on what we’d just been through. Personally, I had not been prepared for the path the we had just walked. My legs had felt like jelly as I gingerly put my foot down another steep step, while locals literally ran past me along the way. As I sipped my bottle of Dodo (the local beer is so good) I couldn’t help but feel proud of myself. Hiking wasn’t so bad, when you weren’t actually doing it.
At the end of our second day, we looked back at the village of La Nouvelle, where we had started our hike just after 8am, and it seemed way too close to be seven hours of hiking (and all of my energy reserves) away. The hike, which normally takes locals (including children, teachers and priests) about four hours, had really been a challenge. Our incredibly steep hike out of La Nouvelle and into Marla was not a leisurely stroll, and I was starving by the time we sat down to dinner.
The little gitês where you stay along the way are very quaint, and while the weather down at the shore is hot and humid, up in the mountains I was wrapped in a thick jacket, long pants and two pairs of socks. By the time the sun had set behind the mountains I was already dreaming of my bed.
The third day was the toughest by far, and it felt like there weren’t enough fig biscuits in the world to get me to the top of the 900m incline that faced me. It took a lot of fig biscuits to get me up that gorge, but the view from the top, with both La Nouvelle and Marla in sight, was well worth it. My knees shivered and my calf muscles quivered as I took it all in.
Every jagged step on the way down rattled my bones. The last few hundred meters were so tough that I thought my feet would be bruised by the time I got to the bottom. And then, the sweet, sweet feeling of making it to the end. That rush of endorphins that throws a rose coloured hue on every memory from the last three days, as they flash in front of your eyes. As I boarded the bus that was to take us back to the coast, I swelled with pride. And if you ask me now whether I would do it all over again, I’d have to say “I love hiking”.
Tips for hiking on Reunion Island
You don’t need a fortune in Euros
Flights from South Africa cost around R6000, but are sometimes much cheaper, depending on specials. Hiking is free and you don’t need any kind of permit. You’ll need to study and map your route before you go and it’s a good idea to either learn a few French phrases or keep a phrase book with you (or most likely an app on your phone). The trails are clearly marked out though, so you should be fine.
Book your accommodation well in advance
Along the way you stay in what the locals call “gitês” (“jeets”); little mountain lodges. Accommodation ranges from hostel rooms (17 Euro per night) to private rooms (rates vary) and needs to be booked well in advance. Dinner is served long-table style in the early evening and costs around 20-25 Euros for three courses and a rum. Breakfast costs around 8 Euro and normally consists of a baguette, yogurt and coffee. The best idea would be to get a local guide to book your accommodation for you. Our guide, Veronique was great. Find her here: Adrenal’ile. http://www.adrenalile.com
Make sure to carry enough snacks and water
Like I said, breakfast is most often coffee and bread and each village has a little bakery where you can buy sandwiches for lunch. If you don’t like bread (or are allergic to gluten), make sure you pack loads of other food. You can buy snacks once you get to Reunion, before you set off on your hike. Also make sure to carry lots of water with you.
Book a guide if you’ve got the budget
Guides are wonderful, but pricey. If you’ve got the budget, definitely go for it, but if you’re strapped for cash, it’s not the end of the world. Guides cost around 250 Euro per day, so if you can get a group together and split the cost, that would be best. The great thing about having a guide is that you have someone to translate. They also take out special insurance in case of emergency on the mountain – which means you’re covered if a helicopter needs to fly you out. But as always, make sure you have your own travel insurance as an added safety.
You don’t need to be an athlete
But a moderate level of fitness is advisable. The mountains are steep and it can take up to 5 hours to hike only a few kilometers. Make sure you’re in good health, or you could have some difficulty.
More info about Reunion Island
Estimated costs for travelling to Reunion Island (depending heavily on the exchange rate at the time of your travel)
Flights: R6000 return
Visa: Free! Yay!
Accommodation: R6000 – R8000 per week, sleeps up to six people, self catering
Car: R450 – R550 per day
Paragliding: R1500 – R2000
Helicopter flight: R4000 – R6000
Eating out: R150 – R800 per meal
Shopping at a grocery store: R400 for a basic meal that feeds eight people
Wine: Around R150 per bottle from a grocery store. More at a restaurant, but it depends on the quality
Rum: Around R165 per bottle from a grocery store and R60 per serving at a restaurant. Often the aperitif and digestives are complementary as part of a set menu
Read more about Reunion Island
My first day-trip to Mafate (2014)
*My trip to Reunion Island was sponsored by Reunion Island Tourism.