It’s lunchtime and the drum beat of a traditional Maloya song crackles through the radio as I take a sip of fiery Charette rum. A cat cheekily jumps onto my lap and makes itself comfortable and I’m happy to stroke its ratty fur. “How do you say ‘I love cats’ in French?” I ask Nico, our tour guide. He laughs and rambles something off to himself in French. “You don’t need to tell us. We can see”.
It’s a bright and sunny day and we’ve just sat down at a plastic garden table and chairs, covered with a colourful table cloth and adorned with bottles of local rum, infused with the leaves of orchids known as Faham. However, it does occasionally rain here so you may want to look at Arkadia waterproof backpacks
just in case. We are surrounded by the most incredible views of sharp cliffs and greenery, and at least eight cats.
We’ve hiked almost 3 hours through magnificent terrain and up steep inclines to get here – the cirque of Mafate in the middle of Reunion Island. As I take in the view, my heart pounds to the drum beat of the music being carried on the wind and I breathe deeply, still shaky from the exhilarating hike.
One of the most unique places in the world, Mafate is know as “an island within the island” in Reunion. Home to just 800 people in 3 small villages, Mafate can only be reached by foot. There are no roads leading in or out of the cirque and locals need to either hike four and a half hours or fly by helicopter every time they need to leave the village. Groceries are delivered weekly by helicopter and in an emergency inhabitants are airlifted out.
It’s a Monday and hitching a ride with us on the way to the starting point of the hike was a young teacher on her way back to the cirque
, where she teaches during the week. She’s very fit and we had hardly started walking before she had already disappeared along the route. On Friday afternoon she’ll hike back down to the starting point to be picked up by her lift and spend the weekend at the coast. It’s the same routine for doctors and other specialists.
We are having lunch at a small home-style restaurant in the tiny village of Cayenne – one of three small villages that form Mafate. Most of the people who live in Mafate work either for the National Park, or in the tourism industry, providing food and lodging options for the many tourists that hike these parts. It’s popular for hiking enthusiasts to hike in for the weekend, staying over at a home-stay and hiking the surrounding area.
The food is delicious and traditional – big bowls of steaming rice, beans, duck and rougail saucisse
(a delicious dish of chopped Creole sausages in a sauce of diced tomatoes, small pieces of green mango, crushed ginger, chopped onions and peppers)
line the table and we pile our plates high, starving after our hike. We clink our Dodo beers – “cheers” to the morning’s activity. Cats weave through our legs and try to jump onto our laps for an opportunity at a bite. With just 30 people living in this small village, there seems to be at least one cat for every human.
There are a few different ways to hike into Mafate, with varying levels of expertise required. We were short on time (and to be honest, energy) so we opted to be lifted on the back of a pickup truck to a point in the Rivière des Galets (the people’s river) from where we would only have to hike around 2,5 hours. For the more energetic hiker, an 8 hour trail starts at the beautiful Maido Peak – a must-see view point that overlooks the entire cirque of Mafate.
If we’d had more time, I would have loved to spend a couple of days exploring the area and getting to know the people. The views are breathtaking and everywhere you look you’ll find another photo opportunity.
After lunch, three local boys play soccer on the helipad while we wait for our air-lift back to town. The oldest of the three shyly comes up to me and says something to our hiking guide in French. “He wants to speak to you” our guide says. “Of course. Hello” I smile at the boy. He looks about 11 years old and I can tell he is nervous to speak English.
He takes a deep breath before looking directly at me; “What…is…your…name?” He’s so shy but his English is good considering he lives in a remote village in the middle of a French island in the Indian Ocean. “I’m Natalie, what is your name?” He laughs and relaxes a little. I shake his hand and the guide asks him something in French. The boy nods. “You’re the first South African person he has ever shaken hands with”.
We’ve been chatting back and forth for a few minutes, simple sentences like “How old are you?” and “Where are you from?” when, more confident, he asks “What is your phone number?” Suddenly, his eyes go wide and he blushes a deep red while shaking his head furiously. The tour guide is in peels of laughter and the poor boy can’t explain fast enough the fact that he has confused phrases. “When is your birthday?” he finally asks, still blushing.
Our time in Mafate has been short and very sweet and a faint thud-thud-thud-thud can be heard in the distance as a helicopter swoops into view, landing effortlessly and precisely to pick us up. I am always excited to fly in one of these incredible machines and I bend down low as we board, my heart pumping hard once again. There’s something about flying in a helicopter that makes me feel like I’m some kind of heroic movie character and as we take off I look back at Mafate with a head full of beautiful scenes and a heart full of joy.
Hike to Mafate
Experienced hiking guide, Ludo Marconnot