Reunion on volcanic island
WE could see it.
We could almost reach out and touch it.
From the lookout at Pas de Bellecombe, we zoomed in with our camera and video lenses and saw the lucky ones coating their shoes in dust, little grey stones and crumbling orange rock as they walked around the rim of the crater.
One of the most active on Earth today, Reunion Island's infamous active volcano Piton de la Fournaise is akin to those in Hawaii but is also one of the most accessible.
And its crater looked like a small burst pimple on a dry Creole face.
A 90-minute walk along twisted lava to the rim of the Formica Leo crater was on our itinerary, but the majestic scenery at every stop throughout the morning made us want to linger longer.
Without knowing what we would be missing, we took a few too many photos, chatted a little too freely, dilly-dallied way too long.
But time waits for no man or woman, and with a restaurant lunch booked and a plane to catch, we whittled away our last chance for vulcanological glory.
Not that we were complaining.
Our two-day whirlwind visit to Reunion Island – in the south-west Indian Ocean, off the east coast of Africa – had been overflowing with natural wonders, even though we had only seen a tiny snapshot of this little part of France in the Indian Ocean.
One of four French Departments outside Europe, Reunion Island is only three million years old, created by the sleeping marine volcano, Piton Des Neiges, dominating the scenery above the village of Cilaos.
The island is the youngest of the three of the Mascarene Archipelago (the other two are Mauritius and Rodrigues) and is still growing as a result of lava flows from Piton de la Fournaise, which added 45ha in 2007 and has had 28 eruptions since 1998 – the last beginning on October 14 last year.
Our French guide and now local resident, Valerie Aubry, proudly points out that Reunion's scenery is so rich and diverse it's as if a whole continent has been crammed into one tiny island.
Our amazing last day on the island really began once we left the main road (reminiscent of Victoria's own Great Ocean Road as it hugs the island's coastline) and took the Plains Road inland from Saint-Pierre.
As we climbed higher and left bustling towns behind, the lush green coastal scenery gradually changed to cleared farmland and then heathland more akin to the Scottish moors.
Our first stop on this exceptionally clear day was a lookout with double-wow scenery: the multi-peaked Le Nez de Boeuf at an altitude of 2136 metres, falling into the Ramparts river below (La Vallee de la Riviere des Ramparts).
On the other side of the road, I felt like I was in Queenstown on New Zealand's South Island, looking out over velvet green hills and a patchwork of pastures.
Even as the clock ticked over to mid-morning, the highlands were already pulling a thick white blanket of cloud cover over themselves, creating a cosy rather than eerie ambience.
La Plaine Des Caffres – the highland plain in complete contrast to most of this tropical island – begins shortly after the town of Le Tampon and ends at Col de Bellevue at the top of the winding road that plunges into La Plaine Des Palmistes.
The expansive view reveals Piton Des Neiges (3069m and the highest point on the island) in the distance, the Cirque de Cilaos (one of three calderas resulting from a huge collapse of land following a volcanic eruption) and Cilaos village among the landmarks.
The winding road next brought us to a much drier landscape with sparse heathland and black, red and brown volcanic rocks underfoot.
The change in temperature was obvious as we alighted the mini-bus and took the short walk to another lookout: Le Cratere Commerson. At 120m deep and 200m diameter, the crater was formed 2000 years ago from an eruption.
The grey, brown and red volcanic soil has given life to green shrubs growing out from the massive, layered wall and funnel.
A short walk up to a natural lookout near the crater reveals more sweeping views of the plains and mountains.
Our next stop is one of Reunion Island's most famous: the moonscape of Plaine Des Sables.
The dark brown volcanic sands and rocks – like a massive expanse of common backyard topsoil – create a glorious dry nothingness where a new Mad Max film set would not look out of place.
On the horizon, we could see the Piton de la Fournaise – a national treasure.
The gravel road below this stop takes us through the plain to Pas de Bellecombe's lookout for a closer look at the volcano and THAT crater – so near and yet so far.
Ah, c'est la vie.
The writer was a guest of Flight Centre.
Air Austral flies direct from Sydney to Reunion, twice weekly, with connections to Mauritius daily.
Flight Centre has can arrange flights, accommodation and tour packages to suit your travel needs.
Return airfares to Reunion start from $1103 per person flying economy class and from $2773 flying premium economy class.
Prices are based on travel between February 1 and October 25, and valid for sale year-round until sold out.
WHERE TO STAY:
Grand Hotel du Lagon (5-star): Stay five nights in a Superior Room from $999 per person twin share, including a meet and greet on arrival at St Denis Airport, return airport transfers, breakfast daily and a travel wallet.
Price is valid for travel from May 1 until September 30, and valid for sale until September 30.
For prices on individual or group packages, itineraries and airfares to Reunion Island, contact Flight Centre at www.flightcentre.com.au or call 1300 939 414.