Darrel Bristow-Bovey chases his dream of climbing a live volcano in Réunion
First time in Réunion?’ asked Fred, while strapping me into the paragliding harness.
‘Sort of,’ I said. ‘I mean, I’ve been to Mauritius before.’
His eyes narrowed and he pulled down the corners of his mouth in the universal French gesture of distaste. I realised I had said something wrong, and of all the guys you don’t want to accidentally antagonize, probably top of the list is the guy whose job it is to make sure you don’t fall out of the sky. Far below me, the coastal plain of Réunion was drowsed in the silvery early morning light, the air slowly warmed, and the Indian Ocean began to turn from grey to blue.
Réunion’s nearest neighbour is Mauritius, around 180 km to the east, and they both speak French – Mauritius used to be part of France, Réunion still is – but that’s where the similarities end. The Réunionese sneer at Mauritians. ‘Mauritius is an old-age home,’ my cab driver told me. ‘Réunion is for people who are still alive.’
And it’s true – Mauritius is lovely, but the most exciting thing that can happen there is getting to the beach chairs first, or arriving at the hotel buffet and finding that there’s still some lobster left. It’s a dozing, domesticated resort of an island. Réunion is all adventure.
There is not much drama in the Mauritian landscape, but Réunion is like wandering on to a movie set. The central highlands are all cliff faces and sheer ravines, waterfalls a kilometre high, peaks swathed in cloud. You almost expect to see pterodactyls gliding down the valleys. On the second day on the island, I hired a walking guide and hiked into the Cirque de Mafate, an ancient high-walled volcanic caldera, kilometres in circumference.
The village of Mafate was founded by runaway slaves fleeing to somewhere no one could find them, and even today, there are no roads to be seen, just a foot-track through rainforest and jungle plateaus and across the ghostly plain of the tamarind. We climbed up and down sheer hillsides and walked through clouds of yellow butterflies, and ate wild pomegranates from the trees. In Mafate, we stayed the night in a gîte – a traditional homestay, where the hosts feed you beef curry and home-steeped rum for supper, and in the morning a hearty breakfast with decent French bread, as warm, fresh and tasty as from any boulangerie in Paris.
I dived just outside the harbour in St Gilles les Bains on the calm, sheltered west coast, where the water is as clear as neat rum, and descended into basalt canyons and gullies dazzling with colour. There are other places, deeper drop-offs beyond the island shelf where you willl find some of the densest concentrations of Zambezi sharks in the world. ‘You want to see them?’ asked Jean-Claude, the divemaster. I was feeling adventurous, but not that adventurous.
Anyway, I was there for the volcano. It has always been my ambition to climb a live volcano, and Piton de la Fournaise is as live as they get. It has erupted more than a hundred times since the 1600s, most recently in May earlier this year, and perhaps more notably last year – at precisely the moment that the world’s media had descended on Réunion, in the feeding frenzy around the discovery of an alleged fragment of the vanished Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. When Piton de la Fournaise erupts, it’s always spectacular. Great plumes of fire and sparks are thrown into the air, and molten rock comes rolling eastwards out of the caldera like a deep crimson wave, burning down forests and sweeping away buildings and power lines, totally covering the coastal highway. Each time it erupts, the level of the land rises by several metres of rock and lava, and the eastern coastline of the island expands by increments into the sea.
As the lava cools, natural tunnels form underneath the lava fields – you descend through great cracks and sinister openings in the earth to find beautiful chambers, some chocolate-brown, some silver-white or streaked with yellow, and the lava has cooled in weird formations: a dodo, an elephant, a great white shark. Between the chambers, the tunnels narrow and you’ve got to bend over or crawl along on hands and knees like a castaway trying to cross a burning desert. It’s hot down there, and the air is thick and wet, and the ceiling drips incessantly with rainwater filtering down through the rock. Within about five minutes, you are wet through, and it is impossible to tell what’s water and what’s your own sweat.
Our guide Fred led us through, wearing hard hats, headlamps and knee pads. Under one particularly low overhang, he signalled to switch off our headlamps
and we just lay there in the hot, moist darkness. It is not often that you find yourself in darkness as absolute as the darkness underground. Far above me, metres through the crust of the Earth, I heard the occasional low moaning of vehicles passing on the rebuilt highway, but then there were no cars and there was only a booming, pressing silence. Time and space seemed suspended. I thought, ‘This must be what it’s like to be dead.’ After the first wave of panic, it wasn’t so bad.
All week I had tried to catch a glimpse of the volcano’s peak, but I was always at the wrong angle behind some other range, and when I wasn’t, it seemed to be forever shrouded in cloud. But on the last day, the sky was powder-blue and the light fell on the slopes like aluminium powder. The peak of the dome reaches about 2 600m above sea level, but to get to the foot of it you have to walk down the wall of the outer crater and then hike for more than an hour across the copper-coloured lava field, the warped and twisted remnants of a hundred eruptions.
There are smaller domes and volcanic chimneys along the way, and a hollow natural formation that Catholics use as a shrine. It was hot as we trekked across the ridged, broken, uneven ground. The sun poured down and bounced up off the shadeless lava floor. I stopped for water and poured it over my head and my aching legs.
‘Not like Mauritius, is it?’ said Fred with satisfaction.
Eventually we reached the foot of the dome. Then we started to climb.
The higher we went, the hotter the sun became. We were rising toward it through the thin air, and it kept getting thinner. My skin burnt through my sunscreen; through my hat and shirt. The lava crunched underfoot like sugar. I couldn’t wrap my head round the fact that the ground I was walking on had recently been kilometres below the crust of the planet. You could feel the heat rising from the rock, rising from the centre of the Earth. At the top, we stood on the thin rim and peered down the abrupt drop into the crater, where smoke rose from narrow vents in the rock.
Helicopters passed overhead, carrying tourists and sightseers. Far below us, the Indian Ocean was wrinkled like an old parchment. I imagined sailing ships and merchantmen and pirates and whalers. I poured the last of the water over my head.
‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s not like Mauritius at all.’
Photography: Gallo/Getty images, National Geographic