Blog WHS Visits

WHS #843: Pitons of Reunion

‘Completing’ France is a tough act, as its WHS include sites in four overseas territories scattered across the globe. The French Austral Lands are the hardest (9,000 EUR/28 days if you’re lucky to get a spot). Somewhat near in the Indian Ocean but much more accessible is Réunion, served by daily direct flights from Paris. This island is governed as an overseas department and its culture is very, very French. Réunion is blessed with its own WHS, the Pitons, Cirques and Remparts

The WHS area geographically is a bit complicated, although it would be hard to never set foot in the core zone while spending a few days on the island. Generally, it covers the whole interior, but, it’s a WHS with an enclave, three enclaves even: they are the villages inside the cirques. And, the WHS is slightly larger than the national park. La Maison du Parc in La Plain des Palmistes, which acts as the park’s visitor center, has a very clear scale model of the island depicting the park’s borders and the WHS extras. I discovered the WHS plaque (photo 1) there as well: it is situated in a flowerbed to the right, about 10m before you enter the building. This WHS overall scores very well on the scale of the WHS commandments, with the wonderful bespoke plaque, the scale model showing core and buffer zones, and the park also being free to enter.

For my deep dive into the park, I choose the Cirque de Mafate. Measuring 14x9 km, it is shaped like a massive natural amphitheater, surrounded by steep ramparts: the result of a collapsed volcano. Due to its inaccessibility, it served as a natural shelter for runaway slaves from Madagascar, who arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even nowadays some 700 people live inside the cirque, though there still is no road access and provisions have to be delivered by helicopter.

I went there on a guided day hike organized by BMR. It departed from the 4×4 car park on the Rivière des Galets in La Possession in the north of the island. This proved to be a popular starting point, and locals run a blossoming 4x4 business from here. The parking is the last place you can reach on your own (I got there by bus from St. Denis to Sacré Coeur + a 20-minute walk). Then you get into one of the 4wd trucks that will take you half an hour to the starting point of the trails. They drive on a rough unpaved track, which includes several river crossings. There and also later on during the hike we met lots of trail runners, a popular pastime here which culminates in the yearly Diagonale des Fous which fully crosses the rugged backbone of Reunion.

We were probably the guide’s tour group from hell: a Bulgarian guy who couldn’t speak French, a French woman who faired well until she started feeling lightheaded and had to lay down so we eventually had to abort the hike 30 minutes from the final viewpoint, and me – a slow climber, bad at descends too and taking even more time along the way to take pictures of birds. Honestly, I would have been just as happy if they had left me somewhere halfway, so I would have had more time to take in the scenery and take better photos of the plants and animals. The most notable sightings in the latter category were those of two tenrecs, a species that has spread to here from Madagascar and looks a bit like a mix of a hedgehog and a rat.

Hiking in Mafate is strenuous because of the technicality of the terrain, and having hiking poles really is a must (I had arranged some via the guide beforehand).  At the start of the hike, you have to complete four river crossings, which can be done via stepping stones. I already failed at the first one and waded through the others as well. The water came to my knees, but the river flow wasn’t too strong. In every family/group I noticed at least one person struggling to make the crossings. Along the trail, three footbridges have been added to cross more dangerous ravines. Climbing is mostly done via stairs, which says enough about the steepness of the area. There are no easy hikes in Mafate, and the opportunities at the other two cirques are only slightly better. 

Els - 11 June 2023

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