The South East of Reunion Island is dominated by one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
The Piton De La Fournaise
The Peak of the Furnace. At 2632 meters above sea level, it is twice as high as Table Mountain, and extremely dramatic, grumbling and erupting on a regular basis.
In fact, last year while waiting to board our flight to Reunion, our group were almost hysterical with excitement when reports came in that the volcano was erupting. We all had secret visions of our images gracing the cover of National Geographic, but it was not to be.
Le Volcan was just teasing us. She smoked the whole time we were there, and silently leaked lava from a fissure on the side that was only visible from the ocean or a helicopter. No roars, rumbles, or fiery red lava shooting skywards, not a single sighting of molten lava flowing towards the sea.
But it’s OK. There is more to the volcano that the flamboyant bits.
The Lava Road.
The N2 is a national road that starts in the North at the capital, St. Denis, and hugs the eastern coastline all the way the St. Pierre in the South.
About nine kilometers of this road are known as the Lava Road. It bisects Le Grand Brûlé, the name given to the Lava Fields, created when Piton De La Fournaise erupts and the lava flows toward the sea.
This part of the island receives high rainfall and is lush, green, and often shrouded in mist or drizzle.
As you drive along the Lava Road, every now and then you will see a large volcanic rock with a red flag imprinted on it and the words “Coulée de lave”, and a date. This indicates the place and time when the lava flowed over the road and into the sea. When this happens, it can take up to 18 months to repair the road and make it accessible again.
The Lava Fields.
This landscape, like many others on Reunion Island, is fascinating. The lava fields stretch as far as the eye can see on either side of the road. Dark volcanic rock, that on close inspection resembles melted toffee, and bright green ferns, boehmeria penduliflora, and white lichen grow in the cracks. In parts the road is lined with spindly pines and natural forest – did you know there are 840 indigenous plant species on this tiny island? – and on a grey day the vivid green plants are radiant in this monochromatic environment. On the volcano side of the road, a little way up the slope is a viewing platform. It’s worth the scramble to get the full panoramic vista of the lava fields from halfway up the volcano all the way down to the sea.
The Lava Tunnels.
Beneath these lava fields there is a secret world. The Lava tubes, or tunnels are formed when the lava flows down the mountainside in channels, the outer crust cools and the lava continues to flow, until it has all drained into the ocean.
We met our lava tunnel guide on the side of the road, and in a light drizzle we put on knee pads, gloves, and a helmet with a headlamp. Being a bit claustrophobic, but not wanting to miss this unique experience, my emotions were all over the place as I started the walk along the road, hurrying to catch up to the rest as they faded into the mist. We veered off the road and walked about a kilometer over the uneven lava and eventually stopped at a small hole and a vertical drop. Our guide was an experienced caver with a wealth of information, delivered unsmiling, in French. Our interpreter added smiles and answered our countless questions.
One by one we dropped down into the hole and gathered in a small cavern for the first briefing.
The walls were slightly damp, the ground mossy, and the air had a strong earthy scent. We walked through this underground wonderland for 1,5 kilometers, taking close on two hours to complete the journey. We saw stalactites, and lavacicles, and small mossy things growing in dark holes. We learned how the layers and shapes of the lava tell the story of how and when the tunnel formed. We heard, right near the end, how the tunnels can collapse – the one time I truly could say I was so glad to see the light at the end of it. 😊
At some points we had to bend, or climb a little, once we had to crawl through a short, low section, but most of it was normal walking. We stopped somewhere in the middle and were told to turn off our headlamps. The darkness felt tangible, like something thick you had to wade through. Visibility was absolutely zero. I needed to consciously slow my breathing down at this point, claustrophobia was winning. And then our guides voice cut through the dark, soft, reassuring, and he led us in a short meditation, alerting us to the sounds of this strange world. Without the distraction of vision, all other scents are heightened. I could feel the cold of the rock, taste the scent of the underground on my tongue, and hear the scuttles and drips of life below the surface.
Emerging back into the light was a shock to the system, the world initially seemed too bright and noisy. Walking back, we marveled anew at this natural wonder, knowing there were hundreds of kilometers of unexplored underground places beneath our feet.
The lava tunnels must only be explored with an experienced guide. If your claustrophobia is more than mild, this is not for you.
To explore the Wild South, Lava Tunnels, Cap Mechant and a Reunion coastal town, stay at La Villa Delisle in Saint Pierre, a two minute walk to the beach and close to all these amazing attractions and experiences.
For more information on this adventurous island, visit http://bit.ly/LaReunion-TheRoamingGiraffe
Disclosure: This post is part of a paid campaign with the tourism board of Reunion Island who hosted me last year. All opinions are my own.