June 16-22: St-Pierre, Hiking in Volcano and Piton des Neiges & Cilaos
June 16 Thursday: St-Pierre
I packed a small backpack for a few days and took the Car Jaune Line 1, an express to St-Pierre taking only an hour and a half. I found a room at Hotel Alize next to the beach for €75. For the rest of the day, I strolled leisurely along the harbour and went all the way to the fishermen village. A boat with a dozen of fishermen were coming in. I watched them getting the fish off the net and working as a team to spread the nets on the ground to dry.
I had a nice buffet with delicious fresh prawns and seafood for €20. I over-ate and my stomach was full! I spent the next three hours walking aimlessly around the city centre which is lined with shops. I like St-Pierre which is pleasant and vibrant with a magnificent setting: it has everything including a nice harbour full of pleasure boats, a fishing village, a beach and mountains as its backdrop. I had a nice room facing the beach and a good sleep.
June 17 Friday: Self-guided Tour by Car Jaune
The bus tour I had joined had only travelled to Puits Arabe and missed out on the most dramatic scene created by eruptions at St-Rose. So I decided to make a circuit myself by taking SI from St-Pierre to St-Benôit by the Grand Brûlé (the coastal route) and S2 back to St-Pierre by the plains.
I got off at Anse des Cascades around 10am and followed a path for over a kilometre to reach the waterfallsby the sea. It must be a popular spot for boating, fishing and other outdoor activities as there are two large car-parks and a restaurant. I was the only person coming on foot and many cars passed by. But no one offered me a lift.
The map I had in hand showed a path along the coast toEglise Piton Ste-Rose, my next destination. As there was no clear sign, I returned to the main road and follow the bus route. While the bus takes only three minutes to the next stop, I have taken quite a while with a stop in a roadside cafe to buy a lunch box.
Ste-Rose is a small fishing town which has been under constant threat from the volcano. In April 1977, molten lava was disgorged into the next village of Piton Ste-Rose destroying some 20 houses. But the lava flowed around a church which is now known as Notre Dame des Laves. Villagers saw the lucky escape as “God’s miracle”.
From here, one can follow a path all the way to the sea where the lava had flowed in 1977. I walked for about ten minutes but had to turn back as I did not want to miss my bus to St-Benôit at 12:48pm. I waited till 1:15pm and there was still no bus in sight. Then an old car with a young couple was coming towards me and I waved at them. The young man offered to give me a lift as he was going to St-Benôit too. He is an electrician and salesman of a herbal product while his girlfriend is studying at university. He dropped me off at the bus station. As the next S2 bus to St-Pierre would not be leaving till 3:30pm, I had an hour and a half at my disposal. I thus walked to the town centre which is smaller and more run-down than St-André.
The route of S2 took me up to the highland which was immediately wrapped in mist. As soon as it began descending to Le Tampon, blue sky reappeared again. I got back to the hotel before 6pm and had the ‘Plat du Jour’ with fish for €11. I must say my self-guided lava coast tour is much more enjoyable, cheaper (€4 instead of €40) and interesting than the tourist bus tour.
June 18 Saturday: Group Hiking to Piton de la Fournaise
I got up early, checked out and waited for Gilles to pick me up at 6:45am. He was punctual and there was already a hiker in the minibus. We arrived at the gas station in Bourg-Murat around 7:15am. One hiker arrived shortly. But we had to wait till 8am for three more to turn up. What a waste of time!
We had fantastic weather: warm, clear and sunny. We started the hike at 9am at Pas de Bellecombe. A stepped pathway winds down the 200-metre cliff to the bottom. From here, it’s an easy 3-km walk across the plain before heading to the crater.
I took photos all the way and was always staying at the back. Gilles kept an eye on all of us making sure I was not left behind! We stopped at Formica Léo and Chapelle de Rosemont – a hollow volcanic mound that looks like a small cathedral complete with a door and window.
Then we followed a path which is well-marked with a white dot to La Soufrière (2530m) at the rim of Crater Dolomieu. Gilles ordered only two of us could stand at a safe point at the rim to take a closer look at the bottom of the crater – some 300 metres deep with smokes coming out. It is an impressive sight.
Gilles handed us a cup of home-made punch to celebrate our ascent. We had lunch in the sun looking at the most incredibly beautiful panoramic view of the island with the volcano and its floor, India Ocean, St-Benôit, Piton des Neiges and Cirque Cilaso floating on a sea of clouds and Pas des Sable.
After a good rest, we continued our hike to reach the highest point of Crater Bory (2632m).
We were extremely lucky to have such excellent weather and perfect visibility. Before climbing the stepped pathway back to the starting point, we were greeted with a rainbow over the volcano! What a marvelous souvenir to wrap up an enjoyable and memorable hike to a most active volcano! We were back at the car park around 3:30pm and Gilles dropped me off at St-Louis bus station at 5:15pm.
I took the 5:35pm Bus 60 to Cilaos, a starting point for the hike to Piton des Neiges, the highest point of the island. I arrived at Hotel des Neiges (€70 a night) after 7pm and had a buffet dinner (€22). I must say the food is not as good as my €5 Chinese take-away in St-Denis.
Both the accommodation and food are not value-for-money. But the good thing was that I met in the hotel lobby after dinner a guide called Michael who would be taking four French-speaking hikers to Piton des Neiges. He was concerned about my intention to hike alone. I jokingly said I would follow his group to the top.
June 19 Sunday: Hiking from Cilaos to Gite de Piton des Neiges
From information in hand, I know the hike though not long can be challenging as the well-trodden path is steep (understandable as the cliffs are mostly vertical!). I left the heavy stuff in the hotel and only had a light backpack with me. I took the 10:50am bus to Le Bloc where I began my hike to the Gite Piton des Neiges (about 2500m).
For an average hiker, the walk may take about three hours. But I took over four hours. The steep and stepped path are tough owing to my knee problems. With the aid of my hiking poles, I managed to walk slowly but steadily.
When I reached the pass near my destination about 3pm, it was so foggy that I could not see the gite. There is no indication on where to go next and I had no idea where the gite is located. Hence I stood at the pass in the rain for over 20 minutes. I called “hello” many times hoping to hear back from someone. I got no response. I attempted once to walk down the other side of the pass but decided to return to the pass a few minutes later. I worried that I might slip or got lost in the mist. I told myself to keep calm and considered viable options as it would be dark around 5pm. If I could not go to the gite, the only option was to turn back and follow the same path back to Le Bloc.
Though I did not have a detailed map, I had taken a photo of the information board with a route plan. Despite the rain, I had to take out my camera to look for the plan. Based on the sketch, I thought I should carry on walking till I reached a clear junction. I was right: after walking for about 5 minutes, I found the standard indication pole. The mist also started to clear a little and I could suddenly see a green roof in a distance. I was relieved. The rocky path was slippery. I finally arrived at the gite before 4pm.
I met hikers from Germany, Spain, Canada and France. Michael’s group arrived after 5pm and invited me to follow his group at 4:30am the next morning. I appreciate his concern and offer.
The weather in the mountain is most unpredictable. While it was misty when I arrived, it suddenly cleared up with a most surreal and beautiful moon above the sea of clouds. I rushed out to take photos. Then the next moment, I saw nothing as the mist set in again.
In France, simple accommodation for hikers are available in gites throughout the country. I made reservation when I was in Hell-Bourg and paid €17 for a bed in a dormitory. The dinner cost €19: I had a wholesome meal with sausage, beans, rice, drink and a dessert. The bed was clean and the two thick blankets were warm. But I could not sleep and listened to the falling rain.
June 20 Monday: Piton des Neiges & Cilaos
I wondered how many people in the dormitory had actually had a decent sleep. At 3 am people started to move around. I got up as I could sleep anyway. At 4:30am, I set off with Michael’s group. It was drizzling and dark as the full moon was covered by the rain clouds.
I struggled. First, the weather was bad and it rained almost non-stop for the start to the end of the walk. I was wet and cold. Second, my head lamp was not bright enough to show the path clearly in the rain and mist. Third, with rain constantly dropping on my glasses, I could hardly see. After a while, I decided to take them off. It worked and I could see better at close distance. Fourth, the path which is essentially the stream course, was filled with running water with many rock pools. Fifth, I do not like walking over wet rocks / boulders which are very slippery. I had to walk extremely carefully to minimise the chance of falling. I succeeded but took much longer to reach the top.
As I fell behind all the time, I told Michael to go on without me. I would walk at my own pace and find my way. At times I thought of turning back. Then my urge to reach the top which is merely 3000m high gave me energy and confidence to move on. I kept telling myself that this hike would prepare me for the hike to Mt Fuji which is almost 3800m in August.
It started to get bright after 6am. I had less difficulties in walking and finding my way. By 6:30am, I met some hikers on the way down from the peak. They all complained about the cold and miserable weather at the top with nothing to see. Should I go back? No!
I was the last one to reach the top just after 7am. It was freezing with gusty wind and sleet. But for a few second, I could see faint blue colours behind the clouds. My spirit was lifted: perhaps I could see the Cirque Cilaos and the volcano for a second if the clouds vanished for a moment. My dream was shuttered when mist started to roll in. Anyway, I spent over 10 minutes on the top taking pictures and looking around (For what? I did not know!)
As the path was visible in daylight, I took just over an hour and a half to walk back to the gite. I was the last but one to return: Claude from Michael’s group was not feeling well owing to lack of sleep had trouble walking. He came in at least half an hour later. The lesson to learn is that one should not undertake a strenuous hike when feeling unwell or unfit.
After having a hot chocolate and rest, I left the gite after 10:30am heading back to Cilaos. Walking downhill requires less effort. But this might not be the case for people with knee problems. I use my walking poles to reduce pressure on my knees.
The sky started to clear up. I had awesome views of Cirque de Cilao on the way down and stopped frequently for photo-taking.
I was back at Le Bloc at 1:30pm. As the bus had just gone and I did not want to wait two hours for the next one, I started to walk. Then a pick-up truck with a couple passed by and they gave me a lift. I got off at the Tourism Office which helped me find accommodation in a guesthouse (Le Calbanon). I could pay €35 for a room and €15 for a single bed. At the end, I paid €15 for a bed since I was the only person in the room anyway. The room is cozy, comfortable and airy.
I was tired and spent the rest of the day sitting in the garden of the guesthouse enjoying the view of Piton des Neiges. Around 5pm, a French man came in: André arrived the day just returned from a walk. He is a butcher from Nimes and is surprised by my extensive travel in France and my ability to speak French (though badly). We talked about work and travel in general. As he had hired a car, he offered to take me around the following morning before I took the bus to St-Denis. Fantastic!
On the recommendation of our host, we went to a nearby restaurant for dinner. I ordered ‘Pig Foot’, a local specialty for €13. The portion was very generous. Great value-for-money but bad for my waistline! I was exhausted and slept soundly from 8pm for eight hours.
June 21 Tuesday: Cilaos – St-Denis
I woke up at 4am and posted some photos on my website. I also watched sunrise over Piton des Neiges. At 8:45am, we began our sight-seeing tour in Cilaos. André proposed to take a walk in a forest nearby. We spent an hour and a half looking at all sorts of plants in this small but wonderful and tranquil forest.
There are only three roads in Cilaos- two inside the Cirque (one to Bras-Sec and the other to Ilet à Cordes; both 10km long) and one in the direction of St-Louis. We first followed the road to Bras-Sec and were amazed by the awesome views of Cirque de Cilaos. Then we made our way to Ilet à Cordes. This road is narrower with many sharp bends. I would not like to be the driver!
Around 1 pm, we were back to Cilaos. As I was hungry, I joined André for lunch at the restaurant next to the guesthouse. The daily lunch is excellent. I had sausage, Cilaos lentils and rice for €11 and a sweet potato pie for €3.50. I was so full that I did without dinner.
Time to say good-bye to Cilaos and André. I took the 2:45 Bus 60 to St- Louis and jumped immediately on to Car Jaune Line 2 at the station. This bus runs along the coast giving me my last chance to enjoy one more scenic ride. I arrived at St-Denis bus station before 6pm. Without the first-rate public transport system, I would not have done so much without a car.
June 22 Wednesday: Réunion – Madagascar
I got up early and had time to go to the St Jacque Church and the small market before taking a ride to the airport at 7:30am. The staff of the hotel on night shift took me to the airport before going home. He only asked for €15. This worked out well for both of us.
The check-in and immigration service at the small airport are both efficient. But the airport has no lounge that takes Priority Pass. So I had to sit in the waiting area for two hours before boarding commenced at 10am. The plane took off on time at 10:30am. Wow, I was on my way to Madagascar, the last stop of my 3-month journey.