Hiking in Réunion : Cirque de Cilaos(Climbing Piton de Neiges)

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June 19th 2013
Published: July 8th 2013
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view as you climb Piton de Neiges
Woke up to a great morning, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and my tummy is churning, not something I ate but from excitement, since I came across Reunion on the internet, I have always looked forward to finally getting to the hiking trails and discover it's natural beauty. People say it's like a small version of Hawaii, I have never been to Hawaii but from the pictures I saw, I can see why, the interior of Reunion is mainly lush vegetation clinging to volcanic jagged cliffs, it rains a lot here too and thus it's all green, vines of chouchou(chayote) grow wild all over the place, deep valleys, volcanoes, mild climate, this is indeed the French Hawaii. Reunion is a French department and thus part of the European Union, not Schengen compliant yet, as we are not EU citizens we have to go through the customs and immigration process, and we were reminded if we did not get a stamp upon entry, even from a domestic flight from France, our stay here would be illegal. To better describe and explain what Reunion is all about , I took a paragraph or two from the LP, I am sure they wouldn't mind, as I could never put it the way they could, read on....


"Formed from one mighty dead volcano (Piton des Neiges) and one active volcano (Piton de la Fournaise), the island is a paradise for hikers, adventure-sports enthusiasts or indeed anyone who is receptive to the untamed beauty of a wilderness environment. The island is virtually unique
in the Indian Ocean for offering both superb mountain scenery and excellent outdoor infrastructure, with more than a thousand kilometres of hiking trails, the best of which take you through an awe-inspiring landscape of jagged mountain crests, forested valleys, tumbling waterfalls and surreal volcanic tuff. Vast swathes of the interior of the island are accessible only by foot. As a result, the natural environment is remarkably intact, with a huge variety
of flora, from tropical rainforest to gnarled thickets of giant heather. The good news is you don’t need to be a masochist to enjoy this walking wonderland. Homely gîtes (lodges) and chambres d’hôtes (family-run B&Bs) are spaced at convenient distances along popular trails, offering simple accommodation and wholesome meals – sample a rougail saucisses (hearty sausage stew) in Cirque de Mafate and you’ll know what we mean. There are two major hiking trails, known as Grande Randonnée Route 1 (GR R1) and Grande Randonnée Route 2 (GR R2), with numerous offshoots. The GR R1 does a tour of Piton des Neiges, passing through Cilaos, the Forêt de Bébour-Bélouve, Hell-Bourg and the Cirque de Mafate. The GR R2 makes an epic traverse across the island all the way from St- Denis to St-Philippe via the three Cirques, the Plaine-des-Cafres and Piton de la Fournaise. A third trail, the Grande Randonnée Route 3 (GR R3), does a tour of Cirque de Mafate and overlaps with some sections of the GR R1 and GR R2.

The trails are well maintained, but the tropical rainfall can eat through footpaths and wash away steps and handrails. Even experienced hikers should be prepared for tortuous ascents, slippery mud chutes, and narrow paths beside sheer precipices. The routes are well signposted on the whole, but it’s essential to carry a good map and you should check locally on the current situation; trails are occasionally closed for maintenance, especially following severe storms.If you don’t have time for a multiday trek, there are also plenty of great day
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view from Piton de Neiges
hikes that will give you a taste of life in rural Réunion.
The hiking times given are for an average hiker carrying a 10kg backpack and taking only brief breaks."

Now this is the route we decided to do, and again, as described by the LP:


Simply magical. The Tour des Cirques (Round the Cirques) is a Réunion classic that is sure to leave you with indelible memories. Combining the best of the three Cirques, it will offer you three distinct atmospheres and various landscapes. As a bonus, you’ll cross a few towns that are well equipped with cosy
accommodation facilities. The walk roughly follows the path of GR R1 and is best started in Cilaos, which has excellent facilities for walkers and the added
advantage of a health spa where you can unwind after your hike. The hike overlaps with days 1 and 4 of the Haut Mafate hike, so you can easily extend the walk by combining the two routes.


suggested hiking time:4½hr, 5km, 1250m ascent

The trail starts just north of Cilaos, at the junction of the roads for Îlet à Cordes and Bras- Sec, and rises through the casuarina forest to the Plateau des Chênes. Take the right fork towards La Roche Merveilleuse (Marvellous Rock); the left fork leads along the ridge to Col du Taïbit. The trail crosses the forest road several times before it reaches La Roche Merveilleuse a flat area reached after about 1¼ hours. Here the forest changes to stunted giant heather bushes (known as branles or brandes) cloaked in wisps of lichen. Be prepared: the next section is even more challenging than the previous one from Le
Bloc, with steep gradients all the way from here to the gîte; allow another two hours from Plateau du Petit Matarum to the gîte. Once you gain the saddle, there’s a turnoff on the right to the Col de Bébour and Le Dimitile, and a short distance further on, you’ll come to the Gîte de la Caverne Dufour ( dm €17, breakfast/dinner €5/15) at nearly 2500m. Though still pretty rustic, this gîte de montagne boasts inside toilets and (cold) ‘showers’ (usually a trickle of water). You’ll need to bring plenty of warm clothes and remember to book well in
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beginning of the trail
advance through Centrale de Réservation – Île de la Réunion ; even with 48 beds, it’s often packed out, especially at weekends and holiday. It’s also possible to camp for free beside the gîte, which has 24 sites in ‘bungalowtents’; blankets are provided.

By 8am we are out the door of the Le Roche Merveilleuse gite, perched up on a hill overlooking the town of Cilaos, Michel the owner was kind enough to let us leave our big backpacks as we decided to hike with just our day bags, we will do a 5 day Cirque trek that loops covering the Cirque de Cilaos, Salazie and Mafate, we finish here, and we hope our bags will be here when we get back. From the gite we followed signs for Piton de Neige, the trail starts just behind the town church, or you can cheat and take the bus to a car park then pick up the trail from there, and will save you roughly an hour and a half of walking, but we want to do it properly so walk we did. The trail was soggy as it rained last night, slowly climbs up the hill and we ended up at the Roche de Merveilleuse viewpoint,( not the gite we are staying at, they are 2 different things) in 45 minutes, then we picked up the trail again through wooded trails,and exited on the main road, we followed it for about 10 minutes and then we arrived at the car park where people park their cars and pick the trail up to the Piton de Neige(a short cut) after a brief rest.

Just as we were about to start our ascent, 2 young dudes came rushing down with full gear on, huffing and puffing, I guess they just climbed the volcano this morning,they seem very quick, I thought to myself this will be us in a few days time. So up we went, slowly, Reza is ahead of me, the trails is lush and green, we come across trees with moss hanging out from their branches, quite cool, as we ascend we can see the whole town of Cilaos getting smaller and smaller, the trail is green and lush and the trail a bit slippery, as the uphill climb increases I felt irritation around my right heel bone from the boot stitching which is right at the back of my heel, I ignored it for awhile but after never ending climb up I felt pain on my heel so I stopped and removed my right shoe, the skin was already peeling, so to prevent the blister getting worse I taped it and undo the laces a bit to ease the pressure. Couple hours into the 4 hour hike up, my toes on both feet started to blister!and the nails going black and blue! I have to stop again and bandage them. I started cursing my boots, I thought they were properly broken in, after 2 months of use but then again I used it to get to work everyday before this trip and it's different from the up and down terrain here.

So despite the blisters we made it to the top and rested on the shoulder/saddle of the mountain, and from a distance can see Caverne Dufour, the mountain hut base camp for the Piton de Neige volcano.There was a young French couple who overtook us awhile back and they were there sunning next to the picnic tables, we realized check in time is at 3pm it's only 11am. So we slowly walk towards the camp and a few people are still arriving down from the volcano. From here the top of the Piton de Neige is about 2 hours, and people hike it early in the morning before sunrise to see the sun coming up just in time and have a great view of most of the island if the clouds did not beat you to it. We decided to have lunch, we packed enough food to last us a few days, and plus we thought they may not serve dinner here at the gite. A young bird hounded us while having a feed, though it's windy it stayed put and waited for our scraps.

Because the summit of Piton des Neiges is usually cloaked in cloud by mid-morning, most people choose to stay overnight at the Gîte de la Caverne Dufour, starting out for the peak at, or even before, dawn. The path begins directly opposite the gîte and is clearly marked in white on the rock face, but you should bring a torch (flashlight) if you start out before dawn. The climb takes about three hours return. The landscape becomes increasingly rocky the higher you climb, and the final section rises steeply over shifting cinders that make for slippery footing. At the summit there are few traces of vegetation, and the red, black and ochre rock leaves little doubt about the mountain’s volcanic origins. On a clear day, the whole island is spread out beneath you. If you didn’t
beat the cloud to the summit, you may just be confronted by an enveloping cloak of white.

After lunch we had enough energy we decided to climb the top of the volcano now rather than tomorrow morning, the sun is shining, no clouds above us and is not too hot, why not? So we did, first I retied my shoes and took care of the blisters again, the path is riddled with oddly shapen volcanic rocks of different sizes, the uneveness makes it difficult to get proper traction, and plus it's all uphill, I took my time as Reza races ahead of me, my blisters are painful, every now and then I look back and the view is amazing, all around are stunted trees no higher than 3 feet, then we get to the loose rocks section and some scree, I struggled here, but I am not one to give up, especially my buddy Reza is way ahead of me, so I just dealt with the pain and kept on, a few people passed us on the way down, they were the last people I saw until I got up the mountain top. I also get tired quickly because of elevation, so I was really slow, I counted 10 steps then stop, rest and another 10 steps, this went on for more than an hour, until I finally reach the top! No vegetations at all, just rocks of different colors and hue, very dusty, I followed a path to the very top and Reza was already there checking out the view. There were a few rounded shelter places made of volcanic rocks, it's windy up here so it's good to wait out in one of these especially an early morning trek.

We found one guy reading a book in the shelter, bonjour he greeted us smiling, he is waiting for the sunset and perhaps will spend the night there for the sunrise too.Slowly headed down the slopes, my knees are hurting, every step is an agony, what have I gotten into? Only the 1st day and I am in pain, I curse the pair of boots I wear, I took my dear time, I was alone, the only consolation is there are no wild beasts or predators here in Reunion, I believe they don't even have poisonous snakes, the only thing that would keep me from making it down to camp is if I fall or hurt myself, so I am extra careful. An hour and 50 minutes later I am back at Camp Dufour, exhausted,we head straight inside and where the kitchen is, a man checked us in and asked us for the copy/print out of our paid reservation, he asked if we wanted a meal, I said yes right away, not cheap, I think 15 euros/person but hey we are on top of the mountain, take it or starve.

It is not busy for some reason, there were only just over a dozen people and we are all in one big dorm, dorm 16 I remember, everyone is French but very warm and friendly, a few speaks English, I checked out the loo, it is quite clean and not smelly, and flushing toilet! I took a nap as we were told 6:30pm is dinner time, a few other hikers were resting, the crew is busy preparing dinner, we can hear the tv on, yup they have electricity here and phone signal, so it does not really feel isolated or remote. I needed water so I took some from the sink, I was told before that water here is from a tank of collected rain water and is filtered.

We were called to dinner and ushered to another big dining area through the kitchen, there were only about 8 of us who ordered dinner, they served an appertif called Maloya, a very sweet lychee rhum of some sort, it's not bad but tastes like cough syrup, I prefer it dry, but downed a few shots anyway so I can get a good sleep. Dinner was a hefty serving of rice, the local creole sausage dish and lentil soup,we ate to our hearts content, after the meal I grabbed the pitcher of water to drink, one dude tells me in broken English," maybe not safe to drink, you need to put tablet" I told him it's too late, I already had some from the sink earlier, and they all laugh, well I feel fine, so far, too late to worry now.

After dinner went straight to bed, there is one odd young French couple who takes fotos of their every move, unpacking their packs, climbing up to the bed, etc. They amused me for awhile. The beds seems clean but I bet they don't change the sheets everyday, so I did not take my clothes off, slept with what I hiked with, smelly as I am, so is everyone else, they provide 2 very thick blankets, it got too hot later as the room was full, I have to peel off a little covering.I did not sleep well, must be the altitude, and alarms started going off from 4am, people getting up to do a sunrise hike to Piton, we were the only ones left, and I slept through when all left. The next morning we prepared to leave after breakfast, I went to the dorm to gather my stuff and put my shoes on, one dude arrived first, eyeing his watch and stretching then proceeded to undress and get changed, I complimented him for being the 1st one back but just gave me a blank stare,no speak English I guess, so I left the room.

As we were about to leave Caverne Dufour to head to the next destination, a supply helicopter arrived with 3 people along with boxes of supplies, couple more people came down from the top as we head out to the trail to get to Hellbourg.

Additional photos below
Photos: 28, Displayed: 28


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nearing Caverne Dufour
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Caverne Dufour
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our constant visitor

10th July 2013

best times of a year to visit
So is this best season for the weather to visit or it no matter in paradise?

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