A Tropical paradise
What a place! A French Departement in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mauritius. It’s just 63 km long and 45 km wide but is 3070 m high and manages to contain breathtaking canyons, ancient forests, tropical beaches, lychees, alpine climbs, Creole cuisine and one very active volano. Pay no attention to the horizontal dimensions, there is a lot of riding to be had here.
I’ll be honest, I knew nothing whatsoever of Reunion before this trip, but Malin was in Madagascar and it seemed a good place for a bike holiday in the vicinity. It also features it one of my best ever purchases, Nicky Crowther’s Classic Mountain Bike Rides, a compendium of 30 of the world’s best mountain bike tours. If you can get your hands on a copy, buy it – it’s kept me in holidays for years.
The portion from Bourg Murat to the volcano was one of the best roads I’ve ever ridden, through always changing but consistently stunning terrain.
Arriving in La Reunion from London in December then came as a very pleasant introduction to the Indian Ocean. It was hot and the taxi was expensive and terrifying, but once you got a few hundred metres up into the very steep hills, the air was cooler, the ambiance relaxed and the views simply beautiful. We stayed in a lovely ‘eco-hut’ in La Montagne, in the garden of an equally lovely young couple. An excellent base should you attempt a similar trip.
Early starts and huge climbs
A weather pattern soon became apparent; clouds gathered over the sea and rolled in from the coast during the morning so that by midday, the summits were cloaked. In order to be sure of seeing the fabulous vistas that we were promised existed, we’d have to be up early enough to climb 2000 m before around 10 am. The other advantage of this strategy was that we’d be climbing in the cool of the morning.
Reunion has been formed by two huge volcanos. The first, now dormant, has partially collapsed leaving three cirques – vast natural amphitheatres with even the steepest 1000 m high rock walls covered in lush vegetation. The first, Cirque de Mafate is inaccessible by road, but it is possible to walk or cycle in along the river bed which we duly did. This was more of an expedition than an enjoyable ride given the rocky nature and frequent river crossings but it gave us a feel for the place.
Our first big peak was Piton de Maido at 2200 m. The long climb was really enjoyable in its own right, especially with the views over the ocean but the jaw-dropping moment occurs when you reach the summit and look out over Mafate. The pictures do not do it justice, it is truly spectacular. Maido is the centre of mountain biking on Reunion, though we were unable to contact a guide from home and the infrastructure is not nearly as good as it should be. Still, we found a tour group to tag onto the back of (they were very welcoming) and had a pleasant enough off-road trip down.
Several hundred meters up the flanks of the island it is usually possible to find a road that traverses the hillside, flat and with relatively little traffic. Ideal then for making some ground on a bicycle tour. Sipping beers on the beach in the very pleasant St Leu following our success on Maido, we rather underestimated the day ahead. A 1200 m climb to Cilaos without time pressure from the clouds should be easily achievable. It wasn’t. Our total climb was almost double that – the road that appears to follow the river up the valley, in fact climbs and descends over an over. Coupled with the fact that our accommodation was in Bras Sec, another few hundred meters up the road, this should have been a daunting prospect. Of course the clouds didn’t materialize on this day and we were forced to ride the whole thing in the sweltering midday sun.
Our hosts in Bras Sec were a French couple who were clearly keen to get away from it all – having tried Brittany and the Pyrenees, they’ve finally settled here and one suspects that this might very well be where they stay. Hundreds of miles to the nearest landmass, and at the end of a very long, high road. The setting is spectacular as you’d imagine but there is a problem.
We didn’t really take to any of the towns in the cirques – they’re full of people with nothing to do, but the EU subsidy allows for drunk tramps and moped-racing teenagers. I couldn’t help feeling that they’d have a better time clearing some biking trails and then riding them.
Piton de la Fournaise
While western Reunion is home to the cirques and the central high point, Piton des Neiges, the east is dominated by Piton de la Fournais. Its name alludes to a furnace and that is exactly what it is. Spewing millions of tons of lava out most years down huge lava fields to the coast, this is one of the world’s most active volcanos.
Riding around the flank, all of a sudden settlement ceased and our 5 year old map was horribly out of date. The road had been re-layed across the almost annual lava flows from 2000 onwards, with the year signposted before and after the road crossed each flow. Of course there were plenty of tourists in rental cars, but we couldn’t help feeling that experiencing the sulphurous heat from the saddle, stopping wherever, was the proper way to do it.
Having seen the mess it makes, it was time to see the volcano itself, so time for another climb to 2300 m. The portion from Bourg Murat (where there is an excellent volcano museum) to the volcano was one of the best roads I’ve ever ridden, through always changing but consistently stunning terrain. From the Pas des Sables, the road is unmetalled and crosses the lunar Plain des Sables to the viewpoint over the volcano.
We stayed in the excellent Gite du Volcan and had hoped to walk to the crater, but this is no longer advised following the crater collapsing 300 m vertically in the 2007 eruption. We didn’t argue! Several hours exporing the lava fields in the early morning was reasonable recompense and we were able to find some excellent singletrack on the way back down.
Primordial forests in Bélouve/Bébour
As a final treat, we rode from the Plaine des Cafres along a forest road into Bélouve and then Bébour forests. Ancient and almost untouched, these contain all manner of exciting species from tree-ferns to creeping climbers and lichens to give a Jurassic Park feel.
We took a side-trip to the Trou de Fer (you have to walk the last km or so) but this reputedly spectacular waterfall was cloaked in cloud. If we had to miss one view on Reunion, I’m pleased it was this one – I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls!
As a whole, the trip was a great success. Two weeks is about the right time, allowing you to spend a few days in each main area. We were disappointed by the difficulty finding true mountain bike routes in most areas; but as a tour, it was wonderful. If your focus is off-road, perhaps hiring a car might be the answer.
See ‘How to plan a cycle trip to La Reunion‘ for more detailed information.