Reunion Island hosts several natural settings known as ‘cirque’ by geological specialists, 'Caldeira' being a close synonym. Three large rounded depressions were caused by former volcanoes which collapsed ages ago. Today we will hop into le cirque de Mafate for a healthy way of discovering the inner parts of our remote island.
Yes, it will be healthy, because going to this cirque requires some good legs and a good heart as well; there are no roads going there as the geography forbids the building of even a small road! The whole place, which measures some 95 square kilometers, is accessible by trails from either both of the other cirques (Cilaos and Salazie which we will visit some day) or using dry river beds to reach it from the Ocean. The cirque itself has about 140km of trails so you can spend some time enjoying before you cover them all. The only way to get either people or goods in and out of Mafate is by helicopter, a very expensive and noisy solution that has created turmoil for the way of life of Mafatais and Mafataises recently. Today there are about 750 people who live permanently in Mafate, scattered in what is known locally as ‘ilets' or isolated small groups of houses and a couple larger settlements. Agriculture is obviously important, and self-sufficiency had been the rule since the first settlers. The forest services (ONF) provide some work in wood-producing, trails maintenance, replanting and so on. As unemployment is high, government money is an important source of income.
The name Mafate comes from the Malagasy tongue and means 'the one that kills' and was the nickname of a chief run-away slave. the first people to live permanently on the island were indeed runaways who had escaped from the big sugarcane plantations on the coast, many of them from Africa or nearby Madagascar. It was in the middle of 19th century that white people came to settle and run small farms, those are known as ‘petits blancs' or ‘yabs' and refers to those farmers who left the coast as population increase added to the new laws on land and slavery abolition drove them to poverty. They lived for quite a while as a close society and faced alcoholism and as well as consanguinity problems. Modern times brought comfort and a large number of hikers which bring some needed income. Electricity lines are absent, therefore people rely on photovoltaic captors and low voltage lights. A diesel generator has been recently set up in the village of La Nouvelle to reach the increasing number of tourists. In order to more accurately visualize the place, check this website.
So now we'll tighten our hiking boots, pack water and light food, a raincoat just in case, and get going! For this first time in Mafate I do not want to exhaust you so we will use a medium strenuous trail which starts at the Col des Boeufs between Salazie and Mafate. As we are at some 1800m (5400 feet) high it may get cool and as clouds are often here we will step down fast to warm up! The trail snakes down for a while and is often slippery because of mud and wet plants but nothing to frighten us away. In about an hour we will get on a flatter part with impressive trees growing as a light forest, some flat on the ground though still growing, other reclining or with large main branches torn, all obvious scares left by cyclones. Those trees are endemic to Reunion Island and limited to elevated parts only, the Acacia heterophylla known here as ‘tamarin des hauts' will grow between 1500m (4500 feet) and 2500m (7500 feet) high. It has a massive trunk and can reach 15m (45 feet) high, the species name ‘heterophylla' means that it produces leaves with different aspects on young plants and on grown trees. The leaves of a young seedling resemble those of classical acacias which are composed of leaflets while older tree will only be covered with simple leaves made of one blade. The seeds will retain viability for up to 30 years while laying in the soil but will not germinate until a forest fire clears up the way to sun and acts as a trigger to get them sprouting, a clever adaptation to fires which has been developed by other species such as Adansonia digitata (the baobab tree) or Delonix regia (flame of the forest). The pale grey bark plus the broken branches and the cloudy atmosphere give a strange feeling to the place, kind of fairy-like. But as no fantastic creature appears, we keep going on. The trail becomes steep again and cut logs have been set across to use as stairs, we start now having a nice view on the cirque itself and plants change as we step further down in altitude, Aphloia theiformis with its nice shedding bark is often used to release fevers by drinking a tea made from the leaves. The ‘bois rouge' (red wood) Elaeodendron orientale produces some much appreciated dark red very hard timber and can become quite huge with time. Forgesia borbonica has some very nice red flowers shaped like tiny bells while the extremely rare Sideroxylon borbonicum or ‘bois de fer' (iron wood) has been over-exploited for ships and houses as this wood is unchanging. We of course also run into the usual invaders, plants which were brought by man either willingly or accidentally but which found such a great place to live that they now are a serious threat to endemics and indigenous ones, Lantana camara, Solanum torvum, Rubus alceifolius and Furcraea foetida being the most obvious ones here.
We now see the first houses of La Nouvelle which means we'll be there in no time. Wisely enough we made a reservation for a ‘gîte' and ‘table d'hôte' as you cannot simply walk in and ask for meal and bed as there are few. It only takes a couple of calls a week in advance to make sure you will not sleep under the stars and ensure an invigorating supper which will start with a local punch and end with ‘rhum arrangé' to make sure sleep will be sound! In the following morning we'll walk back up to the Col des Boeufs but using an old trail wandering through a Cryptomeria japonica forest for a change. Of course if we had more time we could wander through the whole cirque, going to Trois Roches, Ilet Latanier, Ilet à Malheur and discover many wonders along trails and waterfalls!
I hope you enjoyed the trip as much as I did a few weeks ago. Hiking is probably one of the best ways to keep in shape while discovering places, plants, animals, people and--if you are lucky enough--a fairy chatting with a butterfly amongst wildflowers...
About Jean-Jacques Segalen
I am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) since 20 years . I spend a lot of time gathering seeds in the wild, the ones I do not grow that is. Also a dedicated Tai-Chi practitioner and fully certified arborist-tree surgeon
Just released my first book on tropical plants and fruits, check it at http://www.barbadine.com/pages/livrejjGB.html