Saint-Gilles is one of the most famous touristic resorts on Reunion island and has many of the features most tourists look for: large white coral beaches, shallow lagoon with a reef to keep the shark securely away, vast choice of restaurants, hotels, night-clubs, aquatic and sub-aquatic activities ranging from surf, sailing, scuba-diving, big game fishing and so on. But we will not indulge into such trivial and clichéd activities; our aim is off the beaten tracks.
What we are aiming at is the ravine St-Gilles, a deep gorge slowly dug by hundreds of thousands of years of patient work by rain, winds and cyclones, winding through lush vegetation. Although being off the track, it is nonetheless a rather well-known place and locals enjoy a picnic and a swim on weekends. We will make sure to get there during a working day and will start early enough to fully enjoy it all. The car can be left by the roadside, this is a safe place and if you do not leave a camera or an obvious tourist bag with valuables on the seat, nobody will try to break in. Now please do not be afraid by the signs stating access to the ravine is forbidden and perilous; notice the large hole in the wire fencing which clearly shows that people go through and danger is not that high...Those signs were set so as to discourage people going down after a bad cyclone knocked large trees and parts of the path years ago but everything is fine now and anyway French people are famous for enjoying trespassing! Well then, here we are on the path, watch your feet as the trail is not properly cared for anymore and there are holes and bumps as well as water running across it at times. This ravine is one of many such ravines found all around the island but it is one of the only few on the west coast (the dry side) to have permanent running water, so there is a small river and three waterfalls. Well actually there WERE three waterfalls; the uppermost one has been partially diverted to water a golf course (I told you, this is a tourist area!) but the remaining two are really worth the effort. We will start with the uppermost pool called 'Bassin Malheur' which translates as 'misfortune pond' implying that some terrible thing probably happened long ago but do not worry--I have been coming here on a regular basis for years and so far nothing bad happened to me. Stay close to me, just in case! In order to reach this pond we have to walk in a small stream running in a kind of canal dug in the rock, a very old work necessary to provide drinking water to St-Gilles. As a matter of fact St-Gilles still relies on this supply, which is another reason why local authorities try to restrain access as some people tend to not just swim but come with soap and shampoo... Oups, forgot to ask, nobody here is afraid of the dark? It is just that at some point the canal goes through the side of the ravine and we have to walk in complete darkness for a few meters, with running water up to the knees (kids just love it, I tell you!). All right, just grab the back of my shirt, make sure not to slip and we are done. On the way you probably noticed some interesting vines, Merremia tuberosa, Argyreia nervosa and Hiptage benghalensis. Those are real powerful ones and can easily climb over the large trees growing here such as Mangifera indica, Pithecellobium dulce and Casuarina equisetifolia. As those climbers do produce a lot of leaves, they slowly shade off the trees and kill them by impending photosynthesis.
A brief stop in 'Bassin Malheur' and we go back down to 'Bassin des Aigrettes' (‘egret pond' as those birds can be seen there) via a shortcut I know. We may have to grab a couple of branches and secure ourselves with pendulous stems from the vines, as the steps are steep and the shortcut is pretty muddy. Hopefully nobody will strain an ankle or break a bone! You now can hear some very noisy shouts and ruffles up in the trees, they come from those large yellow birds with a black head known locally as 'belliers' (for the ornithologists among you I will translate to its Latin name of Ploceus cucullatus spilotus). This species was introduced from South Africa around 1880 and has now spread all over the island, the males build spherical nests suspended on tips of trees, bamboos and palm trees. They noisily react whenever they see some movements. Beware not to scratch your skin on the spines of Lantana camara, a common tropical weed that grows madly here and there. Now that the birds are behind us you can hear the waterfall, it is a really nice one, some 15 meters high (45 feet) and it falls into this wonderful crystal clear pond. Let's jump in, this is cool water which will freshen you up right away (but not as cold as mountain stream so there is no worry about freezing). We can swim across the pond, climb a few rocks and enjoy the strong shower, free massage from Mother Nature. We can lay on those large stone slabs and dry in the sun while savoring a local pineapple called 'Victoria', small but juicy and sweet.
Now that we are refreshed and fed, we will proceed to our next stop, 'Bassin Cormoran' (cormorant pond). This path really is not for the timid; we have to step in mud and then on rocks, a rather slippery combination, then we walk across water puddles, avoid the aggressive thorns of Caesalpinia decapetala, get down on knees and hands to pass under a huge felt Tamarindus indica trunk and after an almost vertical flight of old stone steps we reach the Bassin Cormoran. There is another waterfall here though much smaller and swimming is not comfortable as the shore is very muddy. One unique feature of this place comes from the huge bamboos growing here; Dendrocalamus giganteus were brought from India to be used as water pipes in old time when plastic and metal pipes were still unknown. They have spread and now form those large clumps growing up to some 10 meters (30 feet) and making weird noises while rubbing against each other whenever winds start shaking them. There are all around the pond the large shiny leaves of Colocasia esculenta and the yellow flowers of Ludwigia stolonifera. We may also spot the 'cardinal' or Foudia madagascariensis a handsome red bird originating from nearby Madagascar as stated by its species name. Sounds like it is now time to get back up to the car, this will be a 30-minute walk going up, but we will not be racing of course as there are many flowers, insects and animals to be spotted on the way, if you have a sharp eye you may very well spot an ‘endormi' a chameleon from Madagascar (Chameleo pardalis) orange if it is a female and a bright shade of greens if it is a male.
Well, we made it back! A little sweaty, muddy feet and sore legs but much satisfied with this little excursion in the wild; it is now time to get back to civilization and enjoy a cold beer by the lagoon.