Photo by Melody

Moon-walking on Reunion, a trip to the Piton de la Fournaise.

By Jean-Jacques Segalen (jjacquesSeptember 7, 2012
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I can see some eyebrows raising as you read the title but do not worry, this article is not related to Michael Jackson and his dancing. We will be going for a walk on Reunionís active volcano but we will stay at safe distance from the fumes and lavaÖ

Gardening picture
We do need to get certain gear as a volcano is not a comfortable place like a botanical garden or forest trails where I usually take you on tours. Good walking shoes with strong soles are a must; the ground varies between old smooth lava and very sharp and aggressive new flows just a few years old which would soon eat away your fashionable city moccasins.  You will also need protection against cold and rain as we may very well get within clouds while walking and the altitude means it can be pretty cold. But sun is also here and if we are lucky and get bright sky you can easily come back with sunburns as well as frozen toes, so make sure you bring sunscreen and thick socks! The walk I am taking you on is a five-hour one so do not forget water and energy food such as dried bananas, chocolate, nuts, the choice is yours. And of course take your camera as the scenery is worth it, especially if you have never visited the moon or Mars--which may seem similar to the landscapes we are visiting today!
 
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                A view on the Piton des Neiges
                           Another view
Well then, let us get in the car and drive up the road, we go through Plaine des Caffres and make a turn at Bourg-Murat to take the only road to the volcano. We are already at 1600m (4800 feet) high but the weather is clear so the air is not that sharp, let us buy baguettes and cheese at the local store and keep going. On the right you can have a nice view on the ‘Piton des Neiges' (snow peak) which does not bear snow but is nonetheless the highest point of the island at 3069m (9207 feet) high and may very well be one of our future hikes. The road is narrower and winds through lush green pastures where local cows seem to enjoy themselves while peacefully working to make milk; the high plains of Reunion is where most dairy is produced. You can spot here and there in the fields the luminescent white flowers of Zantedeschia aethiopica (arum lily) which can even be invading in places; it was originally brought over from Africa for decorative purposes but has since escaped in the wild and is taking over. The road twists up through a dark forest of Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese cedar) grown for timber where one may
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                     Hypericum lanceolatum
 Philippia montana and Stoebe passerinoides
encounter at full moon sprites, elves and goblins but we have no time for this now. Once we leave the enchanted woods the endemic trees start showing up; Sophora denudata bearing nice bright yellow flowers, Acacia heterophylla which can become quite huge and makes good quality timber. Other plants will be mostly shrubs like Hypericum lanceolatum and Humbertia ambavilla. I will now stop the car so that we can step out and have a look a this gorgeous view on the deep ravine of riviére des remparts where I once
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                A view on riviére des remparts
took you on a picturesque tour, please do not lean over too far,  I do not want to lose any of you and we are 2065m (6195 feet) over sea level! Back on the road and onward through the fog...yes, some clouds have built up and may cool down the air but we will get through! As we keep going the vegetation turns to the typical mountainous kind with fewer species; Philippia montana (locally known as ‘branle' or ‘brande') belongs to the Ericaceae family (heathers) but this one can grow to several meters high though it will take a great many years. Anyway, as conditions here are quite bad (very poor soil, strong winds and cold weather) most plants stay low and the general aspect is that of shrubby thickets with larger plants here and there. Other members of the Philippia genus are P.arborescens and P.galioides which is called ‘wild thyme' and never grows over a foot high. The three of them are endemic to Reunion, just like Stoebe passerinoides which is an important feature of this high-altitude vegetation and is called ‘branle blanc' (white branle) though it is not an Ericaceae but an Asteraceae...
  
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                         Plaine des sables
                   Typical vegetation by the road
Ladies and gentlemen, we are now leaving planet Earth and reaching alien territory. This is ‘Plaine des Sables' (sands plain) where one would not be surprised to see Curiosity Mars Rover roaming the place. No more plants nor insects here, this is a fully mineral world with various shades of red sand, grey to black stones and the sole sound of wind whistling over your head. The asphalted road now turns into a mere track for the next five kilometers so get ready to be bumped and shaken good! The scenery is now a mix of large gullies of red sand, big boulders seemingly fallen from the sky, openings in the ground which may lead to the center of the globe and various declinations of geological hysteria of the past. At least, ‘le Pas de Bellecombe' which is the end of the road and the beginning of the real thing.  The altitude is 2350m (7050 feet) with a slight breeze, time to take caps and hats out of the backpacks while enjoying the view on the volcano itself. This volcano, the ‘Piton de la fournaise' (furnace peak) is the only still active volcano on the island (let us remind that the whole island was created a few million years ago when a volcano emerged from the Ocean bottom) and very young as it appeared only 4500 years ago. Of course this may sound quite a time for us but for a volcano it means about yesterday so you can understand it is still alive and kicking with eruptions every other year, from a light tremor and shy lava flows to more serious spurting possibly gulping the road on the East coast. Be reassured, the volcano is fully monitored and under permanent scrutiny, an eruption is always preceded by an earth tremor (ground vibrations provoked by the lava movements) in which case local authorities simply shut the access.
  
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                     The Formica Leo crater
                           Pahoe-hoe lava
We will now leave the car in the parking lot and proceed to the walk down to the enclosure, only 150m (450 feet) lower but using a very steep path. After some twenty minutes we set foot within the enclosure and start walking towards the ‘Formica Leo' a small crater formed as recently as year 1753, it is made strictly of scoria (lava chunks which cooled during its flight) so it looks like some giant sand castle. From now on the path on the floor has been painted at regular intervals with large white spots, those marks seem strange but they may save your life! Imagine what it is like when completely clouded; London fog on the moon! If the weather turns to fog you definitely have to follow those spots in order not to loose the track, some people got lost and froze to death during the night. But do not be afraid, this is not an everyday event! Check the shapes at your feet, the cooling lava looks like some coiled big ropes, the name is indeed ‘roped lava' also known as ‘pahoe-hoe'. This last name is Hawaiian and describes a kind of fluid lava, no surprising as volcanoes on Reunion and Hawaii both belong to the ‘hot-spot' ones and act similarly. On we go on the trail, sometimes rather easy on flat ground and at times quite steep or going through crumbling scoria. The sun is now hiding and light drizzle starts wetting our faces, just the usual volcano-walk thing. The scenery can
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                          A view from the top!
              Where could this be going to?
dramatically change with the weather, going from stunning views on the rim and surrounding peaks to no more sight than the back of the walker just ahead of you. But after about two and a half hours of efforts we arrive!
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                           The crater itself
We are now on the top of the volcano and facing the crater itself, a giant hole with vertiginous cliffs and masses of fallen rocks here and there, on the right and almost at the bottom you can see fumes, an unmistakable proof of underground activity. As the sky has completely cleared you can even see the Ocean a few kilometers below. Time to take the baguettes and cheese out! Sorry, no red wine to go with as we still have a bit of efforts to do on the way back so I want you all with full attention on the path down!
   If everyone has now rested and regained strength we will slowly head back to the Pas de Bellecombe. The way back is less strenuous as we go down but still requires careful steps as you can very easily roll on a stone or slip on scoria. We pass again by the Formica Leo and now is the last effort, another 20 minutes of hard walk on the access trail we used on arrival, this is where we can see who is really fit! And at last we get to the car; it's a  wonderful feeling to take off the hiking boots and relax sore legs!  I can see some of you have reddened during the trip, so let's pass around some soothing lotion and everything will be all right.

   Well, this was something, as I said it took five hours for the walk plus a couple hours pauses on the way up and down and lunch at the summit, a good day and a refill of pure mountain air, I will let you rest a little before we get on the next tour.
   If you want more data on the volcano and can read some French, check this site.


  About Jean-Jacques Segalen  
Jean-Jacques SegalenI am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) since 24 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 out at barbardine.com

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Fascinating! Noelle216 1 4 Sep 12, 2012 6:41 AM
Breathtaking Tour!!!!! luv2wok 1 2 Sep 12, 2012 6:39 AM
Great! cybercrone 2 8 Sep 12, 2012 6:36 AM
Wow. What an interesting tour. gloria125 1 9 Sep 7, 2012 9:43 PM
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