Reunion

By Johan Boshoff
Map illustration by Izelle Hickey

Diving on  A thousand encounters, a thousand landscapes, a thousand sensations and various dive sites… right in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Reunion is a French island that stands out from all the others. It’s an island where you can dive prestige reefs, walk in valleys full of waterfalls and visit an active volcano all in the space of one day.

ImageThe first time I heard about this island I thought it was too good to be true. Then Air Austral and Safpol Safaris introduced me to it, and I fell in love with the place immediately.

Reunion is an island that rises 3 069m straight out of the ocean and has thousands of valleys surrounding its active volcano. The entire island is covered in mountains and the waters provide some of the best dive sites the Indian Ocean has to offer. I simply had to do this article to let South Africans know what they are missing out on. And it’s right on our doorstep!

La Reunion Island is 39km long and 45km wide, covering a total area of 2 512km. It’s located to the east of Madagascar, 200km southwest of Mauritius and is less than four hours flight from Johannesburg. Theisland was born from two major volcanic events. The first took place hundreds thousands of years ago, when magma gushing out of the crater spread around and into the ocean, making up what is today the highest point of the island, the Piton des Neiges (Snow peak). The peak is some 3 069m above sealevel and has been dormant for hundreds of years. When the second volcanic event occurred, about 30km to the southeast, a new volcanic mount formed and became attached to the first. This is how the Piton de la Fournaise (Furnace Peak) was formed.

It sits 2 632m above sealevel and is active to this day with regular eruptions. These volcanic activities provide spectacular viewing and what makes it even more amazing is that you can safely approach the lava flows from  previous eruptions.

The island of Reunion has a similar history to that of Mauritius and was uninhabited up to the middle of the 17th century. Then it  became a stopover on the trade routes, appreciated for its abundance of fresh water which was available near the coast. As a result of this, many navigators visited the islands. While the Arabic, Portuguese and English travellers all visited the island, it was the French who were first to find a use for it. They used Reunion as a prison, or rather a penal colony for “undesirables” from Madagascar. The first convicts landed on the shores in 1643. They discovered the “prison” of their dreams.

No buildings, no shackles, no cells… just forests, wild game running free and rivers for Africa. The first colonists arrived on the Reunion beaches in around 1663 and were accompanied by Malagasy servants. It was during the French Revolution that the island changed its name: The “Sans-culottes” (French revolutionaries) renamed it Reunion in memory of the meeting of the revolutionary forces at Paris in 1790. The island briefly passed into English hands from 1810 to 1815, before finally being returned to the King of France.


There was no great rush to populate and develop the island and from around about 1685, Indian Ocean pirates began using Ile Bourbon as a trading base. Until 1715 the French East India Company was content to provide only for itsflown needs and for those of passing ships, but then coffee was introduced to international trade, and between 1715 and 1730, it became the island’s main cash crop, changing the economy dramatically. The French enslaved Africans to provide for the intensive labour required for coffee cultivation, and during this period, grains, spices and cotton were also brought in as cash crops.

 

It was soon discovered that Reunion could produce Geranium and Vetiver. When distilled, they provided oils that were highly prized by the major perfume makers.

New and delightful smelling plantations flourished on the favourable heights of the western and southern regions of the island. The economy has traditionally been based on agriculture and sugarcane has been the primary crop for over a century.

ImageIn some years it accounts for 85% of total exports.

The government has been pushing the development of a tourist industry to relieve high unemployment levels, which amounts to more than 40% of the labour force. Since the middle of the 1990s, tourism has become one of the major resources of the island.

Reunion is considered an “overseas extension” of France and is therefore included in the European Union. This means the currency used on the island is the Euro. The principal towns are Saint-Denis, the administrative centre; Saint-Paul, the first “capital” and Saint-Pierre the most southerly town. There, the beautiful Creole architecture is protected from the assaults of modernity. The souls of these cities that were built by tough pioneers have been preserved well through the years. Reunion offers the incredible diversity of countryside, luxuriant vegetation bathed in tropical heat, rocky landscapes invigorated by the mountain air and heavenly beaches – natural charms that will tickle any tourist’s fancies.

When deciding when you’d like to visit Reunion, its best to take the climate into consideration. Temperatures on the coast average 22°C during winter and 27°C in summer. In the mountain regions, the temperature drops to 11°C and 18°C respectively. The year is divided into two seasons - the cool, dry season which lasts from May to October and the hot, wet season which runs from November to April. Winter is only in name and it’s not really cold along the coast. During the summer months, two thirds of the annual rainfall is experienced and temperatures and rainfall vary according to the altitude and exposure to the elements. There can be significant variation from one end of the island to the other.

This is a truly unbelievable island. It felt like every day I was lucky enough to spend there was in another destination.

There was something new to discover every day and I was eager to experience the wonderful surprises it held in store for me. You can be driving along the coast with a temperature of 29°C, drive 10km inland and find yourself in the middle of a rain forest, and then carry on for another 20km and be in a desert. The island makes you feel like a god who is sitting on top of the world. If the 14°C temperature near the volcano becomes too chilly for you, you can always return to the beach and have tropical warmth again.


What’s not to be missed on Reunion

Cilaos

Cilaos is a small town nestled inside a mountain crater, called a “cirque”.

With fantastic views of the surrounding landscape, plus a small museum and thermal spas to rejuvenate you after going on hikes through the area. Longer day hikes are possible to areas like the Cirque de Mafate, a very remote and difficult region to access. It is filled with ridges and small villages and is only accessible by foot or helicopter. You could always venture up to the Cirque de Salazie. It’s far more accessible and is filled with waterfalls like le Voile de la Mariée - the Bride’s Veil. There is a picturesque viewing point of Cirque de Mafate called Piton Maido and it’s truly breathtaking!

ImagePiton de la Fournaise

The island is home to an active volcano in the south eastern corner of the island, which occasionally erupts and sends lava flowing into the ocean. During these eruptions, the lava flows cross over the roads in its path and detours need to be taken. There is also the Volcano Museum in Bourg Murat, which is on the way to the volcano itself. If you want to spend time exploring the volcano, its advisable to depart early from your destination as later in the day the volcano becomes covered by clouds. The same goes for other high lying areas on the island

Paragliding

Optimum air conditions for paragliding are experienced all year round, but the best time for this sport is during the winter months when there is less rain and more sunshine along the mountain slopes. You can view the entire coastline of Reunion, including the beautiful coral reefs and crystal clear water along St Leu.

Diving Reunion

The island of Reunion doesn’t guarantee regular spotting of big marine life, but the two things you can be guaranteed of experiencing while underwater is visibility of up to 50m in the bluest water you will ever see and scenery that will blow your mask off.

There’s a variety of dive sites around the island, but only certain sections are divable. The coral forms a discontinuous reef of about 15km to the west and south of the island. The magnificent smooth turquoise waters sits on top of white sand and the majestic basalt cliffs rapidly give way to the great depths.

There are 150 species of coral and 500 species of fish which makes for relaxed and enjoyable diving. The eastern and southern sides of the island are known as the wilder sides of the island.

ImageThere are high cliffs sitting right next to the ocean, huge waves and gale force winds which makes diving only possible for about 40 days each year. There are some dive charters from the west that will accommodate you diving all the way to Ste Rose, but it could end up being a very costly experience.

Most of the dive operators are situated on the northwestern side of Reunion, where there are three main areas for launching boats.

Most of the dive centres are situated in the harbours, where boats are ready and waiting to take you out on the warm, quiet waters of the western side of the island.


The diving is quite different to what we are used to in South Africa; the boats range from rubber ducks to big steel boats. They’re launched from the harbour and there are no waves to cut through, just a few small swells. On the north-western side of the island, near the town of Le Port, is the dive centre Dodo le Palme. They took me to a dive site that I consider to be unique because thereis a cavern in the cliff face where you can ascend and breathe above the water.

 

There are two openings in the wall and the bright sunlight shines straight through. One more descent and you can continue with your dive. The rest of the site has large rock formations that sit on the sandy sea floor. They range in size from 5m to 15m and the coral formations are home to many colourful tropical fish. On the way back from the dive site, there is a good chance that you can dive and snorkel with dolphins in the bluest water you’ve ever seen. Night dives are also possible because of the calm water and almost non-existent current. You will get to experience the marine life that tends to be so shy during the day, such as lobsters, crabs, spanish dancers, squid and cuttlefish.

St Gilles les Bains can be found on the western side of Reunion and the Blue Marine dive centre operates from the harbour there. The reefs that they frequently dive on are fairly young and have very little coral on them.

ImageThere is however, a wide variety of fish life and the bigger species can being found on a dive site near the lagoon and along the gullies and tunnel systems of some other sites. There are wall dives of up to 40m and they are brilliantly coloured with various marine creatures.

With great visibility and warm tropical waters, what more could a diver ask for?

If you want to experience more coral during your dives, you will need to visit L’Excelsus dive centre in St Leu. The diving there is a totally different experience - coral formations between 5 and 7m in depth and gullies reaching 16m in depth give you the feeling you’re swimming in an aquarium with the clear water and sun shining on the coral and lovely tropical fish swimming about in their usual way. This charter has a relaxed feel about them. Onboard you are given a quick briefing, the boat is then anchored and offyou go. There is no group diving, so you and a buddy can go offand explore the waters for yourselves. Once you’re done, simply surface and make your way over to the boat at yourflown pace.

Diving in the waters of Reunion can be done throughout the year and if you go at the end of the season, July to October, you could join the whale sharks and whales for a dive. The ocean waters are teaming with marine life, even close in to the shore.

The reef slope provides a prefect habitat for coral fauna and flora that brings joy to divers’ hearts. Beyond the reefs, the kingdom of the large migratory fish begins - blue marlin, common dolphin fish, sailfish, tuna and barracuda fill the waters.

The great visibility, relaxed atmosphere and beautiful scenery make diving here an absolute must. There are also two wreck sites to dive, but they are in deeper water and its best to leave them to the more experienced diver. If the weather permits, you can make this a trip to remember by diving on the lava formations of the erupted De la Fournaise volcano.


How to get there

Make your way to the right tour operator who will be able to plan your trip and your diving excursions.
Safpol Safaris specialize in trips to Reunion.

You can contact them on 011 726 5897, email them at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or
visit their website at www.safpolsafaris.co.za for more information.

Air Austral

After being on more than a hundred flights this year, I can honestly say this airline is right at the top of my list because of the excellent service they provide. They provide flights between Reunion and Mauritius, the Seychelles, the Comores, Mayotte, Madagascar, South Africa and, of course, metropolitan France.

You can contact them on 011 523 8282 or email them at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Accommodation

Reunion offers many types of accommodation, from B&Bs to five-star hotels. I had the pleasure of being accommodated by Villas du Lagon, near La Saline les Bains. It’s a four-star Hotel with a magnificent sea view, big pool and comfortable facilities for families and business people alike. Then I had the pleasure of staying at the Iloha hotel in St Leu.

ImageTheir beautiful cottage-style chalets on green lawns with fragrant frangipanis lining the pathways make this an amazing and relaxing stay.There are the regular features like the bar fridge, aircon and en suite bathrooms, but what made it special is the almost 180 degree sea view from the hill. When visiting the town of St Denis, one should stay at the Mercure Creolia Hotel. It’s close to the airport and market place and offers a spectacular view over the city and the mountain.

Travelling Tips

  • Reunion is a small island that’s round in shape – the main road goes around the island and is 240km in length.
  • The best way to get around is via rental car and you can hire one at a reasonable rate if you fly with Air Austral.
  • Just don’t forget your international driver’s license.
  • Visa requirements for Reunion are the same as for France. Citizens of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and a handful of other countries may enter Reunion for up to three months without a Visa.
  • There is no malaria in Reunion, so you do not need to take any precautions. The Chikungunya epidemic is under control and tourists need not worry about it. If it’s your preference, you can visit your doctor for inoculations though. Mosquito repellent is also advised.
  • The local currency is the Euro and banks will gladly exchange most currencies.
  • Credit cards are not widely accepted around the island, especially Diner’s Club and American Express cards.
  • Electric current: 220V (French plug)
  • The water throughout the island is safe to drink.
  • French and Creole are widely written and spoken, so make sure to pack in your French phrase book.
  • It’s advisable to head back to the area near Roland Garros Airport a day before your flight home. Traffic can be a problem over weekends and the flight from South Africa flies only once a week, on Sunday. There is also currently road works taking place on the highway leading to St Denis, only on Sundays though. Sometimes the road is closed for up to four hours at a time.

Thanks to Laurent from the Reunion Tourism board for all your help and information, as well as Grethe from Air Austral for making all the arrangements.


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Author: Johan Boshoff