With a week in the Seychelles to follow, we did not linger on the coast, spending the bulk of our short time in Reunion exploring its interior. Unlike nearby Mauritius, which does not have a mountain worthy of the name, Reunion’s volcanic activity has left formidable scars that make the island a veritable hiker’s heaven. The interior is composed of three cirques – enormous, verdant, jagged hollows whose small settlements are enclosed by high mountain walls and rugged peaks. Those who have the time and energy can hike from one cirque to the next, staying at gîtes (dorm-style mountain huts, which offer lodging and surprisingly good food) along the way. With only three days at our disposal, we headed to the Cilaos cirque, which promised higher peaks and deeper valleys than Salazie. Mafate, the other cirque, is only accessible by foot.
Not ones to make small plans, we set our sights on Piton de Neiges, a 3070m (just over 10,000 ft) extinct volcano that towers over the rest of the island. The mountain is aptly-named as its top is typically swathed in clouds by mid-morning, especially during the rainy season, whose tail end – we found out much to out chagrin – extended unexpectedly into our visit. Most people make Piton de Neiges a two-day hike, walking from either Cilaos or Salazie to a gîte perched beneath its summit and then waking up before dawn and ascending in the dark to greet the sunrise atop the peak.
As we did not have the luxury of an extra night, we aimed to do Piton de Neiges as a day-hike. We did not harbor illusions of having panoramic views of the island from the summit and were prepared to turn around if we found the cloud cover too thick. Fortunately, the weather smiled on us. Not only did it not rain, but we also enjoyed the most sunshine we would see during our time in Cilaos.
We hit the trail at 8am, going up a steep, well-groomed path that zig-zagged through the forest clinging to the base of the mountain. It felt a tad surreal to be hiking on a trail that had clearly been maintained by a park service. That the trail was well-kept did not make this hike an easy undertaking. We intended to climb from 1280m to 3070m, an elevation gain of nearly six thousand feet, so the ascent was anything but gradual. Three hours of stairmaster-like climbing brought us to a pass in the mountain. The gîte lay on a plateau on the other side while a rocky path ascended to the summit.
Remarkably, the whole mountain was clearly visible, the sun shining brightly overhead. However, as we paused to snack and take in the vista, clouds rolled in, the mist obscuring the peak from view in a matter of seconds. We pressed on when it cleared, D hiking ahead in a vain attempt to beat the clouds to the top. We enjoyed good views of the Cilaos cirque throughout our ascent, but at the summit we found ourselves above the clouds, their white fluff blanketing the other side of the island. Including our rest stops, we wound up spending nine hours on the trail, returning to our chamber d’hôte sore but determined to do another long hike the next day.