Friday, 10 February 2012

Trekking the volcano

The Piton de la Fournaise volcano is one of Reunion Island's most emblematic symbols, and if you're only a visitor to the island, it's definitely a 'must-do' on your list of things to see. It's one of the world's most active volcanoes, and also one of those that emits the most lava.

Piton de la Fournaise from Pas de Bellecombe

Personally, due to our stay in South Korea for three years, I hadn't been back since 2007.

the volcano is in the south-east of the island

Driving up to the gîte, where we would spend the night at 2230m altitude, we 'lost' about 20°C in an hour and a half, going from 30°C on the coast to 11°C at the gîte itself!

Gîte du volcan at sunset

As we were driving there in late afternoon/early evening we had the chance to take some lovely photos of the sunset:

To get to the gîte and the Pas de Bellecombe you have to cross what is known as the Plaine des Sables, a vast, empty plain crossed by a dirt track.

road crossing the Plaine des Sables

At the gîte a new restaurant & reception area has been built since we were last there, and it is now a comfortable and well-lit building where you can have meals or beverages (remember to book an evening meal 48 hours ahead).

gîte in full daylight (red roofs to the left are accommodation)

our accommodation was in the Gite des Anciens Porteurs

the altitude means there are temperate climate trees like this sycamore

From the gîte you can also do other hikes, to or across the Fond de la Rivière de l'Est, (which we did one year down to Ste Rose after having hiked up from St Philippe the previous day - that was a tough one!).

view over the Fond de la Rivière de l'Est from the gîte

From the gîte it's a short drive or walk to either the Pas de Bellecombe (better to drive), or the starting point from which you can hike down into the volcano caldera (a 600m walk from the gîte), which are a few hundred metres distant from each other.

Panoramic view from the Pas de Bellecombe

At the Pas de Bellecombe (2311m) you can find a car-park and viewpoint with orientation tables (see photos below), as well as chemical toilets and a snack bar.

New York is 17000 km away

Sydney is 9680 km to the east

Tokyo is 10800 km to the north-east

The Pas de Bellecombe is on the edge of a 8km-wide caldera called Enclos Fouqué.

Piton de Partage (looking left (north
north east) from Pas de Bellecombe)

Before descending into the caldera (if you're hiking) there are warning signs in French, English and German. In the case of an eruption - or imminent eruption - access to the caldera is closed by a metal gate.

One of the first things a visitor notices in the caldera is Formica Leo, an 18th century crater that takes its name from antlions who construct similarly-shaped mounds. 

View of Formica Leo before descending into the Enclos.

Formica Leo

The descent into the caldera looks something like this:

The caldera is so deep (400m), that the Eiffel Tower (324m) could fit into it.

When you're hiking in the caldera the ground is more or mess flat, but fairly uneven as it's made up of old lava flows.

There are lots of crevasses and small tunnels and caves.

The sign below shows an example of 'Pahoehoe' lava, which is basaltic lava that has a smooth, hummocky, or ropy surface. As La Fournaise is a shield volcano that experiences what is called Hawaiian-type eruptions, some of the descriptive terms come from Hawaiian. 

The path is easy to follow as there are white markings. This is extremely useful if the conditions are foggy or misty - the weather here can change EXTREMELY quickly. 

After Formica Leo the next main natural formation you notice is the Chapelle de Rosemont, whose shape is reminiscent of a chapel.

 The chapelle is at 2245m altitude

It's been cleaned up since last time I was there.

"The chapel is made for praying, not for peeing"

Piton de Partage from Chapelle de Rosemont

This sign indicates a'a lava, in a flow dating from 1955.

After the chapelle the path starts to climb up to the viewpoint over the Dolomieu crater.

darker-coloured lava is more recent

I always think lava with this shape looks like elephant dung!

Craters from previous eruptions can be seen along the way.

As you can see from the other photos, vegetation is almost non-existent.

one of the rare plants to be found in the caldera

Successive lava flows have left incredible shapes.

Possible eruptions are known about well in advance thanks to the Observatory, which keeps a close eye on the volcano's seismic activity.

arriving at the viewpoint

The volcano's highest point is at 2632m, although the view point itself is slightly lower.

Dolomieu crater

The floor of the Dolomieu crater suddenly subsided on April 6th 2007, throwing some 60 million cubic metres of rock into the bowels of the volcano. Today the crater is about 280 metres deep, and 700 to 1000 metres wide, having risen roughly 70 metres between September 2008 and January 2009. 

cloud of smoke over la Fournaise as Dolomieu crater subsided, 2007

We had not been back to the Dolomieu since this had all happened.

looking right at the viewpoint

A small rockfall happened while we were there:

Afterwards it was just a case of turning round and heading back the way we came!
Count about 5 hours for the round trip from the Pas de Bellecombe.

Some useful web links if you're visiting the volcano:
  • For more of my posts about La Fournaise volcano please follow this link.
  • You can read here about our visit to the slopes of Mount Merapi in Indonesia, another very active volcano.


  1. Very interesting Blog, Great photos!! Thank you so much ! Oh, how i envy you (in a good way) :). I have never been to Reunion or any of the nearby islands, but would really love to. I love travelling very much, but have only been around Europe so far.My biggest dream would be to live in an island like reunion and also travel around the world as you do wherever, North Korea also, why not? :) But how could i do that? :)Anyways :) I subbed to you on twitter! :)

  2. Thanks Gregor. Reunion is not necessarily a great place to travel from as it's quite expensive (most of our Asian travelling was done when we were living in South Korea). But it's a great base for visiting the other Indian Ocean islands from, and the island itself has lots to offer!