Climbing La Piton De La Fournaise Volcano
Where: Réunion, Indian Ocean
Best season: October to March
Best sights: A view of Piton des Neiges through the clouds – the highest peak in the Indian Ocean
Remember to bring: Layers of clothing, water, energy snacks, hat, gloves, mobile phone
La Piton De La Fournaise stands at over 8,000 feet. The volcano has erupted thirty times in the last seven years making it one of the most active volcanos in the world. The last major eruption took place in 1986 when the lava flows reached the sea and added a fair amount of land to the island.
Where To Go
The weather is highly changeable year round, fog can cover the crater and plateau in under ten minutes, so the best season to go is June or July when clear blue skies are practically guaranteed.
Equipment To Bring
The hike is of medium difficulty, taking five or six hours to reach the crater and return, but it’s easily done independently. You will need to bring suitable clothing: layers of clothing which you can peel off as the weather gets warmer, waterproof jacket and trousers, a hat and gloves. Also bring plenty of water, energy snacks, and a mobile phone.
Before attempting the climb, inspect the hazard warnings posted up by the National Parks Service which let you know where it is safe and where it is forbidden to hike. You should always keep to the marked trails; when there is a risk of eruption some of the trails are closed.
You descend a precariously roped path way down to explore the expansive caldera. A caldera is where low viscosity magma pours from the volcano and the magma is runny (basalt). The land forms according to the magma exiting the chambers. The volcano erupts gently and the lava flows away easily to form a shield-shaped plain. La Piton is a basalt shield volcano.
You can climb a strange, pebbly ‘ant hill’ mound – the colour and form is like something you can imagine on Mars. This is formed when occasionally high viscosity magma gets stuck on the way out of the crater until pressure builds up and it gets forced out explosively like a fire mountain, scattering rock fragments and volcanic dust over a wide area.
From the mountain ridge you can view broken craters, shrouded by a stream of wafting clouds, and other mountains, most notably the Piton des Neiges – the highest peak in the Indian Ocean at 9,000 feet and the oldest mountain in Réunion. It takes three hours to reach the inner crater from the base. From here you may see smoke or even fiery lava channels depending on how active the volcano is that day. Your guide will advise how far it is safe to continue but you can bet this will be the most daring geological experience of your life!
Nothing grows or lives in the volcano apart from dry bush which, if given sufficient nourishment through rain, becomes a mousse plant. Then if that thrives a ‘Petit bois’ plant grows with berries, but you must not eat the berries because it can kill you as the soil is poisonous. The Creoles call the plant ‘Mother-in-law‘ because you can boil the plant in water and serve it to your mother in law as a soup! Instead, keep your energy levels up on the trek with plenty of sugar and liquids.
Where to Stay
The Gîte du Volcan is in a fantastic location near the volcano Piton de La Fournaise – and ideal departure point for a volcano mini-trek. Accommodation is in dormitories of 2, 4, 8, 12 and 16, with communal showers and hot water, although the wooden cabin is solar-powered, so if it’s cloudy (which it often is in Réunion) the hot water can be erratic. It costs $35 for a bed, breakfast and dinner at communal tables. The gîte is family-run by the welcoming and friendly Picard family whose uncle started the gîte in the 1930s. It’s often full so you must book in advance through the Maison de La Montagne’s website.
Le Gîte du Volcan
Pas de Bellecombe
Piton de La Fournaise
Ste Rose, La Réunion
Maison de la Montagne
5 rue Rontaunay – 97400 Saint-Denis
Telephone: 02 62 90 78 78
Fax : 02 62 41 84 29
La Maison de La Montagne, funded by the government, is where you can get lots of information on trekking and nature activities in La Réunion. You can book horse riding expeditions, hiking trips, four-wheel-drive trips, mountain guides, and accommodation. Their website is well organized and you can book everything on the net.
By Susi O’Neill