Normally, one looks to the Indian Ocean’s islands as a place to recline and relax on perfect beaches. Reunion Island offers something a bit more adventurous. It’s a thrusting wilderness of vertiginous mountain peaks, huge craters, dramatic canyons and a volcano that’s been erupting since the 17th century. Think of it as France’s version of Hawaii: less aloha, more ’allo ’allo.
Every October, the world’s toughest “ultra” runners and masochists come to tackle La Diagonale des Fous, the lunatic’s traverse. It’s a non-stop 165km trail across the spine of the island with almost 10,000m of ascent, which takes anything from 24 to 64 hours to complete. It’s a course that has broken elite athletes. My goal – to complete one of the wildest and hardest sections – is somewhat less ambitious, but far from easy. First, though, I have to get there…
“Last call for flight MK53 to Mauritius.” I dash to the gate, board and exhale. I have the next 12 hours to catch my breath.
I touch down and immediately transfer to a twin-prop plane for the 45-minute flight to Reunion – smooth and effortless, although delayed. The island was colonised by the French in the late 17th century, and has more or less been in their hands ever since. I’m waved through immigration by the grizzled Police aux Frontiers, and my chauffeur is waiting for me in a Mercedes on the other side. “You need a sports car for where we’re going,” he explains. With more than 400 bends, each one teetering over a precipitous drop, the drive demands extreme skill and a lot of horsepower.
We drive south along the west coast, passing LUX Saint Gilles, where I have a room waiting. Its pool, restaurants and reef-protected lagoon – safe from the island’s notoriously aggressive bull sharks – will have to wait. Our destination is Cilaos, a small town 1,214m up in the heart of the mountains and the natural base for a weekend of adventure. In all, it’s around a two-hour drive, and includes what must be some of the hairiest hairpin bends on the planet. We pass pelotons of cyclists tackling the climb and narrowly avoid buses swinging terrifyingly round corners.
I check into charming Le Vieux Cep and admire my room, with its fine views across the mountains. In my bag is just my hiking kit and a toothbrush; my driver will take the rest to LUX Saint Gilles. Cilaos is world-famous for its canyoning, the adrenaline sport of peering over thunderous waterfalls, swearing to oneself and then abseiling down, or jumping and sliding over smoothed chutes into deep pools of water.
At reception I meet my guide, Alexis Vincent. A Reunion native, he’s 31 and has that outdoor-fitness air that no gym can replicate. I’d been warned that he was a “really crazy guy”, which sounded ideal; we exchange big handshakes and even bigger grins. “So you are ready for this?” he asks. “It will be a big day.” I nod the nod of a child offered an ice cream.
The plan is to follow a section of the famous Diagonale course from Cilaos to the summit of Maïdo – 20km in distance, but dauntingly hilly: there’s 2,000m to climb, which is not to be underestimated, especially in the sweltering tropical heat.
It should take six to seven hours if we hike the uphills and run gently on the descents – but more like nine if we just walk. “No rum cocktails tonight,” he warns. Supper is Creole fare: chicken, beans and rice. I do as I’m told, and go to bed early.
I take coffee and a pre-prepared breakfast in my room and meet Vincent downstairs. Then it’s a short drive to the trailhead.
There is always relief at the start of something epic. All the stress from those nagging decisions – these socks or those? Which sports watch to take? – disappears in a second. We start hiking, and almost immediately I notice that while Vincent is able to make effortless conversation, I struggle to complete my sentences in a single breath. The mercury is already in the mid-20s and I’m wilting. Up through dense forest we climb, along endless switchbacks, until suddenly the sun bursts over a ridge, casting a glorious beam across the Cilaos valley. It also instantly sends the temperature up a few more degrees.
After a steady 90 minutes uphill, we reach the 2,142m Col du Taïbit, and are greeted with a view of the gods: soaring volcanic peaks, deep ravines, exotic fauna – it’s a magical tropical landscape. Jurassic Park, sans dinosaurs. In most places we’d be above the vegetation line, and most likely above the snow line, too. Ice, however, is not uncommon here – as the Piton des Neiges, which stands to our right at 3,071m, reminds us.
Here we enter the Cirque de Mafate, the most inaccessible part of the three cirques, where runaway slaves fled during the 19th century. Most were ruthlessly tracked down by bounty hunters, Mafate among them. We trot lightly down the other side, arriving at the village of Marla, which consists of just a school, a few houses providing spartan accommodation for trekkers and several water sources to replenish our bottles. There are no roads: the villages are only accessible by foot, adding to an already pervasive feeling of remoteness.
Onwards we venture on narrow, twisting paths that are delightful to run. We pass trekkers laden with enormous rucksacks, boots and walking sticks – their evident labours confirm we’re doing it the right way with trainers and light rucksacks. The landscape mutates constantly: within an hour we go from lush, green vegetation to black volcanic rock to soft forest trails. At a riverbed crossing, the ground suddenly opens up to reveal a 60m-deep chasm, just a few metres wide, and only visible from a few metres away. Sensibly, we cross the river higher up.
By now I’m beginning to die a little. We’re back to serious climbing, and my thigh muscles start to register their protest in earnest. Then the temperature climbs a bit, just for more fun. But some fit female trekkers ahead spark the naturally competitive instinct within, and I soldier on, pretending it’s all a breeze, of course, as we pass them.
At last, a proper rest at the village of Roche Plate. We sit in the shade of a beautiful garden. Water, cola, a local non-alcoholic beer – all deliciously cold. I tilt my head back and pour like it’s the first day of Freshers’ Week. Life and humour begin to return, but there’s no ignoring the elephant in the garden: the 1,000m sheer wall of the Maïdo massif that looks down on us, taunting us with its impossibly out-of-reach summit.
“I know, you don’t have to tell me,” I say to Vincent. Wearily, I put my shoes back on, wring the sweat out of my bandana and fill up my bottles.
“Kilian Jornet did this in 50 minutes. And he’d already run 100km by this point.” In the close-knit community of “ultra runners”, Jornet’s name is spoken in reverential tones; the list of his athletic feats, which range from running the length of the Pyrenees in eight days to sprinting up and down the Matterhorn in less time than it takes to have a good lunch, has ensured his place in mountain lore. “So that probably means a couple of hours for us then,” I venture. I dig in for the slow slog. It’s a war of attrition; nothing but sweat, tears and switchback after switchback after switchback. Vincent offers me his emergency walking poles, and I gladly accept. The clouds roll in, bringing welcome coolness and mercifully taking that summit out of view.
Like characters emerging from a lost world – a sensation heightened by our burst through the clouds – we climb the last steps up to the Maïdo and embrace. We did the last climb in 1 hour 50 minutes, but it’s been seven hours since we set off and I am truly done in.
At this point, there’s a choice. I can jump on a mountain bike and ride the incredible 2,200m descent to the coast, all the way to LUX Saint Gilles – about another three-and-a-half hours. Or I can jump in the car and go with the driver. I can’t even say it’s a tough call: the truth is I’m broken and not sure I can cope with the rigours of an epic descent. It’s doable – just not by me, today. I wave goodbye to Vincent and watch as he disappears into the forest.
A shower, a cold beer and a dip in both the sea and the hotel’s vast pool – the largest on the island – fill the remaining daylight hours before it’s time to hit the Creole buffet hard. I load my plate a few times over with curries, rice and salads washed down with a Pinot Noir from LUX’s own South African label. The last effort of the day is the 17 steps – yes, I counted – to my villa, where I collapse into the folds of my king bed.
It’s 45 minutes to the airport, a 45-minute flight to Mauritius, then 12 hours of fun to Heathrow. It’s possible to fly overnight from La Reunion to Paris and connect to London, which would have got me back to work by about midday; but this option allows me more time to recover. After one of the most epic challenges my body and I have done for this magazine, I’ll take all the recovery I can get.