It’s hard to imagine that there are still places left in the world where no car ever drives or no bus ever stops, but they do exist. The village of La Nouvelle on la Réunion island is built on the collapsed remains of an extinct volcano and is completely cut off from the world. Access is extremely difficult: you can only reach it by helicopter or by hiking up there – and that’s exactly what we did!
Unlike most tropical islands, the most attractive part of La Réunion, east of Magadaskar, isn’t really the coast. The true beauty of the island lies deeper inland: the lush forests, the misty mountains peaks, the tumbling waterfalls. And the cirques: natural amphitheaters that were formed after an ancient volcano collapsed. One of those beauties is the Cirque of Mafate. Very few tourists make it all the way up there, simply because there’s no road leading to it, apart from a small pathway through the mountains.
The hideaway of runaway slaves
Here’s how it all began: the island of Reunion is a volcanic island and during its creation, the ancient volcano Piton des Neiges eroded and collapsed, and created three calderas or ‘cirques’: Cilaos, Salazie and Mafate, Unesco World Heritage since 2010. The circular valleys are surrounded by steep mountain villages, the most remote being the cirque of Mafate. During the period of slavery, escaped slaves fled in the rugged mountains and took refuge in the three cirques. It’s said that it’s those very first slaves that created the paths through the mountains that are still used today. It’s unclear where the name ‘Mafate’ came from. Some say it derives from the Malagasy word ‘Mahafaty’, which means ‘lethal’ and illustrates the difficulty of access. Others say Mafate was the name of a runaway slave who made it to all the way to the cirque, but was tracked down and killed.
To get there, follow the trail that starts in Salazie, on the ‘Col des Boeufs’ mountain pass. The walk is gentle at first and predominantly downhill, in the shade of the tropical cloud forest and along some unique flora: rock mosses, ferns, orchids and old tamarind and oak trees with fanciful, almost magical shapes. Like walking on a movie set! After lunchtime at the ‘Plateau des chênes’, a wide plateau of old oak trees, the real challenge begins: climbing up the other side of the massif, to finally descend in the valley of Mafate where the village La Nouvelle awaits you. Prepare for a stir of (happy) emotions when you see La Nouvelle for the first time, appearing like a magnificent mirage after the miles and miles of forestry. There’s just one path to go up and down to Mafate, but don’t worry about getting bored along the way: the every changing forest is the finest travel companion you can imagine.
Since the 19th century, small groups of people have been living in the caldera. About 200 people currently reside in the cirque of Mafate, in a tiny village called La Nouvelle and few smaller communities. The creaky Creole houses and little gardens fit the remote location, but the most spectacular sight reveals itself in the early morning. So spend the night in the village and get up at the break of dawn! Between seven and ten a.m. is when the sky is clear and all of the surrounding mountains are completely visible. As soon as the sun emerges above the mountain peaks white, whispy clouds start crawling over the mountain flanks, a spectacle that dramatically and completely changed the surrounding landscape. No wonder La Réunion is called the island of a thousand faces…
Good to know:
– You don’t necessarily need a guide to go to La Nouvelle, the pathway is properly marked.
– The inhabitants of the village are quite keen on their privacy, so best to respect that when you’re taking pictures.
– If you’re visiting in the rainy season, leave early. Thick white clouds are coming up fast in the late morning so if you leave too late, you won’t see any of the stunning views once you’re in La Nouvelle. On the upside: the fog adds a magical touch to the forest you’re hiking in.
– Sleeping tip in La Nouvelle: Yvon Gravina’s gîte. Yvon has six rooms in small bungalows next to his home. The rooms and service are basic but the setting is lovely and prices are very reasonable. Tel. : 0262 43 38 72.
– There’s very little options for food in La Nouvelle, there’s one outdoor bar and one restaurant when I was there. Make sure to bring your own food or ask your accomodation beforehand to either prepare something or book a table at the restaurant. They serve breakfast as well.
– If you don’t want to hike all the way back, you could opt for a ‘heli-hike’: walk on the way in, helicopter on the way back.