Given the name of this blog, I thought it was time to compose a few paragraphs about the most southerly of the 101 départements français.
In the part of France that lies in mainland Europe, the most southerly department is Pyrénées-Orientales. Look a little more widely, and what is often referred to as France Metropolitaine includes Corsica, an island that is split into two departments with nearly all of Corse-du-Sud being south of the border between Pyrénées-Orientales and Spain. But there are five more departments overseas, and two of them lie south of the equator in the Indian Ocean on opposite sides of Madagascar.
To visit the most southerly part of France, I took a 9,000-kilometre flight from Paris to the island of La Réunion. In administrative and legal terms, this is a true French department, and bizarrely this also makes La Réunion the most far-flung corner of the European Union.
One of the most active volcanoes in the world
La Réunion is a volcanic island. Its south-eastern end is dominated by the Piton de la Fournaise, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Since the first colonists arrived in the mid-17th century, it has erupted over 200 times. When I climbed it on 14 June 2023, I was a little perturbed by the warning sign: AN ERUPTION IS PROBABLE IN THE NEXT FEW DAYS. BE CAREFUL.
Fortunately for me, this latest eruption did not begin until I was safely back in France Metropolitaine. At 08.50 on the morning of 2 July 2023, lava began oozing out of the volcano’s southern slope. You can view photos and videos in the French press.
A far more spectacular and unusual eruption took place in 2007. The summit of the volcano is 2,632 metres above sea level, but on this occasion magma spewed out of the eastern slope at an altitude of only 600 metres. Within a few hours, the lava had run all the way down the mountain and into the Indian Ocean. The road that runs around the island has since been rebuilt and runs through this barren volcanic landscape. Its name? Lava Road.
Saved by a miracle
A little further north, the eruption of 1977 left an even more striking sight thanks to what some regard as a miracle. When lava began to flow down the mountain, 1,500 inhabitants from the village of Piton Sainte-Rose were evacuated. Part of their village was destroyed, but when the lava reached the church, it flowed around both sides, destroyed the west door but stopped short of the nave. All the stained glass exploded due to the intense heat and the floor was damaged, but otherwise the church was spared. Subsequently it was renamed Notre Dame des Laves, and although this event may not have been a miracle, it certainly created an unforgettable sight.
The highest mountain in the Indian Ocean
Piton de la Fournaise is around 500,000 years old, but the original volcano that created the island of La Réunion emerged from the ocean around three million years ago. Known as Piton des Neiges, it grew through a series of eruptions. Today, at 3,070 metres above sea level, it is the highest mountain in the Indian Ocean. Piton des Neiges has been dormant for around 10,000 years, and during this time erosion has created three vast cirques: Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie.
For the fit and active, these cirques provide a challenging and stunning environment for a range of outdoor adventures. I spent two days hiking into, around and out of Mafate, spending the night in a simple wooden hut in a tiny village called La Nouvelle. There are no roads in Mafate, but around 700 people live there, mainly surviving through tourism and subsistence farming.
Pity the postman and the priest
Most supplies are flown in by helicopter, which can make the morning skies surprisingly noisy, but spare a thought for the postman who has to deliver letters to these 700 inhabitants. La Poste is disinclined to give postie a helicopter so he has to carry 10-15 kilograms of mail on his back up and down some of the steepest slopes I have encountered. Luckily he only does one or two rounds a week.
I was also intrigued to meet a priest standing outside the church preparing to celebrate mass. The Lord may give him wings, but not a helicopter, so he too is obliged to travel in and out by foot. I suspect this gentleman is the fittest priest I have ever met. No doubt he also gives a good mass, but after a long day in the mountains I was more tempted by researching the local beer. The right hand photo below also illustrates that, although during our stay the weather by the coast was usually dry, hot and sunny, late afternoon and evening in the mountains invariably brought mist, rain, a storm or all three.
Away from these wild and inaccessible areas, most visitors head for the west coast where the sand is golden instead of black and a reef protects swimmers from shark attacks. Between July and October, this is also an outstanding location for spotting humpback whales, and I had the good fortune to view one of this year’s early arrivals while he circled our catamaran.
The changing face of a tropical island
Until the first colonists settled on the island in the mid-17th century, La Réunion was uninhabited. In the 18th and 19th centuries, coffee, spices and sugar cane dominated an economy which was largely dependent on imported slaves. When slavery was abolished in 1848, the population comprised 45,000 free men and 65,000 slaves. After three centuries as a colony, La Réunion became a French department in 1946.
In 2020, the population reached 860,000, putting La Réunion in the top quarter of the most populated French departments. In terms of population density, it’s in the top dozen. With Piton de la Fournaise occupying around one third of the island’s entire surface, and much of the land around Piton des Neiges being too vertiginous to be habitable, most of the population is squeezed into a busy coastal strip. Nevertheless, there are few large hotels and tourism feels refreshingly low-key. Would I make another visit? Definitely!