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La Réunion – a four day walk in the Cirque de Mafate

Essential information - hiking the immense caldera of the Cirque de Mafate

The inspiration for this four day trek in the Cirque de Mafate came from the Lonely Planet guide for Mauritius, Reunion and Seychelles. Travelling to La Réunion towards the end of the island's winter season (as we did, in September) proved to be a very good plan, as we were generally blessed with good weather, frequently clear and with little cloud, although up in the mountains it was most certainly cold at night. April is also deemed to be a good month to visit.

The view from the Petit Col in the Cirque de  Mafate, Ile de la Reunion, September 2009

The view from the Petit Col in the Cirque de Mafate, Ile de la Reunion, September 2009
(c) Mat & Niki Adlam-Stiles

Despite the fact that this entire four day hike is on well-marked GR (Grand Randonnée) routes, you should certainly take maps with you in case of any unexpected path closures or diversions. The 1:25,000 scale IGN "Série Bleue" maps are the ones to have. We managed to buy these in advance in the UK from Stanfords Map Shop; they weren't cheap, but six 1:25,000 maps do cover the whole island. Prior to travelling we actually enlarged , copied and laminated the sections we needed for this walk – a very practical thing to do as it meant they could be kept easily to hand in the side pocket of a rucksack. We also managed to successfully recycle the laminated copies by passing them on to other travellers once we had finished with them!

Accommodation for the four-day trek HAS to be booked in advance to make sure you get a bed for the night – there aren't many places to stay and they do get fully booked. We booked all of our accommodation in the Cirque de Mafate via

There are few places to camp in La Réunion and if you haven't got meals booked for the evening and breakfast the following morning (which you need to book by telephone, 48 hours in advance of your arrival at each gite) when you're in the Cirque de Mafate, you may not find it that easy to get food. If you need a vegetarian meal, state this at the time of booking, and then confirm it when you arrive at your accommodation – you will also have to state explicitly that you don't eat fish as this is the "vegetarian" option you will be offered otherwise. If you eat eggs and cheese you should manage to get something palatable, but you may have to suggest something – simple omelettes or "carri d'oeufs" curried eggs) are good options. If you're vegan you’re going to have a hard time – you'll be best off bringing at least some food with you as food choice is very limited in the cirques (if it isn't grown or farmed there, it's flown in by helicopter). That said, the majority of you will most certainly get a substantial and delicious, home-cooked, three course meal in the evening with (usually) an aperitif to start and a digestif to finish. You won't find English spoken in the cirque, so ensure you have sufficient French to muddle your way through – you'll also have a much more enjoyable experience conversing with your fellow travellers, most of whom will be French, when you're all sitting down together for communal meals at the gites de randonnée.

Duvets or blankets are generally provided in the gites de montagne, but in most places you are expected to take your own sleeping bag liners, pillowcases and towels. Accommodation in the Cirque de Mafate tends to be basic but comfortable – ranging from the luxury of a double or twin room to sharing a simple bunk room with eight or more bunks. Bathroom facilities are usually shared. Most places aren't locked and there are no keys to rooms, so if you're concerned about your valuables when you go out for dinner or breakfast, keep them with you. Generally though, you're in the company of like-minded people and there shouldn't be a problem with theft.

Looking towards Marla from La Nouvelle, Cirque de Mafate, Ile de la Reunion, September 2009

Looking towards Marla from La Nouvelle, Cirque de Mafate, Ile de la Reunion
(c) Mat & Niki Adlam-Stiles

In the Cirque de Mafate, the only electricity is via generators, so you WON'T be able to charge your camera and phone batteries (sockets in rooms? – no chance!). Bring plenty of spares, and note that all the villages have collection points for spent batteries so they can be recycled – please use them. The fact that there's no mains electricity means that once you've had your répas for the evening and the inevitable glass of rhum arrangé, it's bed-time as the lights will, most definitely, go out. There's not much in the way of late-night drinking up in the mountains. A good headtorch is essential as you don't want to be stumbling around in the pitch dark amongst frogs and wet grass at 3am looking for the loos outside your gite!

The water in all the villages we stayed in was perfectly drinkable and we saw no reason to pay a fortune for bottled; we simply topped up at the start of each day before we started on the next leg of our hike.

Returning from the Col de Fourche to the Petit Col, Cirque de  Mafate, Ile de la Reunion, September 2009

Returning from the Col de Fourche to the Petit Col, Cirque de Mafate, Ile de la Reunion
(c) Mat & Niki Adlam-Stiles

As to clothing, it's best to wear light clothing during the day when you're walking and to make sure you have at least a good lightweight waterproof jacket. Remember the usual essentials of high SPF sun cream, first aid kit, any regular medication you need and a hat, and take something warm to wear in the evening – in typical high-mountain fashion, as soon as the sun sets, the temperature plummets. Also take a pair of hut slippers or flip-flops for the evenings, you'll definitely want to get out of your walking boots for a few hours each day. If you normally use walking poles, take them – your knees will thank you for it. If you don't, now is a good time to invest!

Now for the four day walk in the Cirque de Mafate itself.........

Day 1   Col des Boeufs --> La Nouvelle
Day 2   La Nouvelle --> Roche Plate
Day 3   Roche Plate --> Marla
Day 4   Marla --> Col des Boeufs