Reunion Island is the ultimate hiking destination for South African travellers. With no dangerous land animals, poisonous snakes or spiders (or even poisonous plants) you don’t have to worry about nasty encounters in the middle of nowhere. The weather is warm all year round, with temperatures around 26-28° Celsius even in the middle of winter. And as part of France, the emergency services are excellent, so if you do need help it’s only a helicopter away.
The remote cirque of Mafate on Reunion Island
The Cirque of Mafate is known as an “island within the island”. It was formed when the now dormant Piton de Neiges volcano collapsed, cutting this part of the island off from the rest. The smaller “island” is surrounded by steep cliffs and mountains, which makes it totally inaccessible except by foot.
A collection of small villages make up the Cirque, with La Nouvelle and Marla being two of the most easily accessible for overnight stays. Since Mafate is completely inaccessible by car, everything and everyone has to travel into the cirque either by foot or by helicopter – from the local priest to weekly groceries.
In order to live in this unique part of the world, you have to be born there. There are only 900 people living in Mafate, and to say everyone knows everyone would be the understatement of the year. Inhabitants make their living by running tourism establishments like gîtes (mountain accommodation) and restaurants, and working for the national forestry services as custodians of the national park. English is not that common in this part of the island, and even the French in Mafate is more Creole-style than European French.
Electricity is completely solar powered and recycling gets picked up once a week when the helicopter delivers groceries. Teachers and the postman hike in and out of Mafate every week, and it’s remarkable to come across them on the hiking trail, watching them basically run the route while you breathe heavily.
Hiking from Col des Bœufs in Salazie to La Nouvelle in Mafate
Make sure to start the day early and leave for the starting point by 7 am. The drive is technically 2 hours long, but with lots of windy roads and hairpin bends, it could take you up to an hour longer. If you’re using a GPS or Google Maps, you can just search “Col des Boeufs” and it will take you right to the starting point of the hike. The road is beautiful and lined with hundreds of waterfalls, so you might also want to get out for pictures a couple of times.
It’s a 2 to 3-hour hike from Col des Boeufs to La Nouvelle, so if you start around 11:30 am, you’ll get there in time for lunch. There’s a big parking lot at Col des Boeufs, where you can park your car for 10 Euros per night. From here, you can just follow the signs along the trail to La Nouvelle.
The hiking trail is well-maintained and clearly marked, so it’s easy enough to follow. There are a couple of steep uphills and rocky downhills, but most of the hike is very easy. You don’t need to be particularly fit and if you’re able bodied, you’ll manage. Once you reach the village of La Nouvelle, where you’ll spend the night, check into your gîte and grab yourself a cold Dodo (beer). The pace of life up there is super relaxed, so chill out and soak up this isolated spot. Give yourself a moment to really put it into perspective; you’re on an island, within an island, within the Villa Islands, in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Budgeting for a hike on Reunion Island
Accommodation in Mafate ranges from around 25€ per person for a 6-bed dormitory to 40€ for a double room. Our dorm had an en-suite bathroom and shower with a cute patio outside. Dinner is served family-style and costs 25€ per person, with breakfast at 7€. Meals are served family-style and dinner usually consists of baguettes, choux-choux gratin (a local vegetable bake that tastes a bit like baby marrow), stew, beans, and rice. Breakfast is good coffee, baguettes, and apple pureé or jam.
Grab a sandwich from the local bakery before you set off on your hike back to your car and make sure you take enough water – there are loads of beautiful picnic spots to stop along the way. If you’re hungry after lunch, don’t worry, because there’s a sandwich spot at the parking lot.
How to book your hiking trip on Reunion Island
The easiest way to book is through the Book Here page. Get in touch with a tour operator with your dates and the size of your group, as well as your accommodation preferences. They’ll get back to you with available options and you can book and pay directly over the phone using your credit card. You’ll need to take cash for your drinks and meals in Mafate. This route is one of the most popular on the island, so you are likely to come across a few other hikers on the way.