I step into Air-Aventures’ big hangar at Aerodrome de Pierrefonds in Reunion Island. A man in Aviator Ray-Bans walks briskly up to me and introduces himself as my pilot. “The weather doesn’t look great, but hopefully the clouds will give us space,” he says. “Let me make a quick call to the Meteorology experts.” He calls, nods and says, “We are good to go.” I feel immense relief. I’m on holiday for only a week and today’s the sole chance I have to see Reunion Island from the air.
Reunion Island is a French island with a population of 840 000 inhabitants located in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, about 200 kilometres southwest of Mauritius, the nearest island. The island is 63 kilometres long, 45 kilometres wide and is located above a hotspot in the Earth’s crust. The climate in Reunion is tropical but temperature moderates with elevation.
Off into the sun
Alain helps me into his FK9 light plane and helps me strap in. A few minutes later Air Traffic Control gives us take-off clearance for runway three three. Alain says “D’accord!” and push the throttle fully forward. Within seconds we leave the huge tarmac field.
The cool morning air aids our 80hp FK9 to a climb rate of one thousand five hundred feet per minute. A slow 180 degree turn steers us towards the east of the island. Saint-Pierre, which is the third largest city in the French overseas department of Reunion, comes into view. To our left below the Saint-Etienne River snakes from Cirque de Cilaos towards the sea. House-sized boulders are strewn all along the river bed. Alain completes his radio transmissions. I ask how many hours he has flown to date. “Many. I flew for the French Air Force.” I ask which he preferred, the air force or this island gig? He laughs. “Every day I get to see this.”
There are three Cirques on Reunion; amphitheatre-like valley heads created by the caldera collapse of the now extinct Piton Des Neiges volcano. The sun’s rays pierce through gaps in the clouds onto Cirque de Cilaos’ fortress-like mountain faces. The Cirque’s formidable granite ridge rises through the swirling mist. Soon the symmetrical suburbs of Saint-Pierre beneath us give way to a lush green countryside chequered with cloud shadows. I feel the air temperature drop through the camera hole in the passenger window.
Onwards and upwards we climb from sea level to our destination altitude. Eight minutes into the flight we break through the top clouds and four minutes later we reach 10 000 feet to level off and cruise at ninety five knots. In the distance Piton de la Fournaise’s (The Peak of the Furnace) massive black dome breaches the white cloud blanket. I squint at the bright contrast of blue skies and cotton white clouds.
Piton de la Fournaise
We arrive above the volcano. There is rock as far as the eye can see. The secondary caldera measures eight kilometres in diameter. Topping out at 8 635 feet the summit is not far below us. We circle clockwise twice. The first time around I take in the view. The second time around I keep my camera’s shutter button pressed in continuous burst mode.
Emotions well up in me. The sheer scale of the volcano is beyond belief. Alain tells me, “The most recent eruption was two months ago, quite small, but the previous big one was in 2007.” “I plan to hike around the volcano tomorrow and I’m grateful for the privilege to see the whole volcano.”
Piton Des Neiges
Too soon we turn inland and a new mountain, Piton Des Neiges (Snow Peak) fills the windscreen. The landscape turns from barren wasteland to dense rain forest. We cross the road connecting Saint-Louis, on the south of the island, to Saint-Benoit on the east. We seem to scrape over Cirque de Cilaos’ eastern rim to see the entire Cirque and the cathedral-like Piton Des Neiges. Low clouds and mist swirl in the valleys, but the mountain tops are clear. I can believe that the average gradient from sea level, only 16 kilometres away, to Piton des Neiges’ 10 069 feet summit is a staggering nineteen percent.
Three miles further on Cirque de Mafate opens up towards our right. Its massive sheer western rim rises from the valley below at an impossible angle. I want to see and experience more, but Alain’s on a tight schedule. As we skim over the western rim he cuts the aircraft’s power and we glide all the way back to sea level, the whole time not much higher than a thousand feet from the cascading surface of the extinct volcano.
My mind’s a haze. My body’s on full-bore adrenaline. Pure euphoria. “How is it possible to have such a diverse landscape on a 2500 km² island?” I ask myself. Like the islands of Hawaii, Reunion is a fine example of volcanic paradox.
Alain pilots us along the cobalt blue Indian Ocean on our downwind approach to runway fifteen. “Did you enjoy that, was it good?” he asks. I can see his mind’s already racing ahead to the next flight, but for me the fun is nearly over. The flight’s fare is steep, but it’s an experience that will last me a lifetime.