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Paragliding Over Reunion Island (With Video)

Sorry for the delay in my final #GoToReunion blog post. I can’t believe my Reunion Island trip was two months ago. (Where has the time gone?!)

I was delayed because it took me a while to figure out how to cobble together my shaky video footage from our Reunion paragliding adventure. Well, actually I never did figure it out. My lovely and talented friend Fiver came to the rescue and figured it out for me.

Before I show you the video, a few words about paragliding. I had never been paragliding before and didn’t really know what it was about. Perhaps there was a time when doing something like this would have made me nervous. But over the last couple of years I’ve bungeed off bridges and swung from stadiums and done all kinds of ridiculous things. I’m pretty much up for anything these days.

Basically, paragliding is attaching yourself to a sail-like parachute, running off the edge of a big hill, swooping around in the air for a while, then landing. Paragliding solo obviously requires a lot of training, but pretty much anyone can paraglide in tandem with an instructor with no training whatsoever. That is what I did.

Apparently Reunion Island is a particularly good place for paragliding because the climate and the wind patterns allow for it all year round. Also because Reunion Island is incredibly beautiful. But if you’ve read my other Reunion posts then you already know that.

Here are a few pictures.

Paragliding-takeoff-pointThe takeoff point.

Paragliding-NatNatalie prepares for takeoff.

Paragliding-shadowThe shadow of me and my instructor, Jean, just after we went airborne. I had to run a few steps before we took off, but hardly at all. I was strapped in quite comfortably in a sitting position in front of Jean, and he did all the steering. It was easy for me to hold my camera.

Paragliding-feetObligatory foot shot.

Paragliding-view2More of the view.

Paragliding-viewI think this is my favorite shot.

The whole experience lasted for about 30 minutes and I loved all of it, save for the last five minutes or so when I started to feel nauseous. If you’re prone to airsickness, I recommend taking an over-the-counter remedy like Sturgeron the night before paragliding. My landing was a bit clumsy, as you’ll see in the video, but not at all painful.

The airsickness and embarrassing landing were totally worth it. This is the closest to flying (as in actual flying, like a bird) that I’ve ever experienced. No motor, no walls or windows, and no terror. Just cool, rushing air and a beautiful view.

If you suffer from vertigo or a serious fear of heights, please don’t paraglide. My friend Dee decided to try it despite suffering these afflictions, and I think she wished afterward that she had just stayed on the ground. Read Dee’s funny post, which features my pre-paraglide interview with her.

And now for my video, courtesy of Fiver. The video includes my shaky paragliding footage and a few other highlights from the trip. Enjoy.

We paraglided with Parapente Reunion. Here’s the website. (Sorry, it’s in French.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed my Reunion Island blog post series. I’ve received a few questions about visiting Reunion over the last few weeks, so just to recap:

1) Reunion Island is a French “department”, meaning that it’s part of France. Reunion’s currency is the euro and the main language is French.

2) South Africans, Americans, and Europeans do not need a visa to visit Reunion.

3) Reunion is a four-hour flight from Johannesburg.

Go if you can. Reunion Island is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been.

My trip to Reunion Island was courtesy of Reunion Island TourismAir Austral, and Destinate. Opinions expressed are my own.

Golden Hour on Reunion Island

Reunion Island, or Île de la Réunion, is a tiny French Island in the Indian Ocean. Reunion is best known as a hiking and adventure destination and I’ve already written a couple of posts about those adventures (see here and here).

Reunion’s adventures are great; the mountains and volcanoes are breathtaking (sorry for the cliché but the volcano literally stopped my breathing) and completely unusual. However, Reunion’s beaches are not to be discounted either.

On the west side of the island, around the village of Saint Gilles, a huge coral reef creates a “lagoon”, where the water is relatively calm and free of sharks. The beaches are clean and natural, scattered with coral and volcanic rock, and they serve as community gathering places during the day and especially in the evening. The people of Reunion make great use of their beaches — strolling, swimming, playing, talking, walking dogs, and just…being.

Sleeping-on-beachI think this photo says it all. See the tide out in the distance? That’s where the coral reef is. The lagoon is inside it.

I spent the first three days of my Reunion trip in Saint Gilles, and was lucky enough to enjoy the beach for a couple of hours each day. I never managed to drag myself up for sunrise, even though my accommodation was only a few steps from the beach, but I did catch three beautiful sunsets. The evening light just before and after sunset — what photographers call Golden Hour — was spectacular every single night. Here are some of my favorite shots.

Beach-and-coralThe beach closest to my accommodation, near to Hotel l’Hermitage in Saint Gilles, was scattered with coral. Unlike other beach destinations in the Indian Ocean, Reunion Island leaves its beaches in their natural state rather than clearing away the coral. The coral is beautiful and makes for great photo ops, but just remember to bring beach shoes. Stepping on coral in bare feet is painful.

Ladies-on-beachBeach-walkers.

Man-and-dogsI took so many pictures of this man playing fetch with his dogs. See the dog toy flying?

Man-and-sunset_edited-1Another one. This dog is a jock.

SunsetPretty decent sunset.

Jumping-kidKids play in a natural pool created by volcanic rock at Boucan Canot, another beach in Saint Gilles. Note the upside-down boy, mid-flip.

Sunset-and-treesBoucan Canot is the best beach for walking because there’s no coral.

Kids-on-beachWe had a little party on the beach our last evening in Saint Gilles, with food and traditional Creole music and dancing. The best part of the evening was watching these kids make the most of the last light of the day. 

Dee-and-sunsetHere’s Dee, posing with her camera as the sun dips below the horizon.

Girl-on-beachMy favorite beach shot of the week.

Reunion Island also has a black-sand beach on the west coast, in the town of Étang-Salé. Unfortunately we never had time to go see it. Next time.

Saint Gilles is chilled, unpretentious, and the perfect place to relax after a fuckzausting hike through the Cirque du Mafate (although we did it the other way around). Don’t skip the beach if you go to Reunion.

I’ve got one last Reunion post coming soon.

My trip to Reunion Island was courtesy of Reunion Island TourismAir Austral, and Destinate. Opinions expressed are my own.

I Climbed Some Mountains on Reunion Island

Maybe this is an overstatement. Theoretically I was hiking, not mountain-climbing. But the pictures speak for themselves.

08-Dee-on-MountainThis is Dee, balancing herself at the top of one of many mountains that we climbed up and then down again.

When I first received the invitation to participate in the #GoToReunion campaign, I wasn’t sure I could go. I had just booked my trip to the U.S. (where I am now), and it overlapped with the Reunion trip by several days.

Then I reread the Reunion invitation and saw that the itinerary included a multi-day hiking trek through the island’s cirques (calderas/extinct volcanoes), walking to villages accessible only on foot and sleeping in traditional gîtes (guesthouses).

This wasn’t an opportunity to pass up. I changed my U.S. plane ticket.

After four days of helicoptering, paragliding (post to come), sunbathing, and other relatively un-exhausting activities on Reunion, we embarked on our hiking journey. We had a long drive from the beach town of Saint Gilles up to the hike starting point in Salazie, and enjoyed some amazing sights along the way.

00 Cascade Blanche
The Cascade Blanche, an 800-meter (2624-foot) waterfall. 

00 SalazieA beautiful church in Salazie.

Quick note about the mountain roads in Reunion: This island has the windiest roads I’ve ever experienced. If you are prone to motion sickness, bring meds.

Finally, we reached the base of the hiking trail. I was so excited to start walking.

01-Pre-hike-shot
Team #GoToReunion.

Hike-startWe had to carry everything (except food and bedding) on our own backs.

Everything we experienced on this hike can be divided into the four main components: 1) We walked up a lot. 2) We walked down a lot. 3) It was tiring. 4) It was beautiful.

02-Hiking-path
Typical downhill.

12-Hike-steps
Typical uphill. God, how I came to dread the sight of these steep wooden steps. (Sorry it’s blurry. I was trembling with exhaustion, or “fuckzaution” — a new term coined by one of my fellow hikers.) 

Mountain-and-flowersSights like this were worth the fuckzaustion.

Starting at Salazie, we hiked down into the cirque of Mafate. Mafate, as I mentioned previously, has no roads. There are a few tiny villages scattered through Mafate, accessible only by foot (and by helicopter, which I’ll get to later). We spent the first night in Mafate’s biggest village, La Nouvelle, and the second night in a hamlet called Marla. On the last day we hiked out of Mafate to the town of Cilaos, where our trek ended.

04-La-Nouvelle-from-above
The village of La Nouvelle, where we slept the first night.

 I can’t overstate how beautiful it was in Mafate. The light, the mist, the trees, the mountains — it was all spectacular every minute of the day, from morning until night.

Mafate-sceneryTypical scenery in Mafate.

10-MarlaThe view from Marla.

14-Marla-from-topLooking down on Marla after cresting our final peak.

03-ChappelleOne of many small “chapelles”, or religious shrines, that we saw along the way. I found them delightful.

I also can’t overstate how tired we were.

09-Day-2-hike-endMy companions at the end of day two. Carlinn‘s pose is no exaggeration.

The villages where we stayed were adorable.

05-Nouvelle-GiteThe gîte where we stayed in La Nouvelle. Most of the buildings in Mafate are decorated in this colorful gingerbread style.

06-La-Nouvelle-breakfastThe breakfast room at our La Nouvelle gîte.

11-Marla-roomThe inside of our gîte in Marla. The rooms in the gîtes all seem to be designed for children.

07-La-Nouvelle-kid
This is Anne-Katrine, a cute kid we met outside the boulangerie (bakery) in La Nouvelle. Mafate’s villages are populated by Creole people who have lived in these mountains for generations.

Mafate’s villages are full of hikers and everyone stays in the gîtes, which are basically like dormitories for adults. We slept in the dormitories — often sharing rooms with strangers of the opposite sex and sleeping in tiny bunk beds — and everyone shares one big bathroom with individual shower toilet stalls. The meals are served family style and while the dinners are hearty and delicious, and breakfasts usually consist only of baguettes.

I personally found this tourism model kind of strange. I realize that I’m imposing my own cultural norms on a place that is nothing like anywhere I’ve ever been. But after hiking for six hours through the wilderness, I would have loved a slightly more comfortable room and bathroom, with a slightly more hearty breakfast — perhaps an egg or two — before setting out again the next morning.

I was also troubled by all the helicopters. I think it’s awesome that the villages in Mafate don’t have roads; the inaccessibility has helped to preserve the natural beauty of the region and it’s a big draw for tourists. But the lack of roads also means that virtually all of Mafate’s food the supplies are delivered by helicopter. The helicopters seemed to come and go from La Nouvelle several times a day — even more than once an hour, in some cases.

All that said, Mafate is so freaking beautiful that none of this really matters. I would do it all again in a second.

13-Heather-at-top
A fuckzausted but happy me at the top of the last mountain. (Photo: Andy Carrie)

Quick tips on hiking the cirques of Reunion:

  • Do some training before you go. The hikes are doable for a normal person but they are fuskzausting and steep.
  • Bring sturdy hiking shoes and a good backpack with strong shoulder and waist support.
  • The trails are well marked and you can technically hike without a guide. Hiring a local guide is better though.
  • Bring earplugs, warm clothing (it gets very cold after sunset), and protein-rich snacks.
  • Stop often and enjoy the views.

More Reunion posts to come.

My trip to Reunion Island was courtesy of Reunion Island Tourism, Air Austral, and Destinate. Opinions expressed are my own.

That Day When I Flew Over an Erupting Volcano

I’ve just returned from a weeklong trip to Reunion Island with six other blogger/writer/photographers, as part of a camapign called #GoToReunion. We experienced so many amazing things during those seven days; by the end of the week I was already struggling to remember what we’d done at the beginning.

Yesterday I began the long, slow process of sifting through my pictures from Reunion, trying to wrangle them into some kind of order so I can edit them and put them into my blog. I started with our first major activity — a 40-minute helicopter tour of the island with Helilagon. As I scrolled through the pictures, the memory of that experience returned, and my jaw slowly dropped. If not for these photos I might have convinced myself that the Reunion helicopter ride was a dream. It was that surreal.

I haven’t yet sifted beyond my photos of the helicopter ride. I need to blog about it before the memory fades.

07-VolcanoDid I actually fly over a lava-spewing volcano on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean? Well yes, it appears I did.

I’ve been lucky enough to ride in a few helicopters in recent years (see here and here), even as recently as last month during the national Instameet. I confess that I’d become a bit blasé about it. Another exotic trip, another helicopter ride. Ho hum.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the Reunion Island helicopter ride. My previous helicopter trips were like tricycle rides in comparison.

Boarding-copterMy friends Carlinn and Mike (right), getting ready to board the chopper. Like me, they had no idea what they were in for.

The ride started out as I expected — we took off and skirted the ocean, with pretty views of the island’s western beaches and coastal towns. This was nice. But then we turned eastward, toward the island’s interior. The helicopter began to climb.

Did I mention that Reunion formed over a volcanic hotspot? The island is basically a big pile of volcanic rock bubbling above the surface of the ocean. The tallest peak on the island, Piton des Nieges, is a dormant volcano more than 3000 meters (9842 feet) tall. Piton des Neiges is surrounded by three massive calderas, or cirques — giant, lush-green craters surrounded by soaring waterfalls and dotted with quaint villages accessible only by foot.

On the other side of the island is Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano that has erupted more than 100 times in the last 400 years. Piton de la Fournaise has been erupting on and off this whole year. It was in rare form during our visit last week.

I’m doing my best to describe Reunion’s geography, but I’m no geographer and it’s a useless endeavor anyway. People had told me all of this before, too, but I didn’t get it until that helicopter crested the edge of the cirque. Below there was nothing but green. Above was nothing but blue. Ahead was a rocky precipice, and beyond that, white clouds.  The pilot was speaking into my head phones but I couldn’t understand a word — his French accent was strong and the background noise was loud. The copter’s engine revved. Then we made a little hop, my stomach lurched, and we dropped over the precipice into the Cirque de Mafat. Everyone in the helicopter screamed, literally, with delight.

My photos serve no justice at all. Half the time I was too excited to take pictures and I struggled with reflections on the windows. But I’ll show you what I’ve got.

11-Inside-copterThis wasn’t the actual moment when we went over the precipice into the first cirque. But I think the photo communicates what that moment felt like.

02-WaterfallsEmerald green mountainsides, cliffs, magical waterfalls…the usual.

01-WaterfallsA cliffside covered in waterfalls.

03-WaterfallsI mean really, what the actual f*ck? I think I was screaming again at this point, in disbelief.

04-WaterfallsThis canyon, pictured here and in the photo above, is called the Trou de Fer, or Iron Hole. There are six waterfalls dumping water about 200 meters (600 feet) down. We took several flips through this canyon so everyone got a good view. 

08-ValleyI’m not sure where we were when I took this.

Then we flew across the island to the active volcano.

05-VolcanoNo, this is not the moon. It’s Reunion.

06-VolcanoI’m just going to leave this here.

I could barely breathe after the volcano. But there was more magnificence to come.

09-ValleyI think this is the same river valley that we walked through a few days later.

10-Tiny-townsTiny villages in the Cirque de Salazie. Look closely at the insanely curvy roads. Those roads made me car sick later in the week.

12-MountainsBlue and green for days.

12-CoastFinally, back to the western coast. Check out that turquoise coral reef.

And then we landed.

The Reunion Island helicopter ride ranks firmly in the top five most incredible experiences of my life, hands down. But this is only the beginning of my #GoToReunion story. Wait for it.

My trip to Reunion Island was courtesy of Reunion Island Tourism and Destinate. Opinions expressed are my own.