>> THE HIGH PLAINS & THE VOLCANO
With a definitely unexpected landscape for a tropical island, the High Plains and Piton de la Fournaise (Furnace Peak) mountain range offer the visitor a striking and unforgettable vision only a few kilometres away from the lush and sunny seaside, a unique feeling in the cool, changeable mountain climate.
Discovering the Volcano and the High Plains is very much like a journey into the unknown. More than just a simple crossing from north to south, National Road R.N.3 linking Saint-Benoit to Saint Pierre leads the visitor into a different world. As one leaves Saint-Benoit, the road immediately climbs. The usual fields of sugar cane bending in the trade winds soon give way to a wet forest and plane trees shedding their leaves every year, like those in Europe.
At each of the many bends leading to the Plaine-des-Paimistes, the traveller feels the change of air a little more - suddenly, the forest disappears and the slope is less steep. One is met with the majestic sight of Grand-Etang, Réunion's largest inland stretch of water. Soon after, you reach Plaine-des-Palmistes where vegetation is more sparse and the landscape wider. A silent and peaceful village, La Plaine, comes to life in summer when holidaymakers flock here to enjoy the cool air, and in winter during the traditional Goyaviers Festival ("goyavier" is a much sought-after red berry with a slightly acid taste).
From the heart of the village, dotted with charming flowered homes, several lanes and footpaths lead to 240-metre high "Biberon" (Feeding Bottle) waterfall and further on to Bebour Forest where endemic vegetation grows alongside cryptomerias planted by the National Forest Authority and small ravines studded with thousands of white arum lilies in the right season. The road climbs further up, leading you to Bellevue Pass. This is the beginning of Plaine-des-Cafres, a vast and bumpy plateau where cows and sheep graze peacefully.
On a clear day the splendid view makes the drive to the pass pure pleasure: far north, the blue sea and close by, slopes covered with clusters of tree ferns. The fog is common here, wrapping everyone and everything in a somewhat ghostly halo.
At Plaine-des-Cafres, jennets, acacias and pastures are exactly halfway between the imposing shape of Piton des Neiges (Snow Peak) and the volcano's moonlike landscape. The beginning of the road leading to the volcano is graced by the original shape of the Maison du Volcan (Volcano House). The last trees soon disappear and are replaced by sparse vegetation. The silence of the desert plains is eirie, and the sight of the Plaines des Sables (Sand Plains) invariably gives even the most blasé tourist the irresistible feeling of walking on ground that is both unexplored and hostile.
The Volcano is very close now and from Pas de Bellecombe Belvedere, you suddenly discover its rounded dome and majestic slopes streaked by grey and black lava flows. This is as far as one can go by vehicle. From here on, it is a world of stony footpaths and sharp inclines towards Langevin or Saint-Joseph, of spectacular views over the east river canyons. With a bit of luck the Piton de la Fournaise might erupt during your visit.