It’s a tropical island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, with three calderas, an active volcano, awesome beaches and they want you guys to join us on a recce for MTBing potential, Carel and Liezl Neethling of Adventure Travel Reunion told Shayne Dowling. So he packed his bike box for Reunion.
We had to make some hasty arrangements, but a really cool thing about Reunion is that South Africans don’t need a visa! So bike boxes, flippers, goggles and snorkels, a sarong (in Carel’s case), couple of baggies, T’s, GoPro (thanks Nic) and the all-important riding gear!
Reunion is not a chilled resort-driven beach island; it’s a stunningly modern, clean, safe little bit of French heaven with a kickass dollop of adrenaline thrown in! Oh and you can chill on the beach if you want to…
This is a small island with massive contrasts; not only does it go from sea level to 3 100m, but it has tropical beaches, volcanic moonscapes, an active volcano and huge forests which cover the calderas. It’s a beach holiday meets Jurassic Park!
It’s so difficult to explain the size of the mountains and the drama that the calderas present – it’s so raw and massive that you really just stand and gape. But we were there to ride our bikes, so let’s get to it already.
We all knew about the Megavalanche, the downhill blast from caldera to the beach, certainly the biggest MTB event on the island and well known to South Africans and riders across the globe – the only difference was those guys have huge travel. I looked around warily as the guys unpacked their bikes for a jaunt around the stunning little seaside town of St Giles – I had the most travel at 140mm, the rest were either between 100mm and 120mm – phew! After a leisurely ride along the beachfront and a great dinner on the sand we got some kip and prepared our gear for our first ride the next day.
Creamed up and ready to roll we loaded our van with our bikes and gear, the trailer never arrived but being boytjies we made a plan and tumbled into what was to be our “interesting” recce vehicle for the week. A two hour drive later and we found ourselves in the picturesque little town of L’Entre Deux. Callie casually told the driver that we will start at the top car park, Steve (our race snake and weight weenie) looked disappointed, but his demeanour definitely changed when the top car park turned out to be 7km later and 650m of climbing straight up, an average gradient of between 10 and 13%.
We were at well over 1 000m above sea level and our first ride was a jeep track that climbed for 9kms with 800m of ascent. I felt every carb I had ever consumed on the climb! The road was wet in places and so steep that you could hear the tyres spinning on the surface. We ground it out to the top to be rewarded with a great view of Cilaos, a village deep inside a caldera at 1 200m above sea level and our destination for the next few days. The view was breath-taking but everyone was itching to go down! Exhilarating and scary, wet and slippery, but instantly a lot of smiles, laughter and weird noises as we barrelled down (without stopping at the top car park!), 1 425m of descent in 13km! Awesome! A quick dip in the sea at St Pierre and we started on the hectically windy and steep road to Cilaos. The road is narrow, beautiful and scary…
The hectic drive to Cilaos is well worth it and once again illustrates the diversity of this gem of an island! Within a couple of hours we had left the beach and were at 1 200m above sea level wearing sweatshirts. The scenery is incredible – Jurassic Park on ‘roids! So green and completely surrounded by huge mountains. I don’t know how we got this far without me telling you about our bike guide: Ug! (Well Hugo actually but we affectionately called him our mountain goat.) If ever there was an Energiser bunny incarnated, (just not as pretty) it’s Ug. His English is passable at best, but his enthusiasm is infectious and his rating of difficulty scale got all of us kissing the big ball a few times. Steve was convinced that he only knew how to count to three! He introduced us to our first bit of singletrack on the outskirts of Cilaos, which is a hiking path but it’s manicured and imminently rideable. However, Callie had a nice encounter with a rockery on one of the extremely sharp switchbacks, but we survived and left the track with a smile only to have another torturous little road climb back to the trailhead. The ride was essentially on jeep track with some road thrown in – very similar to riding in Knysna. Our route back in gave us the option of doing some “Ug singles” – needless to say that not even 140mm of travel would have helped here. It’s essentially a converted hiking path that is only for the most experienced and able downhill riders. It’s steep and gnarly, no trail sculpting and can also be dangerous. The full-face helmet boys will love it.
On leaving Cilaos the guys decided it would be silly not to take the opportunity to ride down to the coast. This is the insanely twisty road that, although tarred and in excellent condition, would have Tahrs shaking their heads. It is a fast descent from 1 200m to sea level, with lots of blind and super sharp corners. What a jol! Roadies would love it too but you have to be on your toes at all times because it’s so easy to go into a corner too hot and you end up having to cross the middle line – we had a few close encounters!
Fortunately we all managed to get down safely and with massive grins found the van at the bottom and headed off to our next destination – the highlands and the town of la Plain des Cafres. It should be said that, at this stage, this was a working trip so we were taken to as many sites as possible and this day it proved to be a day of hard work; visiting various towns and beaches, the miracle of Notre Dame des Laves (Our Lady of the Lava) a church that in 1977, had lava run either side of it and survived. There were more snaking roads that go from sea level to 1 600m in a flash. I have to admit to succumbing to motion sickness, and coupled with the high altitude it was not a pleasant experience – take motion sickness tablets! The only other remedy was to get on my bike… which I did.
Piton de la Fournaise is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, it had erupted the previous day and like true tourists, what does one do when the volcano erupts? You rush up to go and have a look of course! We started the ride at an altitude just on 1 600m, well the rest of the gang did, Carel and I met up with them 5km of climbing later and off we went to get to the top and see the active volcano. All on tar and then finally on sand road, the ride was a gentle climb with a few bumps in it to eventually end up in what can only be described as a lunar landscape. The aftermath of the eruption and the massive lava streams were harsh, remote and hauntingly beautiful.
We also reached the highest point of the trip at a viewpoint that overlooks the massive crater, which makes up the active volcano, but at 2 354m the weather is fairly unpredictable and we found a misty, gloomy vista awaiting us. We did the tourist thing but didn’t dally as it got quite cold (below 10°C) so we mounted up and rode back down in a light rain. Steve and Jacques were persuaded by Ug to try the “singles” on the way down and they had a ball – and a couple of crashes too! Again this is something for longer travel and the more technically proficient rider. This was one of the nicest rides, despite being mainly a road cycle, which we had on our trip. It’s definitely something worth doing.
Back into the van, another windy, but shorter road to the coast and we headed back to St Giles. It has to be my favourite town with its great vibe, holiday feel, white beaches and quaint harbour; the town I would certainly suggest making your base in. We were back to tackle the famed Megavalanche trails – a ride with the van to the top and then by bike straight back down from 2 100m to sea level! Let’s do this thing!
“You want a long travel bike and some body armour?” asked Ug in his best English…
Steve and Jacques, our two cowboys, gamely suited up and looking like cheap Robocops and feeling bulletproof, convinced everyone the “Maxi” route was for us. Nervously we carried our bike over the 800mm retaining wall from the road onto the old lava rock field. “100 of those steps” said Ug pointing back at the retaining wall drop-off, “and the first 2km on these rocks. Keep your ass over your back wheel and you will be fine,” he said, grinning. From the corner of my eye I could see Jacques’ armour starting to lose its shine and Adrian putting his bike back over the retaining wall. The decision was unanimous – Classic for us please. Armour off and back to reality!
We hit the jeep track and started what turned out to be an absolute jol! 33km, 60m of climbing and wait for it, 1 950m of descent! Sublime! From forested track to remote district roads that cut through the sugar cane fields, back roads through some of the more impoverished areas of little towns clinging to the side of the mountain, we flew down to St Giles. I can honestly say it was one of the most entertaining rides I have ever had and it capped off what was a tough week of riding, exploring, eating, chilling on the beach, snorkelling and sampling one or ten local beverages – tough, but hey, someone had to do it!
Reunion is really an amazing place. It has huge potential for mountain biking – I mean this is a mountain in the middle of a warm ocean that offers something for everyone. If the Reunion Tourism Board is serious about MTB then they need to open a few more trails that offer riding for the majority of riders, and believe me, the opportunity is there. This could become the bike park of the world! For South Africans it’s a really good holiday destination; no visas, a 3 ½ hour flight from Oliver Tambo, no malaria and awesome in our winter. Finally, thanks to the team at Adventure Travel Reunion for making our trip possible – Callie and Liezl you guys are superstars!
Sus Out Reunion
Size: 2 500km² (slightly bigger than Mauritius)
Pop: ±840 000 (2015) Capital: St Denis
Nationality: France (French overseas Department) Language: French
Sus the Thank You’s
Full Sus would like to thank the following team members and brands for their support on this trip:
FOX Head South Africa Attack shorts www.foxhead.com/za
Mountain High The Cube
Tourism Marketing Jacques Nel photographer
Adventure Travel Reunion www.adventuretravelreunion.com 021 553 1831