SCHOOLED BY RÉUNION
“What are you doing this December holiday?” “Cycling around an island. And you?” You can just imagine the reactions we got when people heard our somewhat unusual December holiday plans which did not include relaxing on a beach.
Words and photos by Sinead Wannenburg and Dewald Lotter
This feature first appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Ride
Our dream to do a bike trip finally became a reality, but it had turned into something much bigger than we had first fantasised about. We started out daydreaming about riding from Johannesburg to Dullstroom or Clarens. Now we were going to be riding around an island for six days.
After one test ride with the bike bags (and repacking 10 times to fit a week’s stuff into two little bags), the reality of this adventure bike trip hit us, and the nerves and excitement got real. It would turn out that Réunion Island, its nature, people, volcanoes, food and views were best experienced on cyclocross bikes in granny-gear. But that we would only know for sure by the end of the journey.
Our bike-tripping island of choice might not be first on most lists, but Réunion is a hidden gem lost in the Indian Ocean and overshadowed by neighbouring Mauritius, less than 200km away. It is known for its UNESCO World Heritage proclaimed mountainous interior, and is still a region of France, so French is the official language, as is the local Creole. It is not big – just 63km long and 45km wide – and boasts two volcanoes, of which one is still active. Forty-two percent of the island’s surface is a protected National Park, with tourism a big attraction in the form of hiking, mountain biking, river rafting and loads of other extreme sports. The island’s northern and eastern coastlines are very rough. On the west coast is you’ll find white sandy beaches (and shark nets).
Back to the volcanos; the Piton des Neiges is the highest point on the island, at 3 070m above sea level, and the Piton de la Fournaise. The Piton des Neiges is extinct, and forms part of beautiful hiking routes and delivers endless views. The Piton de la Fournaise is an active volcano and is carefully monitored, but the slopes can be accessed via a scenic road to view the barren landscape, leaving you breathless in many ways.
The climate in Réunion is tropical, but temperature varies as you climb. We experienced temperatures around 30 degrees, with rain only during our trip up the volcano. The weather is cooler and dry from May.
Réunion’s currency is the euro, which throws up some challenges for South Africans travelling to Réunion on a budget. We were a bit concerned about affording food with the exchange rate. However, it is actually not that expensive if you are careful about where and what you buy and steer clear of restaurants and fast food places. Exchange your currency when you arrive in Réunion rather than trying to exchange it in SA as you will lose out big time.
The people of Réunion are welcoming and helpful. From the day we arrived, to the day we left, we didn’t have one negative experience with any of the locals. Safety was our main concern, as we were carrying all our possessions. Yet, in the week we spent there, we did not come across any mischievous characters. One evening we walked to the town centre at night and walked back at 21h00… the streets were dead quiet, and there are no bums or beggars in sight on any of the days we were there. We felt safe all the time.
Affordable flights to Réunion on Air Austral leave from OR Tambo International Airport. Air Austral is a French airline with its headquarters at Roland Garros Airport in Sainte-Marie, Réunion. If you book early enough, you can get return flights under R6 000. All car hire, forex and other booking services are situated outside of the airport in the parking area but the forex office was closed as we arrived there at night.
The flight to Réunion is just under four hours, over Maputo, Madagascar and it lands in Réunion’s capital city Saint-Denis. The bike boxes drew some attention from the immigration and customs people (or was it Dewald’s beard?), so we had to wait while they checked our passports and asked some questions. Many international airports have storage but Réunion does not offer this. Instead, we took a taxi to the hotel; we had booked in advance to make sure the boxes would fit. Hotel Select was a treat. They stored our boxes and even allowed us to build our bikes in reception, with bike parts and bubble wrap everywhere. Dewald had packed the necessary tools and extra tape to rewrap the bikes for our return.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
We had no idea what the riding would be like; the condition of the roads, the people, the weather, the food. Our preparation was Google, and we learnt from others who had travelled to Réunion. We layered the SPF50 and were on our bikes for the first day of riding from Saint-Denis to Saint-Paul. A massive mountain stood in front of us as we cruised through the streets of Saint-Denis. I knew Réunion was hilly, but I clung to the hope of flat roads. We got onto the road that winds up over the mountain; a hairpin ascent with only the white line to cycle on.
It was a Monday morning, and immediately two things were clear about cycling in Réunion. The road surfaces are pristine, and the people are the most patient drivers. Buses would patiently wait behind us until it was safe to pass with metres to spare. We were often on busy national and inner city roads, so basic road safety had to be taken into account, but we were treated as equals at major intersections. Bike lanes decorate the streets of Réunion, especially towns next to the coastline. This was such a treat; kilometres of safe bike lanes, properly marked and some with their own traffic lights.
Climbing for what felt like forever, we entered Réunion’s industrial area called La Port, the least scenic part of our trip.
By afternoon, the heat set in big time and with the endless ascents it drained every bit of energy. The backpacks and bike bags were felt on every slight incline. Five kilometres from our accommodation, we had to take a break at one of the many Catholic shrines along the way. This one was more of a little outdoor church next to the road. With candles lit in the background and the shade from the big trees covering the church, we lay down on the cold pavement. Dewald said we are almost there, but I’d stopped believing after the last 5km took an hour. Leaving behind a sweaty patch on the pavement, we were off again, in the blistering heat.
Coooke! An excuse to stop every time. All over Réunion there are little snack bars owned by locals and most offer the local beer, Dodo. These shops sell a bit of everything including a local dish, which took us a while to figure out. It can only be described as a Réunion curry consisting of rice, lentils, sauce served with either fish or chicken. I was just interested in Coke but Dewald had a pastry and a beer. “Just 2km to go,” he urged, as we made our way up a mountain through a rural town; steeper roads than this I’ve yet to see.
Getting lost is a given and we could not find our home for the night. Luckily, the locals are helpful and we found it. Nobody speaks English but we managed, via Google translate and we relied on our point-and-hand-gesture method. “Bonjour, un dodo, un Coke, un cafe. Merci.” With the staples covered, this sentence will get you through.
Our accommodation was Thomlocation in Saint-Paul. We did not expect much as the area was rural, but we were pleasantly surprised. TV, Wi-Fi, modern bathroom and kitchen, a coffee machine and coffee. The friendly owner, Thomas, is a young local who definitely knows how to treat his visitors as there were two ice-cold Cokes in the fridge.
AN UPHILL PARTY
This place is beautiful. We were treated to mountainous views, high up, overlooking the sea as we entered the lush green beauty of Réunion’s forest valleys and ravines. Saint-Paul to Saint-Louis is a rollercoaster ride. We either went up or down, but never flat. Granny gear is the only way to ride here. Cross a narrow bridge; through a ravine; immediate 90-degree vertical kick to your right; you should already be in your lowest gear; scary Tour de France downhill; repeat. The hairpin roads took this trip to the next level, for both of us. Dewald imagined himself in a World Tour race and went flying down, I just prayed to not go over my bars. The tape on my bike bar started to come off from my death grip…
A large part of the route is a national road; quiet with very few cars along the way. We passed a number of road cyclists out training, one cycled next to Dewald and started chatting away in French. “English?” Dewald asked him. He carried on talking in French and laughed as Dewald tried his best to explain where he is from. “Afrique du Sud… Nederlands… Afrikaans.” Eventually, they just spoke cycling.
There was one horrendous climb which had me stopping and hanging over the bars every five minutes while Dewald was taking selfies. Someone’s driveway became a pit stop. I just took off my helmet, backpack, gloves and threw my bike down. I was finished… for a few minutes… then we were off again.
Our third day’s accommodation was once again on a mountain. When planning, the location’s position was not something we had even considered. Dewald went on riding out the wall of a climb, but I was fed up and walked. It was as hot as hell. We spent two days at La Villa Paille which was another enjoyable stay as it had good breakfast, Wi-Fi and an awesome swimming pool.
Each day we would get to our lodgings at between 11h00 and 13h00, thirsty and hungry. Be warned: siesta is a thing in Réunion and all the food shops are closed. It was a frustrating discovery when tempers are frayed and sugar supplies are low. Luckily, we found a bakery with delicious treats and baguettes. One thing is for sure, the island’s bakeries are the best. Everything is super tasty and we visited more than one on this trip.
Another day another experience, and this time up a volcano. The Piton des Neiges is Réunion’s extinct volcano situated in the Réunion National Park. A beast of a climb; only 1 441m of climbing in 19.6km. This day, 20 December, is also celebrated as the abolition of slavery in Réunion. Families and friends were out in their masses in the parks, some folks even had a spit braai set up at seven in the morning with a Dodo in hand; a big day of festivities was planned. The heat set in once again as the ascent increased. Plantations and farmlands are in abundance halfway up the mountain. It’s spectacular and so peaceful… just like the people of Réunion. On the way up, we passed through quaint towns nestled next to the canyons formed by the volcano.
Heading into the national park, clouds were coming in thicker and the road to the top became a narrow cement climb but it’s doable, right up to the viewpoint. The park is filled with picnic spots and hiking trails. We came across a couple of cyclists at the top, as well as some kids on downhill bikes. The forever views of the mountains further up were covered in clouds but it was still a great experience. We were hit with rain riding down. We had to stop and put on our rain jackets as it was freezing. A dramatic change in weather. Back in the little town just outside the park we stopped at a little bakery for the best pizza ever, as well as coffee and cake. Almost every bakery and snack bar has a proper coffee machine and coffee gets served the way it should be: espresso cup, strong and amazing.
FLAT ‘N FUN
Making our way from busy Saint-Louis to quiet Saint-Philippe, the roads flattened out more and our legs could take a break from the endless climbs. We wound our way through some back roads to get through busy little towns like Saint-Joseph. At one point, I lost Dewald and could not see him in the many little avenues. A sense of panic set in as I carried on, hoping that he hadn’t turned off. I eventually stopped and checked my phone. “Where are you?” Dewald messaged me. Having a basic Garmin I was not able to check the map. I was lost and cycled back the way we came, chased by a pack of stray dogs. My temper grew and as I finally met up with Dewald, the mood was, well, quiet.
We saw a sign that had the words ‘coco’ and ‘guide’ in it and decided to turn in. We were expecting a coconut guided tour place but it was a wedding venue. The friendly staff were busy cleaning up and came to chat with us. We were introduced to local ice-cold rum mixed with coconut milk. It was like a tasty milkshake, we just wanted more. Cycling through the coconut plantations right next to the coast was serene. Beautiful.
We stopped near our next night’s accommodation but it was closed for siesta. We bought drinks at a supermarket and sat on crates outside, just to rest a bit, as we had nowhere to go. We decided to cycle further down the road; the town was quiet and peaceful as barely anybody was outside. “Food!” I shouted as we passed a snack bar which was actually open. As Dewald turned on the gravel, his bike wiped out underneath him. Right in front of a statue of Jesus. We spent the entire afternoon at this little old lady’s snack bar and ate so much: from pizza slices, chicken and rice to ice cream and coffee.
Pinpin d’Amour, our lodgings (up the mountain, obviously) is next to a sugar plantation. The owner could speak English and had visited South Africa. The large house feels like a Réunion museum with all kinds of books, posters, plants and rocks in the living room. Each room has its own bathroom and small outdoor space.
Each day we would wash a set of kit and clothes but the downside is that it had to go back into the Ziploc bags and bike bags, dry or not. After four days, there was an odour but luckily we shared the same stench.
Day five from Saint-Philippe to Saint-Benoit offered completely different scenery as it was filled with one “wow” moment after the next. The little towns past Saint-Philippe are the definition of peaceful; lush green bushes and colourful flowers surrounding the homes made for a relaxing and flat ride.
The great thing about cycling around Réunion is the scent of vanilla and flowers every now and then. The major attraction was entering the Piton de la Fournaise, the island’s active volcano, situated on the eastern side in the Réunion National Park. We cycled through verdant green hills, and suddenly it became barren at the bottom of the volcano’s slopes. The N2 coastal road cuts across kilometres of volcanic rock, some still fresh with no flora in sight, other sections of rock are covered in green moss. The tar road was brand new as the highway services rebuild the road after each eruption on top of the new rock and signpost the year of the eruption; the last eruption was 14 July 2017…
After this scenic treat, we were spoilt even more with Réunion’s nature as we turned down towards the sea to a hidden spot. Trees and greenery filled the unique picnic/campsite next to the jetty and rock pools. A waterfall usually runs into the sea here but unfortunately only a small stream when we were there.
We passed Notre Dame des Laves (Our Lady of the Lava) which forms a big part of Réunion’s history. This tiny church, in the village of Piton Sainte-Rose, is one of the few remaining structures that survived a torrent of lava in 1977 from Piton de la Fournaise. Legend has it that the lava flow reached the church, split in two and went around the church.
Passing through Saint-Rose, we stopped at the towns most popular attraction, its suspension bridge (pont suspendu) which is a magnificent structure built in the 19th century, worth visiting especially for photographers.
Our tummies were empty and we decided to look for a place to eat before heading to our accommodation. We found a snack bar open and pointed to something that looked like good food food. The friendly lady that runs the shop brought us each a plate filled to feed an army. Fish curry with rice and a big bowl of lentils… we were in absolute heaven.
While researching our next accommodation before the trip, Le Bois Joli Coeur was one we were excited about: the little khaya in the mountains. Unfortunately, we were so spoilt with Wi-Fi and cosy rooms at previous places that we missed some of those luxuries here but it was part of the adventure. The communal bathroom facilities were neat and clean and the little one-room bungalow we stayed in was all we really needed. As it is situated in the plantation, the mosquitoes had a feast and some other insects roamed our room as well. We opted to sleep under our towels rather than the bedding provided because the creepy crawlies were everywhere.
The final stretch of our bike trip adventure from Saint-Benoit to Saint-Denis was blissful; 90% of the route had dedicated cycle lanes, including the highway. Groups of cyclists took to the streets on their Saturday morning training rides. Saint-Benoit is definitely the place to ride: safe and cycling friendly. This was an easy day of just over 500m climbing so we decided to really take it easy and once again stopped at a local bakery for coffee and pastry treats. Réunion is peppered with small towns and you enter and leave a town within minutes. Passing through one such village, we stopped at the remains of an old church next to the sea. So much history still remains on the island to see.
Soon our time on the bikes would be over; we were blessed with great weather, views and unforgettable experiences. To top off exceptional riding terrain, we were treated to a network of unbelievable cycle lanes running from the airport next to the coast right to our accommodation. The main highway from the airport to Saint-Denis had something we had not cycled on before: a cycle lane built under the highway, bridging a river. Spectacular! It was completely safe and used by many cyclists and runners as we were passing through.
In total, we cycled 336.8km and climbed 7 596m in six days. We spent our last morning on Réunion enjoying, you guessed it, coffee and pastries on a street terrace watching locals walking to the local bakery to buy baguettes and coffee.
Réunion is exceptional in every way; a peaceful island with some tough mountains to cycle. If you are not up for a cycle around the island, which I wouldn’t recommend to a casual or unfit rider, there is the option of riding half of the island on flatter roads with more dedicated cycle lanes. Helmets off to Réunion for making cycling safe and making the roads accessible to all.
Need to know:
• No visas are required for South Africans travelling to Réunion.
• There is no malaria on the island.
• No risk of yellow fever.
• Travel vaccines to consider: Hepatitis A, typhoid, rabies
• No dangerous animals along the way but stray dogs can be a problem.
• Siesta afternoons – if you find a shop open before 12h00, stop and fill up with water and food.
For more info on Réunion, visit www.reunion.fr
Bikes and equipment
Getting ourselves and our bikes equipped for a bike trip around a foreign island was a bit of an anomaly, but we prepped as best we could with the information we had. We chose cyclocross bikes: lighter for climbing but with the option of jumping off the tar on to pavements or gravel.
We started by testing out the cyclocross bikes as is, with 33mm tyres and standard stock gearing. For a normal one-hour cyclocross race, this is fine as the riding isn’t bumpy and most of the climbs are spent running with your bike on your shoulder; however, for all day adventures with lots of ascents, it’s a different story.
We swapped the 46/36T chainrings for 46/34T, in conjunction with a lighter 11-32T cassette in the rear to give us the lightest possible gear range for a road bike. Although this doesn’t offer a high top speed, it does make those steep grinds with a loaded 20kg bike manageable.
The next upgrade involved comfort for long hours in the saddle. We widened the tyres to 40mm. This isn’t only for more grip, but it increases the air volume by about 20% for a much more compliant ride. These are all tubeless tyres, allowing lower pressures and better puncture resistance. It made a massive difference. We also double-wrapped the handlebar tape for extra vibration dampening. Coach Deon donated his SAVE seatpost for Sinead’s Fuji, and the increased flex also mutes a lot of road chatter. As an added extra, I found a set of American Classic deep section wheels, which are a lot lighter than my stock wheels and just look plain fast.
As for spares, the bikes were so bomb-proof with over 4 000km on them and not one mechanical problem. I merely opted for a small hand pump, cable ties, duct tape, two packets of tubeless plugs, a multitool, quick links and two CO2 bombs. I fitted an extra cage to my bike’s downtube and mounted a tool tube that held everything. This was convenient as it was always on the bike and out of the way.
We went for modern saddlebags and handlebar rolls instead of traditional panniers. This makes the bike feel a bit better than a heavy pack mule, but they are quite expensive at over R2 000 per bag. But there is always a cheaper Chinese knockoff and we managed to get four bags for cheaper than one original bag (it did, however, take two months to arrive); a 10-litre saddlebag and an eight-litre dry bag in front. Usability was about eight litres in the rear and five litres in the front to prevent too much swing; in front, we were limited by the 40cm drop bars. Packing the bags is an art form we only perfected after packing and repacking several times. Sinead figured this out quite quickly and we used our flip-flops to reinforce and stabilise the bags.
The last piece of equipment was our backpacks. From all the bike-packing reports, everyone recommends not using a backpack. It adds weight on your body and bum in the saddle. They were absolutely right.
I had a fancy KTM backpack we got on sale which removes all the weight off your back and I could still feel the added weight in the saddle. Sinead used a five-litre Camelbak and it was filled to the brim. Next time we will definitely opt for a small Camelbak and a frame bag.
Choosing a destination
We had explored several options of touring in South Africa but just couldn’t decide on something exciting and safe enough for our first adventure. We started looking at other options. There are several companies offering a huge variety of overseas bike tours using your own bike or a rental. These packages cost several thousands of dollars and this immediately eliminated that option for us.
We decided to plan our own trip but we only had vacation time over December. This limited us to locations in the southern hemisphere as the European or American winter would complicate things such as equipment, clothing and accommodation.
This being said, Europe has the most amazing
bike-packing and bike-touring routes. They are also well documented with lots of information online. Another surprisingly good destination is South Korea with an entire cycling route through the country and you get a special passport to check in at different locations.
Looking to the south, we had the option of Australia, South America or an island. South America is primarily Third World, so we may as well have toured in RSA. The flights to Australia are hellishly expensive and, from my research, you can run into trouble in the outback as water and civilisation are sparse. Madagascar was first on the list but considering the political unrest, we looked to Mauritius or Réunion.
Both islands are First World but Mauritius is the more popular vacation destination and an independent country. Réunion is still under French rule and euros make it travel-friendly. Réunion came out on top as it is a popular cycling destination for mountain bikers and the air tickets were a lot cheaper.
Having finally settled on a destination, we had to plan a route. The island has a circumference of 210km, so we wondered how long it would take to cycle around it. It wasn’t a race and we wanted to enjoy the ride. The volcanic island has some crazy climbs that we would have to tackle on 20kg+ bicycles, so we opted to cycle between 40km and 60km a day with 1 000m+ of climbing.
With some online research, we also discovered a few amazing passes and tried to incorporate these into the route. We didn’t want to stick to the main or the flat roads along the coastline and wanted to venture inland on a few of the days. The problem with using rural roads is that they have a narrow shoulder if any and sometimes two cars can’t even pass one another. Fortunately, the main roads are quite cycling-friendly so when necessary, we could navigate via them.