The ARWC Guide to Reunion Island
Author : Rob Howard
PhotoCredit : Rob Howard
Date Posted : 2018/10/18
When Reunion Island was announced as the venue for the 2018 AR World Champs the response was most likely, ‘Where?’ followed by a quick visit to Google Maps to get the answer. And the answer was that it’s a small volcanic island in the Indian Ocean, East of Madagascar and about 100 miles away from Mauritius.
Raid in France?
The race hosts are the experienced Raid in France team, holding the World Champs for the second time under the guidance of Pascal and Nancy Bahuaud.
The Raid will still be in France – because Reunion is one of the 18 regions of France. It has the best of both worlds in that it’s technically part of Europe and has the highest GDP of any Indian Ocean island and investment from Europe, including one of the most expensive road building projects in the world. Yet, it is in the Indian Ocean, has a tropical climate, lush vegetation, a melting pot culture and cuisine, and natural attractions including huge volcanoes, white and black sand beaches, and coral reefs. (40% of the whole island is UNESCO World Heritage listed and large areas are classified as French National Parks.)
Teams flying in via France (where most flights to the island originate) will be on the longest internal flight in the world (11 hours), with no need for passport control when they arrive! The currency is the Euro, the language French (and Creole) and the electrical sockets are ‘two pin European’. (For visas it’s mostly as it would be for visiting France but Reunion is not part of the Schengen Agreement so some different regulations may apply depending where racers come from.)
Big Hills on a Small Island
Reunion is 63km (39 miles) long and only 45km (28 miles) wide, but (and it’s a huge but), it’s high point is 3070m (10,070ft). You don’t have to be good at maths to work out that the terrain is steep – near vertical in many places. Some paths have rope handrails, knees will suffer and trekking poles might be a good idea.
The high point is the dormant volcano Piton des Neiges (though it never snows) and at the southern end of the island is Piton de la Fournaise at 2631 m (8,632 ft), which is one of the world’s most active shield volcanoes. (There are over 100 recorded eruptions, but they tend to be short lived and cause little disruption. That end of the island isn’t inhabited for some reason!)
The greater part of the island is made up of dormant volcanoes with 3 huge collapsed calderas, which are deep, steep to access, and inhabited. Yes, there are towns and villages in volcanic craters, including the town of Hell Bourg in Cirque Salazie, where the race will start.
It’s previously been awarded the title of ‘the most beautiful village in France’ and Lonely Plant guides introduce the town well. “Hell-Bourg emerges like a hamlet in a fairy tale after 9km of tight bends from Salazie. You can't help but be dazzled by the fabulous backdrop – the majestic mountain walls that encase Hell-Bourg like a grandiose amphitheatre.”
You probably grasped by now the Reunion is an island of extremes ... and here’s another world beating and rather scary fact, the island holds the World Records for the most rainfall in 12, 24, 72 and 96 hour periods! (Don’t worry, the race is taking place before the cyclone season gets going and November is generally one of the best months to visit and for hiking.)
However, on a small island with very big mountains in the middle of the ocean things can be unpredictable, with a maritime/tropical/mountainous mix its best to be prepared for anything.
Generally in November temperatures are pleasantly warm, ranging from low to high 20’s, but that is on the coast and the temperature difference with elevation can be considerable, so some cold nights can be expected in the hills.
The height is enough for altitude to make those steep climbs that much harder, but not posing any real threat, especially as a rapid descent is almost certainly around the corner.
There is a BIG silver lining to those rain clouds. What do you get if you add heavy rainfall to very steep mountains? Lots of fabulous waterfalls, rivers perfect for whitewater rafting and kayaking, and a canyoning paradise!
A Sporting Island
Reunion makes is mark in several sports but without doubt the biggest and best known event on the island is the legendary ultra-trail run ‘La Grand Raid’. There are now 4 races but the longest and original distance is the ‘La Diagonale des Fous’ (The Crossing of the Fools), which covers a 165km route across the island with 9576m of ascent. It starts with a direct ascent of Piton de la Fournaise from sea level and crosses the 3 major cirques.
The race is world renowned and galvanises the islanders who staff mountain top aid stations and cheer the competitors on in great numbers to make the race a huge trail running festival. With such an iconic event on their island it’s no surprise that running is popular and with such a lofty target to aim for and hundreds of kilometres of mountain trails for training, the standard of mountain running on Reunion is very high.
It will be interesting to see how the local teams get on and I fully expect the local communities to get behind the race. Their race support experience will be invaluable to the Raid in France team. (Prior to the start in Hell Bourg the race will stay in the village with a meal provided for everyone.)
There has been international adventure racing on the island before with Raid Gauloises founder Gerard Fusil staging ‘Reunion d’Aventures’ for 3 years from 2009. (There are reports on SleepMonsters.) Unfortunately, the race never attracted a big entry or much attention but I do remember overnight stops were enforced so teams were not moving in the dark because of the difficulty of the terrain.
A Big Race on a Small Island
There is no doubt Reunion will serve as a wonderful adventure playground and offer racers a chance to explore a location few will have visited before. It will offer Raid in France full scope for the authentic and uncompromising courses they are known for, and especially rope and canyon stages, which will surely be something special.
The planners have prepared a 430km course on an island 63km long and 45km wide to include trekking, mtb, pack rafting, sea kayaking in coastal lagoons, canyoning, caving and mountaineering. There is also horse riding which is rarely seen in top flight adventure racing these days and there is an estimated 17,000m of ascent on the course – which may be another record for Reunion!
Teams will surely get to see almost the entire island and experience the full variety it has to offer as they discover the delights of Reunion Island at ARWC 2018.
[Rob Howard will be reporting live from ARWC 2018 for SleepMonsters, Raid in France and the AR World Series.]
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