Baguettes in backpacks

Louise Southerden hikes the volcanic trails of Reunion, a remote Indian Ocean island that remains determinedly French.

Standing on the rim of Cirque de Mafate, one of Reunion's three volcanic amphitheatres, it's hard to believe you're on an island in the Indian Ocean. Thousand-metre walls encircle an alpine paradise of meadows, waterfalls, mountain tamarind trees, peaks and deep gorges.

Mafate and the cirques of Salazie and Cilaos are the collapsed calderas of an ancient shield volcano that created the island over a hot spot in the Earth's crust 3 million years ago (Reunion still has two volcanoes, the now-extinct Piton des Neiges and the highly active Piton de la Fournaise. They're also a throwback to another time).

Although Reunion was colonised in the mid-17th century - Louis XIV claimed it for France in 1649, naming it Ile Bourbon - the cirques remained ruggedly inaccessible until the 19th century, when African and Malagasy slaves fleeing brutal overlords on the island's coffee plantations settled these islands-within-an-island. Today, Mafate can still only be reached by helicopter or on foot, making it a playground for trekkers, particular of the French variety.

It might be hard to believe Reunion is a remote tropical island but there's no mistaking its nationality: it's a little piece of France, a region with the same status as the 21 regions of mainland France. French is an official language (along with Creole), the euro is the official currency and 380,000 of its 470,000 visitors last year came from France. This all makes for very Gallic hiking.

As my guide, Patrick, and I set off into the Mafate cirque on the first leg of our three-day hike, we see baguettes poking from backpacks and fashion-conscious trekkers dressed in boob tubes, neon-pink shirts, even denim overalls. There's an almost constant chorus of "Bonjour! Bonjour!" as groups of walkers pass. Then there's the food, something that's never far from the mind of a Frenchman such as Patrick.

"Shall we stop for lunch?" he says after an hour's easy downhill walking. Well, it is noon and we do seem to have found an idyllic picnic spot: Plaine des Tamarins. It could be Tasmania but for the tamarind trees instead of snow gums. Patrick spreads a tablecloth he has retrieved from the depths of his pack, along with Reunionnais fare - crusty fresh bread, camembert, crab sticks, achards (a Creole-style pickle salad) and red wine. "Bon appetit!"

This is hiking as I've never known before - walk for an hour, stop for an hour - in a landscape that is eerily familiar. Having just been to Madagascar (visiting Reunion is a stopover on my way home), I recognise a sparrow-like Malagasy bird flitting across the track ahead of us: a red fody. "He is only red during the love season [the mating season]," Patrick says.

Plants lining this section of track seem to have come from somewhere else, too - a botanical reminder of the time Reunion was on the trade route between Europe, India and the Far East, before the Suez Canal opened in 1869. "It's a jardin du monde," says Patrick, pointing out peach blossoms and passionfruit vines, apple trees and daisies. We see acacia trees from South Africa, cryptomeria conifers from Japan, fuchsia from Bolivia, grevillea bushes from Australia and jacaranda trees from Brazil, just some of the 2000 introduced species here.

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The sun is still high in a cloudless sky when we reach La Nouvelle, population about 160. There's a school, a shingle-roofed church and a baker, Maurice, who drinks iced tea with us on the verandah of his boulangerie. He is a hiker, too, he says, regularly carrying in sacks of flour to make 100 baguettes a day. That's life in La Nouvelle. Whatever's not available in the village - water comes from streams, electricity from the sun, food from the volcanic soil - has to be brought in by helicopter or on someone's back. "It's like travelling in the past," Patrick says. "People live quiet lives here."

There's no lack of joie de vivre, however. Our mountain "gite" (hut), Le Tamareo, for instance, is prettier and more comfortable than any mountain hut I've ever stayed in. Pale green, with a red roof and a garden of roses, pink verbena and orange capuchins, it has white stable doors leading from a sunny verandah to double rooms and bunk rooms (for up to 18 guests). There's fresh bed linen and towels, hot showers and mountain views from every shuttered window. Sitting on my bed, I can see the 3013-metre peak of Gros Morne and the "remparts" (the walls of the cirque) towering over the village.

One of the delights of a hut-based walking trip such as this is not having to carry and cook your own food. At Le Tamareo, dinner is a three-course event of local produce: choko (called christophene), lentils, rice and chicken; a lemon cake; lashings of red wine; and a nightcap of rhum arrange, a Reunnionais specialty made with rum, cinnamon, cardamom, chilli and caramel.

The next morning, it's not the sound of roosters that wakes me but the buzz of helicopters; scenic flights of Reunion's cirques start as early as 6am (and stop about 11am, making them a fairly constant presence each morning). At least it ensures there's plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast of fresh bread, home-made jam and Reunionnais coffee before we set off about 9am. There's no rush; it's only four hours to our next gite, in Marla.

On the way out of La Nouvelle, we pass a medical centre. A doctor and dentist visit by helicopter once a month, Patrick tells me, but "le facteur" does his rounds on foot. Right on cue, we see the hiking postman. "B'jour!" he says as he strides past. He visits each of the half-dozen villages in the cirque once a week, often stopping to read elderly residents their mail. He'll write replies for them, too, and bring medicine, scratch lottery tickets (a favourite pastime on Reunion) and island news.

All the cirques, including their villages, were World Heritage-listed in 2010. They also lie within Reunion National Park, though it's not a national park as we might know it: occasionally we see fences and cattle (there are also goats and zebu from Madagascar), people hiking with their dogs and feral cats scouting for scraps at our lunch stop at Trois Roches ("Three Rocks").

The most impressive feature of this spot is a waterfall that thunders from creek level into a chasm so deep that even by holding on to a tree growing near the edge I can't lean out far enough to see the bottom. It's certainly popular - there are more than 50 hikers relaxing in the shade of the casuarina trees and bathing in the shallow river the day I'm there - but it's surprisingly peaceful; everyone keeping to themselves and respecting the natural place.

After another two-hour lunch, we climb through an arid landscape of rocks and agave plants to Marla, the highest hamlet in Mafate, at 1640 metres above sea level. There we cool off with a Dodo, the local beer, also called Bourbon after the island's original name (it became "La Reunion" after the French Revolution in 1789) and walk on to Gite Yolande Hoareau.

It's more basic than Le Tamareo and for dinner, everyone wanders over to a bright green corrugated-iron shed where the gite's owner, Yolande, cooks lentils, sausages and rice as hearty as the company: 40 French, German, Spanish and English hikers talking loudly at long tables in a low-ceilinged room whose decor includes a mirror ball and, oddly, a Sydney Opera House wall hanging.

Our last day begins and ends with a steep, three-hour hike to the rim of Cirque de Mafate, then down to a waiting vehicle for the one-hour drive back to the coast. Catching our breath on the way up, we see two men in Lycra running into the cirque, training for the Diagonale des Fous (Le Grand Raid), an ultra-marathon held every October. Nicknamed the "Diagonal of Fools", the marathon attracts 2000 competitors who run for 163 kilometres across the island, tackling altitude gains of more than 9000 metres. The winner does it in less than 24 hours but I'm glad to have had three days of "island time" to amble through one of Reunion's ruggedly ancient cirques on this little piece of France in the Indian Ocean.

Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of World Expeditions, Reunion Island Tourism Board and Air Austral.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air Mauritius-Air Austral have a fare to Reunion from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1950 low-season return, including tax. Fly Qantas to Perth (about 5hr), then Air Mauritius to Mauritius (8hr 35min) and then Air Austral to Reunion (40min). See airmauritius.com; air-austral.com.

Trekking there

World Expeditions has a six-day Trek Reunion trip for $1590 a person, and a nine-day Reunion Island Adventure for $2290. Both trips run between May and October. The price includes all meals, accommodation in hotels and mountain gites, an English-speaking trekking guide and transfers. Phone 1300 720 000; see worldexpeditions.com.au.

Staying there

Lux Ile de la Reunion at St Gilles has 164 rooms and suites, from €185 ($230) a night; see luxislandresorts.com.

More information

See reunion.fr/en.

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