Reunion, Piton de la Fournaise, 2006/07
by Richard Roscoe and Martin Rietze
Fig.1 (Model of Piton la Fournaise at the Maison du Volcan information center)
Having seen fantastic pictures from Piton la Fournaise (PLF) in the internet in December 2006, Martin and I flew down to Reunion via Mauritius, arriving on December 31st. At sunset we reached the PLF car park, however the volcano was obscured by a thick fog layer which had an immediate soaking effect. Strong winds and heavy rainfall added to the problem and only one short glimpse of the volcano with its promising red glow could be seen shortly after sunset.
Weather conditions remained poor during the night so the New Year was "celebrated" sitting in the car rather than viewing volcanic fireworks. At 3:00 the clouds lifted and after "passing" the locked gate to the enclosure we set off towards the Dolomieu crater via the officially closed Bory route. Our headlamps clearly lit the white paint spots marking the trail. At 5:00 we reached the Dolomieu crater rim adjacent to the new hornitos. Recently emplaced lava flows were still glowing in places, yet no sign of activity. Cloud cover was also increasing again.
Inactive volcano in cloud - our favourite photo motif ;-)))... After taking a few unmotivated snapshots of glowing cracks (Fig.2a,b), we sought protection from the renewed rainfall in a pit near the recent flow. However, after 3 hours of combined sauna and shower (steam was forming on the lava flow field and reducing visibility to about 1m), we decided to retreat. A 2 hour walk in heavy horizontal rain followed. EVERYTHING got soaked. Water got through the rain-cover on my rucksack, through the rucksack itself and the smaller camera equipment rucksack inside and even to some extent into the plastic bags the luckier ones of my lenses had been placed in. Raincoat and rainpants also hadnt kept anything at all dry underneath. Guess you could say i did some money-laundering, and my passport looked like a compendium of chromatography experiments ;-). Martin was in a similar state.
After "moisturizing" the car, we drove down to Bourg-Murat and rented a hotel bungalow in the hope of having a place to dry our stuff (Fig.3a). However, humidity was high as it continued to rain. The heating system is not switched on in the summer, the number of lamps for drying was limited and no hairdryer in sight. We did have TV. This soon confirmed that the 4 month long eruption had stopped abruptly at 2 in the morning, 3 hours before our arrival. Hmmm, what a promising start to 2007 ! The weather forecast was even more interesting - we were actually on the periphery of Cyclone Clovis, which kind of accounted for the "suboptimal" weather.
4a) 4b) 4c)
After 2 nights at the hotel we headed back up to the volcano. The sun came out and we took some pictures of the route on the way up (Fig. 4a, b, c, d). Since it was midday when we arrived, it was rather busy and an ascent of the Bory route (which was officially closed) to the hornitos would have been impossible without detection. Hence, we used the sun to finish off drying our equipment and waited (Fig.3b).
5a) 5b) 5c)
The view of PLF was fine in the afternoon (Fig.5a, b, c (Formica Leo cinder cone, formed 1753))), yet as sunset approached, so did the rain. After eating at the Gite de Bellecombe (mountain hostel), we drove downhill to find a dry place for sleeping. The roadside shelter we chose proved little protection against the heavy thunderstorms during the night, so it was another night in the car in the end.
6a) 6b) 6c)
The next day we toured around the south end of Reunion Island, visiting the Foret de Bebour (Fig.6a, 6b), the Grand Etang lake (Fig.6c), then visiting the beautiful East River Suspension Bridge (Fig.6d - completed 1894) and driving through lava fields which have reached the coast E of PLF several times in the last 50 years. The fields include both Aa and ropy Pahoehoe lava (Fig.7a, b, c, d).
On the last day, we headed up to PLF at 3:00 for an early morning visit to the volcano. The walk took just over an hour with minimal equipment, compared with double that on our heavily laden first attempt.
Weather conditions were again problematic, yet it was possible to see the recent eruption site and the summit craters before the clouds closed in again (Fig.8a-h). On the way back along the La Soufriere route we passed several older hornitos on the flank of the volcano (Fig.9a, b (Chapelle de Rosemont)).
8e) 8c) 8f)
We deposited the car in St Pierre and went to the airport to catch our plane to Mauritius. Unfortunately, our run of "good" luck continued and the flight was cancelled. This was apparently thanks to the sugar cane white grub Hoplochelus marginalis (Fig.10b), which arrived on Reunion from Madagascar in the 1970s and spread over the whole Island. The larvae have a voracious appetite for the roots of sugar cane plants and cause severe economic damage.
Since the adult beetles fly shortly after dusk, aircraft loading at this time could easily carry the beetle. Consequently, the Mauritius authorities will not allow planes taking off in Reunion between 6:30 and 8:30pm to land for fear of transferring the pest (hence, if the plane falls behind schedule during the day, the last flight is cancelled - now we knew why this was the only flight we could get tickets on ;-)..).. Anyway, after much debate at the Air Mauritius office we got free hotel accommodation and displaced 2 people from the early morning flight (Fig.10a), allowing us to just make our connection to Munich.
Well, at least the miserable failure of a holiday wasnt prolonged. Better luck next time, hopefully !