Reunion: trek from Mafate to Dimitile, in the footsteps of chestnuts

She didn't steal her nickname of intense island. Reunion is a land of treks and hikes unlike any other. On a small area of ​​2 km², or less than a third of Corsica, climatologists have identified an impressive mosaic of microclimates. In one and the same trek, it is possible to go from a dense low tropical forest to a dry and windy forest.

We all know the famous circuses that Reunion Island is home to - Mafate, Cilaos and Salazie -, but much less the Dimitile massif, and yet it is inseparable from a painful page in the history of the island ... From the top of these 2 352 m, this mastodon has seen numerous fleeing slaves, the maroons, who had chosen to take refuge in its steep reliefs. It takes its name from one of the leaders.

Lace up your shoes, we'll take you for a one week hike from Mafate to Piton de la Fournaise passing through the Dimitile.

In the footsteps of the maroons, these freedom-loving slaves ...

Marronnage designates the flight of slaves. From the start of colonization in 1665 to the abolition of slavery in 1848, Réunion, then called Île Bourbon, was sadly marked by the practice of slavery. If the island was initially a simple land of supply for the colonists, the latter finally settled in Saint-Paul in 1665. Under their yoke, slaves, mostly Malagasy, worked in the coffee crops, then of sugar cane.

To escape deplorable working conditions, some of them managed to escape to take refuge in the rugged and remote reliefs of the island where they established makeshift villages. They were called "chestnuts", coming from the Spanish term cimarron meaning "on the tops". A real society was then organized, with in each camp - which could count up to 60 maroons - leaders, like Dimitile.

The flight of slaves gained momentum. On the side of the settlers, a militia was set up to find the fugitives. Marooning offices were created in each colonial city. The mission of the "slave hunters" was to capture the living fugitives, in order to set an example for others. If the fugitive were to die, the hunter still had to bring back part of his body to prove the capture. This barbaric practice lasted until the abolition of slavery in 1848.

Today, the paths traced by the maroons attract a much more peaceful public than the slave militias: hikers who come to taste the beauty of the landscapes of the heart of Réunion.

Mafate: an island in Reunion Island

Day 1

Totally isolated, because no road leads there, the Mafate circus is one of those privileged places of Reunion. Jean-Marie is the former postman of Mafate. Now retired, he opened the gîte le Jacquier, with his wife, and welcomes hikers who have managed to climb up to the islet (pronounce “ilette”) of Lataniers, a hamlet at an altitude of 600 m.

While letting house punch flow into our glasses, he tells us that when he was a postman, he walked 120 km in three days to deliver the 15 kg of mail he was carrying on his back. This is the only way to get to the heart of the circus, with the helicopter.

Our journey began four hours earlier, at Galets River. Twenty crammed into the back of a pickup that rattled from left to right, we crossed a dozen ravines before arriving at Two arms, one of the nine gateways to the Mafate circus. We continued on foot, crossed fords, before undertaking a 350 m ascent to reach the Lataniers where we spend the night.

Day 2

The sound of the rotor wrenches us from sleep. The helicopter is the only means of supplying the approximately 900 inhabitants of Mafate circus. This morning, Jean-Marie receives his order. Up to 900 kg of food can be hung in a vacuum.

After this striking spectacle, we take the direction of Roche-Plate. This islet was among the first refuges of chestnuts. The points of interest are legion on the way: the Grand-Mère ravine populated with dreamy leaves, the islet of Orangers and its adorable school, the ascent to the breach, at an altitude of 1 m, and the crossing of the casuarinas forest - an invasive plant used to retain the soil - reminiscent of those in the south-east of the metropolis. We take the measure of the diversity of the island.

After five hours, we arrive at the Libelle gîte. Pascal, our host, awaits us on his balcony, his gaze facing the mountains which become entangled.

Day 3

The next day we join Marla, the highest islet in the cirque, at an altitude of 1 m. We walk along the Maïdo rampart which rises to 1 m above sea level. At his feet, we do not lead off. Our shoes hit the volcanic stones that dot the ground, while a few tail-shaped straws swirl above our heads.

We arrive in the canyon of the Rivière des Galets. Along the way, the Trois-Roches tea room offers something to eat and drink: lemonade, iced tea, and even pancakes!

We then venture to the side of the eponymous waterfall. A perilous passage. A very hard and extremely polished lava covers the basalt of the bed of the river - which must be crossed carefully - and flows into a deep fault in front of which stand three blocks of basalt.

A spot loved by Mafatais and tourists in general who take up residence there for a nap or a snack. After an immersion in yet another forest of casuarinas, our drop-off point, Marla, appears.

Dimitile: the forgotten massif of Réunion

Day 4

This morning, a known noise wakes us up. Today, a most unique hike awaits us: the passage of the Taïbit pass, at 2 m above sea level. It is the natural border between the cirques of Mafate and Cilaos. An alpine type hike with a series of +081 m and -400 m in elevation. The Taïbit is also part of the Grand Raid, the island's legendary ultra-trail.

From words of locals, the maroons named it so to scare hunters. Who knows. One thing is certain: most of the names of reliefs bear that of a chestnut or a fight they have led. Arrive at the top, last glance at Marla and descend steeply into the dense and humid tropical forest to land on the islet road to Cordes leading to Cilaos. 400 bends later - which we make by shuttle - we are at the foot of Dimitile.

Day 5

The departure for the top of Dimitile is done atEntre-Deux, from the Grande Jument trail. From here we have to climb another 1m to reach it. As we go up we are literally enveloped in thick fog or maybe we are just above the clouds which are very low. The vegetation is dense, humid and some passages are vertiginous.

After 3 hours of walking, the mist clears and a large plateau emerges. We arrived at the top of the massif. An old brown camp has been reconstituted at this location. Visit.

Day 6

Here, no helicopter to wake us up. The good old alarm clock will do better, the smell of toast and butter melting on it. We must give ourselves the means to achieve our ambitions. The day's trail straddles two massifs: that of the Piton des Neiges (3 m above sea level) on the left and that of Piton de la Fournaise on the right - when the weather is good enough to show it.

We descend, take ridges from which we can see Cilaos below and Grand Bassin. We then take ladders, there are about ten on the way. Sometimes they go up, sometimes they go down. The spectacle is striking.

The "volcano": last ascent to the Piton de la Fournaise

Shoes full of mud are so heavy that it is difficult to move forward. After two days of total immersion, we gradually leave the massif. Until Mud pond - which is aptly named - we were in the heart of a dense and humid forest.

Mud follows, a lot of mud, and here we are now in the heart of a meadow called Plain of Cafres. A few cows greet us, mooing. They are not used to meeting many hikers, as the massif is so little known. Moreover, we did not meet anyone. We spend the night with Jean-Raymond in Bourg-Murat.

Day 7

Last day on the island. Impossible to leave it without undertaking the ascent of the Piton de la Fournaise which is colloquially called "the volcano" here. A volcano which is one of the most active in the world ... Culminating at 2 m, it is one of Reunion's favorite subjects of conversation with sharks and the coastal road. The volcano has awakened more than twenty times over the past ten years and more recently.

To reach him, we cross the Plain of Sands. We park in the parking lot next to the site. The descent to the volcano begins. Because, to reach the Piton de la Fournaise, you must first descend the enclosure.

A few hundred meters before arriving at the foot of the volcano, we pass the Formica Leo, a small volcanic cone on which it is preferable not to climb, because it subsides from year to year under the footsteps of many tourists.

We then begin the ascent of the peak. We already have more than half an hour of walking in the legs, but it is nothing compared to what remains for us to climb to the peak.

The ascent begins. Our feet tread in turn the volcanic rocks in “cow dung” and those more crisp in “crust of bread”. Under our passage, these witnesses of the frequent activity of the volcano tumble down everything that we have just climbed.  

After more than 2 hours of climbing, here we are at the top. The trembling legs, and the sight, unforgettable, as a reward. The enclosure in the back, the ocean in the background, and, under our feet, two active craters. We walk along the craters, immortalizing all these striking images, and decide to go down.

On the way back, large cracked bubbles catch our attention: they are lava caves. The favorite playgrounds of cavers - who have left their ladders. Headlamps on our heads, we descend into the bowels of the Earth. Our most unusual visit.


Find all the tips, addresses and practical information in the Routard Réunion guide in bookstores.

Consult our online guide Meeting

Réunion tourist office

How to get there ?

Air Austral, a company based in Réunion, offers 10 direct flights per week from Paris. Find your plane ticket.


Who to hike with?

It is possible to hike alone, at least without a guide on Reunion Island. However, some delicate passages (on a ridge, at the edge of waterfalls, when crossing rivers, etc.) require vigilance and sometimes even knowledge of the terrain. Terres d'Aventure offers 16 trips to Réunion: six guided tours, two family trips and eight tailor-made trips. From € 2 to discover the Dimitile massif and € 340 for the heart of Mafate (flight, transfers, guide and full board, excluding drinks, included).

Visit the chestnut camp

Captain Dimitile: at the top of the Dimitile massif, a chestnut camp has been reconstituted. We learn more about the history of the fugitives, the big names, the organization of their society, the materials they used to build their camps, etc. Entrance: 2 €.

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