Saturday, 28 February 2015

Under the volcano - visiting Reunion's lava tubes

Fancy visiting the bowels of the earth? Crawling under a volcano along tunnels that were still molten magma just over a decade ago? This is what you can do when you visit Reunion's lava tubes.

Looking out to sea from the starting point

Although lava tubes are located all over Reunion, access to most of them is to be found in the island's south-east, in an area known as Le Grand Brûlé. This is where lava sometimes flows from the Piton de la Fournaise into the sea.

ʻAʻā lava to the left, pāhoehoe lava to the right

The particular lava tube that we visited dates from a 2004 eruption, eleven years ago. I believe that is the most recent lava tube in the world that can be visited by the public. Reunion's lava tubes are also fairly unique in that they are easy to access and show a large variety of geological forms. Elsewhere in the world lava tubes can be found in Iceland, Azores, Canary Islands, and the USA.

Tree bark imprint on lava

Although some people visit the tubes by themselves, it's highly recommended to go with a professional, which is what we did. We had been asked to wear trousers and closed shoes, and he equipped us with gloves, hardhats, headlamps and optional elbow and knee pads. Our meeting point was at the nearby Vierge au Parasol: the statue of a madonna holding a blue parasol. According to legend a local farmer placed this statue in his fields, hoping his crops would be protected from destruction by the volcano. Following an eruption he found that although lava had flowed through his fields the statue had miraculously been spared. 

Vierge au parasol (source)

Our guide, a trained speleologist, told us he knew of 22 entrances to the lava tube we were visiting that day; however we only used two - one to get in and one to get out!

Lava tube entrance 

We opted for the 3-hour 'discovery' visit, which covers about 1.6 km (1 mile). The same company also offers a 5-hr 'classic' and a 6-hr 'sporty' visit.

Inside the entrance looking out

A lava tube is a natural conduit formed by active low-viscosity lava which flows beneath the hardened surface of a crust or roof of lava. 

walking down the tube

When the supply of lava stops after an eruption or if lava is diverted elsewhere, lava in the tube system drains downslope and leaves partially empty, long, cave-like channels beneath the ground.

walking down the tube

Lava stalactites and stalagmites are known indifferently as 'lavacicles' and form in lava tubes while lava is still active inside. The formation of lava stalactites happens very quickly in only a matter of hours, days, or weeks, (whereas limestone stalactites may take thousands of years to form). A key difference with lava stalactites is that once the lava has stopped flowing the stalactites cease to grow, so if the lavacicle is broken it will never grow back.

shark's tooth-shaped lavacicles

We saw several examples of what is called perimorphosis, which occurs when an object, in this case a tree trunk, leaves an empty cast in volcanic flow.

example of perimorphosis

The lava sometimes leaves peculiar shapes, such as a dodo; at one point we even saw what looked liked a giant slice of chocolate cake!

does this look like a shark's head to you?

can you see a lion's head, complete with mane?

A rare characteristic that can occasionally be seen is lava pillars. Lava pillars are hollow inside, forming a pipe-like channel between the bottom and the top of a lava flow. 

A small lava pillar

The tube was always wide, but sometimes not very high. Most of the time we could walk along it normally, but not always. I'm 5'1" and reasonably athletic so I never had to go down on my hands and knees (if necessary I moved forward using an ungainly squatting position!) but some people preferred crawling. At a few places our guide indicated alternative narrow side tubes that the thrill-seekers in our group could wriggle along.

crawling along a narrower alternative route

It was surprisingly hot inside the tube (more or less the same temperature as outside, so high 20s°C), and the humidity level was high too (100%).

wall detail

In several places we saw thin roots of vegetation hanging down.

wall detail

If it rains it only takes about 30 minutes for the rain to filter through into the tube, and it can take up to three weeks for it to stop dripping afterwards.

roof detail

One of most memorable moments was before turning back, when we all sat down and turned off our headlamps. We found ourselves in complete and utter pitch darkness, which is something you realise you very rarely experience ...

roof detail

After a fascinating morning we were nevertheless happy to be back in our natural element - with natural light and fresh air!

Bois de rempart trees are the first endemic species to colonise a lava flow after an eruption

Note that visiting the lava tubes is not recommended for claustrophobics or people with heart, breathing, knee or back problems.

Related articles:

Thursday, 5 February 2015

February 2015 volcano eruption

For the first time since June 2014 Reunion's Piton de la Fournaise volcano started erupting at 11am yesterday, February 4th. Here are some great photos taken by Olivier Lucas-Leclin from a 2,274 m summit called Piton Bert.

© Luc Perrot (source)

La Fournaise is one of the world's most active volcanoes, and this is its 12th eruption in 11 years.

© Olivier Lucas-Leclin (source)

© Olivier Lucas-Leclin (source)

The eruption is located on the southwestern side of the main crater.

© Olivier Lucas-Leclin (source)

© Olivier Lucas-Leclin (source)

Since 1980 the average length of an eruption has been 20 days.

© LR Photographies (source)

Here's a video from Imaz Press Reunion:

And here's a NPR radio report from Emma Jacobs, an NPR reporter currently in Reunion.

@Fabrice Wislez/Frog 974 Photographies

You can see live webcams of the volcano here.

UPDATE: the eruption came to an end late on Sunday 15th February.

Related articles:

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The best of romance in Réunion

Whether it’s Valentine’s Day or any other day of the year, Reunion has plenty to offer when it comes to celebrating love. How about one (or several!) of these options:

1) Lux hotels have won awards for ‘Most Romantic Hotel’ several times, and LUX* Ile de la Réunion faces a shimmering expanse of aqua-blue waters, fringed by a stretch of immaculate sands. In this well-appointed hotel you can renew your vows on the beach, or enjoy a couples massage under a garden bower facing the sea…

2) Also located on the west coast, Le Cap, the restaurant of the four-star Boucan Canot Hotel, offers an intimate dinner under a gazebo, near the swimming pool and overlooking the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean… Perfect for a dinner tête-à-tête with a loved one.

3) Reunion is not just about beaches, its highlands are beautiful too. Enjoy a few nights staying at the Lodge Roche Tamarin at La Possession surrounded by 15,000m2 of tropical vegetation, or the intimate Le Dimitile Hotel at Entre-Deux, where an 18th century Creole house has been integrated into the hotel structure.

4) There’s something very passionate about volcanoes – it must be all that hot bubbling lava. Reunion has one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and while you won’t be able to visit it when it erupts, what about a champagne picnic on its summit when it’s not? Pack a bottle along with a baguette, some cold cuts and French pâtés, a little tropical fruit and you’re all set. By the way, did you know champagne has more bubbles at high altitude?

champagne at the summit of the volcano!

5) What about a helicopter flight over the island or a sunset cruise? Reunion’s two helicopter companies both offer a variety of flight tours, and Le Grand Bleu offers a 90-minute cocktail cruise daily.

6) Romance doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, but it might cost some effort! After a hard day’s hiking, waking up the next day in a comfy double bed in a Mafate B&B and seeing the whole of the mountainous cirque spread out at your feet really takes some beating. For some great views while still lying in bed try the Gite des Trois Roches in Marla!

And if you want to whisper sweet nothings in your valentine’s ear try ‘mi aime aou’, which means ‘I love you’ in Reunion Creole!

P.S. If you can't make it to Réunion what about reading one of these romance novels set on the island:

  • Dead Sexy by Kathy Lette (a "satire on the sex war")
  • Island Awakening by Lynne Martin (romantic fiction)
  • Second Chance Sister by Linda Kepner

  • A version of this post was originally published on the Welcome to Reunion Island blog.