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Running across the island of Réunion on the GR2 route

I don't even remember when I first encountered the island of Réunion. It was only when one of the best ultramarathoners, François D'haene, crossed it as part of the Grand Raid that I began to fully appreciate it. Reunion is a jewel of the Indian Ocean.

Definitely worth a visit! As an overseas department of France, it is one of the most remote regions of the European Union. It is here that Mother Nature's bag of natural beauty is torn open. Turquoise lagoons, fabulous white beaches, wild rainforest, untamed volcanoes and deep green valleys with waterfalls. You can hardly find so much diversity in one place!

Our goal is to cross the entire island from north to south in 6 days and in the process climb the highest mountain, Piton des Neiges (3,070 m), which boasts the title of "the highest mountain in the Indian Ocean". In terms of numbers, this means 180 kilometres with 10,000 metres of elevation gain. We also plan to climb one of the largest active volcanoes in the world - Piton de la Fournaise (2 632 m), visit a vanilla plantation, swim in the ocean, see sharks, find a wild chameleon, regenerate our legs in a freshwater waterfall, admire sea turtles and watch the sunrise from a mountain cliff. I can tell you right off the bat that we did it all in 9 days of island hopping and it was one big ride!

While I had a pretty accurate idea of what to expect from Reunion, expectations exceeded reality. And by quite a bit! Reunion is one big endemic. I knew that there were animals and plants living here that can't be found anywhere else in the world. But the place felt like a sci fi computer game. The entire island is made up of several volcanic craters and when you run along the caldera of one of them, you not only have an incredible view of the beautiful landscape, but also a chasm hundreds of meters deep underneath. The first day after our arrival we set out to explore the city. We popped into the market to admire and taste fruit I'd never seen in my life, took a cable car ride to the higher parts of the capital Saint Denis and also trotted along the coast.

In the morning we got up at six and after breakfast we set off. The opening 2 miles are on flat ground, followed by 15km of climbing and the rest on a rocking profile or downhill. The sun hasn't even come out properly yet and it's hot. Damn hot and maybe 100% humidity! Within minutes we don't have a dry thread on our clothes and the water from the bottles is disappearing at breakneck speed. We are lucky that the initial climb crosses the village and we can replenish our precious fluids. We walk most of the hill. This is not particularly technical terrain and I would run it during a race. However, we have nowhere to rush and one of the expedition members is not feeling too well physically. Once we reach the ridge, the view is like something out of Avatar. The jungle is full of strange sounds, there are hills of spiky shapes in front of us, and one can't shake the feeling that there is a bigger predator than man somewhere. At the end of the enclosure we descend into a village where one cannot help but notice the dozens of meters of spider webs in which hundreds of spiders of various sizes have nested. A real treat!

The second day of the run starts with a great run at the end of which we will have a refreshing swim in the stream. The opening few kilometres are strangely friendly to us and to our amazement the route winds through a wide running path, over which a helicopter flies over every few minutes. These are plentiful on Reunion and, apart from supplies, are mainly used by tourists for sightseeing flights. If someone played me the song "Fortunate Son", I'd feel like I was in a Vietnam War movie. The variability of the landscape and weather knows no bounds, as from one minute to the next comes one of the heaviest downpours I've experienced in years. The sunscreen has to go sideways and in a few minutes I'm so cold I pull out my Tilak Euphoria jacket. I've been using it for similar runs for over two years now, and it's amazing how the jacket still doesn't shed water wonderfully. Even though I use it in combination with a running pack, it shows no signs of wear on my back or shoulders. This is due not only to the three-layer Gore-tex Active, but also to the fact that it was developed together with one of the best ultra runners, Pavel Paloncý. I was really glad for it in this crazy downpour and although I was frozen to the bone, putting the jacket on quickly improved my thermal comfort.

We start the third day near the town of Grand-Îlet and to our surprise we run through an absolutely magical hobbit-type forest. This corner of the island has an incredible genius loci and we are only awakened by the presence of a refreshment station. To our surprise, a running race is being held here today and we have the honour of seeing the fastest runner. We continue on, running along wooden paths along a trail that seems to have fallen out of the eye of Australia's The Great North Walk. A few kilometres later, as we climb up the Taïbit saddle, I feel like I'm somewhere in Nepal and just before the town of Cilaos we visit waterfalls similar to those one might see in Madeira. Wow! So many amazing places in just a few kilometers!

On the fourth day we have a royal stage in the form of a climb up the highest mountain of the island, Piton des Neiges (3070 m), with a total length of about 34 kilometers. We climb over 2,000 vertical metres in the opening 12 kilometres and before you know it, we have a view like something out of a fairy tale. We are standing on the edge of a huge crater and the ant-like dots below us remind us of where we came from a few hours ago. We had mistakenly hoped that we were in for a reward run. However, the jungle presents its full force to us and the ubiquitous slippery rocks thoroughly test our running shoes. Not surprisingly, one member of our pack sprains his ankle several times. The end of today's stage is in the village of Bourg Murat, which is lined with meadows full of cows, once again giving you the feeling that you are in a completely different part of the world (this time the British countryside).

The fifth stage turns out to be the most runnable part of the trail and it is also here that we experience the greatest natural contrast. First, the view from the Nez de Boeuf lookout into the steep valley below is breathtaking, and in another hour we reach a moonscape with no signs of life. These are volcanic plains heralding one of the biggest highlights of the trip. The summit of the Piton de la Fournaise volcano gradually begins to peek out at us from behind the clouds. One of the world's largest volcanoes has been active for at least 530,000 years and last spewed lava 6 years ago. We run to the hut below this monumental volcano and in the afternoon we go to the caldera to enjoy the panoramic view on all sides.

The final stage is in the spirit of the morning's battle, codenamed "Spider". We wake up at 4:40am and want to get to the top of the volcano before sunrise. To our surprise, however, the lady of the hut locks the vestibule with our boots and we have no choice but to plant a meter wide window located at almost two meters high and let one of our brave ladies squeeze through it. After a few dozen minutes, the mission is successfully accomplished and we rush to the top of the Piton de la Fournaise volcano. We get lucky and are at the top 10 minutes before sunrise. There is a strong wind blowing and although we are in the tropics, we are certainly not hot. We wait for the first rays of the sun as if by the mercy of God and after a few minutes we drive back from the hut for breakfast. From there we split up as a group. While I go ahead to catch the bus into town and rent a car, the rest of us have a few hours to spare and don't have to hurriedly choke on breakfast pastries. According to one hiker walking in the opposite direction, the final part is not supposed to be too technical. I honestly don't understand how challenging the terrain this girl grew up with, because after the initial 9 kilometers winding along the caldera, the terrain starts to steeply drop and get challenging technically. The narrow trail is surrounded on all sides by an impenetrable jungle, with variously shaped and sized rocks of every conceivable size as the bedrock. While in our country you can hardly "run down" a hill at a speed of 12 minutes per kilometer, here such cupitating is the order of the day. The final stage is 36 kilometres long, including the morning hike up the volcano, and I'm honestly glad we all survived this adventure with healthy skin.

We are just enjoying the last two days from the perspective of an active hiker. We do easy runs, visit the giant shark aquarium, the turtle breeding station, sample the local exotic cuisine, sip local rums and enjoy the island to the fullest. While part of our group stays and flies to nearby Mauritius, I fly back home to my family. Every adventure has an end.

What to say in conclusion? Reunion is one big hit! Hundreds of flavours, millions of colours, the lively unbridledness and diversity of the different parts of the island never ceases to amaze. I will live long from this trip and I have to say that the GR2 crossing is really a decent effort! In the southern hemisphere it gets dark quite early in May and almost every day we ran an hour after dusk and finished an hour before dark. This is very challenging terrain full of steep climbs and technical descents that won't give you anything for free. Add to that the unpleasant humidity and muggy conditions combined with the tropical jungle. I have a feeling that Reunion was the model for Jurassic Park. This island has a way of getting under your skin!

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