Mafate - Emmanuel Virin

Criss-crossed by an extensive network of footpaths, the Mafate cirque, accessible only on foot, is one of the island's hiking myths. Wild and enchanting, Mafate has to be earned. But what a beauty! The noise of man does not affect it: you can even forget!

View of the Gros Morne massif
View over the Gros Morne massif.

An island within an island

Along with Salazie and Cilaos, Mafate is one of the island's three large cirques, arranged at around 120° to each other around the summit of the "Piton des Neiges", like the lobes of a cloverleaf. Difficult to access, Mafate is the wildest, most rugged and least inhabited. The only one that can only be discovered on foot, in the silence of the chaotic nature that characterises it. With 140 km of trails laid out by the national forest office, Mafate is a haven of 80 km² of gullies, valleys, steep cliffs and waterfalls, watched over by the "Grand Bénare" massif to the south, the "Gros Morne" to the south-east, the "Cimendef" and "La Roche Ecrite" to the north-east and the "Maïdo" to the west.
Depending on the access route, hiking in Mafate can be difficult. The most arduous entrance is undoubtedly the one at "Le Maïdo", which puts a lot of strain on the ankles (1000 m of very steep descent, 2 hours to get down and almost twice as long to get back up). " Santié par issi lé apik, kamarad ", (the path here is steeply), joked our guide Clovis. We've got our " soulié la marche ", but we prefer an easier access.

From the "Col des Boeufs" to the "Col de Fourche"

On the way to the Col des Boeufs
On the way to the "col des Boeufs".

So we set off from "Le Bélier", in the circus of Salazie , a quarter of an hour's walk from the "Col des Boeufs", where you can leave your car (guarded car park). Then head for the "Col de Fourche" (1942 m, GR R1). More difficult than the "Col des Boeufs", but still bearable, this route has the advantage of allowing you to discover part of the circus of Salazie on foot before entering the Circus of Mafate. The route takes two hours longer than the "Col des Boeufs" (1988 m) and allows you to admire the tropical forest scented with the flowers of longoses, a prolific rhizome in the ginger family. Here and there, you can spot Reunion auks, or locally known as "tec-tec" (Saxicola tectes), a protected species of shy forest bird endemic to the island.

Tec-tec or Saxicola tectes, a bird endemic to Réunion Island.
Tec-tec or Saxicola tectes, a bird endemic to Reunion Island.

Crossing a small stream, our guide points out the olivine crystals embedded in their basalt matrix. The spring water is pure throughout the cirque, so we fill our water bottles. A pleasant path leads down to the "Grand Sable" forest and then up, with some steep gradients, to the "Col de Fourche".

Reunion Island. Oratory at Saint Expédit.
Reunion Island. Oratory at Saint Expedit.

A few small red oratories dedicated to Saint Expedit (and sometimes the Virgin) mark the route. The cult of Saint Expedit is very popular in Reunion island, bringing together devotees of good and witchcraft. This Roman legionary, who converted to Christianity and died in the arena where Roman soldiers had thrown him to the wild beasts, was never canonised by the Church, Pius XI having struck his name from the martyrology. Nonetheless, he remains venerated and is sometimes invoked to cast a curse on an enemy.

From "Col de Fourche" to the "Tamarinds Plain"

View of the "Morne de Fourche" and the "Col des Boeufs". In the foreground, a shrub fern or Fanjan, endemic to Reunion Island.
View of the "Morne de Fourche" and the "Col des Boeufs". In the foreground, a shrub fern or Fanjan, endemic to Reunion Island.

At the "Col de Fourche", a superb view over Salazie and the "Piton d'Anchaing", which rises proudly above it! As we cross the pass, a new panorama opens up: the south of Mafate, its peaks and ramparts! Absolutely stunning!

On the Col de Fourche, you have to be sure of your footing to avoid rolling over a stone.
On the "Col de Fourche", you have to be sure of your footing to avoid rolling over a stone.

Alternatively, you can head straight for "the Col des Boeuf"s (difference in altitude 505 m, approx. 2-hour walk to "La Nouvelle" or "Marla", ideal for families with children). From this pass, on a clear day, you can see the small village of "La Nouvelle" below and the islet (pronounced îlette) of "Marla", at the foot of "Grand Benare". Along the way, you can admire species endemic to Reunion island such as the tree fern or the female Fanfan (Cyathea excelsa). Or mapou (Monimia rotundifolia), a tree with small, round, tough leaves.

Plaine des Tamarins. A path with cross logs prevents you from wading through the mud at the first sign of rain.
Tamarinds Plain. A path with cross logs prevents you from wading through the mud at the first sign of rain.

An hour later, we reach the "Tamarinds Plain". A mimosaic endemic to Reunion island, the "tamarin des Hauts" (Acacia heterophylla or Bourbon oak) is a tree that can reach a height of around twenty metres. It is found at high altitudes, and its wood is highly prized in cabinet-making. Very twisted, often bent over by the winds as they age, the tamarinds create a fantastical backdrop on this plain when their silvery-white trunks pierce the mist. This enchanting spot is a popular place for hikers to take a relaxing break. Zigzagging through the tamarind grove, a path with cross logs and small wooden bridges prevents you from wading through the mud at the first sign of rain. But be careful not to twist your ankles! It's actually quite difficult to walk on it, so we prefer to go around it.

Plaine des Tamarins. If you look up, you will see numerous clumps of bearded usnea (or Jupiter?s beard) clinging to the branches. This epiphytic lichen is a sign that the area is pollution-free.
Tamarinds Plain. If you look up, you will see numerous clumps of bearded usnea (or Jupiter's beard) clinging to the branches. This epiphytic lichen is a sign that the area is pollution-free.

From the Tamarinds Plain to La Nouvelle

We then follow the white and red markings. After 15 minutes, we reach a place called "La Découverte" on the edge of the plateau (tableland). From here, a few quick but easy switchbacks take us downhill for 30 minutes to the signpost indicating the start of the islet, at an altitude of 1420 m. A well-equipped picnic area (at the entrance to the islet, on the left) invites you to take a well-earned break, but if you carry on a few metres further you can sit down at the terrace of the "bistro" in the "capital" of Mafate, after admiring the magnificent Tibuchina massif framed by signposts.

Massif de tibouchina at the entrance to La Nouvelle.
Tibouchina flowers at the entrance to La Nouvelle.

You can also extend your walk by 10 minutes by passing through the "Plateau des Chênes": this diversions will give you a lovely view of "La Nouvelle". Or, from the Tamarinds Plain, extend the route by turning left and heading back down towards "Maison Laclos". There are two paths leading down to "La Nouvelle" from "Maison Laclos": take the first, which takes you past the Stèle J. Ethève and over the footbridge overlooking the "Rivière des Galets", with its pools and small waterfalls. Further on, two paths overlooking the "Gîte de Gravina" (Gravina's cottage) head towards "La Nouvelle": you can take either one as the gradient is identical. You finally arrive at "La Nouvelle", the most densely populated islet in the Mafate circus. Around thirty families live here all year round, mainly from tourism. Chickens peck around the houses and cows graze the fields in the valley. On site, you will find a camping area, a grocery shop, gîtes and even a bakery. The huts have solar panels and water heaters, supplemented by generators when the cloud cover lasts too long.

Cirque de Mafate, a hiking paradise.
Mafate circus, a paradise for hikers.

Back to the "Col des Boeufs"

After a night on the islet of "La Nouvelle", there are a number of destinations open to hikers the following day: return via the "Col des Boeufs", "Roche Plate" or "Marla" via "Trois Roches". We return via the "Col des Boeufs" (ascent + 505 m). We pass through the forest named "Bois de couleurs des Hauts", where lush, abundant vegetation flourishes. Wrapped in frequent mists, its trees are generously covered with mosses, lichens and other epiphytic plants. From the lower canopy (8-10 m), where trees such as the Mapou, Mahots and Bois de tambour grow, tree ferns (or fanjan) emerge, erecting their fronds above the trees.
Then a series of fairly steep steps awaits us. We take advantage of the small terraces to admire the cirque and catch our breath. The route is very steep, with a few big steps. But they don't seem to put off the locals, who climb up with their little ones on their shoulders to get supplies in town, although heavy supplies (and emergencies) are provided by helicopter. One more effort under the gaze of the papangue, a harrier endemic to the island, and we are back at our starting point.

The path leading up to the Col des Boeufs is staircased in places.
The path leading up to the "Col des Boeufs" is staircased in some places.

Mafate was originally the name of a Maroon slave. His name means "He who kills" in Malagasy. " Many Maroon slaves [...] formed defended villages [...] under the leadership of authoritarian chiefs. Some of these chiefs gave themselves the title of manjakes, synonymous with king in the Malagasy language. It even seems that they took on war names: Mafate (which causes death), Tsilaos (unconquerable)" (1). Mafate (or Maffack) became the leader of a community of brown slaves who found refuge in the most inaccessible cirque on the island. He left his name to a village (now extinct) and to the circus of the same name. He is said to have been taken over by the great slave hunter François Mussard, who murdered him in 1751.
(1) - Histoire de l'esclavage à l'île Bourbon, J.V. Payet, published by L'Harmattan, 1991.


This hike takes place over two days. All levels of hiking are possible in Mafate. Bring mountain gear, water, a first-aid kit and protection from the rain, cold and sun, as the weather can change quickly. Note that there are no snakes or poisonous animals on the island.

Text: Brigitte Postel
Photos: Florian Ferry and Brigitte Postel