Nébuleuse Réunion

{Post initially written in September 2018}

Nebulous – /ˈnɛbjʊləs/ – adjective. 

  1. in the form of a cloud or haze; hazy. “A giant nebulous glow”
  2. (of a concept) vague or ill-defined. “Nebulous concepts like quality of life”

Writing generally forces you to search for words which best express your thoughts, feelings or intentions. I believe words alone can never fully accomplish this task, but “nebulous” sums up my latest trip to Reunion Island well. Having spent the entire year training for the 7 Summits Africa expedition (Nov-Dec) in Mauritius, I traveled to Reunion for its steep and long hikes. Taking it as a “reality check” on my fitness and preparation, I arrived on the Island with a 20kg backpack, considering a 9 or 10 day trek across it. Day 1 looked a little like this…

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What a marvel: lush green, steep walls, teeth-like ridge lines, eroded slopes… layered and enveloped in cloud laces. I’m in dreamland. Uplifted by my uncle, auntie and cousins who joined me that day, I move with confidence and maximum attention to my sensations. We had driven most of the way up and hiked uphill for barely two hours before they turned around and I pursued alone. Downhill now. I relish at the view but the pack is getting slightly uncomfortable. My camera bag which is clipped to my chest via the backpack shoulder straps, is blocking direct sight of my feet and I must lean more to see where I step. Unbalance. My trekking poles come in handy – at least I think so – as I use them for support. Nothing but downhill for the rest of the day and this awkward dance creates a reaction from apparently distressed tendons… Knees start to complain and my itinerary will drop elevation for at least one more day. Momentary panic, hesitation, then decision: full descent is not going to happen. I spend the night in Dos d’Ane and will take a bus to Cilaos the next day.

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Moral & mental status: pinched. Uncertain. Humble pie’d. Annoyed. A consolation was drinking some rum and laughing with local I stayed with while enjoying the ever present, spectacular surroundings. I spend the best part of day 2 in that bus and the rest of it to find a gite where I could stay at least the next two nights. There I would leave unwanted load behind as I seek to hike long, steep uphills for training. Reality check #1: got to increase power in those legs. The objective for day 3 is to at least reach the Refuge de la Caverne Dufour, altitude 2470m. My backpack now weighs only 8kg, I leave Cilaos town at 6:30am and arrive at 11:00am. General sensations: OK. I push on towards Piton des Neiges. At 12:00am, above the clouds in the blazing sun, the camelback says deal with the 500ml water bottle from now on. Sun protection status: a thin sunscreen layer and forgotten hat. Food: one energy bar, mixed nuts and 250ml of chocolate/ coconut milk. Alright. Must have done a good 1500m continuous elevation gain now. Unknown territory, the heat is nearly scorching, there is barely anyone on the trail and I’m starting to feel a bit funny. I stop for lunch (the mixed nuts) and decide to go down. Too bad for the summit in one go, so it’s humble pie for me again. At least I “dominate” the clouds from here and knowing I will be back helps me get through that unending descent. 

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Day 4: I rest and pack my stuff from the hostel to go bivouac for the night – enough of all these unplanned and expensive hostel nights. I book a bed at the high refuge for day 5, from which I will hike to the summit of Piton des Neiges for sunrise like everybody else. Not having to hike down the same 1000m+ that day feels nothing short of luxurious. Sunset and dusk are out of this world, I eat my canned food and hit the bed early. 

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PanoramaXs

Day 6 is a 4am wakeup call and off we go quick-smart. In the last days I’ve met several people on the trail, so it’s pleasant to have familiar faces around while setting off at night. It’s not so cold, occasionally we’re enveloped by clouds, and within 40 minutes the dark night is ending, pierced by blue, purple and orange tones to our right and then behind us as the trail swerves towards the summit. This period of time between dark and sunlight feels surprisingly long, in a good way. Wind is blowing at the top, the temperature is low enough to numb the fingers. No matter; we reached 3070m and the show is about to start…

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Here I’m wishing I could double myself, to both take the photographs and be fully present, unobstructed by the device. At the same time I am absolutely content with the situation and can’t believe how quickly people start to leave, although I always appreciate having people in the images for a sense of scale and a touch of humanity: something that shows the air is breathable and that you can indeed be there if you work for it. Soon enough the bright golden colours start to fade, the day settles in to reveal previously hidden details, like the tents of some courageous climbers who slept at the top. 

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I could sit there and stay hypnotised by the dance of clouds above and below, but it’s time to go down. Satisfaction is high but I will now leave Cilaos for the coast, from which I will do another hike or two. The trip has been both great and strange – nebulous – but in hindsight, a necessary exercise. I thought I was stronger and faster than this, I took too much stuff with me (including the tent I used only once) and that backpack needs to change. The 50-Euro 60L pack from Decathlon can hold 20kg, but is not designed to be comfortable with that for days and days… Hence the next training focus: power and speed. That 2.4kg camera (+ extra lens in the backpack) which I love is destroying my shoulders and obstructs my view: not going to work on expedition so that’s going to change, too. During 7 Summits Africa we will have porters for our food, but we must carry our own clothes, gear and water. The days of light daypacks, while someone else carries your 15 remaining kgs, are over…

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All photos are available for purchase or as prints. Please get in touch by writing me on xgh.koenig@gmail.com 

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