My alarm played it’s melodic tune next to my head as I felt around for my phone with my eyes still shut. Eventually, I felt the smooth glass screen and squinted at the time, still not sure where I was and why it was still pitch black. It read, 0425, and I remembered that I was going hiking and had to be at my friend Todd’s boat at 0500. We had to start early because clouds cover the mountains every day at 10am, so a 5am start is recommended if you want to see anything. I quickly made scrambled eggs with leftover hamburger, a side of coffee, and hit the road.
Todd was waiting for me as I pulled into the parking lot next to the boat on which he is crewing. He is 61, and retired, sailing around the world on EQ2, a catamaran from Michigan. He raced maxi yachts, was a setter in volleyball, rode his bike across the USA with his wife, and loves mountain biking. He hopped into the car, ready for our adventure.
We started south along the N1 highway, working our way towards the road that led into the mountains. It started to rain, not enough to have the wipers on consistantly, but enough to be annoying. So much for our 5am start providing clear skies.
We turned on to N5, the road that leads to Cilaos. N5 was nicely paved winding road, with hairpin turns, cliffs on either side, and a steep grade. We were unlucky enough to be navigating it after a rain and before they could clear the roads so rocks varying in size from pebbles to boulders littered the asphalt. They fell from the cliffs, and fortunately, none fell on us, but I did have to weave through them. Some were unavoidable, but none big enough to seriously damage the car.
After the adventure on N5 and driving exclusively in 1st and 2nd gear for an hour, we arrived in Cilaos, a mountain town with quaint, colorful houses, hiking trails, and bakeries and cafés everywhere. The road we took dead ended close to the trailhead, so we decided to begin our hike there. I opened my door and realized that my shorts and t-shirt were inadequate for the chilly, wet morning. Fortunately, Todd was better prepared and had an extra jacket. I put that on, and wished he had brought and extra hat and gloves too. We decided to attempt the hike despite the poor weather since we drove two hours to get there, but agreed that we would turn back if one of us got too cold. We meandered down the road and reached the trail. It was well marked, and we hiked down the path.
After 15 minutes, the rain turned into a drizzle, and after half an hour we stopped to put our jackets away. The trail was beautiful, although we were in a cloud so the visibility was restricted to 100 feet or so. We could make out faint outlines of peaks around us, but had to use our imaginations to unveil them. We soon saw La Chapelle, an unusual rock formation, and stopped to take some pictures from a distance.
Soon, we were scrambling over rocks in the riverbed, losing the trail, and regaining it. We crossed the river four times, sometimes taking off our shoes and wading across, and sometimes jumping from rock to rock. The river ran brown, probably due to the rain. I read that if I wanted to go all the way in, which I did, I must approach from the left side of the river. That was easier said than done, as the path was difficult to find and I was considering swimming the rest of the way. Eventually we picked up the path behind a boulder against the cliff on the left side, and since I had gotten sick of taking my shoes off and putting them back on, I hiked it barefoot. We followed the path until it dead ended into the river, right outside the opening to La Chapelle. I took off my shirt and waded into the river.
I entered the gap in the rocks, in awe of the massive volcanic rock formations. There were many colors, green from moss, black rock, white rock, and even orange. The contrast was the best part. I quickly grew tired of kicking boulders that I could not see in the murky water, so I began to swim an inefficient variety of breast stroke with one hand holding my GoPro. The water was freezing, and reminded me of my childhood when my friend Matt Stahl and I tried to be the first swimmers in Lake Erie for the summer. One year, we swam on April 1st. Ohio is freezing on April 1.
I didn’t want to be in the water for very long, but I was on a mission to get to the end of the trail – the waterfall that fed the river. I swam hard, but the current kept me from reaching the end. I was able to see the roaring water and tried to take a few pictures, but photography is hard while swimming so they came out blurry.
I turned back, marveling at nature’s magnificence, and savored the warmth if the patches of rock between the areas where I had to swim.
Todd wisely decided to skip the swim and volunteered to watch our packs. I rejoined him and we headed back up the trail. We were in a valley, so there was a lot of uphill on the return trip. Our thighs were burning from the seven mile hike when we returned to the car. Luckily, some of the clouds lifted and we enjoyed spectacular views at the end (not pictured).