Behind The Scenes: Nicolas Rakotopare Chasing Volcanos

The news of a volcano erupting should be enough to make most people head in the opposite direction fast. Very fast. However, on Reunion Island out in the Indian Ocean where the Piton de la Fournaise comes to life more regularly than most volcanos, the local reaction is a little different. For travelling adventure photographer, Staff Pro Nicolas Rakotopare, seeing this amazing demonstration of the Earth's power as child set him on a path to try to and capture it with his photography.

We'll hand you over to Nicolas for his honest and at times humerous behind-the-scenes account of his own chasing of the volcanic eruption on Reunion Island, accompanied by the images he captured:

 
“The volcano erupted… let’s go and check it out!”

This is everyone's reaction on Reunion Island when the Piton de La Fournaise erupts. The eruptions are usually contained within the same area and do not pose any threat to the population of the island.  It might cross the road and you will have to rebuild certain sections but it’s expected. The timing and extent of eruptions can be approximately predicted thanks to the scientific monitoring and studying this particular volcano.

I witnessed my first eruption on this island as a kid in 1998, while on holiday from Madagascar where I lived at the time. Then again in 2010, when I attended high school on Reunion Island but since then I have missed all of them. Sometimes only by a few hours - taking off to fly to Australia only to land and find a text from my dad telling me the volcano just erupted!

This time was different. I was so stoked that I was finally on the island with all my gear ready. Soon after news broke that the volcano erupted one of my best friends called me asking if we wanted to carpool to go there and see it. Of course, I was keen (and truth be told, I did not have a car!) so I replied, “Yes! Let’s go tomorrow!” What I did not know is that there was a delay in me receiving the text and what I thought would be tomorrows plan would actually end up being tonight…

Here I was, at 9 pm, watching a documentary about Vincent Munier and Laurent Ballesta photographing the wildlife of Antarctica and well and truly deep in my 3rd glass of red wine when I hear the doorbell. Who could it be at this time? When I saw my friends face on the intercom, the realisation hit me that she might have meant tonight. The decision was taken that since my bag was ready I should just get changed and by the time we get to the volcano around midnight the wine would have left my system and I would not be at danger of falling off the cliffs - safety first when around active volcanos!

 

After a two-hour drive and an hour wait at police roadblock – they now have to regulate the hundreds of people wanting to see the eruption, which is a good thing as before this it was absolute chaos! - we got to the nearest parking spot and started hiking towards the volcano. 

It’s a bit hard to describe the lay of the land around this volcano without actually being there, but to make it simple no one is allowed in the near vicinity of the eruption for obvious safety reasons but you can get stunning views from the rim of the caldera if you are prepared to put in the effort and walk for a few hours. Which is what we did, and I was so pumped the whole time - not only because of the wine!

You could see the red glow in the sky even before you got to see the actual eruption, and with the milky way above it, it made for an incredible light show. There is something exhilarating about walking towards an eruption, at more than 2000m above sea level, in the middle of the night, with your gear packed and ready to capture these moments and create the images you’ve had in mind for so long.

 

I set up for my first time-lapse shot about 2km from the eruption itself to capture the clouds above it and the stars, and worked my way around different angles. The good thing about shooting time-lapse is that all you can do while the camera is running is kick back and relax, drink some hot coffee from your thermos and be in awe looking at the red glow and the millions of stars above it, feeling very small.

Just thinking this whole island started like that, a little underwater volcano that became bigger and bigger with eruption after eruption to finally merge with a nearby volcano (Piton des Neiges) and make up what is now Reunion Island is mind-boggling. By the time we got back to the car it was nearly 9 a.m. after a whole night shooting topped off with seeing the sunrise above the clouds.

The eruption decided that it was going to keep going for a while this time, so a few days later I made another trip to go back and shoot more video and time-lapse, and this time to share the adventure with my parents. Once more, I spent a great night shooting and watching the sunrise on the Piton de la Fournaise. The magic of this natural phenomenon never ceases to amaze. It’s a unique experience so wherever you are in the world if you have the chance to witness an active volcano do it. You won’t regret it!

 

You can see the time-lapse images and videos from this adventure here.

Follow Nicolas on Instagram here: www.instagram.com/lerako

...and on Facebook here: www.facebook.com/nicolasrakotoparephotography

If you have any questions about chasing volcanos, you can ask them his on Twitter here: www.twitter.com/rqko

 

EXPLORE GEAR USED IN THIS STORY

 

For this project, Nicolas used a Canon 7D mark II & 7D, with Canon 10-18mm and Tamron 17-50mm lenses. He keeps these protected in the XL Pro ICU. The Sukha pack gives him the space to carry extra clothing and gear to stay warm and safe while shooting volcanos all night!