It’s an all-day affair to fly the 150 miles from Mayotte to Moroni, the capital of the Comoros, as I have to go via Réunion. I’m still trying to work out why. (Unless its name demands it?) It’s even more frustrating when the plane flies directly overhead of Mayotte on the second leg. Mine is not to reason why.
The immigration officer is surprisingly friendly and addresses me in English. She then offers to find me a driver. Well that’s a first, an immigration officer trying to sell me services. Reassuringly, after my refusal of her offer, my guide is waiting for me in the baggage hall. It’s not Mohammed, as intimated on my travel paperwork but Omar, who fills me in on the latest island happenings.
The young man who has arrived on the plane with me is scrambling into funeral gear, as his father was murdered by his brother yesterday. The brother had been sending money home from France and was not very happy to see how it had been spent when he came home for vacation last week. After killing his brother he then hanged himself, so it’s a double funeral. His widow was on the plane with me too. It’s just like the Nollywood movies I watched in West Africa.
Omar drives incredibly carefully, as everyone else’s driving is a problem it seems, but his English is good. And suddenly most people are happy to speak a little English. Perhaps it’s because they are very Francophobe at the moment - there are ongoing tensions over France’s retention of Mayotte. Omar tells me that Mohammed will be with us tomorrow.
And I’ve come full circle hotel wise. This one is reminiscent of Kinshasa; it’s not a good idea to look too hard at anything, especially the corners and the shower. My safe doesn’t work, the Wi-Fi crawls (there’s no 3G or 4G data at all) and the dinner buffet is cheap, but nasty. Re-heated chips, rice and chicken. A cocktail would have eased my suffering, but this is a Moslem country and the hotel is dry.
Crime levels are low, but it is advised to take the usual precautions against pick-pocketing and mugging and not to walk alone at night on beaches or in town centres. I didn't have any problems.
According to The World Bank, the living standard of almost half the population falls below the poverty line .
I took a guide with a car round Moroni, the capital and north and south, exploring. There is some stunning scenery, volcanoes, glorious beaches and a lot of litter.
Much to my surprise the tiny airport features a business lounge. An online reviewer has given it 1/10. I’m surprised anyone actually makes it that far. The queues inch along. And that’s if you can work out which ones to join. The check in procedures are excruciatingly slow and the clerks seem bewildered. There is no sign for departures at all. The immigration officials’ booths are labelled 'Information'. And there is one scanner operating for the security check, with one man feeding it, extremely slowly. It’s no surprise at all that the plane is delayed by two hours, while they load the luggage. I spend most of the time talking flying with an Ethiopian Airways captain. He’s brought out a Hajj charter and is returning as a passenger.
Finally, we take off. It’s the end of another epic trip.
I've been told my guide to visit Comoros is called Mohammed. I meet one Mohammed fleetingly and accidentally, but it seems he’s leading an English speaking group today. This is an absolute deluge of tourists for the Comoros. Omar, who met me at the airport, as I fly in from Mayotte, informs me that he (Omar) is to drive me (although he also tells me he’s actually the chief guide), as a tall young man in check shirt, baseball cap and jeans bowls up. Omar says that this is my Mohammed and he will be my guide. His English isn’t great, but he has enough for a very basic conversation.
The traffic is terrible and Omar is exceedingly cautious with his driving . At one point we actually reach 30 kph. To be fair, discretion is definitely the better part of valour here. There are wrecked vehicles round every bend. However, he also gets lost once and there are several near misses on left hand turn manoeuvres.
The main island of Grand Comore is similar (unsurprisingly) to Mayotte. It’s more obviously volcanic, considerably poorer, and absolutely filthy. The beaches and river beds are almost obscured by litter. Moroni is a cluster of corrugated metal dwellings, generally unpainted, several sections of land fenced off and signed to say they are to be developed, a large number of unfinished concrete buildings (including several mosques), a few Arab style edifices around the medina and central square and some modern official constructions, such as the presidents' palaces and the parliament houses (mainly provided by the Chinese).
We visit the museum, where I tell My Mohammed what the signs say and the highlight is a stuffed coelacanth. I’ve never seen one before. The lower floor is mainly devoted to the Grand Mariage. This multi-ceremony event lasts more than a week. Families save for it for years and can spend their life savings on providing meals and other celebrations for the entire village. Omar says it is expected of every member of society at least once in their life. He also tell me that he isn’t ready for it yet. He has six children. My Mohammed chirps that he has no intention of getting married anyway. He’s a twenty-one year old DJ, part time, and very happy with his way of life.
We then saunter through the old market and medina. The clothes here are also similar in design to those in Mayotte –again it’s an almost entirely Moslem population- but here the women are less stylish and the men more likely to wear Arab garb, with embroidered skull caps. Most people are very friendly. They all have a greeting and a smile, unless you take out your camera.
The women are even more hostile to photography. I’m not even allowed to point the camera at their produce. My Mohammed explains (via Omar and much giggling) that they shouted at him to say if he wants me to have a souvenir photograph from the Comoros he should take down his jeans. Some of the men are more amenable and a few volunteer to pose, especially in the huge central market, which is hustle and bustle and amazingly colourful. The medina is quietly charming, in a dilapidated crumbling fashion. The ancient Friday mosque is a distinctive and unique landmark, curving in front of the port. Now, the sights of Moroni are exhausted.
We proceed extremely slowly south to the cliff where 350 women committed suicide, rather than submit to pirates and slavery. Beyond is a (very) ruined sultan’s palace, basalt beaches, ylang-ylang plantations (another still) and the Marabou Lake, where you can make sacrifices to get rid of your evil spirits. Finally, up to the top of the ridge for the view of the lava flow from Mount Karthali, the largest active volcano in the world, at Singani.
My camera isn’t getting much exercise in Comoros, what with the women refusing portraits, the litter spoiling the scenery and the FCO advising visitors not to photograph official buildings anyway, because of anti-French sentiment. It seems that the president has just recently imprisoned the whole of the opposition party, who were objecting to his recent referendum which purported to confirm that he should remain in power beyond his current term. Riots and dissent are highly possible. Omar says not to worry, he’s sure he can influence anyone who objects to my photography. Nevertheless, I’m not keen on risking being carted off to jail.
Back at the hotel I’m asked out for a drink by the other Mohammed's tourist group of six, who have crossed our path during the day. Yes, a proper drink, in a bar up the road, where they kindly send out for tonic. There are four ladies (all imbibing), two Americans, one Australian, one Kuwaiti. Two of them are called Julie, so I have a 50% chance of getting the name right. They complain that their Mohammed has talked only about himself (showing them 25 pictures of his wife) and politics (how much he hates the French). It seems that Omar was the better option – I may have to resist attempts to poach him.
Today, we’re almost in convoy with the other Mohammed group, exploring the island. Omar is absent and has brought in another driver for me, as his wife’s father has died. I’m not sure how the arrangements were made, but My Mohammed seems to be summoning him from the midst of the hotel hedges. Hassan doesn’t speak a word of English, or French either it seems. Mohammed and I muddle through in Franglais. My French is as good as his English, which isn’t saying much. But I’m now convinced I have much the better deal guide wise. Mohammed tries exceptionally hard to make sure I see everything I’m supposed to in the Comoros. He has learned the programme off by heart. It’s a little disconcerting when he tries to stroke my face a couple of times, but I assume he’s only helpfully moving the hair out of my eyes.
The scenery today is sublime. We’re on the other side of Karthali, with views down to the coast, more lava flows and an ever extending vista of palm trees. There’s the High Plateau of Diboini, with seven volcanic cones and a whole string of stunning beaches. Surprisingly, they are white coral sand, admirably framed by the dark basalt. And thankfully, on the whole, the beaches of Comoros are clean, though the same can’t be said for the backdrops. One delightful cove, Chomoni, is signposted – Une Plage Propre. There’s more ylang-ylang, and a few mongoose lemurs.
Possibly the highlight is the Dragon Rocks, which really do look like the backbone of a dragon, head rearing. They are perched on the crest of a cliff, looking out to the volcanoes, across the lagoon and over to minuscule Turtle Island. There are fishermen working with nets and buckets. My Mohammed helps me scramble to the top and shows me the best view points. The other Mohammed has stayed in his minibus on the road and seems disinclined to do anything. His group eventually mutiny, having seen me up top and ascend too. Their Mohammed follows lethargically. Australian Julie’s voice wafts across on the breeze. ‘He’s not a guide. He’s an idiot.’
Their group does have very nattily dressed driver, Francois, braces, cropped trousers, little kipper tie, fancy boots and a small goatee. He’s also enraged, because no-one has provided lunch for him. Mohammed II has mopped up his group’s leftovers. (I’m sitting eating with my two men). It’s all quite exciting.
The last stops are a thousand year old hollow baobab tree (very similar to the one in Boma, I definitely have come full circle) and a beautiful. supposedly bottomless aquamarine salt lake in what looks like another caldera. Mohammed tells me it was created by the marabou, who submerged a village in there, as no-one would give him a drink. As Kuwaiti Ayesha observes, ‘That’s quite a harsh punishment’.
Up early to wave my new friends off. They’re heading for the other islands. I’m very sad to see them go. They have been welcome and fun company for the end of my journey. There haven’t been many other tourists on the way and hardly any that speak English. Omar is taking me to my beach hotel today. My phone is showing three calls from Mohammed. He says he misses me a lot. ‘Oh dear!
My last two days are to be spent in what is described as the best hotel on the island, on one of the prettiest beaches, just south of Moroni. Except that the fates have conspired against me. After all the weeks of dry weather it’s now bucketing down. (Incidentally, the overly optimistic weather forecast summary says ‘Mainly sunny’.) The streets of Moroni have become a river. The hotel is called the Golden Tulip Hotel and Spa. So I decide to have a massage to compensate for lack of beach time. The receptionist looks bemused. There’s no spa. And my stomach is twitching. An upset is probably overdue; I have been in Africa nearly six weeks.
Reasonable weather – some cloud, a little rain. Good enough to spend most of the day on the beach. The hotel makes a decent but incredibly strong caipirinha. The effects sneak up on you slowly. So the room is spinning when I make it back – I only had two with my farewell leaving dinner lobster. There’s ice in my drink, so I ask them what water it’s made from. ‘The machine’ the girl says. No wonder my stomach is dodgy.
Naturally, the sun is shining more consistently on my last day, but I manage a morning on the lovely little beach. It’s lively today, the fishermen are dragging in their outrigger canoes. Then I’m heading for the tiny airport and home,
Mayotte was incorporated into various sultanates and invaded by the Portuguese, before finally being sold to the French, by a Malagasy sultan in 1841. Together with Comoros, the islands were known as Mayotte and Dependencies.
The département status of Mayotte is recent, and the region remains, by a significant margin, the poorest in France. Mayotte is nevertheless much more prosperous than the other countries of the Mozambique Channel, making it a major destination for illegal immigration.
As mentioned above, Mayotte is surrounded by a typical tropical coral reef. It consists of a large outer barrier reef, enclosing one of the world's largest and deepest lagoons, followed by a fringing reef, interrupted by many mangroves. All Mayotte waters are included in the National Marine Park, and many places are natural reserves. So water sports are the order of the day. Diving, snorkelling, or looking out for marine life: whales, dolphins and turtles.
There are beautiful beaches and some great French cooking - at a price. It's an increasingly niche destination.
A two hour domestic flight in a Dreamliner (it's going on to Paris), from Reunion back across Madagascar (I can see my old haunt Nosy Be beneath us) to Mayotte. I’m reading the airline magazine and I’ve discovered, to my astonishment, that Mayotte consists of more than one island and we’re actually landing on the smaller of the main two. It’s called Petit-Terre or Pamanzi, and the other is Grand-Terre or Maore, which can only be reached by ferry. None of this was mentioned on my itinerary. Nevertheless, it’s a good way to begin another adventure.
The traffic is heavy and we have to queue some time for the fifteen minute crossing to the capital, Mamoudzou, before heading for my hotel on the southerly tip of the main island. It’s already obvious that I’m back in Africa proper. Mayotte has only been a French departement since 2011 and the infrastructure is way behind that of Réunion. The roads are poor and it’s a little unkempt. But it has heaps more atmosphere. This is a Moslem country and the women dress accordingly, but with ultimate style. The prints are bright and striking, the jewellery chic and the headdresses ornate and varied. The make-up, for the most part is also immaculate, but it’s commonplace also to smear your face with yellow sandalwood. This is considered a sign of beauty, as well as contributing to the quality of one’s skin.
It’s dark, when I arrive at my hotel, which sounds promising in the write-up. The restaurant is open air, on the beach, waves lapping and my bungalow faces the sea surrounded by tall palm trees and baobabs. The hotel website also promises a plethora of turtles and lemurs.
I’m up early in search of the advertised fauna, but there's no sign of animal life. I’m met by my guide, Hanifah, who informs me that the lemurs like to sleep in and they will definitely be around later. Now, an island tour. The countryside is dominated by a huge pyramidal volcanic peak, Mont Choungui, and banana plantations and there are a succession of views across turquoise bays. It’s a real shame that the lovely beaches and roadsides are strewn with litter.
There’s nothing of huge importance to see, but it’s a fun outing. The driver, Rachidi, is cynically amusing. He tells me, in French, that he has four children and is a Moslem, but hasn’t got married yet, as he is still trying to learn how to get on with their mother. ‘C’est tres difficile…’ . There are restored original style mud houses, complete with graffiti, at Banga, beneath the pyramid peak. Musical Plage is renowned for a gigantic baobab tree and named because this is where the Madagascan immigrants first brought music to the Moslem population. It is indeed musical. There are sounds of drumming emanating from a house across the road, so we wander in and are invited to listen whilst a band rehearse their forthcoming gigs.
Down the road the the Salt Museum, where the ladies still scrape up the top layer of salty soil, left by the tide retreating across the flats. This is then added to water and filtered (I remember doing this experiment at school) before being evaporated in flat pans over log fires. We stop at a corner café for a peek in. Rachidi’s sisters and mother all live around here he says (so he has a house on the other side of the island) and there’s a very famous singer (wearing a leather beret) drinking coffee, I’m told. So I dutifully take his photograph.
Next, a botanical garden (sadly it’s not really flowering season) and lunch in the ylang-ylang plantation area (the flowers are plucked on Saturdays and distilled on Sundays.) The final stop is at Sada, the second city and ex-capital, where gorgeously attired ladies weave palms to make idiosyncratic hats and baskets. They are adamant that they won’t have their photos taken. This is the response around most of the island - it’s frustrating when they look so incredible.
Back at the hotel Hanifah is proved right. The lemurs appear in abundance. They are not indigenous, they are the brown variety, imported from Madagascar. The hotel website has suggested that guests encourage them with bananas. However, confusingly there are signs posted warning that they should not be fed and referring to them as maquis. Anyway, Rachidi ignores the latter and they venture pop-eyed along the branches of the trees to retrieve the papaya he has bought, the juice dribbling down their chins. There are also scores of fruit bats (flying foxes) hanging above the lemurs.
As suggested, the hotel is idyllically situated. It’s sad that the service doesn’t match. I struggled with French attitude in Réunion, but here it seems that if I am stupid enough not to be fluent in French then I deserve to be ignored. Menus are banged down. I’m tutted at, mocked if I don’t understand and generally treated like a gross intruder. I’m eating dinner with a couple from Hamburg, Barbara and Fred, who confirm that they are receiving similar treatment from most of the staff, even though Barbara’s French is very proficient. I’ve heard of behaviour like this historically in mainland France, but never encountered it myself. It’s an odd way to treat paying guests. It’s also even more expensive than Réunion. Set dinner - 35 euros.
I’m imagining a quiet cruise around the lagoon, basking in the sun and admiring the views (another one boasting to be the world’s largest but I believe that’s New Caledonia). What I’ve got is speedboat trip zooming along with eleven French twenty-somethings. The boat’s alternative existence is as a dive boat, so the seats are in two columns facing forwards. I’m sitting pillion style (which is not at all comfortable) behind a bearded young man called Julian.
The boat captain speaks to me in reasonable English to tell me that he has no intention of repeating everything he says for me, as he hasn’t the time. In fact he doesn’t say anything else in English at all. That’s okay, I won’t find the time for a tip either. Needless to say I can’t follow much of what he says, but I get the general gist and he certainly hasn’t mentioned life jackets.
We spend most of the journey bouncing over the waves (it’s a fresh breeze today, as the forecasts say) searching for whales and dolphins (les baleines et les dauphins). The whales and their calves are very easy to spot. After we have pursued a mother and calf for some time they obtain their revenge by emerging right alongside the boat. The calf and I are engaging eye to eye. I’m relieved they haven’t tried to come right on-board.
Les dauphins are more elusive, but are eventually discovered, offering their usual fascinating aerial displays around the prow of the craft, before the formation loops away. Another case of so long and thanks for the fish...
We visit a couple of pretty islots, with classic white sands, before finishing with some snorkelling. It’s a pretty drift reef, but most of the twenty-somethings prefer to stay aboard and smoke. I don’t think they want to get their designer gear wet. I’m not asking what they’re smoking - it’s roll ups. My shorts have gone AWOL, which is annoying and no-one is owning up. I don’t suppose the beautiful people have pinched them - they’re only Dorothy Perkins. Perhaps they’re still on the islot. Unfortunately, my bungalow key is in the back pocket.
There are indeed plenty of turtles out in the bay, just in front of my bungalow. They are happy to ignore me as they, and their attendant scavenger remora fish, feed. There’s also a very rewarding little reef 100 metres or so off the shore. All in all, it’s an excellent beach on which to park my sunbed. I’m adopted by a group of young policemen; ‘Cops on the Beach’ they say, flirting and posing for selfies with me, in front of their girlfriends.
Back on the ferry to Petit-Terre and the airport. It’s the end of the holidays in Mayottte and the first day back at school, so I’ve had to leave early, in case the roads are congested. There are indeed some grands bouchons. This is partly because some of the roads are closed. The French education minister is visiting to supervise the big day.
I’m on my way to my last stop this trip, the Comoros Islands. Mayotte is actually part of the Comoros group, but I’m routed back to Réunion (the other side of Madagascar) and out again. I inquired about this when I got my itinerary and I still don’t have a satisfactory answer as to why I can’t go direct. There are three flights to Comoros on the departure boards, some of them with the same airline. Not for the first time I’m bemused and not a little frustrated. Moroni, here I come - eventually.
Read more about Mayotte here.
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