Mayotte was incorporated into various sultanates 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 department 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.
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.
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.
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