News: The Comoros Islands

Posted: 8 January 2019

Estelle has just returned from a trip to the Comoros. Here is her report on the trip;

The Comoros islands you said? If you have never heard of this destination, don’t worry, you are far from being the only one. Formed by a cluster of 4 tiny islands, the Comoros is squeezed just in between the so called island continent of Madagascar and the mainland of Africa itself.

After an 11 hour journey and a connection in the hectic hub of Addis Ababa, the edge of the Grande Comore (the biggest of the Comoros islands) suddenly takes shape as we gradually approached to land. The colours of the bordering waters, moving shades of blue and emerald, contrasting with the black volcanic rocks which cover the island caught my attention. I was welcomed by a suffocating humid tropical heat wave as soon as I got off the plane, along with big smiling Comorians on the tarmac shouting “Karibu!” (welcome).

I didn’t know exactly what to expect from this adventure, but somehow, I associated the Comoros to my previous experience in Madagascar and expected to find a similar status of poverty and chaos in the streets of the capital. However, my first visit in the busy streets of the Moroni proved I definitely had the wrong end of the stick. Whilst meandering from the central market “volo volo” (literally: beautiful and new) to the Medina, I found myself thinking how peaceful life around me was. No apparent tension, and while I could feel a certain curiosity from the locals who barely see any overseas visitors, I was certainly not looked down at. The women, covered from head to toe except for faces and hands which some have tattooed, do not allow their pictures to be taken - this brings bad luck, and sometimes remind visitors to act with respect. After a short walk zigzagging through old-fashioned cars and stalls selling mouth-watering red tuna, I made my way to the heart of the capital, populated by 50,000 inhabitants. A massive carved wood gate shows the entrance of the Medina, which years ago was the district inhabited by nobles. Surprisingly, streets here are incredibly quiet, clean and steeped in sunlight. It feels like being in a preserved oasis, and yet so close to the outside hustle and bustle. The buildings are made with ground coral mixed with egg whites and jewellers in their shops at the bottom floors are proud to show their works of art made of gold and various precious stones. Wandering along a seemingly ordinary path on a Friday, I came across a majestic Mosque dating from 1427, the oldest one, and suddenly realized why the streets were so empty - all religious men had been dispatched into the country’s 115 mosques. I ended my stroll by the frenetic newly built port, where various container ships were being loaded with vanilla, cloves and ylang-ylang flowers, the main exports to Europe and important drivers of the local economy. Nearby, kids are joyfully jumping from the small wrecked fishing boats moored within the port walls into the opaque dirty water. A little further away, dozens of men, of all ages, gathered in the shade of plane and palm trees in a little park. They are waiting for a boss to come and offer them some work. Despite the high rate of unemployment which can appear alarming, the majority of Comorians I saw seemed to be happy despite the economic challenges they face every day.

Leaving the buzzing Moroni behind, my local guide Doubou dropped me off at the basic domestic airport located a few kilometres away for my short flight to Mohéli, the smallest of the islands. The organisation inside brings a smile to my face: bags are weighed on old-fashioned scales with lead weights and then thoroughly checked by hand. After the customs gate, I perceive the growing excitement of my guide who was about to take his first plane journey to Mohéli. With its plastic chairs, three air-conditioners and couple of TV’s broadcasting a French news channel on a loop, this all-green room reminds me of a GP’s waiting room.

I will gradually learn that patience is a state of mind in the Comoros, and that there is nothing else to do than just to adopt their very relaxed and peaceful way of life.

After a 25-minute flight, the jet engine stops purring and we land on a short runway built in between the turquoise waters of the ocean and what I would define as the jungle. The setting was reminiscent of a scene from Jurassic Park. Within ten minutes, Doubou and myself were left completely alone in the nature, waiting for a driver to pick us up. The tone is set – after a two-hour drive on the only sealed road going up and down the island, it becomes clear to me that Mohéli is without contest the raw nature island par excellence of the Comoros. A true haven of peace with a few villages built amongst a countless number of banana, coconut and clove trees, far from all Western commodities. That first night, I stayed in a very basic bungalow overlooking the famous beach of Itsamia, run exclusively by the local community. Here, there is no continuous running water nor electricity and a veil is used as a partition in the room. I was caught by surprise by the kindness of the villagers who all came to talk to me by turn to ask advice on how to improve their current community-based tourism activities. In Mohéli, eco-guides are trained by a local association in order to study and preserve local wildlife from human abuse but also to guide the tourists. Itsamia beach is famed for being an important breeding place for the giant green sea turtles almost all year-round and when it is pitch black, it is not rare to get the chance to observe these 1.5m  green reptiles climb up the beach to lay their eggs in the warm sand.

Another day passes and I am due to go south to the Laka lodge, a really comfortable property situated on the beautiful sands of Nioumachoua, renowned for its protected marine park and excellent opportunities for diving. In fact, visibility can be as much as 25 meters and the water temperature around a balmy 27 degrees all year round. There is a huge diversity of fishes, corals, manta rays, turtles, whales and dolphins to observe. En route to this little hidden paradise, in the middle of nowhere, a hawker is selling skewers with little mammals, which turn out to be hedgehog – a typical street-food that I am not sure many others could experience elsewhere. The Laka lodge not only offers sea and diving excursions but can also organise guided hikes around the island. As I became more accustomed by the day with the rough tropical climate, I took every opportunity to venture into the wild, and felt a bit like Indiana Jones! A first challenging hike through the lush forest and the ylang-ylang trees led me to an altitude of approximately 2,000m, to the very high nest of the endangered Roussettes de Livingstone, the world’s second largest bats, and here they can be easily observed. In the evening, brown lemurs can be spotted in the surroundings of the Laka lodge – lemurs being endemic to only Comoros and more well-known Madagascar. I have also been lucky enough to dig out and help 17 new born baby turtles crawling to the ocean the following morning, a memorable and completely unexpected experience to close this chapter in Mohéli.

After a last splendid sunset, it was time to fly to Anjouan, the third and last island of my adventure. A 12 seat propeller plane transported me to Mutsamudu, the capital of the island. I am overcome by the views of the incredible landscapes as we drive to the centre of Anjouan, overlooking verdant forests and the shimmering ocean. I am pleasantly surprised to smell delicate scents of ylang-ylang, vanilla and cloves everywhere around the island. Anjouan is a green and mountainous island, with less emphasis on wildlife and nature compared to Mohéli, and I personally felt that the people were even more friendly, laid-back and proud of being Anjouanais. Doubou confessed to me that women from Anjouan are renowned to be the most beautiful ones in the archipelago and I suspect this is in part due to the white paste made from sandalwood dust and crushed coral that they daily apply on their face to protect their skin from the burning sun. The religion is also practiced in a more moderate way here, and although 98% of the Comorians are of Muslim faith, two churches can be found…in Anjouan. The St Terese Cathedral located in Mutsamudu is run by the order of sisters founded by Mother Theresa. Other than the nuns, there are no Catholics on the islands, and Protestants join the Catholics for a Mass lead by a priest, who visits twice a week from Madagascar. Other than that, Anjouan is also renowned for its fabulous cuisine, mainly based on locally grown vegetables, tasty fresh fish and other delights from the sea.

Following this short but highly restorative stay in Anjouan, I found my way back to where I began, Moroni, for a final expedition, an ascent of the highest active volcano Mount Karthala, also the highest point of the Comoros. After a steady 5 hour climb accompanied by plenty of colourful parrots and thousands of butterflies, we eventually arrived well above the ocean at the crater located at 2,361m. The sun beat down ferociously, but the scenery was truly awe-inspiring. The landscape is somewhat lunar in nature and the absolute silence is pure. That night, my guides and I set up our wild camp at 1,700m and prepared our dinner on the bonfire, right under the well-visible Milky Way and what seemed like a world away from the rest of humanity.

Back in Moroni the following day, I took a tour of the island, stopping by some natural wonders, such as the pristine Salt Lake which is supposedly bottomless according to local myth, the largest baobab tree in the country, a 700-year-old tree that used to serve as a prison, and the museum displaying the dried prehistorical Coelacanth fish that was discovered alive off the Comoros islands in 1938. On my final day, whilst staring into yet another glorious sunset, that the Comoros is one of these rare destinations that offer such breath-taking landscapes with the contrast between the turquoise water of the Indian Ocean, the black volcanic rocks on the soil and the many shades of green emanating from the lush trees. On this final evening, I was amazed to see up close the stealthy flight of giant bats silhouetted against the night sky, the way I usually see seagulls flying by the North Sea.

Although the Comoros islands are located right next to Madagascar, the experience one will get is rather different. I have been positively struck by two main things: the safety and the effort to preserve the nature and wildlife. This is one of the poorest countries in the world but certainly, also the one I felt the safest to travel in. Comorians are extremely friendly and show interest in learning how to welcome travellers in a better way and enhance their experience in the country. Admittedly, the islands have not much to offer in terms of cultural sightseeing such as museums, parks and statues, but are fabulous for adventurous travellers in search of peace and tranquillity in raw nature. As you will have gathered, all three islands are different – despite the same culture but you will clearly feel the differences in terms of landscapes, local culture and activities offered. With only 13,000 foreign visitors a year (compared to 300,000 in Madagascar and 2 million in Mauritius and the Seychelles), the Comoros islands is  well worth a visit for anyone looking for a peaceful and different adventure, far from the madding crowds.

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Estelle Hisler travelled in the Comoros Islands from 18th to 29th April 2018.

Ethiopian Airlines now flies to Moroni  three times a week with a stopover in Nosy Be on the way to Addis Ababa – so, why not consider an extension to your trip in Madagascar ?

If you would you like to discuss any travel plans, please contact us for a quote. We operate tours to the Comoros on a private basis, all year round.

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