Haphazardly scattered across the Indian Ocean, the Comoros Islands are a very mysterious and isolated place. The devoutly Muslim island lacks much of the infrastructure that has made some of its neighbor’s mega-tourist, high-end destinations. The Comore people come from a stock of Arab traders, Persian Sultans, African slaves and Portuguese pirates. The four main islands offer everything from relaxing on nearly deserted beaches, to rain forest hiking, to hiking the world’s largest active volcano. The islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli make up the Comoros Islands. Mayotte has since broken off and joined the mother ship of France. I based myself in Grande Comore in the capital city of Moroni.
One of my best friend’s names is Morroni-he’s like Cher, Bono or Madonna, he only has one name. I have traveled a lot with him and we always joke about him being the king of Comoros because of the name Moroni albeit spelled differently. I told him I was going the day before and then about how his people were stressing me out with problems when I got there and he replied that he commanded his subjects to give me a hassle as you will see! Well whatever, it’s still better than being stuck in frigid London right now like him, haha. Not to mention, as usual it actually worked out for the better although I could’ve done without the hassle and stress and I blame Morroni completely for all hardships incurred!
As I was saying, things didn’t get off to a good start for me in Comoros. First, as I went through customs to get my visa that I thought was going to cost 15 euros or about $22, but it had been raised to 60 euros or $100. After a lengthy discussion of why, I was told that it was raised for 2010 and Lonely Planet was wrong (as usual). “Ugh” I thought as I reluctantly paid the really rude visa woman and headed into the car with my guide.
The guide then proceeded to tell me that my flight for the next day was most likely going to be cancelled and there was no way I could get off the island. Normally, I wouldn’t really care about something like that and just go with it, when in fact I had actually built an extra day into this particular portion of my trip for just such an occurrence. I did this because the reliability of African, let alone Comore airlines is awful. This ain’t my first rodeo.
Anyway, I was brought to my hotel and the agent was supposed to go to the Comores Aviation office and take care of my situation that he just alerted me to. I was not optimistic. Not surprisingly, he comes back two hours later and tells me basically that I am screwed for the next day and there are no charters or boats available. No boats because of pirates and no charters because the guy who flies the charters has a stomach ache and doesn’t feel like flying tomorrow. Yes really!
So after a little prodding, we agree that I will go back with him and kick some ass in the Aviation office in the morning. So after a restless night in limbo, I headed to the Comores Aviation office armed with, as luck would have it, a recommendation letter of a well to do French guy staying at my hotel whom I met at dinner who knows the head of the airline and felt my pain in dealing with this airline.
After getting nowhere with the completely indifferent and idiotic people working the desk I drop the guys name, Karim, and that his friend Claude who works for Coca-Cola sent me. Yes seriously this is what I did and then they instantly decided to help me. Go figure right?!
I still wasn’t able to get out that night as was planned because of reasons still not fully explained but I was able to get confirmed on a mysterious flight that popped up out of nowhere the following morning to Anjouan and then connecting to Mayotte. It was in the morning so even if it was delayed I would have some time to spare given I had to be in Mayotte to get my flight later that night to Reunion.
The only problem was that if I missed the flight from Mayotte to Reunion then my whole itinerary would’ve been cancelled as I would’ve no-showed. That is basically the cardinal sin with these airlines as all my flights had been booked on one confirmation number to save money. So there was much at stake for me to get to Mayotte on time as there are no refunds out here and the tickets aren’t cheap either.
As was, I would only have 6 hours on Mayotte anyway because of the original cancellation from Moroni. Sound confusing? I know but trust me it was very stressful because you never actually know or understand what’s going on out here. You’re constantly in limbo and at the mercy of the airline and the agent on the ground. My travel agent back home was unable to do anything for me. Nobody tells you anything and they have their own strange “African” way of doing things. It’s funny to a point but not if it will screw everything you spent a ton of time planning and a lot of money paying for.
So armed with a new ticket to Mayotte and a whole day to explore Grande Comore, not to mention a free hotel night at Le Moroni hotel plus dinner, I demanded and got a free island tour with private SUV driver from the tour company IBL, here in Moroni. We drove the entire island literally. The island itself was very lush and beautiful. The roads were terrible as you’d expect but the car was very good and handled the dirt roads and potholes nicely. Some highlights were as follows:
Chomoni Beach (top pic and above) is a gorgeous piece of pristine beach that I had all to myself, although the weather was overcast and had been raining all morning, the beach was still spectacular. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean made me forget about the hysteria with my ticket and made me truly relax and really appreciate where I was. Sometimes when you’re traveling in the developing world for a long time you can get frustrated as a result of many things building up after a month of delays, cancellations, bribes and inexplicable hassles. I finally almost lost it in Moroni. However, the beach calmed me down and reminded me why I was there to begin with.
Lac Sale (above and below) is an awesome caldera filled with salt water at the northern tip of the island (the picture cannot possibly do it justice). It has the amazing backdrop of azure blue Indian Ocean water plus the stunning caldera rim which you can walk around or just see from the main road. The place was again deserted and I had it all to myself to enjoy less a few grazing cows. I have only seen one thing in the world like that and it was on Easter Island in the South Pacific.
Vegetation and crops are very important to the Comoros Islands. They seem to have every conceivable type of tropical tree and plant. My driver who spoke OK English seemed to be an expert. He kept stopping the car to run into the jungle and grab some plants. He kept telling me to smell them and guess what type of spice it was. He had peppermint, lemon, cocoa, cinnamon and others I had no idea what he was saying but he was very excited about it so that made me happy. I love when people have a strong feeling of pride and Nationalism, especially in small countries.
After the whole day tour including views of the volcano and the lava destruction from the 2005 eruption (above), we headed back to the Le Moroni hotel. I enjoyed my free pizza and mineral water while watching Muslim men play dominos while drinking coke before heading to bed to hope that my plane left in the morning and that all was OK with the connection. The connection meant that I had to have things work out twice as opposed to a direct flight where I’d only have to stress out once. So after another restless night I arrived at the airport to head to Anjouan and then to Mayotte.
After a delay on both flights I made the gorgeous flight across the Comore Islands to Mayotte in a tiny 17 seat prop plane. The seats were so small I had to literally sit sideways and knee the lady next to me. The inside was as you can see…small. The pilots were in the cabin pretty much and the turbulence from the Indian Ocean breeze was noticeable but the scenery made up for it. It was the same type of plane my friend Jake and I took from the Serengeti to Arusha in 2006 in order to connect to Zanzibar.
The coral reefs and water flying in were amazing (below). They are right off the coast of Petite Terre which is one of the three islands that makes up Mayotte. The other two are Grande Terre and Dzaoudzi. Those two are linked by ferry and Dzaoudzi and Petite Terre, where the airport is, are linked by road. I spent the majority of my time on Petite Terre as I got a great recommendation from three French guys on my plane.
When I asked them how to spend my three hours on Mayotte after the delays they unanimously told me to eat at this restaurant called Le Fare. It was easily the best meal I’ve had in over a month and perhaps one of my all-time favorite places to eat. Beautifully situated on the beach of Petite Terre, their fresh fish and meats are mouth watering.
I got the prawns and filet of beef with this unreal blue cheese Roquefort sauce with usual fries and great French bread. I nearly cried when I was done because I wanted more. You can say what you want about French people and their attitudes etc, but they sure know how to eat and they do beef as good as anywhere in the world.
Mayotte is very French, it reminds me of Martinique. That’s not a bad thing because I loved Martinique but the French takeover is noticeable everywhere I saw in Mayotte. The French certainly know how to take a place and make it their own. Every French territory I have been to except for Guadeloupe, you know it’s French-it’s unmistakable. However, after coming from Africa and the Comores, it was nice to have things go on time and attentive service, not to mention paved roads!
I am currently on the incredible Ile de la Reunion or Reunion Island and having a blast. Stay tuned.