Remote and aromatic, impoverished and chaotic, Comoros is the Indian Ocean archipelago you won’t find in the brochures. But that makes it all the more intriguing…
The warm Indian Ocean lapped against the shore as an imam called the day’s last prayer. It was my first evening in Comoros and, as I ate smoky tuna brochettes at a beach-side bistro watching a vestigial crimson sunset, I wondered if these remote islands – a meeting of African and Arabian cultures – might be every bit as exotic as Zanzibar, the busy archipelago off Africa’s eastern coast that shares similar roots.
Located between Madagascar and Tanzania, the Comoros archipelago was named the Islands of Qamar (the Moon) by tenth-century Arab traders. Native Comorians are Bantu Africans influenced in matters of trade and religion by the Islamic Swahili cultures of coastal Kenya, Mozambique and Zanzibar. Cloves, nutmeg and vanilla became their currency, and such riches quickly attracted Europeans. It was France that eventually assumed colonial rule, in 1912, until the Union of Comoros unilaterally declared independence in 1975.
Thereafter, things haven’t gone so well. Comoros tumbled ruinously towards becoming one of the world’s poorest countries, beset by military coups and self-seeking politicians who continue to bleed the country dry. Today it comprises the three volcanic islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli. However, there is a fourth. During the 1975 referendum, Mayotte voted to stay French. Now it’s the 101st département of France – a wealthy reminder to its neighbour of what could have been and what still could be, given a bit of luck and less mercenary leadership. But if Comoros is a rough diamond, I was curious to see just how much polishing it would require.
At the airport on Grande Comore, the largest island in Comoros, women in brightly patterned, sari-like chiromani ululated an ecstatic welcome for the visiting French-Comorian diaspora, who provide about 35% of Comoros’s GDP. From here I headed to Moroni, the islands’ capital, and the Golden Tulip, one of the city’s two Western-standard hotels. I particularly liked it for its clean beach and its resident tortoise, called Wolfram, who enjoyed being hand-fed pawpaw. This was my base for exploring a city of few sights but plenty of historic and cultural interest.
Moroni’s principal landmark is the 15th-century Old Friday mosque. Curved, two-storied and gleaming white like a row of dentures, the mosque was restored in the 1920s by France to pay tribute to those Comorians killed fighting for them during the First World War. I watched as male worshippers poured out, uniformly attired in long white kandu robes and pillbox hats. The islands are 99% Islamic yet warmly tolerant of the infrequent foreigners travelling through.
A short distance away was Volo-Volo market where female traders don sun-protective face masks of creamy sandalwood paste, which crack with their broad smiles. Reflecting the islands’ low economic base, produce included heaps of cheap clothing, cosmetics sold in wheelbarrows, neat piles of tomatoes and Chinese-made plastic kitchenware. A covered section bustled with diners eating local dishes, such as chicken in coconut sauce, and all around were Comoros’s much-vaunted spices: dark marbles of nutmeg, flaky rolls of cinnamon.
I stopped later for cardamom-infused coffee in a crumbling medina of twisting lanes and coral-stone houses, and to chat with Abdur-Rahman. Islanders typically converse in a creole of French, Swahili and Arabic; Abdur-Rahman not only spoke English but promised to unravel a little of local life for me, such as why banners in town were urging people to vote ‘Oui’ (there was a referendum to amend the constitution to extend the unpopular sitting president’s term of office – it would pass with an improbable 92.74% of the vote just a few days later) or why so many of the buildings here were half-finished.
The answer to the latter proved no less remarkable. Comorians tend to lay on lavish weddings funded by overseas French relatives, Abdur-Rahman told me. These typically cost between €30,000 and €40,000 (£26,000– 36,500), but tradition dictates that the girl’s family must also provide a home for the husband – and it doesn’t end there.
“It’s important the family build a house for the daughter to receive her spouse,” he continued. “They then add to it each year, so as the daughter grows, the house does, too.”
Outside Moroni, northern Grand Comore features sleepy villages jemmied into a rugged coastline of contorted volcanic landforms. With no public transport and only infrequent shared taxis available outside the city, I paid guide Mohammed Yahya to drive me around.
We visited sea cliffs at Iconi where, in the early 19th century, Comorian women leapt into the ocean rather than be taken by the marauding Madagascan pirates that roamed these waters.
We peered into the salty crater lake of Lac Salé. “Nobody knows how deep it is,” said Mohammed. “Six Belgian divers completely disappeared here in 1978 trying to find out.” We also walked along the volcanic rock formation of Dragon’s Back and amid centuries-old baobabs that were reminiscent of those found on Madagascar, before stopping for spicy octopus curry and coconut-infused cassava leaves.
I also couldn’t ignore the brooding dome of the 2,361m Mount Karthala, which dominates southern Grande Comore. This volcano last erupted in 2007 and over millennia has layered the island in abrasive black lava plains. With a local guide, I undertook a knee-jarring 13-hour return trek to the top. We started in darkness, just as the mosques issued their first calls of the day, climbing through fecund lower slopes of coffee and mandarin oranges into cloud forest snagged by straggly lichen, then brittle-stemmed grasses rattled by the local alizé (trade wind). We paused for mackerel baguettes on the precipice of Karthala’s wide crater before descending like Orpheus searching for Eurydice into the steep-sided cone onto a flat, gravel plain that resembled some kind of singed Zen garden. Around an active inner crater, fumaroles sizzled away emitting superheated steam with a sulphurous odour.
After four days on Grande Comore I hoped to travel by little boats called kwasa-kwasa to Mohéli, the smallest island, known for its nesting turtles. The ocean was calm yet, mysteriously, no boats went out that day; and with no inter-island flights available to Mohéli, I settled instead on sailing to neighbouring Anjouan aboard the twice-weekly and seaworthy ship Gombessa.
A voyage of supposedly five hours or so stretched into a delayed day-long adventure across the Indian Ocean as time simply drifted. Karthala rose dramatically as we finally skimmed along Grande Comore’s western coast, and I sighed with a little frustration as we chugged past Mohéli, before eventually reaching Anjouan’s capital, Mutsamudu, after dark.
Bustling and lively around the port, the city is Comoros’s second largest, founded in 1482. Anjouan’s best accommodation is supposedly Hotel Al-Amal, a 1970s concrete rectangle with a dreadful restaurant. Yet I liked my overpriced room for its horizon-busting sea views and friendly staff. I took aperitifs on my balcony watching huge Livingstone’s fruit bats crashing around the trees; their wings, translucent in the dimming sunlight, gave an impression of squirrels in winged flying suits.
Next morning – referendum day – the streets were unexpectedly quiet. It’s only been a decade since forces from Moroni toppled Anjouan’s thenrenegade leader, Colonel Bacar, and its people seemed in no mood for a return to darker times. Mutsamudu was comatose. Chickens moseyed in and out of little shops selling sacks of rice and sweet ladyfinger bananas. Local men sat around slapping dominoes on old wooden tables.
Salvation appeared in the shape of Patrice Kalde, one of Anjouan’s few guides. After failing to find a flight to Mohéli, he took me around the island to showcase its spiced mountain forests.
Fragrant clove stands lined the angular volcanic ridges around Mount Ntringui while sun-drying cloves fragranced the villages. All around was Anjouan’s most important export, ylang-ylang; the heavenly aroma of its green flowers is like jasmine, and was overpowering at a collection point where ladies brought in heavy bundles to be paid by the kilo. “The flowers are distilled into essence that goes to the French perfumeries to create Chanel No 5,” said Patrice.
Anjouan’s most striking construction is a vainglorious mosque-shaped mausoleum in Domomi dedicated to ex-President Ahmed Abdallah, who is interred inside a stately marble sarcophagus. Patrice explained Abdallah seized power by coup in 1978 but was assassinated by a French mercenary during another putsch in 1989. “He was not a good man,” said Patrice after deliberation. “He built nothing, created no jobs and everybody stayed poor except him.”
Next morning, the receptionist at Al-Almal, a bright, university-educated guy called Mohammed, drove me to the airport for my flight to Mayotte. Mohammed said his mother lived there but he couldn’t get a visa to visit her – and he had no intention of risking his life at sea to travel illegally.
Mayotte is French-owned, modern and enjoys European levels of wealth, prompting the impoverished Comorian islanders to risk their lives to illegally migrate there – an unreported front line of African economic migrants trying to reach the EU. For me, it was an all-too-easy 25-minute flight to the Promised Land.
Comoros and its French neighbour currently make uneasy bedfellows. The former still claims ownership of the latter while there is also rising resentment in Mayotte at the tidal wave of Comorian immigrants straining their services. It’s thought that the unofficial population might be double an established census of around 260,000.
The contrast between the two territories is immediately striking. From the shiny French-funded airport on Petite-Terre island, I transferred to Mamoudzou, on Grande-Terre, where modern shops are full of goods, streets are clean and restaurants line a marina of yachts. The Francophone influence is obvious: I could see French gendarmes and patisseries selling all manner of Viennoiserie. Yet a Comorian identity remains. At the port market I sat amid ladies with sandalwood-painted faces eating brochettes of fatty goat with boiled manioc. Later, walking back to my chambre d’hôtes in Cavani district, I passed a huge outdoor wedding ceremony where the men beat hand drums and danced in long brocaded robes. Mayotte’s going price for a marriage is €60,000 (£53,500).
From Mamoudzou I ventured into the clear lagoon inside Grand Récif du Nord-Est to coo at dolphins racing our boat. Beyond the reef we played cat-and-mouse with humpback whales that were able to stay underwater for 30 minutes. They announced their arrival with an expulsion of seawater from their blowholes and descended with a flip of their crescent-shaped fins.
Next day, in the central mountains around Mont Combani, I hiked through rainforest to find Mayotte’s maki (brown lemur) cavorting through the high canopy. Black-faced with long greyish tails, they were originally introduced from Madagascar. Gyl Le Guillou, the owner of my overnight accommodation, Le Relais Forestier, seemed underwhelmed when I told him of my lemur sighting. He told me to wait until the next morning. Sure enough, at breakfast a dozen rowdy lemurs turned up anticipating being hand-fed pawpaw – which they devoured with less decorum than Wolfram the tortoise.
My final day was spent back on Petite-Terre, walking to the absurdly picturesque Lake Dziani, a crater filled with water of the most luminous avocado green. The trail led to magnificent high cliffs from where I looked down upon green turtles swimming to the nesting beaches of Moya.
Descending the cliff path to search for turtle hatchlings on Moya’s caramel sand, I thought about how Mayotte’s dysfunctional neighbour is every bit as physically beautiful yet a chronic lack of infrastructure and investment ensures it will remain off the beaten track. There are ways around that, though, and joining a group tour, to circumvent the cost and tricky logistics, would be the best way to get the most out of Comoros.
I certainly hadn’t discovered a new Zanzibar – any similar Arabic-African architectural heritage had largely crumbled away over the years along with Comoros’s economic malaise. Yet the real essence of the Islands of the Moon lingers on in the Islamic-tinged culture and the sweet aromas of its treasured spice.
The author travelled independently but sought logistical help from Native Eye (01473 328546), which offers a nine-day small-group trip that features all three Comoros islands. You can pay extra to add on a three-day extension to Mayotte.
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