Floating between Mozambique and Madagascar lie a number of volcanic islands, tropical in climate, unspoiled in nature and positively wild; this is Comoros, the romantically named Islands of the Moon. Maurice Schutgens paints a perfect picture with these five activities that should be on your bucket list.
1. EXPLORING MORONI
Set in the shadow of Mount Karthala, with a name that roughly translates to “in the heart of the fire”, Moroni is the capital city of Comoros, home to an eclectic mix of Arabic, French and Swahili cultures. Moroni is loud, somewhat gritty and possibly ever so slightly chaotic. My overloaded taxi, blaring the latest hip-hop tracks, drops me off at the famous Volo Volo Market at the heart of the city. From the get-go it’s a sensory overload. I’m offered ripe produce from the flanks of Mount Karthala, freshly caught tunas and tasteful local fabrics worn by Chiromani – Comorian women. Vanilla aromas hang heavy in the air. I head for the serenity of the medina awash with intricate Arabic architecture and beautifully carved Zanzibar doors, a fading reminder of former glory. I wind my way aimlessly through the deserted maze of narrow streets striking up conversations with local Comorians about everything and nothing. Finally I move along, heading for Moroni’s most iconic landmark in the harbour: the Ancienne Mosquee du Vendredi (Friday Mosque) dating back to 1427. As the sun sets, I people watch, my legs swinging over the embankment. It’s a mesmerizing place.
2. SCALING MOUNT KARTHALA
Mount Karthala looms large over the southern half of Grand Comore, its imposing presence a constant reminder of the fury that bubbles just below the surface. The crater rim, located at just under 2,400m, appears permanently lost in the equatorial clouds. Karthala is one of the most active volcanoes on earth and the opportunity to look down into its crater irresistible! I leave my hotel at 3:00am In the cool of the night. As the sun crests the horizon the landscape changes, we leave the equatorial forest behind and head up into a wild tundra like landscape characterized by stunted trees, giant heather plants and remnants of ancient lava flows. Upwards we go, sweating profusely though it’s only 6:00am. Three hours later we crawl onto the crater rim. I am absolutely battered but the pain is temporarily forgotten for the views are breathtaking. Ahead of us lies the colossal moonscape of Karthala’s caldera. We descend into it and cross the soft grey fields of ash till we stand on the rim of the new crater.
3. SCUBA DIVING IN MOHÉLI MARINE PARK
Mohéli Marine Park, established in 2001 as the first National Park of Comoros, is home to some of the healthiest coral still thriving in the Indian Ocean. Its location directly in the path of the warm and nutrient rich Mozambique channel, means that the islands are teeming with marine life from humpback whales and dugongs to giant manta rays. Through a powerful deluge, my taxi circumnavigates the island to the diminutive and laid-back village of Nioumachoua, home to Laka Lodge – an oasis of calm and the gateway to the islands of Mohéli Marine Park. Richard – the resident Slovakian Dive Master, takes me to his favourite diving spots.
We start with a 15-minute traverse over to Leprosy Island (yes you read that right). The water is startlingly clear as we watch the rays of sunlight pierce far into the depths. We strap on our tanks, take a healthy breath and roll back dropping down quickly to coral outcrops beneath, teeming with a staggering variety of fish. The hours spent underwater are over in a flash.
4. GREEN TURTLE NESTING ON ITSAMIA BEACH
On Mohéli Island lies an isolated fishing village by the name of Itsamia. It is here that Green sea turtles have found a safe refuge to come and nest year-round. Up until about 20 years ago sea turtles were commonly killed for meat and the population was in serious decline. The villagers put a stop to this and their conservation work has yielded dramatic results. Today more than a million turtles hatch on Itsamia’s beaches every year, transforming it into the second largest nesting site for the species in the Indian Ocean. Late at night we head out on a nocturnal patrol with one of the local eco-guards. Under a billions of stars we head to the village’s main beach looking for the tell-tale drag markings – It doesn’t take long before we spot one. We watch her lay her clutch of eggs then slowly return to the depths of the ocean. It is a humbling experience to share with her.
5. DISCOVERING GRAND COMORE’S UNIQUE SIGHTS
Grand Comore, known locally as Ngazidja, is the largest island of the archipelago with many sights worth seeing. I hire a barely roadworthy vehicle and head south, out of Moroni soon coming upon the village of Iconi, home to the impressive 16th century ruins of the Palais de Kaviridjeo where the mighty Sultan of Bambao once ruled and where Malagasy pirates plied their trade.
I continue my journey further south passing Sangani, a small village partly destroyed by one of Karthala’s mighty eruptions in recent times. The north of Grand Comore is a barren expanse of stark beauty and jagged rocks. I head towards the town of Mitsamiouli, where Maloudja, a stunning palm tree lined beach awaits.
I ditch my car and walk along several secluded bays that lead to the Trou de Phrophete (Prophets Hole) where Prophet Mohammed is rumored to have sought refuge from pirates. The water is crystal clear – perfect for a swim. I push on to Lac Sal, a stunning little coastal crater of deep green water, the locals claim it is bottomless. The walk along its rim is as hair-raising as it is spectacular.