Disaster, Compromise and Charm at the Comoros
Once again, I’ve been digging into the archives for this blog.
After our trip to Madagascar the travel bug was nibbling away steadily at all of us. In 1999 we wanted another destination as unique as Madagascar. Hubby was sold on doing Madagascar again and contacted Willem & Elize.
Friends of ours had gone to Comoros earlier in the year and stayed at Le Galawa hotel on Grande Comoros, swimming, snorkelling and having fun with all the water sports available at the hotel. Our sons were enthralled with the idea of a holiday like that and were convinced a holiday at a resort was better. The water sport life at the hotel appealed to them and Paul was not opposed to the idea but by then we had made a preliminary booking to charter Bossi.
Eventually Paul relented and said we could go to Comoros on one condition, Jacques, our eldest son of fifteen, would have to let Willem know the change of plan. No sweat, Jacques phoned Willem who was in South Africa at that stage and gave him the news. Willem has a great sense of humour and laid it on really thick that he was disappointed that we were leaving him in the lurch. Poor Jacques! He was filled with remorse – for about five minutes.
Five minutes later our phone rang. Willem had a proposition for us: how would we like to sail around the Comoros? We could spend the last few nights at the Le Galawa hotel? This would be an opportunity for him to see if it would be viable to do charters from the Comoros as well. How could we refuse an offer like that? We could also do our Advanced PADI Open Water dive course.
A week before our trip Paul was supposed to run the Comrades marathon, a hard and gruelling race, just less than 100 km. He’d torn his calf muscle a couple of months before, then tore it a second time, being too hasty. Running Comrades was out of the question but he still wanted to support his friends, so he went to Durban. I stayed with our sons in Johannesburg while they wrote their midyear exams.
Shortly after the race was complete, he phoned me with some bad news - he had broken his wrist. My first response was shock - how on earth did he do that as a spectator? He’d tripped over a barbed wire lying in the long grass, then fell off a bridge about 7 meters high! Thankfully he hadn't broken anything else that we were aware of, although later we presumed he’d cracked his ribs and years later we gathered that he had damaged his back at that time too.
Much to Paul's dismay, a cast was put on his arm at a hospital in Durban and the doctor said that was the end of his diving holiday. Grumpy and obstinate, on Monday, back in Johannesburg, Paul went to our doctor and he scheduled an operation to put a pin in Paul’s wrist. He was set to go! The wrist still needed support, so we bought two removable wrist braces - one to keep dry and one that could get wet. I bought some water tight plasters to keep his wound dry and he was geared to go. I hoped they would work 30 meters below the surface. We were all relieved that we didn’t have to cancel our holiday and I was grateful my husband was still alive, after falling so far!
Sacrifice a trip? Never!
The dreaded wall
Arrival on Grande Comore
Our flight landed late at night, on the main island, Grande Comore. Three familiar smiling faces greeted us at the airport: Willem, Elize & Lomé. Our taxi took us to the harbour at Moroni, where Bossi was moored. No sight of her, only other larger boats. Eventually we spotted her attached to another boat next to the quay, dwarfed in comparison by the larger boats. Our trusty familiar home for the next 10 days. To get to her though, we had to negotiate our way over obstacles and rails of the larger boat in the dark of night. Luckily none of us landed in the harbour water, filled with diesel and other unexpected particles. We had a light dinner and stayed there for the night. It was not the most peaceful place to spend a night, but the morning’s entertainment made up for it.
The following morning cargo was off loaded from a larger ship moored just outside harbour because it was too shallow for the ship to enter. This was an interesting and unconventional way of moving goods, at least to us. Large shipping containers and vehicles balancing precariously on boats, were being moved from ship to shore. Imagine ordering the latest model luxury vehicle, eagerly awaiting delivery, to have a couple of dents and scratches free of charge handed to you with the keys. Damaged in transit takes on a whole new meaning!
After breakfast we sailed up the west coast to the bay at Le Galawa hotel. We had permission to moor at the blue drum in the bay and could spend the night. While I was still hunting for my sea legs, Paul and our sons, eager to get into the water, decided to do an orientation dive. A while later, three beaming faces pop out of the water, a tray in Paul's hands. 'Chicken or beef?' Yes, those renowned trays used by airlines! The very same blue drum we were moored to mark the wreck of the Ethiopian airlines flight 961 that crashed in 1996. This flight was hijacked by Ethiopians seeking political asylum, ran out of fuel and crash landed into the bay. Three quarters of the passengers, crew, as well as the hijackers died. There were about 50 survivors with injuries. The people and staff staying at Le Galawa at the time helped with the rescue operation, using every boat available. Rumour has it if you have one of those airline seats in your house, it elevated your status on the island.
That evening none of us had a peaceful night’s sleep. Not sure if it was the movement of the currents and wind caused our twin hulls to continuously knock against the blue drum. It could have been the ghosts of the plane wreck talking to us! We all cursed that darn blue drum!
Fun and Freedom
Wreck of another kind.
After a very disturbed night we all went for an early morning dive. My sea legs were still evading me, but I was told I had to go on this dive. We dived early while it was still relatively calm. On entering the water, I had a school of bat fish following me. I was feeding them involuntarily! Then I looked down towards the sea bed and nearly stopped breathing - not a good state when you are under water. Instinct took over and I inhaled again. What an amazing sight: I could see the entire wreck of the Massiwa lying on the sand. This was our first wreck dive, part of our advanced open water certificate and visibility was great - at least 20 meters! Massiwa was a 260-foot cargo boat. Another island legend was that Bob Denard, a mercenary, used this vessel to launch his inflatable boats to invade one of the islands. I could have stayed down there for ages, watching the fish darting in and out of all the cavities. This was truly one of my most memorable dives in the Comores and one that I still remember clearly to this day.
Paul was managing quite well with his broken wrist apart from not having much strength in it. Every time he entered the water, he used his 'wet' brace and as soon as he was back on board, he replaced the water proof plaster that was covering his stitches, which was working very well, even 30 meters under water.
Sailing from Grande Comore to Moheli.
Island hopping on a night crossing
It was time to move on. That evening we set sail for Moheli. We decided on a night crossing as it was a fair distance to the next island. As we set forth, my sea legs jumped ship but I hung on for dear life. I clearly remember the drone of the engine as we vibrated and rolled over the swells. As the night and journey wore on I was no longer just green around the gills. I lay and dozed on deck on the floor as I couldn't face going down to our cabin.
After a few hours our skipper went to sleep for a couple of hours and Paul took over the watch. It started to rain. I couldn't care less. I was feeling very sorry for myself, huddled in my little corner, wanting this part of the journey to be over as soon as possible. As I wallowed in semi-conscious self-pity, Paul stood at the back of the yacht, keeping lookout for anything floating around us. By now the deck was wet from the rain. As he moved from port to starboard, the slippery deck gave way under his feet and he fell backwards, head over heels. No-one saw him, least of all me.
With his broken wrist, he didn’t have any strength to grab hold of anything with his left hand and tumbled over the back. Willem had strung a net of sorts at the back from port to starboard, to hold small items to dry and thankfully Paul grabbed that with his right hand as he hurtled backwards over the net. Clinging on for dear life singlehandedly, he must have used his toes and his teeth to drag himself back over the net and onto the deck. He had the presence of mind to push the MOB function on the GPS to mark the spot and then roused me from my pathetic state to tell me what had happened. Terrible wife that I was, he got no sympathy from me. I was blissfully or rather wretchedly unaware of what had happened although he was merely a couple of steps away from me. This was one time in my life that I had no strength to hand out any compassion for anyone in distress around me.
Had Paul fallen overboard he would not have been found as we were right in the middle of the ocean, between the two islands and help would have been too far away.
More in next week’s blog.