Autonomous jewel of an island in the Comoros - Moheli
Bonjour Madame…welcome to our island!
Moheli was a sight for sore eyes. I survived my unpleasant ordeal of green gills and hubby lived to tell his tale of nearly becoming fish food. We approached calmer waters. Having sailed from Grand Comore throughout the night, as dawn broke we decided to trawl for some fish before we got close to the island, for our dinner that night. Shortly after that we heard the familiar zing and Jacques was the lucky one to catch a Wahoo of generous proportions. Not bad for a morning’s work!
We anchored at Sambadjou beach near Miremani. There was a welcoming committee waiting for us even though we hadn’t sent out any smoke signals to say we were arriving. Soon we were approached by the Gendarme. We weren’t sure if they thought we were pirates and wanted to lock us up, but all they wanted was to see our passports. Once again language was a problem as French is the main language. My French is non-existent, although Elize could speak a smattering of French. Albert, our deck hand, chief cook and bottle washer could translate for us. With hand gestures, broken English and French, they gave us instructions to have them stamped. After many gesticulations and eventually hauling out a map (from our side) they told us where: on the other side of the island at Fomboni. Once we had our passports stamped, we had to come back and show them.
Shortly after that Elize, Lomé and I were ordered to go with them. Ladies only. We thought we were going to be interrogated. We followed apprehensively, not sure if we were being abducted. We were pleasantly surprised and were treated with great respect. It was an honour to be shown their small village. They escorted us, pointing out all the important buildings – there weren’t many of them, but they were extremely proud of them. They proceeded to introduce us to the Mayor of the town who was having a meeting with some other delegates. He excused himself from his important delegates and humbly shook our hands as if we were the Queen and her mother. We were then free to carry on with our holiday.
By then we understood there was very limited transport on the island. The so-called taxi did a full circuit of the island. It would take almost a whole day to do the trip to Fomboni and back. We could roam around the island freely, but we couldn’t leave without having our passports stamped.
We went back to Bossi and the men, then decided to explore a bit. We also had to decide if it was worth sailing to Fomboni, or if it would waste more time.
Exploring Miremani and Nioumachoua
As we walked through the small town of Nioumachoua, we were exposed to some of the culture of the Comorian people. We heard the sweetest voices chanting ‘Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Monsieur!’ around us. We were often followed by an entourage of children, fascinated by us. Once again, we were shown around the town by the inhabitants, who were so friendly. At that stage (1999) there weren’t as many tourists or foreigners as there must be today and they were delighted that we had come to explore their village. We tried to catch a taxi to Fomboni but they seemed non-existent. Later we discovered it was true, there was only one taxi.
We felt very welcome on Nioumachoua’s humble portion of the island. The island was beautiful, with some areas seemingly untouched. Closer to the main towns or villages one noticed people had left their usual mark with subsistence farming as well as farming with ylang-ylang, vanilla, coffee and cocoa bean.
Trip to Fomboni
We sailed to one of the next bays near Nioumachoua and found a small holiday resort called Moheli Bungalows at the time, owned by a Frenchman and artist called Pierre. It could be Moheli Laka Lodge now. He explained the taxi situation to us and offered to take us in his car to Fomboni so that we only needed to catch the taxi back, thus saving us some time. This was also a good opportunity for us to stock up on some fresh produce as there was a small market in the town.
We all sat in the back of the utility vehicle and bounced our way to Fomboni, fairly comfortably. The first thing we did at Fomboni was to have our passports stamped. We then walked around the small market, buying supplies and soon it was time to head back to Nioumachoua. We had to be on time or we would be stranded for the night. At the taxi rank we munched on dry French bread, and bits of cheese. The bread was very fresh, but we could have done with a bit more liquid to wash it down.
The taxi was another utility vehicle, well used, rusty, dented and a bit rickety. It had two wooden benches on the back, parallel to the sides and a metal frame covering the entire back. I think it was meant for a shade awning, but I don’t remember there being any. I’m quite disappointed that we never took a photo of it.
Fuel stops and amusing taxi rides
We were the first passengers on board and we spread ourselves out, leaving enough room for the few passengers that waited at the bus stop with us. The first thing the taxi driver had to do, was fill up with fuel. We stopped next to a reed hut but couldn’t see any petrol pumps. The only thing we saw was a couple of bottles filled with something. That was the fuel. I’m sure the bottles only held 500ml. At a push, maybe 1L. We watched with amusement at the long process of filling the taxi. No speedy pump here. It took some time, but that’s island life for you! No wonder the taxi takes so long to get around the island. This was a sure indication that there weren’t many vehicles on this island either. I’d just like to add: Fomboni is the main town and that was obviously the main petrol station.
We were under the misconception that the taxi would be fairly empty, but along the way, each time we stopped, more passengers climbed on. Not only would there be an addition of passengers. We shifted closer to each other as they loaded the taxi with bags of rice or flour – their weekly or maybe even monthly supplies. Then they’d add a chicken or three. Not much later they hoisted a goat on top of the rice bag, which was between the two benches and our legs. Amidst chickens squawking, goats bleating and jovial conversations, the journey continued.
Eventually most of the men, ours included, were hanging off the side and the back of the taxi because it was so full. Philip couldn’t join them because he was squashed in too close to the front with me. He was mortified when one of the ladies sitting next to him, put her hand on his leg to balance herself while we were swaying around the sharp bends on the narrow roads of Moheli. He looked at me, most astounded that a stranger would do something like that and I had to hold my pose and not burst with laughter. Needless to say, the hand stayed on his leg till we got off. We bounced our way back to Nioumachoua, a bit battered and bruised. One of our most memorable taxi rides ever!
Witnesses to a predatory food chain.
We spent the next few days sailing and walking around the bays, villages and islands of Moheli. We completed our PADI advanced diving course, having already done a wreck dive off Grande Comore. The night dive, underwater navigation, deep dive and boat dive we did around Moheli.
One on occasion we were ready to kit up, but were still enjoying our breakfast. We suddenly saw a smallish fish leap out of the water close to us. We shouted exclamations of excitement, because we always looked out for flying fish, although I don’t think this was one. The next moment a larger game fish chased it and presumably chomped it. More exclamations from us, slightly louder and more excited. What a sight! Shortly after that a huge body exploded out of the water and promptly chased the larger fish. We’re convinced the game fish was chomped up too! We weren’t sure what the biggest one was – fish or shark, but we changed our minds about diving in that very spot, so soon after witnessing the predatory food chain. We didn’t want to be next in line, considering the predators were in a hunting mood.
Afterwards we were told by the villagers that we were mad to dive there, anyway. The fishermen always saw the biggest sharks in that specific area. Glad to say we didn’t end up as a shark snack.
We were disappointed in some of the areas we dived at. The coral looked like a grey graveyard. We weren’t sure if it was from bleaching by El Nino or blasting from dynamite fishing (artisanal fishing methods), which apparently took place there. One thing was for sure, it was sad to see. I believe there is a marine reserve. I'd love to know how much it has changed.
Unfortunately, we never made it to Anjouan as we simply ran out of time – we only had two weeks to our disposal and Willem, Elize & Lome had to head back to Madagascar for their next charter.
It took time to get around Moheli as there was so little transport and it took a big chunk out of our days, thereby not allowing us to sail that much further. It was after all a holiday and not a journey to get from one destination to another.
There were so many other islands to explore and dive at. As for Mayotte, it was even further away so we wouldn’t have made it there. Besides, we were warned that it was not safe there at that time, so it was best to avoid it. There had been a coup d’état in April 1999, just a couple of months before our visit, and there was still a bit of unrest. Hard to imagine, with the peace of Moheli.
It was time to get back to Grande Comore. But that’s another story...