Mayotte: From Above and Below

During my time in Madagascar, I had the opportunity to visit nearby Mayotte a few times. Never heard of it? It’s and island in the Indian Ocean – part of the Comoros Archipelago, claimed by the Comoros as its fourth island but administered by France as its 101st Department. If you want to know more about its status and history (which are quite interesting), it’s worth having a read of its Wikipedia entry.

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What’s remarkable about this small volcanic island is that it’s completely surrounded by a lagoon, which is created by long coral reefs on all sides of the island. Which makes for calm, warm water, amazing undersea life, and virtually no (dangerous) sharks. Like the other Comorian islands, it’s also the product of volcanic activity, thich has resulted in some interesting landscapes. And since 2018,, it’s had dozens of small earthquakes each day, because there is a new, undersea volcano erupting about 40 miles to the east.

Mayotte consists of two major islands. In French they’re known as Grande Terre and Petite Terre, but in the local language they’re known as Maore (the local name for Mayotte in general) and Pamanzi. When flying in, you land on the smaller of the two, at Pamanzi airport, and you can either stay on that island, getting around with local (shared and cheap) cabs, or take a ferry across to the bigger island and the capital Mamoudzou, where you can have a car rental agency meet you with a rental car for a very reasonable price. The ferry is free in this direction, but you’ll need to pay a small fee (in euro cents) to return.

Things to do on Pamanzi

If you spend a few days on Pamanzi, it’s worth having a hike up to the volcanic lake, Dzani Dzaha. It can be a bit tricky to catch a cab because it’s a bit off the beaten path and the drivers would rather just shuttle full loads between the ferry (“la barge”) and the airport. Have them drop you at the parking and make your way up the steep path to the rim of the crater, where you can go in either direction and wind up at the start about 90 minutes later, having gotten in a good hike and taken in some spectacular views. It’s a challenging trail run – be sure and take water whether you hike or run, because it heats up pretty quickly.

On our most recent trip, we opted to walk eastward along the southern edge of the crater, and after about 15 minutes, branched off to the east, and hiked for about half an hour to see the cliffs above Moya Beach. If you have the time, you can make your way down to the beach on one of a series of volcanic craters open to the sea. You’re likely to have the entire beach to yourself – but bring your own snacks and water, because there aren’t any tourist shops down there!

On two separate trips, I made the following short video clips which highlight the lake (slightly out of focus), Moya Beach, as well as Mount Choungui and N’Gouja Beach on Grande Terre. Yes, they overlap, but I made them from two separate trips, not knowing I’d go twice! And they’re short.

Things to do on Maore / Grande Terre

On Grande Terre, you can have a drink and a meal and watch the ferry come and go from one of several cafes near the ferry landing. In Mamoudzou are a few nice hotels and an ATM, and pleasant little shops, but it’s not safe to walk through town after dark. If you’ve rented a car, you can drive around the entire island in about half a day. Going northward from Mamoudzou, the first half hour is pretty industrial, but then things calm down and you’ll have the road mostly to yourself as you pass through coastal villages and jungles. There aren’t a lot of touristy cafes or stops along the way, but it’s a pleasant drive.

As you reach the southern end of the island, you can hike up Mount Choungui, a volcanic peak you’ll have been seeing from miles away. But the real treat that Mayotte has to offer is the sea turtles at Kani Keli. At N’Gouja Beach you’ll find a pleasant resort known for its giant baobab trees on the beach. To be honest, the resort is not that remarkable – the staff are a bit unfriendly, food and drink prices are high, but the cabins are decent and in the shade away from the beach. Which initially seems like a bad thing, but the beach itself is open to the public, meaning on the weekend it becomes a popular destination for busloads of schoolkids.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, you say? What makes Kani Keli special, however, is that its waters are teeming with marine life – in particular, sea turtles. It’s a few hundred meters out, and then you follow the reef parallel to the coast toward the west. Initially, you don’t see much, but as you approach the underground boulders and coral reef, you’ll find yourself surrounded by large majestic green turtles that seem to have very little fear of humans! It’s truly an awe-inspiring experience to swim with these animals and watch them feed on the sea grass and “fly” through the water! I’ve snorkeled and swum at my fair share of beaches, and I’ve never seen so many turtles, in every direction! Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For the more adventurous with time and money, you can also take a variety of boat tours out to the lagoon, either snorkeling or diving – the entire lagoon is a national marine park.

Mayotte is not a place I’d recommend spending weeks – unless you’re an avid diver, the tourist infrastructure is not exactly robust. On our final trip there, we had meticulously planned to island-hop all four islands of the archipelago – each island is unique and has its own activities and sights – as long as you don’t require four-star hotels – and most notably Moheli (Mwali) is said to be worth a visit due to its low population and abundant nature and sea life. Unfortunately, our plans were interrupted by political violence surrounding the Comoros elections (don’t worry – they only happen every five years!) and we had to ditch our plans to visit the other three islands, heading back to Mahajanga, Madagascar instead. But I’ll save that adventure for a different post.

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