Sunday, 6 June 2010

The tropical island of Mayotte

The Comoro Islands sit in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique on the African mainland and Madagascar. There are four islands in the group. 3 form an independent republic whilst the 4th, Mayotte, opted in the 1970s to stay French. Though currently styled a french "overseas community", the island will become France's 101st department, effectively making it part of France proper, in 2011. I visited the island in December 2007 though, as I was doing a cruise, I was there for only a day. (We were on a small passenger liner, the Royal Star, which carries about 200 passengers.)

This is a genuine tropical island and is not the easiest of places to reach. There is an airport but it cannot take many of the larger aircraft as the runway is not long enough. Instead, people flying to the island have to pick up connections on the African mainland.

The following is taken from my diary written at the end of the visit. I've included video as appropriate. I'll post up some of the photos in a separate article.

Friday 7th December 2007

Mayotte is one of those relics which before this day I had not visited: an overseas dependency, in this instance of France. Whilst the other Comoro Islands had opted for independence in 1975, Mayotte voted to remain French. Technically we were therefore in both France and the EU. The island probably benefits economically from the link. It seems the French taxpayer picks up a large part of the bill for running the island, though with the unintended consequence of making this island one of the most expensive in the Indian Ocean on which to live. Our guide however was part of the colonial establishment, a white French woman with a rather patronizing attitude towards the island’s inhabitants, explaining to us that the local blacks, in her view, do so many things wrongly and have to be told what to do all the time.

Our first call was to a salt producing site. Effectively, this was a mud flat that was only flooded at high tide. The women working on the site scraped the soil into heaps which would then be added to water and then filtered through sand. The resulting liquid was then boiled down leaving only salt crystals. The gift shop on the site sold, well, different size bags of salt.

The next call was the highlight of the day (and one of the highlights of the holiday) – snorkeling at the turtle reserve. On arrival we were greeted by a band of lemurs who were interested in us for any food we could provide. Alas I had none.

The turtles live on a coral reef around the beach and as a protected specie, we had to keep our distance from them and were not allowed to swim down to touch them. We all therefore had to wear lifejackets to keep us on the water surface. I was happy enough with this as I had never been snorkeling in my life before except for the practice run on Wednesday in the pool of the Royal Star.

David was not able to join in as he could not wear his glasses whilst snorkeling. He took photos and videos from the beach instead. It was a pity he missed the experience. Frankly it was incredible. The turtles were enormous, over a metre long. The place was also teeming with fish, sea urchins and coral. The coral reef itself was huge. In the crystal clear waters it was like swimming in an aquarium. My first experience of snorkeling was over after about an hour. My shoulders and back of my legs had also caught the sun though I didn’t notice this til the end of the day.

We headed back to the Royal Star, taking in the island's biggest baobab tree (and I mean, it really is gigantic) and then a Ylang Ylang plantation on the way, and the ship left port in the late afternoon.

(Ylang ylang flowers are harvested from the trees. Oils from the flowers are used to make perfume. The oil is one of the island's most important exports. Most is sent to Paris.)

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