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Comoros: Embracing the unexpected

A visit to a remote, little-visited island in the Indian Ocean leads to unexpected encounters

Comoros: Embracing the unexpected
Itsamnia beach, Comoros. Image: James Stewart

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Ahmeda Ali is starting to despair of my memory. “Non!” he says with faux exasperation, as we bid goodbye to another group in Miringoni village. “Ici on ne dit pas ‘au revoir’. On dit ‘kwaher.’” He stomps a jewel-topped cane into the dirt on each syllable, then giggles. Such are the quirks of language lessons given by a village nobleman.

They hadn’t featured in my plan for Miringoni, on Mohéli island. To be honest, little had. After a visit to a jungle waterfall, I’d stopped among its tin-roofed earth huts and breezeblock houses squeezed between the glossy forest and the Indian Ocean.

Ahmeda had strode up, as magnificent as a galleon in a billowing Islamic robe and embroidered kufi hat, his cane swinging. He’d insisted it was his duty as a nobleman to guide an honoured foreign guest around the village. At some point, he’d clearly decided it was time said guest stopped relying on the former colonial language, French, and learned a few phrases of the local Swahili dialect, Shikomoro, instead.

So, here I am, being led hand in hand around a remote African village by a paunchy 60-something aristocrat — greeting other ‘big fish’ dignitaries, admiring a new concrete path that Ahmeda points out like a proud parent — while chewing on phrases like ‘jege’ (how are you?) and ‘wonono’ (good health) to the delight of the giggling children who trail us.

Just another day in Mohéli, really. The smallest, wildest island of the Union of the Comoros is remote even by the standards of this three-island nation, around 300 miles north west of Madagascar. It only receives around 400 foreign visitors a year. TripAdvisor scrapes together five sights, most beaches.

Why come, you might think. My reason was because I’d never heard of the place. How often do you get the chance to journey not just beyond the guidebook but beyond the map in your head? 

With no preconceptions and little information, I’d improvised. I’d paddled a canoe between a string of empty beaches scalloped in the jungle around Laka Lodge hotel, Moheli’s only outpost of castaway cool. I’d stood among spectators making a joyous racket on tin-can drums beside a football pitch carved from the jungle. And on a magical night boiling with stars, I’d watched a green turtle the size of a kitchen table lay her eggs on Itsamnia beach. They come every night, a village guide told me. We got so close we could hear her pant. Each day was a mini adventure: unscripted, spontaneous.

Back in Miringoni, Ahmeda leads me to his house. His wife appears, dressed in swathes of dazzling turquoise and saffron fabric (she looks as exotic as a peacock among the mud huts) and we sit on the verandah drinking the coffee that grows wild on Mohéli. We talk of children (he has four) and houses (three). Then he asks why I’m here. I shrug: to see, to talk. It sounds facile but it’s the simple truth. Ahmeda nods. Yes, it is good that foreigners come to talk, he says.

I shake his hand on leaving and say ‘mahabhara’ (‘thank you’) then, at last, ‘kwaher’. Ahmeda beams. He clasps my hand between both of his. Tell other foreigners about Mohéli, he says. They should come, he says.

And you should. Mohéli lacks all the usual requirements we demand of a tourist destination: attractions, restaurants, heck, even proper roads. Yet it’s a singular reminder that an enjoyable trip can be about embracing unexpected experiences as much as ticking off the sights. 

Explore will offer its first trip to Comoros in 2018