Not on everyone’s list of places to make a surfing project, Comoros is an obscure group of volcanic tropical islands well off the beaten track in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar.
Just getting to Comoros is an exercise in itself. These islands are certainly not part of the “get off the plane and take a taxi to a luxury hotel” routine - far from it. Comoros is not easy at all, hence the near-total lack of tourism to these islands.
Anjouan Island in Comoros is similar to Kauai in Hawaii, with just a tiny fraction of the number of visitors
One of the reasons for the general lack of visitors is a history of political violence, dating from independence from France in 1978. At this time, a national referendum was held and three of the four islands voted to become an independent nation, the Union of the Comoros, with one of the main islands; Mayotte, voting to remain part of France.
Grande Comore is one of the Comoros Islands, all of which are volcanic in origin
With the cooperation of the French intelligence services, Denard led at least two coups d’etat in Comoros, during which problematic Presidents were replaced at gunpoint with new leaders more to the liking of the French government in the Elysée Palace.
Emiliano Cataldi of The surfEXPLORE Group taking a walk, traffic was non-existent on the lush island of Anjouan
Denard’s time has passed but the political instability in Comoros has continued, perhaps gotten worse with the attempted breakaway of the island of Anjouan from the federation in 2007.
Erwan Simon from France, surfing a left point on Anjouan Island
In 2008, an invasion force led by the African Union and assisted by France and Libya ousted the self-proclaimed President Mohammed Bacar. Bacar managed to escape from Anjouan to the French-controlled island of Mayotte with his life and Anjouan was brought back into the Union des Comores by force.
Always check the surf - we found this setup after walking to the beach while getting petrol on Anjouan
With this history of violence and instability, it is no wonder Comoros is virtually unvisited by surfers and international travelers, with all but the most determined put off by the sheer hassle and uncertainty of the project.
We arrived in Grande Comore, the ramshackle capital of Moroni on a flight from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The plane was refueled and in the air, returning to Africa while we were still collecting our baggage.
After several unexplained delays, boarding the ferry from Grande Comore to Anjouan
The capital was a warren of convoluted streets, with an impressive natural harbor and backed by the looming profile of Mount Karthala, an active volcano that dominates the skyline of Grande Comore.
We made our plans to go to Anjouan, taking advice from a number of long-term French expatriates in Moroni, who had weathered the many coups d’etat and other crises and had the local knowledge we needed to get to Anjouan.
The merchant harbour in Moroni with cargo boats and the imposing Friday Mosque.
They flatly stated flying was impossible as the inter-island planes were small, fully booked weeks in advance and we had surfboards, which would never make it as baggage even after paying extra fees - we would spend the entire time on Anjouan with no boards, garantie.
Local children had never seen surfers before and followed us everywhere
That left the inter-island ferry, used by 99% of locals anyway, as few local people had the money to fly. We bought tickets at the dock and settled down to wait with a large crowd of hundreds of Comorans, with perhaps ten foreigners in the group including ourselves and a feral shoeless French gal with feet so dirty they were black in colour.
surfEXPLORE's Erwan Simon, surfing in the Indian Ocean in Comoros
The wait went on for hours, before it was announced there would be no ferry today, come back tomorrow and try again. The crowd dispersed without complaint or much fuss at all, most of the locals had likely done this before and were used to the chaos.
We went back to our pension. The proprietor was not surprised at the cancellation either, saying it was routine and this may continue for several more days, perhaps a week, who knows? This is Comoros, not France! she said with some emphasis.
surfEXPLORE's Emiliano Cataldi, surfing in the Indian Ocean in Comoros
We returned the next day and went through a similar situation of hours of waiting, until a person appeared and made a short announcement. A wooden gangplank slammed down onto the concrete dock and the crowd came alive and heaved itself as one onto the ferry, scrambling up the gangplank and staking out the best spots on the open deck.
It was first come, first serve and there wasn’t a square meter of space that was not occupied by baggage, boxes or human beings. We made our camp with baggage and settled in for more waiting.
Dead Fisherman's Point, looking inviting on a sunny morning on Anjouan Island.
Finally at dusk, the rumble of the engines started and a man in a ragged uniform began passing out bright orange plastic bags. He skipped us for some reason and gave all the locals a bag, some asked for two.
The ferry left the calm waters of the harbor and a gentle rocking began. This was the signal for every single one of the hundreds of Comorans on the ship to begin emptying their stomachs into the bags. They vomited violently in the mild swell, then when the bags were full, tossed the plastic bags overboard into the sea.
Man with a basket of ylang-ylang flowers, pressed for their aromatic oil which is exported to France and used as the base of many exotic perfumes
The attendant came around with more bags and we asked if we could have some and he laughed “Mzungu (foreigners) don’t get seasick!” and refused.
The vomiting died down as darkness fell. Fortunately for all concerned, it was a very calm night; glassy even, and the ferry made steady progress towards Anjouan, where we were expected to arrive in Mutsamudu, the capital, at sunrise.
Emiliano Cataldi, surfing at Dead Fisherman's Point, the outside ledgy section
Stretching out to sleep on the cold, hard steel deck of the ship was not comfortable at all. Many experienced locals had brought cardboard for insulation and were sound asleep from the heavy, soporific vibration of the engines.
Arrival in the capital of Mutsamudu brought more chaos, as everyone tried to get off the ferry at the same time and several people were injured after slipping or being pushed on the narrow wooden gangplanks.
Bronze cannon at the Sultan's Fort overlooking Mutsamudu on Anjouan Island
An official saw us mzungu and barged his way through the crowd, demanding our passports before we could leave the dock area. He collected all the passports and then set off, with one of us to follow him to who knows where while everyone else collected the boards and baggage.
As it turned out, Anjouan did not recognize a Comoros visa as valid for their island and demanded additional fees to enter. We had no choice but to pay; not happy about it at all, but the officials were adamant that a second visa was necessary to “enter” Anjouan Island.
Surf travel guru and éminence grise Randy Rarick surfing in the Indian Ocean in Comoros
After the sleepless night, arrival chaos and official extortion at the harbour, we were ready for something good to happen. We met our local guide Moustali, loaded his Toyota truck with the boards and baggage and left Mutsamudu.
Erwan Simon, going off the top at a beachbreak on the side of the road. There was no one surfing anywhere in Anjouan.
We got the goodness on arrival at Moya, a small town on the coast with the only accommodation on the island we could find outside Mutsamudu. The place was open, fortunately; and the manager was friendly. There were no guests at all.
Moya is a small town with a great lefthand reef setup offshore
We took one look at the gorgeous beachfront location including a well-shaped left reef setup and moved into the cottages immediately.
Randy Rarick on his self-shaped Versatile model, a board good for many different waves and conditions
We had a good lunch and after the sleepless night on the ferry, everyone fell into a deep sleep. When we woke up later in the afternoon, the full impact of our new location was obvious.
Sights of Moya Beach, the large bats would sleep in the daytime and forage for fruit at night.
The tide had gone out and the huge offshore sandbar had emerged, as it would twice a day for the next couple of weeks. The transformation of Moya Beach from a narrow strip of golden sand to the flawless sandbar behind the reef never failed to amaze us, it was a natural show that can be seen in few places in the world.
Emiliano Cataldi, paddling a local pirogue to the sandbar
We surfed the left reef out front and ranged the island in Moustali’s pickup truck, waving and greeting nearly everyone, as Moustali seemed to know or be related to every single person in Anjouan.
Erwan Simon at one of our favourite waves, a peaky beach break with black sand and powerful waves
We told him he was so popular and well-known he should run for political office and he laughed, saying he did not have the character to be in Comoran politics: he wasn’t good at lying, cheating or stealing.
If there is one thing Comoros has in abundance, it is children - they are everywhere, leading a carefree existence until it is time to go to school and earn a living
One of our favorite new waves was on the other side of Anjouan, a rock formation that acted as a natural jetty, refracting the swell into clean peaks on the black sand. We surfed the lefts and rights, with the dark rocks and black volcanic sand making a great backdrop for the images.
Erwan Simon from France, taking to the air in Comoros
Another notable wave was a ledgy right point named “Dead Fisherman’s Point”, as a local had told us how a fisherman had recently got his pirogue in a bad position in the lineup on a big day and was killed as a result, leaving his wife and children without support,
Emiliano Cataldi from Italy, surfing in the Indian Ocean
Dead Fisherman's Point, the hollow outside section
The wave was shifty and hollow, we could well-understand how a pirogue could be shattered in the impact zone and a non-swimmer drowned.
Emiliano Cataldi, surfing at Dead Fisherman's Point on Anjouan Island
We stayed on Anjouan as long as we could, marveling at the lush tropical vegetation of a volcanic tropical island very similar to Réunion or Kauai in Hawaii, but with just a tiny fraction of the number of visitors and urban development.
Anjouan is a lush volcanic island of extraordinary sights, barely touched by international tourism at all
We eventually returned to Grande Comore on a different ferry, one that had seats instead of a cold, hard steel deck but was similarly packed with hundreds more passengers than it should have.
We arrived at Moroni at dawn to see a beautiful scene of boats and mist over the water outside the harbor, as cold air from the Karthala volcano descended the mountain and over the sea in a cool morning offshore wind.
Sorry, but the atmospheric "morning mist" is actually burning rubbish. Welcome to Moroni.
It makes a nice image, but the “mist” was actually burning rubbish, as with no municipal trash collection, locals pile their rubbish on the shoreline and burn it, with the morning offshore pushing the smoke out to sea. Charming.
We drove around Grande Comore looking for a wave to surf before our flight to Dar es Salaam the next day and stopped at the closed Le Galawa hotel, once the only five-star accommodation in Comoros, but now shuttered for more than a decade.
The beach in front of the closed Le Galawa hotel is one of the world's most spectacular beaches
After payment of a small fee, people can access the beach at the hotel, which is one of the world’s most spectacular natural beaches: two strips of white sand with coconut palms, bisected by a jetty of black volcanic lava.
Apparently, the Sun International company that ran the property grew tired of the constantly increasing “tax” demands and requests for complimentary rooms from government officials and considering the property contributed only 0.5% of their overall revenue, closed the doors and walked away, offering the property for sale with no takers for more than ten years.
Local women in Comoros definitely have the French style and flair in everything they do -
Such is life in the Comoros - spectacular natural beauty and tourism potential coupled with corruption and venality on a scale that keeps the islands shrouded in perpetual obscurity.
Text: © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE
Images: © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE