by Wolfgang Grulke September 1994
It has been said that from the vast emptiness of the Indian Ocean you
can see the massive outline of Grand Comoro’s volcano, Kartala, from up to 160
km away. Certainly we saw it from more than 80 km away as we approached Grand
Comoro from the north-east by yacht after a particularly harrowing voyage. Its
sheer mass gives you the false impression that you are about to arrive. In
reality, for us, more than 8 hours of travel lay ahead!
About halfway between sea level and the top of the volcanic crater the
island was shrouded in ominous dark storm clouds. On the east shore a storm was
raging and the lines of streaming tropical rain were etched geometrically
against the bright sky beyond. As we gradually drew nearer the stark silhouette
of the island softened into greener hues. Then suddenly, as if by some heavenly
cue, an amazing rainbow appeared, crisp and clear in the fresh post-storm air.
It enclosed the entire island in its brilliant embrace. Nature's great
home-coming gift to us weary travellers - sick of the sea after several weeks.
Travelling through the massive ‘gate’ created by the rainbow, we
were overwhelmed by the beauty of pristine white beaches lining the shore,
bounded by black volcanic rock and fringed by an abundance of coconut palms. On
land, we met an island harsh in its geology and poverty, and magnificent in its
surviving natural environment.
The Comoros islands, situated right in the upper throat of the
Mozambique Channel, between Madagascar and the east African coast, represent a
perfect natural laboratory for the study of island ecology, and its most
positive and negative consequences.
The islands were most likely named after the Arabic name found on
ancient maps 'Jazair el Kamar' meaning Islands of the Moon, or perhaps after the
southern Arab tribe named Kamar (Moon) who are said to have been first to visit.
Alternatively their name was perhaps based on the Arabic word 'Komr' meaning The
Burning One, referring to its impressive volcano? Whatever the truth, the
Comoros still carry the corrupted form of their Arabic origins in their name.
If the Arabs did indeed name the islands, they may not have been the
first to visit there. In Comoran folklore there are many stories of "yellow
men shorter than pygmies" and these are said to give an indication as to
the first inhabitants of the Comoros being from the East. If they were there,
they left no physical trace, but they did leave some cultural clues. One of
these is the presence of the galawa, thought to be an ancestor of the Malaysian/
Polynesian outrigger canoes. It is considered highly unlikely that African
people would have been able to make the more than 300 km trip to the islands in
un-stabilised canoes. There is still considerable debate if the Indonesians were
indeed the first settlers and the belief that it was them who brought the first
Africans to the islands as slaves.
Now called the Federal Island Republic of the Comoros, the island
country consists of three islands: Grand Comoro, Moheli and Anjouan. A fourth
island in the geographic Comoros group is Mayotte, an island that at the time of
Comoran independence decided to stay French.
Grand Comoro is the largest, loftiest and youngest of the islands in the
group and the only one still subject to considerable volcanic activity. The
island is dominated by the hulk of Kartala, a massive active volcano that rises
to 2361 metres above sea level - more than 2 kilometres into the sky. It has the
largest active volcanic crater in the world, more than 3 kilometres in diameter.
The northern aspect of the crater is active all the time.
All over the island, the black lava flows from Kartala and its many
brothers and sisters are much in evidence. The way a statue might be cast in
bronze, Grand Comoro has been cast in lava. The dark grey brittle volcanic lava
is ubiquitous in the life blood of the island. As a building material, it
weathers naturally into manageable fragments that are easily collected and
transported. These irregular blocks are piled on top of each other to make rough
simple walls or joined together with ‘coral cement’ to make the stone houses
and walls so typical of the island. ‘Coral cement’ is made from coral heads
pulled from the sea, dried in the sun, leached in the rain, baked for days in an
earth oven dug into the ground and then crushed to make lime. In doing so man is
literally re-engineering nature: breaking down the limestone homes created over
hundreds of years by coral polyps and algae, only to reconstitute them to build
homes for his own species.
More recently some companies have been established that crush the
lava to a fine powder which when mixed with a little cement and poured into a
mould makes regular large ‘cement’ bricks which are now becoming the primary
form of building.
Everyone who first visits Grand Comoro remarks on the multitude of
partially completed houses that one sees all over the island. The state of
completion of the home literally represents the level of the family’s mortgage
bond! It is the local custom to build a house for the first born daughter, into
which she will move after her wedding (hopefully the anticipated spectacular
‘Grand Marriage’ - say it the way the French would!). The building process
starts immediately after the birth of the daughter, when some funds are
available for building materials, and continues in fits and starts over a period
of up to 20 years. The progress of building at any time literally represents the
family’s ‘bank balance’ - their investment in property.
The lava dominates the landscape and the towns of Grand Comoro; it’s
everywhere you look. It’s in the roads, the houses and the minds of the people
of Grand Comoro. Geologically, Grand Comoro is dominated by the lava, craters
and a generally inhospitable coastline. Ecologically it is a wild mixture of
unique indigenous life-forms and marauding imported species. Its colourful
Islamic population, Moorish
architecture and ruins of Sultans’ long-forgotten palaces colour the Comoran
canvas gaily in contrasting richness and painful poverty. For the tourist the
small stretches of perfect palm-lined beaches are straight out of paradise and
the foreign exchange created by their presence is literally manna from heaven
for the locals.
The Craters of Grand Comoro
Grand Comoro is dominated by craters of all descriptions. Some so
weathered that it needs substantial imagination to make out the original
dimensions of the conic funnel, others obviously fairly recent in their creation
and perfect in their classic shape.
A unique experience is to hike up the crumbling porous slopes to the top
ridge of long-extinct volcanic cones, called calderas, and then down into the
central funnel. Here you will sometimes find virginal canopy forests, virtually
isolated from life around it by the volcano’s protection. A small ecosystem
that has been created during the past few hundred years.
Volcanic lava does not sustain life for about 250 years after an
eruption. After that inert period, the first small plants begin to settle and
thrive on the inhospitable terrain and slowly, during several more hundred
years, varied vegetation
establishes itself. The inside of the caldera cone forms a natural trap for
water and detritus and so are amongst the first areas in which plants blossom.
The outside slopes of some calderas are quite barren while inside the crater
exquisite miniature forests thrive like deliberate experiments in life and
Here we found lizards, butterflies and a variety of tiny birds
chattering noisily in their volcano cocoon. In the tops of
protected trees fruit bats sleep like clumps of ripening fruit. While the
locals dig away at the base of many calderas for building materials the life
inside goes on and evolves largely undisturbed.
There are other craters that are older and have been eroded by the
forces of nature over thousands of years. Some, like Lac Salle (literally Lake
of Salt) on the northern tip of Grand Comoro, have filled up with water. Lac
Salle specifically is interesting as it is situated right next to the sea and
its sulphurous water gives off an ominous smell and changes its colour
throughout the day, demonstrating varied hues of brown, green and blue. Some
locals believe that its waters are linked to the sea as the levels in the lake
sometimes appear to fluctuate with the levels of the sea.
Inside the crater of Lac Salle, kapok trees grow out of the steep sides
of the crater into the void. During the day they are often heavy with sleeping
fruitbats that are readily disturbed at any time during the day. A small pebble
thrown down at them from the top of the crater’s edge by a tourist guide will
send them flying gawkily across the lake to the great delight of the visitors.
largest active volcanic crater in the world
Kartala! The very name sounds ominous. It is rightly held in awe by the
locals, and not just for reasons of history. The last major eruption, on 5 April
1977, destroyed the entire village of Singani on the south coast of Grand
Comoro. Luckily no one was killed as the villagers had ample warning and were
able to avoid the lava flow. The dramatic photos taken of the advancing lava are
still very popular as postcards with the tourists. The latest eruption, in 1991,
was much more modest.
The airport 20 km north of Moroni has in fact been built on the ashes of
a major 1859 eruption from the now extinct La Grille volcano, and lies in a
natural lava path of Kartala, should that erupt again some time in the future!
Kartala’s crater is 500 metres deep and more than 3 000 metres across,
and at one end of this enormous crater is a sulphurous lake. In the morning its
sulphurous water is a deep olive green and it gradually turns into a rancid
yellow in the late afternoon.
It is not an easy crater to visit or to see into. It takes a precarious
flight in the island’s only microlight aircraft or an enormous favour from the
President for a trip in his helicopter, the only one on the island. Commercial
aircraft are not allowed within 30 000 feet of Kartala’s summit for the risk
of volcanic dust interfering with the jet’s turbines. The only other way up is
a tortuous hike from the village of Boboni. Only the fittest can complete this
trip safely within a 24 hour period.
Grand Comoro natural history
The Comoros islands have never been linked to the African continent and
are separated from it by seas in excess of 3 000 metres deep.
The terrestrial and marine flora and fauna of the Comoros islands have a
great similarity to Madagascar and it is believed that due the relatively small
size of the islands a significant number of endemic species have been
exterminated in the islands since the arrival of man.
Unfortunately due to the wide-spread clearing of land for agricultural
purposes (coconuts, breadfruit, bananas, mangoes, ylang ylang, rice and sweet
potatoes - as well as vanilla, coffee and cocoa), it is estimated that less than
15% of the land is now covered by the original pristine forests which are the
haven for the majority of indigenous plants and animals, and these have suffered
climax forests of Kartala
On the slopes of Kartala is the most graphic evidence of the
intrusion of man into these environments. Right up to an altitude of 400 metres
the forests have been burnt and cleared to make way for agriculture of various
forms. Some solitary indigenous trees remain in amongst the groves of banana and
mango. From the Kartala forest, at about 400 metres, there is a magnificent view
of Moroni and the harbour.
It is only in the higher-lying areas, typically above 400 metres that
they remain somewhat untouched but even above 800 meters we saw the impact of
intrusion by introduced species. Amongst the most beautiful indigenous forest
you will find the odd banana tree. Along paths to the top of Kartala the
introduced Chinese guava has run rampant and out of control.
Despite all the damage there are still corners of the rain forest that
inspire awe and wonder, and stir the imagination. According to local legend,
these rain forests are said to have sprouted from the wooden thrones of King
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba when they were married on Grand Comoro. There is
certainly a royal profusion of exotic hardwoods, ferns, epiphytes, giant
heathers and cycads. Butterflies and unusual insects. Everywhere orchids grow
from cracks in the bark and on branches of trees. Unfortunately the time of our
visit was not the time for them to be in flower and we saw only one species in
But even what’s left untouched is now being threatened. At about 900
metres we encountered the ‘tree poachers’. They had just returned from the
upper reaches of the rain forest carrying a large hardwood log from a tree they
admitted to felling ‘illegally’. The purpose - to build furniture for their
home. Considering the extreme physical demands of felling the tree in this
treacherous environment and carrying it down Kartala’s slope, they left no
doubt in my mind about their real need. However, little by little, the pressure
on the remaining climax forests around Kartala continues to build. Although
conservation policies exist, there are not the resources to implement or police
them. They remain impotent threats and are ignored to all intents and purposes.
When you look up at the slopes of Kartala
from the shores of Grand Comoro, you can see constant plumes of smoke spiralling
up into the clouds shrouding the volcano, fires that are clearing away another
small bit of the precious primeval forest.
The rain forest finally thins out at about 1200 metres, at the level
where the clouds typically begin to envelop the top of Kartala. Above 1500
metres and up to 1800 metres there are barren wind-swept zones where lichens,
broom and heather predominate.
Inside the 500m deep crater is a mass of lava, and a sulphurous lake. A
barren wilderness where the only vegetation is a shallow-rooted desert flower.
Jets of sulphurous steam break through the rough surface. It is a desolate
environment evoking an alien landscape.
The only regular visitors to this eerie if spectacular landscape are
scientists who have planted probes to monitor the volcano’s behaviour. The
trek from the village of Boboni to the top of the crater takes in excess of 8 to
10 hours and should only be attempted by the very fit and with a proven guide.
Any thoughts of a trip down into the crater means a further day. What
complicates the trip is that, even in summer, the temperature at the crater can
drop to below freezing at night.
It is believed that terrestrial life colonised the Comoros islands in
waves, initially from Africa and then from Madagascar. The islands have a
prolific population of spiders and insects, but surprisingly little bird life.
Just 51 species of birds breed in the Comoros islands, but of these, 13 are
Paradoxically, although Grand Comoro is the youngest of the Comoros
islands it has the largest number of endemic bird species as can be seen from
the following table:
Grand Comoro scops owl
Grand Comoro drongo
Comoros blue pigeon
Source: Michael Louette, Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika, 1992
(The common names in the table above are not complete)
By comparison to the scarcity of birds, more than 1200 insect species
were recorded by Decelle in 1984, of which a third were endemic to the Comoros
and another third were endemic to the western Indian Ocean islands including
The amazing lack of sea birds around the islands is remarkable, and as
yet not fully explained.
Of the endemic animal groups many are endangered, including numerous
butterflies, insects and spiders, chameleons and forest birds.
Lemurs are limited to Madagascar and the Comoros, and one species of
endemic lemur occurs on Mayotte. There are a few lemurs on Grand Comoro but
these are imported from the other islands or Madagascar, and then domesticated
by the locals. To some they are a source of money from tourists who are happy to
have their picture taken with them.
An important part of Grand Comoros island ecology is the day-flying
fruitbat Pteropus comoroensis. These
appealing furry creatures are found everywhere on the island and spend much of
the day sleeping in kapok trees in sheltered spots (the more daring modern ones
sometimes choose to sleep in the open attached to telephone wires along the
road). They will often be seen flying around in late afternoon when the sun is
still way above the horizon. The
Comoros islands are also home to one the world's rarest fruit bats, the black
flying fox Pteropus livingstonii,
endemic to the islands of Anjouan and Moheli, and facing extinction.
In the wild many fruit trees rely on fruitbats for propagation, these
include bananas, breadfruit and mangoes. They are also seen to be essential for
the reforestation of abandoned farmlands, and in East Africa it has been shown
that the giant baobab is dependent on fruitbats for pollination.
These unusual day-flying fruitbats of Grand Comoro have yet more
surprises in store. Dr. Eugene Balon of the University of Guelph, Ontario,
Canada, has observed fruitbats fishing in the sea in the style of African fish
eagles. They swoop down, catch the fish with their claws extended forward and
then return to their favourite kapok trees to hang upside down and feed on the
still struggling fish. This appears to have been observed nowhere else in the
world but on Grand Comoro. The fruitbats on the other Comoran islands have not
been seen doing so, even though they have plenty of opportunity.
The profusion of fruitbats on Grand Comoro is really unique. On other
Indian Ocean islands, like the Seychelles, fruitbats are hunted for food and are
frequently used in local curries. In Mauritius and Reunion they have been all
but wiped out as a result. Luckily the Comorans have not (yet) developed a taste
Because of the volcanic origin of Grande Comoro and the steep-sloping
terrain, there is only a narrow area of shallow water around the island, unlike
other island atolls such as Mayotte. This means that at Grand Comoro the
fringing coral reef is fairly narrow and extremely susceptible to exploitation
Although some tourist literature has proclaimed the diving at Grand
Comoro to be "the best in the World" this can at best be called
ill-informed! Large areas of reef around the populated areas of the island lie
in tatters, like pale grey skeletons of a former glorious life. Around the
skeletal remains of once-beautiful corals live an abundance of invertebrate
animals and some very unusual fish.
The reef food chain has already been largely decimated. As early as
1987, before the influx of major tourism, Heemstra and Smale already noted the
scarcity of important reef predators such as the groupers, snappers and
kingfish, indicating over exploitation of the reef system.
Even today the villagers walk along the reef at low tide stretching fine
nets between them, with the same disastrous effect as gill-nets out at sea.
Despite this ravage, more than 820 species of marine fish have been recorded in
Comoros waters. This is compared to only 17 species of fresh water species in
the islands, all of which are of marine origin! There are no perennial rivers on
Grand Comoro, only temporary streams and the rain quickly soaks into the porous
volcanic rock and there is little surface water.
For the diver and marine naturalist, Grand Comoro offers many unusual
dive experiences. The unique underwater terrain caused by the lava flows
entering the sea, especially along stretches of the Grand Comoros west and south
coast offer a spectacular terrain seldom experienced by divers.
The point about many of the dive sites on Grand Comoro is not the
spectacular coral formations or crystal clear water so common in the Red Sea or
the Caribbean. Here, to really enjoy your dive, you have to take the time to
study the smaller inhabitants of the reefs.
and eels observed at Oasis/Castle Rock
Stargazer snake eel
Giant/Yellow edged moray
Starry/Yellow mouth moray
Ocellated snake eel
Note: The above were observed in a combined area of no more than 200
square metres of reef during four separate dives
At Oasis we regularly saw what is most likely the greatest number and
variety of moray eels we have ever encountered on a single dive, including the
very rare ‘dragon moray’, which outside Grand Comoro has only been
photographed at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. At times there were simply
too many to observe. While I was taking a close-up photograph of one, another
moray eel came up and gave me a bite on my exposed hand! Seeing it wasn’t too
painful I felt honoured somehow. On the same dive we saw forests of
magnificently coloured anemones, clownfish, domino damsels in numbers we have
never experienced before and a large variety of commensal porcelain crabs and
shrimps in amongst the anemone tentacles. It fascinated us that on the same day
a group of divers crossed this reef and came back angry that such a boring reef
could be included on the dive programme.
Also at Oasis, within a minute of starting a dive, we were surrounded by
a huge school of barracuda. They circled around us at great speed, encasing us
in a living barrel of fish, as if to feed!
At Castle Rock we observed the stargazer snake eel peering eerily out of
its burrow in the sand, only its razor-like teeth and bulging eyes protruding
- waiting for the next meal. On other dives we saw the rare
razor fish, many cryptic leaf fish - absolute masters of disguise - related to
the scorpionfish, mantis shrimps, many species of shrimp, crayfish and marbled
electric rays. The trick with diving Grand Comoros is to take the time to look
at the detail. The coral sometimes appears to be grey and lifeless but the life
in between is unique and prolific.
A night dive on some of these apparently inert reefs can be a real joy
and may offer the unique chance to see the beautiful pale sand or vestlet
anemone Cerianthus membranaceus that
only emerges at night. It is so sensitive to light that you have to approach it
virtually in the dark to see it fully extended - one flash of the torch and it
begins to retract into the sand, and seems to be prepared to stay there until
you run out of air. Also at night, fusiliers are plentiful and easily
approached, especially the fusilier Caesio
caerulaureus, that changes its colours dramatically from a pale blue and
silver during the day to a deep blue and red coloration at night.
And of course, anybody visiting the Comoros who is interested in marine
life will always be aware of the omni-present aura of the coelacanth Latimeria
chalumnae; that fascinating link in the evolution from fish to land-dwelling
animals and subsequently, man. The coelacanth is the sole living representative
of an ancient group of fishes that first appear in the fossil record 400 million
years ago. As the fossil record shows, they were once widespread in the sea and
inland waters worldwide and it was thought that they had been extinct for more
than 60 million years until that surprising discovery in 1938. As one skirts the
Earth’s watery envelope at the sport diving limit of around 40 metres one can
but wonder at what exactly Latimeria
chalumnae is up to 200 metres below you.
Comoro’s sea mount
About 12 nautical miles
south west of Moroni lies a sea mount, Récif Vailheu (called Banc Vailheu by
many locals), that has become an alluring destination for divers. Its peak rises
to within about 6 metres of the surface of the sea. The tip of this undersea
mountain is a large plateau covered in a beautiful coral reef ecology, the walls
of which drop off for hundreds of metres, in some areas literally at right
angles. The vistas created by these sheer vertical walls are truly breathtaking.
Sea conditions over the sea mount are often treacherous, while
underneath currents rip along and over the precipice. A dive can never be
guaranteed and many a boat has had to return to Moroni after a hard ride,
without anyone having had the chance to dive. Many have ended up sea-sick and
shaking violently on the bottom of the boat..
This remote cone will most likely one day be an island atoll and already
appears to be bustling with marine life in anticipation of that far-off day. Its
sudden rise out of the depths of the western Indian Ocean attracts many of the
larger denizens of the deep, to feed or out of sheer curiosity. Although the
shores of the Comoros are relatively shark-free, here on the sea mount many
species of shark, including hammerheads, are regularly sighted in the deep gloom
at the edge of the reef and manta rays frequent the area.
Along the walls at about 40 metres depth huge orange sea fans stretch
into the nutrient-rich currents that sweep along the walls. Somewhat unusual at
this depth we saw several lionfish Pterois
volitans and a large bold pufferfish, an unidentified Arothron sp., similar to A.
hispidus but different in coloration and markings. On top of the plateau the
reef has the full assortment of Indo-Pacific coral reef fish and invertebrates.
We noticed that this area had significantly more large angelfish, parrotfish and
some rockcod, when compared to the coastal sites of Grand Comoro, even though
this is also a favourite night-time fishing spot for the galawas from the
island. A few large tuna passed by and, in the patches of sand between the coral
bommies, were many kinds of gobies paired nervously just outside their burrows.
On the way back to Moroni after our dive we ran into a school of
hundreds of dolphin and spent a while with them. The dolphin were then joined by
a school of larger ‘dolphins’, with white markings under the chin and a
somewhat squarer jaw. We were told that these were called ‘pygmy killer
whales’, but have been unable to identify them in any documentation we have
seen. We tried to slither into the water with them but disappointingly saw them
glide into the depths, in beautiful formation, but away from us. It always is a
magic moment, however fleeting, to spend time in close proximity with these
gentle giants of the sea.
When we docked at the harbour in Moroni after our journey to Récif
Vailheu we were instantly catapulted back to the commercial reality facing the
The Comoran islands together have a population of around half a million
people, 99% of whom are Sunni Muslim. The Comoros are bereft of a broad spectrum
of resources but local resources allow most to live fairly well off locally
grown produce including banana and other tropical fruits. The Comoran diet
consists of 95% plant and only 5% animal products, a healthy high quality diet -
but Western influences may just tip this balance over time.
The typical Comoran home is a two-roomed affair, one for sleeping and
one so-called living room. At the age of 12, boys are expected to leave the
family home and usually live alone in a small palm-thatched hut on the same
property. For girls, especially the first born, the parents make other plans, as
were discussed earlier in this article. While the girls watch their future house
slowly being assembled nearby, the boys are contemplating the vast material
implications of the Grand Marriage - a minimum of half a kilo of gold, 50 dinner
plates filled with clothes and toiletries, ten cows and the local equivalent of
US Dollars 25 000,00! Even if the social pressures on boys is enormous
(“Without Grand Marriage I will be marginalised!”) it’s no wonder that the
Grand Marriage is a rare one in the Comoros.
Day to day life for many Comorans remains a struggle. Most Comoran homes
do not have access to electricity. Seeds, from the plants that vanilla pods grow
on, are used to extract oil used in lamps to light homes.
While increased farming is destroying more and more of the natural
environment, and a rapidly increasing population is forcing farming on
increasingly steep slopes and in extremely poor soil, this is the major
production opportunity for the local economy. Grand Comoro exports small
quantities of spices (including
nutmeg, black pepper, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves), coffee and cocoa. In addition
the Perfumed Isles export the fragrant
ylang ylang which is used as a base
for many famous international perfumes. Ylang ylang is grown in plantations of
deliberately stunted plants to facilitate harvesting of the flower.
Today, the major imports are rice and Pretoria Portland Cement. It looks
like even the traditional way of house-building is endangered.
The reality of imports into Grand Comoro is worth a mention. The harbour
at Moroni is not deep enough to take large sea-going vessels. Container ships
delivering cement or other goods have to anchor off-shore and are met by
unlikely looking wooden barges made of rough takamaka planks, visibly leaking
like the proverbial sieve and pulled by tiny motorised galawas. Onto each of
these rickety wooden barges the container ship will carefully deposit one
container. This precarious manoeuvre typically brings the water level to within
a few centimetres of the edge of the craft. As it is being towed into the
harbour for unloading the onboard crew is busied with continuous frantic bailing
to keep the barge afloat!
The markets around Moroni are an excellent way to see the variety of
spices produced in the islands and to appreciate the lack of local industry.
While black peppercorns sell by the kilo, for less than ten Rand (grain for
grain this is about 20 times cheaper than around the hotels), all the
‘local’ cloth appears to be imported from Kenya, the woodwork and
semi-precious stones from Madagascar. One local boy told me he had been taught
to copy the Madagascar woodware by some South Africans, but clearly that which
he was selling was the imported variety.
Nevertheless the markets provide a wonderful snapshot of local life. The
first overwhelming impression is the profusion of colours created by the
different forms of head and body coverings worn by the local women. Each island
has a characteristically different style and the variety of colours and patterns
displayed is spellbinding. Together the mixture is intoxicating. The women have
beautifully sculpted faces and ready smiles while they beg noisily for your
custom. Just don’t take out a camera and attempt to photograph them! Suddenly
the mood changes to one of aggression. It’s not that they want money, they
simply don’t want their photographs to be taken at all. They believe that by
taking their picture you will somehow capture their soul and then profit from
it. In most cases no amount of money will change their mind. The men and
children on the other hand don’t mind at all and some urge you to photograph
them, sometimes performing elaborate rituals to get your attention. (see photo
of people working on the boat opposite the Friday Mosque)
The fishermen, galawas and clues to the coelacanth
The unique style of fishing in the Comoros islands was almost certainly
what caused the coelacanth mystery to be finally solved. Although the first
coelacanth was caught in a trawl net off East London in 1938, it was only when
the fishermen of the Comoros realised they had been catching them for years
(almost all coelacanths found have been caught on these hand lines, at night)
that the puzzle of the coelacanth’s home was finally solved. Until 1952 the gombessa
or coelacanths were not valued as they were only thought of as potential food,
and as food they were dreadful!
The Comoran fisherman’s workhorse is the galawas, an outrigger canoe,
that is carved from local wood (kapok, jackfruit, breadfruit, mango or camphor),
sometimes at the side of a road, exactly where the tree is felled, the rough
axe/adze blows that shape the galawa leaving huge piles of wood chippings as
graphic evidence of furious hard work. On Grand Comoro these paddling canoes are
usually between 2 and 4 metres long and have two outrigger floats, propelled by
wooden paddles. The fishermen expect them to give 12 to 15 years of good service
before they have to be replaced
The local fishing tradition in the Comoros islands involves long-line
fishing from these galawas with hand lines down to a depth of over 400 metres -
sometimes requiring lines over 1 km long with stone weights as sinkers! The
fishermen’s hugely calloused hands and fingers like old ropes testify to the
difficulty of this task. It is because of this method of fishing, usually at
night for the oilfish Ruvettus
(locally known as ‘nesa’), that the occasional coelacanth is hooked. A
fisherman catching a coelacanth will earn up to R500,00 to R1 000,00 for his
catch from scientists keen to study this unusual ‘fossil’ fish. The flesh of
the coelacanth is too oily to be a food source and once brought to the surface
from depths exceeding 200 metres the fish is usually dead anyway (from the
combined effects of exhaustion, decompression and the raised temperature of the
water - from about 13 degrees centigrade at 300 metres depth to more than 25
degrees at the surface) so that a catch and release approach would be useless.
The bravery and adventurous spirit of the Comoran fishermen is
legendary. They venture many kilometres out to sea in flimsy hand-carved galawas
without any navigational aids except their eyes and intuition. When the weather
is favourable they are never out of sight of majestic Kartala and home. However,
tropical weather is extremely changeable and even when just a few kilometres out
to sea any view of the island can be totally obscured by mist and clouds within
a few minutes. Also, currents and winds regularly blow fishermen out to sea and
towards the African continent, 240 kilometres away. There are many local stories
of fishermen who have survived at sea for weeks, living off fish and gauging out
the eyes of their larger catch to drink the vitreous fluid of the eyeball as a
source of sweet water. Some have unwittingly landed in the vicious civil war in
Mozambique and have only been able to return to the Comoros through the good
offices of international aid agencies several years after their families had
given them up as lost.
To me, the huge mass of Kartala dominated the island wherever we were.
Even if much of the time its upper reaches were hidden by clouds, its physical
mass and potentially destructive power dominated my spirit. In fact everyone
constantly (and proudly) reminds you that Kartala is still active. The black
lava flows from recent eruptions are ever in sight, its awesome power never far
I was clearly not the only one who felt the ubiquitous power of Kartala.
The young boy’s freckled face and bleached blonde hair was in stark contrast
to the black skin of our Comoran guide. With eyes large in anticipation he
looked up at the guide and asked: “Do they really throw criminals into the
“No, no”, the guide said, “we never do that! Criminals are put
into the stomach of the baobab tree! From here there is simply no escape! At
night the evil spirits rest in the branches of the baobab tree and stand guard.
From the stomach, the prisoner can see the stars above him but there is no way
he can ever climb out.” I smiled. Surely this was nothing more than fanciful
folk lore. But then I had never seen the stomach of the baobab tree for myself.
The baobab tree, is also called the upside down tree in Africa, for good
reason. In winter when its branches are bare its appearance is exactly like an
uprooted tree left to die, pale, stark and ghostly. During our
time on Grand Comoro we saw several baobab trees that could easily have
been the prisons of lore.
Through purely natural forces the central core of some of these massive
spooky trees have been hollowed out to create a large cylindrical chamber,
sometimes with a tunnel linking it to the outside. One such tree we saw in the
north of the island had an entrance into the centre of the tree that was so
grand that an adult could walk into the central chamber without stooping. Once
inside you could look up through the top of the tree and imagine the frustration
of the prisoners so entombed. The stars would certainly appear tantalisingly
close. Through the opening we could hear the flutter of fruitbats and saw a
heron resting in the branches for the night. From the same sounds I’m sure the
prisoner would interpret that he heard the evil spirits stirring in the branches
of the baobab tree to remind him that he was their prisoner!
This is one of the poorest countries on Earth, a totally resource-based
economy struggling to capture some income from tourism.
Conservation of the Comoros natural resources is not something to be
done for tourism alone. It is essential to maintain the diet and living
standards of the local people at today’s levels. From what we saw the negative
trends have not been arrested and this makes practical implementation of
increased measures to protect the terrestrial and marine resources an urgent
The magnificent palm-fringed beaches at Maloudja near the La Galawa
hotel have to be one of the most magnificent settings for a hotel anywhere in
the world. Whether you just want to laze away the days under the palms or
explore a fascinating natural and cultural environment, Grand Comoro has few
Our sincere thanks to Mike Bruton and Robin Stobbs of the JLB Smith
Institute for providing excellent background information from their various
expeditions to the Comoros islands, to World Leisure, Barbara Beauchamp and
Morna Berthelot, and to Island Ventures, especially Guy and Caroline Fotherby,
for their overwhelming hospitality and personal attention, even on our second