English mountaineer George Mallory said he wanted to climb Mt. Everest “because it’s there.”
In Comoros Islands, people climb the 2,261-metre-high Mt.Karthala, the world’s largest active volcano, for the same reason.
Indeed, the Comoros is not your much-ballyhooed, pampered sun and sands holiday that comes with palm trees, a beach bed and you sipping coconut juice.
The Comoros is for people who put a different meaning to “memorable fun” – the trip planners preferring extreme outdoor activities.
Folklore has it that a jinni dropped a jewel on the Indian Ocean that became Mt.Karthala which, with its eruptions, in turn formed the Comoros.
Comoros is from the Arabic word “qamar” which means moon.
In the 10th century, Al-Masudi, a historian from Baghdad, wrote about Omani sailors referring to the Comoros as the “PerfumeIslands” due to the sweet scent that ylang-ylang flowers spread with the breeze. Today, Comoros is still very popular for ylang ylang oils.
Around the 15th century, royal Arabic clans from the Persian capital of Shiraz in what is now Iran, landed on the Comoros, introduced Islam and built communities including mosques.
Also in the 15th century, Ahmad ibn Mājid, an Arab navigator and cartographer born in 1421 in Julphar, now the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates, drew individual routes among the islands that Persian and other Arab merchants used in search of coral, ylang-ylang, ivory, beads, spices, and gold.
The Comoros, with its steep mountains and low hills, were ruled by sultans – hundreds of them in succession – till the islands were officially made a French colony in 1912.
What to do
The volcanic Comoros archipelago is composed of the main islands of Grande Comore, which is home to Mt. Karthala and two other volcanoes; Mohéli, Anjouan, and Mayotte all situated off the coast of East Africa between Mozambique and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
Most visitors to the islands agree that the Comoros is the ultimate getaway, if by this one means staying out of the usual theme parks, bars, guided walks, bus tours with a morose person on a microphone babbling about landmarks, and lunch at a restaurant where all the tourists are huddled, taking pictures and sampling strange food, wondering if they’ll tip the sullen waitress – this, not to mention sleep deprivation caused by a tightly-packed itinerary, and being whisked back to the plane in a clutter.
The Comoros, with its moist evergreen mountains, tall waterfalls – Dziankoudre, Ntingui and the 100-metre high Nkozini among them; the sacred hot springs at Lac Sale volcanic lake; the jungles, home to one of the world’s largest fruit bat, the Comoro flying fox with its wingspan of 1.4 metres; and 12th century towns with their narrow streets and fortifications, is definitely the ultimate getaway, if by this you mean the “Now-that’s-what-I’m-talking-about!” kind.
The islands are so full of secret beaches, Brooke Shields would certainly want to re-do “Blue Lagoon” there; the rainforest, with its four endemic bird species, are so great for hikes, it begs a “Jurassic Park” sequel; and Mt. Karthala so beacons, Gregory Peck is kicking up his grave to do another of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
A guided trek to Mt.Karthala’s three-kilometre-by-four-kilometre caldera summit, and back, takes about 16 hours and some 100 euros. The volcano has erupted over 20 times since the 19th century with the last ones happening on April 17, 2005 and May 29, 2006 and causing the evacuation of about 40,000 residents due to lava flows as well as volcanic gas.
Despite this, going up the crater has remained on the bucket list of most fun-loving trip planners looking to have an adventure of a lifetime, trekking up the volcano like a pilgrim would for the best outdoor activities. For what could really pump up the adrenaline more than a rumbling sound from underneath?
What to see
Back in the lowlands, places to see include Anjouan Island’s Domoni, a 12th century town with houses having beautiful doors covered in woodcarvings, a fortification wall, a tower, and a 13th century palace. Iconi on Grande Comori Island, the first capital of Grande Comore developed in the 12th century, is also one fine place with the ubiquitous woodcarvings on doors and remnants of old palaces and fortifications.
Itsandra Mdjini also on Grande Comori, for its part, is a small, 14th century walled maritime trade town with historic buildings including a 17th century fortress linked to the city through a 130-metre long, fortified stairway.
Certainly not to be missed is Moroni, a 14th century African-Arabic trading post on Grande Comore notable for its maze of narrow streets and the former royal palace where descendants of the royal family still reside.
Another 14th century trading post is Mutsamudu in Anjouan, also known for its narrow streets, historic architecture and several covered bridges that women use to cross streets without being noticed, this being part of the local culture where females are accorded respect. Likewise in Mutsamadu is a British fortress built in 1782 to protect the town from pirate raids.
Three notable mosques in the Comoros are the Old Friday Mosque which was built in 1502; the Shirazi Mosque in Domoni which is reportedly the oldest in the archipelago; and the Ziyarani Mosque built in the 15th century from the ruins of an 11th century mosque.
Dolphins off the coast beyond Hahaya and giant sea turtles laying eggs at Moheli are also among other activities to engage in.