November 2021: The Comoros islands were my Plan B. Although I had wanted to visit for a while, I did not expect to be here on this trip. I was supposed to go to Angola, but the Omicron outbreak, resulted in Angola canceling all my flights. I could only return home via Ethiopian Airlines, and because they fly to Comoros and the hub, Addis Abba is only a few hours from Comoros, I made Comoros my Plan B. My goal was to climb the massive active shield volcano, Karthala Volcano, in Comoros.

Where are the Comoros Islands

Where are the Comoros

Location of Grand Comoros island on Map

Karthala Volcano

Location of massive Karthala volcano on Gran Comoros island

The Comoros Islands are a true off the beaten path destination located in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Tanzania. Despite having potential, they are incredibly underdeveloped for tourism. Since Comoros are in the crossroads of Arabia and Africa, the people are an ethnic mix of mainland Africa, Malagasy and Arabic. The islands were once under Omani rule from the Arabian Peninsula, and because of this, the people are Arabic speaking and Muslim. During recent times, the island fell under the control of France and became a colony until the islands, except the Comoros island of Mayotte, achieved independence in 1975, hence, why they speak French.

I only had three days to visit Comoros. I decided to stay at Gran Comoros, the most developed island in the chain where the capital of Moroni is. The island of Gran Comoros is dominated by the massive shield volcano, Karthala, which stands at almost 8,000 feet. The Karthala volcano is very active and most recently erupted in 2006. There is no place on the island of Gran Comoros where the volcano’s presence is not felt. Evidence of an ancient or modern-day volcanic flow is found all around the island, and there are numerous beaches where black volcanic rock meets white sandy coral atolls.

 

The Hike Up Karthala

I had only three days in Comoros, and the PCR Covid test that I needed to exit the islands severely limited my flexibility to do much, including Karthala. The test was a very convoluted process, so much so that I hired a fixer mainly to help me organize the test. I had to hand my passport over to my fixer to schedule my test. The next day, a doctor came to my hotel to administer the test. The results arrived on the morning of my departure. There is only one place in town for the test and to do it on your own when you don’t speak French is very daunting. This ordeal left me one full day to climb the volcano. The hike to the top of the volcano takes you through the cloud forest and into the high heathland forest of giant heather. It is approximately seven thousand feet up and 7000 feet down and 20 miles round trip. The hike would have been much more comfortably climbed in two days vs. one with a night camping on top, but I had to make do with the time available. I knew that I would be physically crushed by the end of the long day.

Beauty of the Island and Comoros People

View of the Turquoise Waters Around My Hotel

My beach bungalow at Golden Tulip Hotel

Most of the island’s beaches remain pristine and undeveloped. There are no mega-resorts like Hilton or Marriot on the island. There are primarily guesthouses and only a few attempts to establish tourist hotels like the beach hotel I stayed at. But because of the lack of tourists and income, such hotels are rough around the edges and have a rustic feeling. 

For me, this was part of the charm of visiting the Comoros islands. I stayed in a beach bungalow overlooking an idyllic cove of white sand, and when I wasn’t climbing the volcano, I mainly was swimming in this cove.

In the morning these little chameleons would raid my breakfast table

Exploring Gran Comoros Island

Before climbing the volcano, I had to take the Covid test. So, I took the rest of the day to explore the island via a hired car and a driver. The roads around the island were mainly unpaved, in poor shape, and couldn’t explore the entire island. First, we drove to Moroni, the capital, and then the old capital during Omani rule, Iconi. The highlight was the unique Omani era architecture of buildings made in a mix of lava and coral rock and observing the people of Comoros and watching them go about their lives.

Old Mosque built of lava rock in Moroni

Comoros man with covid mask around his chin, a common sight during my Covid travels

Kids that wanted to pose with me for a photo

Old French colonial building in Moroni

Surprisingly Moroni had a lot of traffic, and the roads were choked with small vehicles. Outside of Moroni, however, there were few vehicles. Many people were outside walking on their way to the mosque for prayer because it was Friday, and the weekend started at noon. Men wore Islamic tunics and caps, while women wore abayas and a floppy straw hat over their face veil. The people appeared very pious but not overzealous in how they practiced Islam. Mixed groups of men and women walked together, with their faces painted in big smiles, which made it seem that they enjoyed their lives in the beautiful islands of Comoros. While driving around the island, heavy dark rain clouds would pass overhead, creating an excellent backdrop for photos. The clouds seemed to concentrate over the top of the volcano, and I worried about tomorrow’s hike.

Old Village of Iconi

I walked around the old town of Iconi. The serenity of its quiet streets lining to coral laded coastline and old mosques made of volcanic rock was another highlight. 

The cliff in Iconi where village women once climbed to commit suicide when slave raiders came from Madagascar

Mosque in Iconi

Houses Made of Coral and volcanic rock

Abandoned Friday Mosque made of Volcanic Rock Hundreds of Years Old

Local man collecting crabs along the volcanic rocks

Common scene of local men meeting along the side of the road

Kissing Rock

Abandoned Junked Car

After Iconi, my favorite sight was the Kissing Rock. My driver and I (no kissing involved) hiked out to the rock from the road, and the view didn’t disappoint. Beyond the island’s stark beauty were some realities to the poverty that existed in Comoros, primarily in the amount of trash and abandoned cars along the roads. Rusted old broken cars were common, and their wrecks littered village outskirts.

Comoros lady Selling Lachey Fruit

Comoros Typical Clothing

Comoros Woman with Sun Hat, a hat I saw women wearing all over the island

Village Scene

Lac Sal-Volcanic crater lagoon that fills with ocean water from beneath the ground

Me sitting on a 1000-year-old baobab tree

Paradise

The Morning of the Volcano Climb 

The morning had arrived for me to climb Karthala. We set off at 0430 am to beat the heat. Sadly, my hotel forgot to make my breakfast ahead of time as promised, so I set off on an empty stomach. I packed all my gear for the hike the night before and double-checked everything quickly before setting off with my driver. My driver arranged a volcano guide, who picked up some food and water for the hike. We drove 30 minutes to meet the guide at the base of the trail, which was about 1000 feet above sea level. The path was a steep 4wd track of broken-up lava rock that would ultimately test the fittest of all-terrain vehicles.

In the haste of setting up the hike to Karthala at the last moment and because I never expected to visit Comoros or even do any climbing on this trip in the first place, I didn’t have good hiking boots for the sharp lava rock. Instead, I had running shoes with no toe protection, and a tear was already forming on one shoe. I was afraid my shoes would fall apart on the hike. Additionally, my guide only spoke French with only a few essential words of English. Hence, the long trek up appeared far from intellectually stimulating since it would be mostly in silence.

My guide, a man in his 60’s with torn disheveled footwear, made me feel much better about my shoes. I immediately checked his provisions and realized he didn’t have enough water. I knew I needed about 8 liters of water for the hike, and he only had 2 liters for me and 2 for him. This was problematic since there was nowhere else to get water along the way. He was adamant in his broken English that he had more water bottles stashed away in a hut a few hours up ahead on the trail. I wasn’t pleased by this, and he offered me his water because he said he didn’t need to drink. It wasn’t an option, but I figured we had enough water to get to the hut he spoke of, and if the water he promised to be there wasn’t, I would be able to hike back down with the water I had.

Villagers that were carrying heavy supply bags on their head to a cattle camp high up on the volcano taking a rest 

Hard hike to the top with a heavy bag

We started the hike in the humid cloud forest. We quickly left the village behind us, and any agricultural fields as land became a jungle. The hike was steep and humid, and I quickly became drenched in sweat even though the early morning wind was cool. We passed a few villagers carrying heavy supply bags on their heads to a cattle camp a few hours up the trail.  

Despite the illegal logging on the island, the cloud forest was intact, and we passed lush ferns and the occasional old growth tree. We commonly heard black parrots screeching loudly, as they flew overhead. I also saw Comoros fruit bats and a Comoros pigeon perched on a tree. All these animals are endangered and endemic to the Comoros. 

Ferns that grow along the trail

Rare Comoros Pigeon

Up in the heath forest

After three hours of hiking, we emerged from the cloud forest into a mix of grasslands and heath bushes. We arrived at a hut where the cattle graze along with the greens. As promised, my guide had extra water, so we were set to complete the hike. According to the guide, we had 2 hours until reaching the crater’s edge. The hiking was getting harder with the increased elevation.

The hike took us straight up through ridges, grasslands and scrub bush with incredible views of the ocean and coastline below. I had to put on my fleece because the temperature was starting to get cold. Luckily the rain clouds seemed to prefer the lower elevations and stayed over the cloud forests below. We had blue skies up ahead and perfect climbing conditions. 

View as we hiked to the top

Wildflowers

My guide, despite his age which I figured 60ish, was a far stronger mountain hiker than I was and I never saw him take a sip of his water. I did get him to speak a little and he explained that he had climbed the volcano dozens of times and that he was a naturalist who studied all the animals of the island and had an educational backround in Biology. 

He is a designated guide for scientists that come to study the volcano and its endemic wildlife and I could tell right away that he had a passion for conservation.

Crater of the shield volcano

Me looking out over the crater

Once we arrived at the top, we had a panorama of the entire crater of the shield volcano. At the rim, the wind was ferocious, and I struggled to keep my hat on. Below us was an incredible view of one of the largest craters in the world, a volcanic wasteland with no vegetation because of the recent volcanic eruptions that decimated everything.

The volcano was still active and due for another eruption. My guide pointed to two smaller craters within the large crater that he said were the locations of the last two recent eruptions. Smoke still spilled out from the craters on occasion. He offered to hike down to them, but it would have added hours to our hike. We still had 5-6 hours of hiking back down to beat nightfall, so decided to be content with hiking to the summit ridge. We stopped and had lunch behind a few bushes, protected by the wind. After 30 minutes of rest, we set off for the long knee murdering hike to the bottom.

I hiked from roughly 5am to 5pm and when I returned to my bungalow, I collapsed in exhaustion after the long 20 mile hike 7000′ up and down. But before I could go to bed, I was mesmerized by the sunset and the magic of the moment. As the hypnotic song from the muezzin from a local mosque declaring the call to prayer rang over a loudspeaker, I sat in warm tropical waters of the cove in front of my bungalow and watched the sunset. In the foreground of the huge tropical sun setting, was the silhouette of fishing boats and thousands of giant flying fox bats soaring over the ocean. This was one of those magical surreal moments in travel that I hoped I would never forget.

Sunset over the beach in front of my bungalow

Fishing boats and flying fox bats in the forefront of the setting sun over the Indian Ocean

The next morning, I received my covid test results and caught my flight back to the USA on the oversized plane for the Comoros- Ethiopian Airlines Dreamliner 787 jet and returned with no complications to the USA. 

7 + 6 =

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