Sunday, 20 January 2013

Mayotte, France's perfumed isle

L'ile aux parfums is France's newest département since March 2011. We first visited Mayotte in 1995, almost eighteen years ago, and decided it was time for a new trip - in particular we wanted to scuba dive in the lagoon, one of the world's largest.

(de) Mayotte
Location of Mayotte, in the Mozambique Channel (Source: Wikipedia)
Located in the Mozambique Channel, Mayotte is one of the four Comoros Islands. The meanders of history have led to the island becoming French by choice, however this status is contested by Moroni. You can read more about Mayotte's history here.

Map of the island of Mayotte
Map of the island of Mayotte (source: Wikipedia)

Mayotte consists of the larger Grande Terre and the tiny Petite Terre, on which the airport is located (more about Petite Terre later). Regular passenger and car ferry barges ply the 2 km separating the two islands. Mayotte is sometimes referred to as the Ile Hippocampe as the island's shape resembles a seahorse. 

passenger barge arriving at Mamoudzou

Our first four days were spent in Mamoudzou, the capital and largest town of Mayotte as we wanted to dive the nearby S pass, a lagoon channel with a good reputation for diving.

Looking over part of Mamoudzou to Mbouzi islet, a former
nature reserve; ylang-ylang tree in the foreground (right).

Mayotte and the Comoros are known as the Perfumed Isle(s) due to their culture of ylang-ylang, a flower highly valued for its perfume. (The fragrance seemed less omni-present than on my previous trip however, possibly due to the fact that cultivation and exports are decreasing as they become less competitive).

view of Mamoudzou's marina

Even in Mamoudzou the mangrove is never very far away.

mangrove near Mamoudzou

Like Réunion, Mayotte has no dangerous wildlife on land except scolopendra centipedes, which are much more common on Mayotte than Réunion. They can give an extremely painful bite.

the only scolopendra we saw, thank goodness!

After our stay in Mamoudzou we hired a car and headed to Bouéni in the island's south-west, stopping off at various points along the way.

M'taspéré mosque

The south is where you'll find most of the island's baobab trees, the largest specimen of which is at Musical Plage, Bandrélé, with a circumference of more than 28 metres. 

Baobab tree, Musical plage, said to be 600 years old.

Baobabs are amazing trees which can live for up to 2000 years. They can be a source of medicine, food, water, dye, fibre and fuel.

Baobab fruit

There are two species present in Mayotte : Adansonia digitata and Andansonia madagascariensis.

Baobab juice (left), made from baobab fruit

Baobab jam (jelly)

child, Musical plage

Mayotte is surrounded by about thirty islets, most of which are uninhabited.

Ilot Bandrélé, Mayotte's 5th largest islet

Sakouli beach

The hand-shaped southern part of Grande Terre is dominated by Mount Choungui, 594m.

Mount Choungui

We spent four nights in Bouéni, which is located on a peninsula.


While Mamoudzou, like all of Mayotte, has its fair share of wildlife, away from the largest town flora and fauna were even richer.

Brightly coloured Gold dust day geckos
are common all over Mayotte

We saw a great variety of crabs, including one like this in our bathroom: 

bathroom crab!

mangrove crab?

beach crab

hermit crab

But Mayotte is most well-known for two of its mammal inhabitants: flying foxes (fruit bats) and brown lemurs (makis).

Flying foxes are known as roussettes in French

Makis are the only animals to cover their dead (with leaves/earth), and one of the few primates to possess finger prints.

Lemurs are known as maki on Mayotte

A maki's tail often measures 50 cm long

a turtle made by children, but we saw plenty of real ones diving!

N'gouja beach, where you can swim with turtles

Next it was time to head up the west coast for the third and final part of our diving trip.

scenic Bouéni bay

the town of Sada is located halfway up the west coast

Sada islet

When leaving Sada we had the (rare?) chance to see a waterspout out in the ocean.

waterspout near Sada

In the north-west we stayed at Ambato, near M'tsangamouji, and went diving at M'liha. Touristically, this is a rather undeveloped part of the island where accommodation and eating places are hard to come by (although Mayotte as a whole is not highly developed for visitors).

bay with fishing boats, M'tsangadoua

boys playing, M'tsangadoua

boys playing, M'tsangadoua

house, M'tsangadoua

A cheap meal that's always easy to find however is brochetti - skewers of meat, served here with fried green bananas.

brochetti, fried green bananas and chilli sauce

an example of traditional architecture, using wood & earth

From this part of the island you can sometimes see the neighbouring island of Anjouan, about 80 km away. Mayotte suffers with a major illegal immigration problem from the other Comorian islands (mostly Anjouan), with unwieldy small boats (called kwassa-kwassa) regularly making or trying to make the crossing to the French island. Some locals refer to this stretch of water as the 'world's biggest cemetery'.


The final leg of our trip saw us heading along the north coast to take the barge to Petite Terre for our last day and night in Mayotte.
Mtsamboro islet (left) and the Choazil islets (right)

Handréma peninsula, extreme north-west of Mayotte

Mtsongoma islet, with beacon

Petite Terre's most striking site is Dziani (dziani actually means lake in Mahoran), an emerald-green crater lake which you can walk round. Formed 500 0000 years ago it's a reminder of Mayotte's volcanic past.

Dziani lake, Petite Terre

view from Dziani across northern Mayotte

view from Dziani across to Mamoudzou

one of the twin beaches of Moya, Petite Terre

The Christian cemetery at Sandavangeu holds the tomb of Henry de Balzac, Honoré's younger brother.

Henry de Balzac's grave; French Foreign Legion
graves are just visible behind to the right

The small part of Petite Terre known as Le Rocher is linked to the larger part by a road called the Boulevard des Crabes built on a dyke. It holds several  XIXth century colonial buildings from which the French administrators governed their Indian Ocean possessions. The former Governor's Residence was built in 1881 based on plans drawn  by Gustave Eiffel.

the former Governor's Residence, later the Prefecture

Some facts about Mayotte:
  • Area: 374 km2 (16 km2 for Petite Terre and 354 km2 for Grande Terre and the islets)
  • Coastline: 185.2 km
  • Highest point: Mount Bénara, 660m
  • Population: officially 231 139 inhabitants in 2010 (2000 on Petite Terre); figure doesn't include illegal immigrants
  • Official language is French but is only spoken by 35% of the population; shimaore and kibushi are more widely spoken.
  • Religion: 95% muslim (Shafi'i sunnite), 4% catholic, 1% protestant

cannon, former Governor's Residence 

Useful links:

baby palm tree 
Related posts:

Further reading:

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