Monday, 28 January 2013

Island awakening: book review


Island Awakening by Lynne Martin

It's been a very long time since I read any romantic fiction, but I was led to read this particular novel because I found out it that it is set on Réunion and this piqued my curiosity.

The story: Marina Welsh thought a new job on a paradisiacal island  was the best medicine for a broken heart, but her new boss Richard Boyer made her life difficult ... I'll let you guess how the story ends.

front cover

Most of the story takes place on Réunion, but the island is only a background to the main story, and despite the enticing cover photos the volcano only gets a brief mention! Other local scenery gets a good mention though. The author has obviously visited Réunion, but gets some of the place names wrong (Villiere instead of Villèle, Trou des Roches instead of Tour des Roches, etc).

The story holds all the typical clichéd ingredients of romantic fiction and true to the genre you need to suspend your sense of reality; this is especially the case concerning the language issue: Marina only asks what languages are spoken on Réunion when she's already on the plane, and the fact that her French is 'rusty' is not an issue in the novel - everybody she meets speaks perfect, colloquial English and communication is never a problem. Anybody who's ever been to the island will tell you that a lack of French is often problematic!

Two final nitpicks: the main character is British but the book is written in American English, which I occasionally found jarring; and the proofreading could have been better - there were several errors that should have been corrected before publication.

back cover, 'Island Awakening'

All in all, a quickly-read piece of escapism for those who like romantic fiction, in which Réunion plays the role of an interesting but  rather pale backdrop.


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Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Diving in Mayotte


Since I became a certified diver I had been looking forward to diving in Mayotte, which has one of the world's largest - and reputedly most beautiful - lagoons (1100km2).

Lionfish

This trip to the Mozambique Channel became reality in January 2013. After some initial research we decided to stay in three different locations to make the most of our voyage. 

yellow leaf fish

Mayotte's lagoon has 12 channels, 160km of barrier reef and an average depth of 40 metres. 254 different species of hard coral have been identified there and its deepest point is 70m.

S Pass dive sites (courtesy of Reve Bleu)

First off we started diving with Reve Bleu, based in Mamoudzou, to visit the renowned S Pass, a channel with about 20 or so different dive sites.

Bat fish

Needless to say in the time we had available we were only able to dive 5 of those sites: Coude à Jojo 2, Merou Palace, Balcon sur le Bleu, Pointe Barracuda and Canyon Vallée, the latter being a drift dive.

Titan triggerfish, we saw them on all our Mahoran dives

One of the first things we noticed was that the coral and plant life was in better health than what we're used to in Réunion.

Black stingray

Mayotte is home to two species of turtle : green turtles (the same as those found in Réunion), and hawksbill turtles.

Hawksbill turtle

We saw Napoleons on several occasions, and even an enormous Bumphead parrotfish which I'd only ever seen in Indonesia until now.

this particular Napoleon wrasse was seen from afar
After several days we headed to the south-west of Mayotte to dive with Abalone Plongée at M'Zouasia beach, near the town of Bouéni.

Abalone Plongée, landside

Abalone Plongée from the sea

Abalone is within diving distance of three channels: Boueni pass, Bateaux pass and Sada pass. We dived l'Ancre and the north of Bateaux pass, and Patate à Barracada at Boueni pass. We also dived Lépoé, Oasis and Chamonix in the lagoon.

Back roll!

Tassled scorpionfish

Abalone drift dives one of the south-western passes in the morning to see pelagic marine life, and the afternoons are spent diving the coral reefs inside the lagoon.

some rare red anemone with Yellowtail clownfish


We dived twice a day for three days, and saw sharks (grey reef and whitetip reef) on every morning dive, as well as barracudas and other pelagic fish. On one memorable occasion we were on the surface waiting for the boat to pick us and realised a grey reef shark was circling underneath our feet!

juvenile Oriental sweetlips

Giant clams of all sizes and colours were always plentiful on all our Mahoran dives.

giant clam

This stingray made himself scarce!

Headshield slug

Spiny lobster could be found at most dive sites around Mayotte, sometimes living in colonies.

spiny lobster

school of barracuda

We did a very interesting dive at Lépoé where we only explored the sandy bottom - we saw lots of pipefish, partner gobies, an ejaculating sea cucumber and in particular a demon stinger scorpionfish. Jean-Patrick, our guide, was especially excited as he'd never seen one in 25 years of diving (and neither had we)!

Demon stinger scorpionfish, also known as 'devil stinger'

a non-ejaculating pineapple sea cucumber!

The third leg of our trip saw us heading up the west coast to Happy Divers at M'liha beach, near the town of M'Tsangamouji.

Happy Divers (left) when approaching from the sea

Here we dived the sites Porite fendu, Mtsangafanou, La Plage and Champs de pavot.

a shy octopus

I got the impression we saw more moray eels here in the north-west than at other dive locations.

the head of a very large moray eel 

This is only place where we spotted a crown of thorns sea star, although apparently they can be found all around Mayotte.

a yellow Guineafowl pufferfish

me with a turtle

Returning from one dive our boat was surrounded by friendly dolphins. (Note that, like Réunion, humpback whales can be seen in Mayotte between July and October. And ten days after we'd been diving with them, Abalone plongée saw a manta ray and a hammerhead shark on a dive!)

dolphins

lionfish

While diving in Mayotte we would have loved to have seen a dugong, but as there are only seven of them (and a calf) in the whole lagoon we knew the chances were slim! And although coelacanths are found in the area we were unlikely to see them either, as they are a critically endangered species and live at 100-500m ...

Most of the underwater photos were shot with a Go Pro 2.


Useful links:

For more links about Mayotte see here.

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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.

Bouéni

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'.

Anjouan

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 
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Further reading: