When Joel threatened to book a trip to some island country somewhere close to Mozambique and Madagascar to swim with humpback whales, I responded as I usually do to his threats about traveling here or there – sure, why not? He booked the flights within a matter of days, and spent the next few months obsessing over this place, mining the internet for every scrappy piece of information he could find on the island of Moheli – the smallest of the three islands that make up the Union of the Comoros. And there’s not a whole lot of information out there – it is famously one of the least visited places in the world. The island receives less than 600 tourists a year. That’s not a booming tourist industry with hashtags or billboards or even English information. (For comparison, the louvre museum receives around 15,000 visitors…PER DAY).
So, it felt particularly surreal boarding a flight for a country we only found out existed a few months earlier.
HOW TO GET TO MOHELI ISLAND, COMOROS
It is ironic that we had to fly from Cape Town all the way 6 hours up to Addis Ababa, and then halfway down again to the Comoros, considering a direct flight would have been like 3 hours. But that’s Africa for you. (I’ve heard that people in West Africa sometimes have to fly through Europe to go to a neighbouring country).
CAPE TOWN – ADDIS ABABA
Basically, there are no direct flights to the Comoros, except from Nairobi and Addis. So anywhere in the world you fly from, you will have to stop through either of those two cities. We actually booked our tickets with our miles, so beggars can’t be choosers.
ADDIS – DAR ES SALAAM – MORONI
Nowhere on the booking site, on the booking confirmation, even on the printed boarding passes does it say that the flight is via Dar Es Salaam, but that’s what we found out at the boarding gate. About 90% of passengers got off in Tanzania, many of them tourists heading to Zanzibar, and the rest of us waited for an hour until we took off again in a near-empty plane for the capital of the Comoros, Moroni.
MORONI – MOHELI
From Moroni you can either take a very small boat across potentially choppy seas, or a very small plane through potentially turbulent skies. We booked our tickets with AB Aviation (one of two small private airlines) to Moheli for the next day, and was happy to make the bumpy flight, because the seas hadn’t yet calmed down from weeks of bad weather before. Plus, in a game of ‘would you rather’ between a quick 20-minute bumpy flight (we cruised for literally 3 minutes before descending again) and two-hours on a small boat in high seas, the small plane is a sure thing.
WHAT TO PACK FOR TWO WEEKS IN MOHELI
A working vocabulary of colloquial French. Very few people on Moheli island can speak and/or understand English meaningfully. It’s French, or Comorian, or Arabic, or bust. Luckily, I took 20 hours of French in 2017 so we were totally covered (we were not.). You don’t need to let that stop you – we are living proof that you can get around without any French whatsoever, but just be prepared. To this end, I brought a pocket-sized French phrasebook along, even though we mostly made use of Google translate.
A head scarf. The main religion is Sunni Islam. Not all women in the villages have their heads covered, but most do. It is not necessary to cover your hair when you’re roaming around the island, but it is respectful and polite – at least keep your shoulders and knees covered. What you shouldn’t do is swim in just your bathing suit when you are at public beaches – you won’t see any local women or girls swim in bathing suits or underwear. So unless you never leave Laka Lodge (which is totally doable but kind of sad), pack some shorts and a shirt to swim in.
A torch. The power cut out multiple times while we were there, for whole nights and days. So, at least you’ll be able to see even if you can’t communicate anymore because your phone died with Google translate on it.
Medicine. There are no shops or pharmacies. An expat offered me some vitamin C after a bad bout of sunburn one day, and I kind of joked and said I brought a whole pharmacy so I should actually be offering them some medicine. She laughed but looked legitimately tempted to ask me for medicine.
Mosquito repellent. Contending with ‘snorkelling gear’ as MVP of our bag contents.
Snorkelling gear. Contending with ‘mosquito repellent’ as MVP of our bag contents. Of all the places we have now been, Moheli is unparalleled when it comes to coral reef health and diversity and amount of fish. So – you’re gonna want that snorkelling gear. Bring your own to avoid rental fees and having to do everything from Laka Lodge’s private beach.
Shampoo. Of course you can just wash your hair with soap, too. But sometimes a little TLC goes a long way, especially if you’re staying for 2 weeks. Joel brought a teeny bottle of hotel shampoo, which was nice because I did not see any shampoo on the island.
Basically, bring anything you think you might need. Unless you’re buying oil, petrol, eggs, tomatoes, lollipops, bread, onions, pumpkins, garlic, chillies, soda, frozen chicken or fresh fish, you’re not buying anything. I literally just listed all the items for sale on Moheli island.
WHERE TO STAY
LAKA LODGE – THE SAFE OPTION
We were immediately greeted by Laka Lodge’s driver as we exited the airport (everyone exits the airport immediately after disembarkation and then waits outside for all the baggage to be brought out on a trolley). I made a joke like ‘how’d you know it was us?’ because we were very clearly the only tourists at the airport, but he does not speak any english, so my dad jokes weren’t landing.
As foreign tourists, there are really only two places to stay at on Moheli island. Laka lodge is the safe option – it’s right on the beach, it’s run by an American expat (so English), it’s well organised and the owners are very responsive. It’s essentially a super nice backpackers.
And a very beautiful little super nice backpackers we found out as we arrived. Little beach cottages with fans (praise the lord), mosquito nets, sea views, and some of them even had hot water for showers (not all). The common area has comfy sofas for sunset lounging, the bar sells alcohol (a very rare substance in the Comoros), the super amazing mega bats are constantly swooping in and out to feed off the fruit in the vegetable garden, and did I mention the Lemurs!? On top of all that, Laka Lodge is where you do your diving from. They have their own dive masters/instructors living onsite, and everybody scrambles to get the generator going when the power cuts out. Plus, the food is actually amazing, even when it’s fish everyday.
But it’s pretty expensive as far as rustic accommodation goes – at a 120EUR a night (all meals included). Given that we were on the island for 12 days, we couldn’t really afford to stay at Laka Lodge for the entire time.
VANILLA LODGE – THE CHEAP OPTION
The other accommodation option is Vanilla Lodge, about a 25-minute uphill walk from Laka Lodge. This is the cheap option – and it’s a really good deal for large rooms at only 30EUR a night. It’s extra for meals, but let me tell you: the meals at Vanilla Lodge is killer. The portions are giant and the food is SO GOOD. So so good. In a prison fight between Laka Lodge’s three-course meals and Vanilla Lodge’s grilled fish, the fish wins every time. Those are the pros: the food, the price, the size of the rooms, and the views (which also comes with a fresh cooling breeze) are the best.
The location is not as convenient if you are planning to head to the beach everyday. We walked to Laka Lodge almost everyday whilst at Vanilla lodge – to dive and to go on snorkelling trips, and sometimes just to hang out with some cool people we met at Laka Lodge, because there was nobody else at Vanilla Lodge. Nobody. And part of what made going to Moheli so much fun, was all the incredible people we met, which would never have happened if we stayed only at Vanilla Lodge.
The tourist-infrastructure that Laka Lodge built itself is impressive, and absent at Vanilla lodge. Our shower worked only for the first of four nights (we did not complain, so they may have been able to fix it, or move us to any of the other open rooms, who knows), the power is only on from 6pm to 6am, unless it cuts out completely for whole days and nights. The women working there spoke no English, and all of us relied heavily on Google translate for meaningful communication, except that time the power had been out and everybody’s phones were dead, and nobody was able to communicate to each other. That was a fun time. (Actually it was a fun time, as we dusted off our pack of playing cards we always travel with but forget about.)
We would recommend Vanilla lodge: large, cheap rooms with super friendly staff, breathtaking views and the best cooks on the island – also, we ended up missing our daily commute through the village when we went back to Laka Lodge for activities. Do not stay at Vanilla Lodge if you need electricity 24/7, or a working shower at all times (bird baths do the trick).
Anyways, it’s hard to compare the two, because Vanilla Lodge is so affordable (they should really be charging more), and Laka Lodge is so convenient. The lemurs may have to be the deciding factor.
WHERE TO EAT
You can eat at Laka Lodge and Vanilla Lodge and good luck eating anywhere else.
The first day not staying at the full-board comfort-zone that is Laka Lodge we decided to go on what we called an “adventure lunch” – we’ll walk through the town and just buy whatever we see to eat. Our lunch that day was a bottle of coke and a bread roll.
The next time we tried adventure lunching we did a bit better: two chocolate bars, bread rolls, some sort of fried dough and two lollipops.
Point being: there are no restaurants.
WHAT TO DO ON MOHELI ISLAND
So clearly we did not go there for the food scene. The reason we ended up on Moheli island is because Joel found out that it’s one of very few places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales. The whales come to this part of the world once a year, around August, to birth their calves and hang out until they take off into the open ocean again. That’s why – in a world where people usually spend 3-4 days on the Grand Comoros (main island) and then 3-5 days on Moheli – we decided to spend a whole 12 days on Moheli, to give ourselves all the chances of seeing those damn whales.
We arrived on the island after a bout of wind and rain, so the water was still choppy, making for bad conditions to spot whales on a small boat that maxes out with 6 people. Plus, there had been no sign of them yet, by any of the divers, marine biologists or fishermen in the area. We weren’t too worried, having so much time ahead of us. So we focused our energy on diving.
Moheli island is a spectacular place to dive. Spectacular and rather special. People haven’t been scuba diving there for a long time, and with so few people coming to do it, the corals are abundant, colourful and just teeming with fish – in a word: healthy. The visibility varied – sometimes it was less than 10 meters, other times double that – but the sheer amount and diversity of fish was astounding. Quite possibly (betting on it) more so than any other places we’ve dived. Notably, the marine park is populated by the coelacanth – a fish scientists regard as a living fossil, having evolved to its current form roughly 400 million years ago. It was also famously rediscovered 66 million years after it was thought to have gone extinct. Anyways, it’s a whole thing and there are even museums dedicated to the fish on the Grand Comoros, which I regrettably did not venture into (seeing how passionate I am about obscure museums).
Much of the known sites are located in the stunning Moheli Marine Park – the first protected area in the Comoros – but even there a lot of the underwater landscape is unknown, or the information available is inaccurate. The Laka Lodge dive masters often went out on ‘exploring’ dives – just seeing what else there might be. Also, half of all the visitors on the island (so like 10 out of 20) were marine biologists doing research.
We feel lucky to have been able to been diving in such a gorgeous location (above and underwater) before its imminent development and popularisation.
For all these reasons, the snorkelling in Moheli – specifically the islands of Moheli Marine park – has been some of the best ever snorkelling we’ve done anywhere in the world. The best most accessible place to snorkel is the reef about 150 meters out from Laka Lodge’s beach. You don’t even have to swim out that far though – grazing by the sea grass in front of the reef are big beautiful adult turtles. We saw four of them in a matter of minutes!
Of course it’s most convenient if you are staying at Laka Lodge. But if you happen to be staying at Vanilla Lodge, or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can reach the reef via the mangroves. All you have to do is head down to the mangroves – a 4-minute walk down the road (turn right out of Vanilla Lodge), and swim out about 1 kilometre (more or less). We did this one afternoon – spent about 2 hours swimming and snorkelling – and felt super accomplished, not only because of all the exercise we did, but also because of being able to do stuff independently from Laka Lodge. Level up!
Moheli is turtle heaven, and the beaches around the island is where these ocean angels lay their precious heaven eggs. You can pay (at one of the lodges) for someone to drive you maybe two hours at night or at the crack of dawn to go find turtles laying their eggs at the famed ‘turtle beach.’ We’ve had more turtle egg-laying and baby turtle hatching encounters on Oman than any one person should be blessed with, so we weren’t too anxious about seeing these guys.
Turns out they were anxious to see us, though! In between diving we usually took a bit of a break on the pristine beaches of the Marine Parks islands. One very hot afternoon, our local Comorian dive master called us out from the plant line of the beach – baby turtles are hatching! The sand was too hot, and he feared they might die before reaching the water so they were gently transported to the cooler wet sand, from where they furiously kicked to get to the water. Even after taking care of, literally, hundreds of baby turtles hatching in Oman, it was a special kind of magical moment to see these little angel babies make it out to the beach during the day, so you could see them adapt once they hit the water for the first time. A marine biologist who went diving with us that day had her underwater casing on her camera and took some pretty awesome photos of the origin event.
One of the things I miss most about the Comoros is the bat population. Listen, I don’t love bats either – the way they only sneak out at night and then flutter around with seemingly no direction, accidentally flying into stuff like your hair, blinded by light. But the bats on the Comoros aren’t like any bats I’ve ever seen. They don’t flutter and they don’t wait until darkness like cowards – they soar on thermal air waves way above the jungle under the full blazing sun. I was stunned the first time I saw one, swooping through above my head, the sun illuminating its dark brown wings, which reach a whole metre across. I half-expected the Game of Thrones dragon soundtrack to start somewhere. But honestly, this must be the closest thing to a dragon I’ll ever see. (Relax, they eat fruit.). It is mesmerising to watch them glide over the deep purple-green jungle at dusk, one after the other. Now whenever I see a black bird gliding in the air somewhere I am deeply disappointed it’s not a bat. Stupid birds.
You can also go jungle trekking to see the Livingstone fruit bat, sometimes called the Comoro flying fox, which is endemic to two of Comoros’ three islands (Moheli and Anjouan). They are larger, with a wingspan of 1.5 meters and critically endangered. However, a couple of people we met at Laka Lodge went to go do this and none of them recommended it to us. They were all wholly devoured by mosquitos (right through their long leggings!) and the bats seem similar to the ones you see flying all over the place anyways (which is the Seychelles fruit bat). So it’s a clear ‘not recommended’ on this one.
I died and went to heaven the first time I saw a Lemur. If turtles are the angels of the ocean then lemurs are the actual angels of heaven – I am convinced heaven is full of lemurs who all gently take bananas from you. There are two little mongoose lemurs (the only endemic mammal species in the country) living at Laka Lodge, which is pretty nice because they are otherwise very rare to see. What is also nice is that the locals working at Laka Lodge will offer you a small banana to give them at around 5pm when they wake up from their day sleep. Then these little fur angels will very very gently take the banana from you and their hands are like soft little furry baby hands, except better because they won’t grab your hair and they can climb trees. If it were in any way legal I would be a lemur lady rather than a cat person. I know, controversial, but I said it.
After checking out all the best spots in and around the Nioumachoua village with Abu, we asked him about renting a scooter. He said there was one guy in the village with an automatic scooter (we are not comfortable on manual motorcycles, of which there are many) and he’ll ask him if he wants to rent it. Later that day we found out it’s a go. Mister sole-owner-of-automatic-scooter is ready to make some money – a negotiated price of 20EUR for the day. After having the wheels pumped (manually), we were off – cruising through the jungle, catching glimpses of ocean views, stopping to feel the heat of the jungle and watch the bats soar between palm trees. Zipping around islands on scooters may be one of our favourite activities, all things considered, so we were happy to make a deal with a local.
Just to be clear, there no formal places to rent anything – you’ll have to ask around.
Some new friends we met at Laka Lodge could actually drive a manual motorcycle, so they went off cruising with one of the dive masters’ bike – for free! So there’s that, too.
THE 3 MOST SURPRISING THINGS ABOUT MOHELI ISLAND
1. NEAR COMPLETE LACK OF TOURIST INFRASTRUCTURE
It is really, very absolutely rural and undeveloped.
We have been to many developing countries – places that are certainly rural in the true sense of the word. Places where you can’t drink the water, where you can’t flush the toilet paper, where trash management is non-existent, where little kids are working on weekdays, where bare concrete construction projects were left to be forgotten, where it smells like sewage, where it’s all goats and dust, or manky diseased stray cats and dogs. You get it.
But we were unprepared for how little urban development Moheli island had.
For example, when my bag was lost by Ethiopian Airways on the way there, we thought – no biggie, we will just buy some things at some local market. Sure, there was a market – selling 40 tomatoes, 20 onions, 15 houses of garlic, 7 coconuts and one giant pumpkin. People ran little shops from or close to their homes, of course. But they sold basic necessities and some niceties = bread, maize, beans, frozen chicken. Lollipops, chocolate bars and fried dough if you’re fancy.
No restaurants, no coffee shops, no post offices, no pharmacies, definitely no air-conditioning, no guarantees, and sometimes not even electricity or running water.
But, weirdly great cellphone signal.
2. MOHELI: THE PLACE WHERE CARS GO TO DIE
It is apparently more convenient to just get more cars shipped in from the main island (in turn shipped from the Arabian gulf) than to get mechanics from Madagascar. Someone actually told us this. So everywhere – EVERYWHERE – are abandoned, scrappy, rusty old cars or car parts. Where they break, there they are left, so it seems. Even on one of the islands in the Marine Park, where there are no roads or houses or even people who actually live there – the front part of a car was left there to corrode in the sun.
3. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN
You just don’t get the sense that anything is a sure thing on Moheli island.
For example, after a two-hour drive from Laka Lodge to the airport on our last day, we finally arrived at the check-in counter. We’ve been standing in a very short queue for a very long time, because things are manual and informal. There’s not a lot of people at the airport, which consist out of two rooms accumulatively smaller than our apartment, but it feels busy. Anyways, we get to the front and are told that we were on yesterday’s flight.
Nowhere does it say on our end that it was yesterday, but their booking clearly says it was. On top of that, nobody at the airport speaks English. Nobody. And if they do, this was probably a convenient time to pretend to not understand us, because were quite frustrated. And we were more or less ignored after that. Luckily we got the owner of Laka Lodge on the phone and handed it to the check in counter lady. They spoke for a bit and hung up. He then phoned the owner of the airline and I don’t know what deal was made, but we were suddenly let onto the flight.
In what. world. does an airport work like this?
Similarly, we heard of a tourist who had her flight cancelled because the president wanted to use the plane.
Speaking about unpredictability, let’s talk about those damn whales. They never showed up. We held out and were disappointed at first, but after a while on Moheli we were so distracted by the thick and unapologetically beautiful place – the sticky jungle and the blazing sunsets and the pulsing sea and its healthy reefs – and so busy meeting new people and making new friends, and breathing underwater and even dancing with a local dance troupe, that we forgot all about our disappointment.
We will just have to go back, no big deal.
Also how long can you stay disappointed when there are lemurs around to be loved on?