Civil Unrest in Mayotte

captain alex

08 October 2011 | Mozambique Channel

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The East Africa Pilot, the most known cruising guide for this part of the world, describes the port town of Majunga on Madagascars’s west coast as full of ‘thieves and murderers’ with many security problems, but having to make a crew exchange and it being the only port with a road to the capital, we were forced to make a visit. Upon arrival we met a nice Canadian named Neil who had been robbed the previous night by thieves so ruthless they stole not only his fuel on deck but also his sheet lines preventing him to sail and even went below stealing his clothes. Stormin Normin was with us and his 80 footer was looking like quite the looting invitation, hence we decided to hire professional security. We started by talking with the bank guards and eventually found our way down a dirt alley to what appeared to be an abandoned building but turned out to be the security company’s headquarters. Guarded by a tall, ripped, not gonna break a smile African man wearing military fatigues and aviator sunglasses that Norm thought looked like one of Baby Doc’s Haitian thugs. After working out a rate of $7 per 12 hour shift per guard we decided to get two and have them aboard round the clock.

Now having peace of mind regarding security we could relax and enjoy our surroundings. Trading schooners (none with engines) that looked like pirate ships from a movie set filled the harbor, sitting in the mud at low tide. At both sunrise and sunset the bay was filled with a couple hundred sailing dows (again without engines) reminiscent of some massive regatta or sporting event, however, this was replicated daily and was just the normal mode of transport. In town there was a 700+ year old baobab tree that would take 20 people with outstretched arms to circle it and the human powered rickshaws vastly out-numbered the cars.

Alas the ‘old man’, Gerber, had to get back to work in Chicago and so caught his flight out just as fresh crew, Paddy King, arrived in from merry ol’ London. We spent the day provisioning at the market, fueling and watering the boat (one jerry can at a time over massive rocks and through ankle deep mud whilst fighting the tide), followed by checking out with the port captain, which I much say despite all the horror stories of corruption went as smooth and courteous as any I’ve experienced with no monies asked or paid. We told Norm to save us some beer in South Africa as he was heading south and we sailed north out of the bay towards Mayotte as the sun slowly began its decent below the horizon.

In the morning we tossed out the fishing line and within half an hour pulled in a lovely four foot mahi mahi (its last drink being that of pirate rum from Tonga) which fed the four of us for the next four meals, the first being sashimi dipped in soy and wasabi sauce. The rest of the day was sailing lessons for Paddy and knot tying refreshers for all of us although we now have to keep a close eye on Christine as she has perfected the hangmans noose and is a bit too proud of her work.

The next night was another one of those perfect night sails with light winds, a clear star-filled sky, and bio-luminescence that made the water glow with magic. Just before sunrise, as I woke Kirk and did one last scan of the horizon, I thought my sleepy eyes were playing a trick on me as I thought I saw something jumping out of the water at the bow. Reality soon set in as I approached the bow to see 20 dolphins swimming and playing in Bubbles’ wake in the pre sunrise light that made everything look pink. By 9 am we had entered the reef, passing into the atoll of Mayotte and could see Mount Chongui pointing sharply towards the sky, inviting us to climb, a decision we made easily to follow through with the next day.

Entering the port of Dzaoudzi to check in, we had to first go to the police, then the port captain who sent us to customs on the far side of the island who then sent us to the airport on the opposite side for immigration after which we had to go back to the port captain to show our stamps from each. Luckily the island was small. The next day we ferried to the capital Mamoudzou on the bigger island to get a car so we could drive down to Mount Changui for the much anticipated hike. It was just after 8 am and the lady in charge of the car rental shop was just beginning to lock up. We told her we wanted a car and she sighed, visibly flustered and rushed us into a vehicle and out the gate. Asking what the fuss was all about she explained that the strike was on and last week they had burnt 11 of her vehicles and the mob was on their way now.

One must understand that the Island of Mayotte is part of France and in being so, uses the Euro as its currency. The island has millions dumped into its tiny economy every year which drives up inflation making everything expensive but because there are still no jobs the natives (all who have French passports but some of which can’t speak a word of French) can’t afford anything, prompting them to strike frequently about it (striking is another thing the French have done well in teaching them). We were told as long as we got out of town we would be fine. We went on to have an extraordinary hike to the summit with spectacular views of t
he lagoon and even got hounded by a troop of lemurs. The trouble came the next day.

Preparing to leave the island proved to be difficult at best. We couldn’t buy fuel anywhere due to the strikes that were affecting absolutely everything. We gathered that we had enough aboard to get by, so we proceeded to check out anyways. In order to check out we had to do everything we did checking in but in reverse order. So after the port captain we headed in our rental car to the airport for immigration. Along the way we encountered a crudely assembled road blockade abruptly cutting off our route and group of about 30 Africans standing around, not one smile among them. In Bubbles’ teamlike fashion, after screeching our rental car to a hault, the four of us jumped out of the car and began shoving aside the trash and pieces of scrap metal so that we could continue to the airport. In a matter of seconds the 30 subdued looking Africans, after seeing us removing their roadblock, turned into an angry mob led by a vicious looking witch like woman with yellow, crusty face paint on. Pointing at us and screaming angrily, they went into attack mode smashing our front windshield with a bowling ball size rock. Somehow we managed to all get back into the car unscathed. We held our doors tightly closed, after discovering our rental car had no locks, so that they couldn’t grab us and drag us out ofthe vehicle. Kicking the car into gear, we made our narrow escape with only minor cuts from the broken glass that now filled the front of the car. Over at the police compound, just 100 meters away, the Robocop looking riot police stood still behind compound walls and not where they were needed, just outside them. Upon seeing us and the car, the white French police simply shrugged off what happened to us as a normal occurrence.
We found an alternate route to the airport and got our stamps, however, upon returning the port captain’s office we discovered more dangers lay just a head. Just off the main island of the Comoros group of which we were heading there had been a pirate attack involving RPG’s. We knew we were on the outside fringes of where pirates might be but this confirmed attack was very close and just last week. We are taking the precaution of sailing at night as much as possible and with no lights on. Further south towards South Africa southwesterly gales blow with frequency and even though we are enjoying the warm tranquil waters of our current location it looks to be time to head south away from one danger to do battle with another.DSCF0407

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