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Juan de Nova Update

By webmaster last modified Nov 13, 2015 02:46 PM

Published: 2002-08-22 17:19:49
Countries: Mozambique , Reunion Island , Madagascar

Yacht MIZ MAE headed out from Mahjunga/Madagascar to Bazeruto/Mozambique on the 11th of October 2001 with Lilly and Tom, Boerje from Finland, Aake from Sweden, Holger from Germany and Michael from Bavaria. En route, some 100 miles off the East cape of Madagascar lies the tiny Island of "Juan de Nova". At high tide it's no longer than 2 nautical miles and across it measures about 1 nautical mile.

The shallows around this atoll reach as far as 10 miles to the north. This shelf was said to be good for fishing, but it was not ! It was absolutely fantastic ! Within 30 minutes we landed a 15kg Spanish Mackerel and two Trevallies, one of 11 kgs the other of 16 kgs. The fillets took all the room in the freezer, even though we decided to make a present out of the big Trevally. Knowing that the island has some 60 people living on it in two settlements, we thought the fish might be a nice change.

At low tide Juan de Nova grows to almost double its size when the sand banks around it become visible. These sand banks were also the reason why we had to anchor some 1,5 miles off the stunning beach. Arriving in last light, it was a bit difficult to find the parking we had in mind on the NE side of the island. Finally we dropped the anchor in 6 meters of sand, surrounded by large coral heads. The anchorage is only comfortable in winds from East to South West.

It is the rule that no boat may anchor here, let alone its crew go ashore unless in an emergency. So we were almost "lucky" to have a minor engine failure. The policeman of the island answered our call on VHF Ch 16 and advised us to bring ashore all passports for the immigration formalities. After anchoring the inflatable in the emerald green of the most fantastic beach we have ever seen, two very fit guys of the 2nd parachute division welcomed us and offered us a ride on the back of a 6x6 open truck with which they transported the fish and us to the southern side of the island where the Met-station is laying right above the beach. Being run by the French government who sends a new detachment of people from Reunion every 5 weeks, formalities were very straightforward and polite. The fact that we could fill up the completely empty stock of cigarettes didn't disturb anybody ! Formalities were completed with a lot of laughter in a very smoky office that doubles as met-room and radio center.

Joe, the literally great policeman, and Pierre, the boss of the gang building the new light house on the western end of the island, were indeed happy to see some other faces than the other 58 they got so used to. An invitation to come ashore to dinner next day was lodged and permission granted to walk around and see the island ! But we were strictly instructed NOT to smoke in the forest or make any open fires.

Arriving ashore at low tide next morning we understood immediately why. Lack of water is the big down side on Juan de Nova. The well- water is only good for washing and all drinking water is flown in with the supply plane once every 5 weeks. So don't count on refilling your tanks or your food supplies here !

Joe, the policeman showed up with a tractor and 5 chairs on a trailer behind it. We all jumped on with Lilly sitting on the chilly bin and bounced off to the sites of Juan de Nova. Vegetation of the island is surprisingly diverse and if you like birds, this is a fantastic place just littered with colorful little ones to big ocean birds arriving in millions from the sea every night. Those sea birds were also the reason why a French gentleman bought the license to export Guano from the French government on Madagascar in 1936. He had a substantial house built in the middle of Juan de Nova. A cute little train with its lorries now surrounded by trees everywhere runs over the whole island and connects the beaches with the sheds and work shops. The operation lasted until 1979 when the big chemical companies found a cheaper alternative to Guano. Only then it really came out how the workers were treated on the island. What seemed to us like paradise now, had been hell for the workers. They received hardly any payment for the hard labor in the sun, just enough to pay for their own food, which then again came out of the shop of the "patron". With no women on the island, many men turned violent and retreated to homosexuality, not always appreciated by the other workers. Life became very much the same as for the inmates of an old fashioned prison. In fact, there was a prison on the island, but the "patron" had the evidence demolished before he left the island himself in 1979. Slavery into 1979, it made us all think what we did back in that year and how free we were then !

Another great site was the stranded Korean fishing vessel, which appeared to be parked in the forest like a kid's toy. The story has it that the ship stranded around 1934, just before the first light house was built on the hill right above where the ship is sunk into the sand perfectly straight up. Especially in low tide it seems a long way away from its natural element.

Back at the Met-station we spoke to Pierre, the light house builder and his workers, who had just cut down the old light house and were to finish the new one soon. While the old one was LPG gas-driven, the new one is having a large solar-powered battery bank and a high tech lens sitting 24 meters above sea level. Thinking that almost 400 Million tons of oil are passing through the Mozambique channel each year, it makes perfect sense to have a light on the island.

Many stories about light houses, life on Reunion and life at sea on a yacht were told that evening over the dinner. The typical long French table was decorated with some fermented liquids from the bilges of Yacht MIZ MAE and the combined efforts of French and Reunion kitchens supplied a formidable dinner. Our two young parachutists also took part as a delegation from the army camp, even though there seemed to be a hardy but hearty competition between the two camps, which also seemed to have been influenced by our cigarette delivery. That delivery caused some impressive phone calls on the well used intercom system which had its throne on some empty beer boxes in the middle of the open plan terrace. To be real honest, Joe the tall policeman, wouldn't have needed a phone when he talked to the equally well proportioned commander some 2 km away, discussing how to share the bounty. But this is France as we like it, good temperament, an open word, and a fine reunion afterwards to celebrate.

Dinner had us staying at the Met station until 22.00 hrs, far later than planned, especially after the bad passage we had from Madagascar. So when we decided to head back for Yacht MIZ MAE, we were sincerely tired and ready for bed ! But now came the hard bit. Yours truly was well aware of what would happen with the inflatable and 6 half awake sailors in absolute low tide (not to mention there was NO moon), but what can one do. Dinner invitation is dinner invitation, and somebody had to eat it. So there we were, 22.00 hrs, no moon light, two torches, 6 tired sailors with a belly full of food, and no water in sight to float the dinghy in. Carrying it down the sand banks made our arms longer than Lilly's provision list for South Africa. But when we got into water up to our ankles, filled with little coral inlays to make the journey harder, you could learn new swear words in Finnish, Swedish, German, Swiss and Bavarian. Nothing like an international gang to carry an inflatable complete with 15 hp engine, chilly bin, anchor and a tank full of fuel. However, after 1 hour, a lot of cuts in our feet and some new scratches in the dinghy, we safely arrived back on the yacht. It wasn't hard to enjoy the last beer for that evening before we all said good night.

Next morning brought sunshine, and the knowledge that we would head out towards Africa and Mozambique. But before that, the almighty had put a visit to the big commander at the military camp where our bread for the trip was ordered. Obviously, the commander was so much taller and stronger than the skipper looking for his bread, that the odds were seriously bad for MIZ MAE, if Joe the policeman had upset the commander too much in the question of the cigarettes. However, arriving in the camp skipper Tom was greeted with a cuppa and no cigarettes were mentioned. The bread chilled off, Tom went back to the beach and almost missed the tide again ! With about ½ inch of water under the dinghy he got over the sand banks and back to the boat.

Waving goodbye this time was a seriously sad thing. We would have loved to stay longer, both because of the island, but so much also for the people we met ! Juan de Nova was a great highlight for all of us !

October 2001

Lilly Vedana & Tom Mueller, Yacht MIZMAE

Sue Richards
Sue Richards says:
Nov 13, 2015 02:45 PM

Posted on behalf of Anton Kose of SY Mala:
We just left Juan de Nova, another French island in Mozambique channel. We arrived, anchored, went swimming and be contacted by French military over VHF (there is a meteorological and military post on the island) which instructed us to leave as soon as we solve the reason for stopping there. While we do not have any “good reason” on beautifully sunny and perfect calm day, we do not argue and left Juan de Nova before dark. So, generally no “tourists” are welcome on the island.