The East African Islands are in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa. Madagascar is by far the biggest, and a continent on its own when it comes to wildlife. Most of the smaller islands are independent nations, or associated with France, and known as luxury beach resorts.
Countries and territories
Expect the unexpected in the land of the lemurs and the so-called eighth continent
A small island group in the Mozambique Channel and an historic crossroad of cultures
This is a department of France – it voted to remain French when the rest of Comoros became independent
An island with a population mainly descended from Indian indentured labourers
This is another department of France, way out in the Indian Ocean
A group of 115 islands northeast of Madagascar and the smallest country in Africa by both area and population
- 1 Rodrigues is an outlying island of Mauritius. Réunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues are collectively known as the Mascarene Islands.
- 2 Europa Island is a small atoll with an unpaved airstrip.
- 3 Glorioso Islands are all part of a small atoll with one airstrip and some anchorages.
- 4 Tromelin is administered by France but claimed by Mauritius, but its uninhabited and off-limits as a wildlife reserve.
The islands along Africa's east coast, such as Socotra, Zanzibar, Mafia Island, the Bazaruto Archipelago and Ilha de Mozambique, have natural and cultural similarities to these islands. They are described as part of their respective country.
- 1 Antananarivo — also known as Tana, is the capital of Madagascar
- 2 Mamoudzou — the largest town in Mayotte
- 3 Moroni — capital and largest city of the Comoros
- 4 Port Louis — the capital of Mauritius
- 5 Saint-Denis — the largest town in Réunion
- 6 Victoria — the capital of the Seychelles and one of the smallest capitals in the world
The "eighth continent" formed at a time when there were only four: from 550 to 180 million years ago most of the world's landmasses were smushed together into the supercontinent called Gondwana, leaving only three small outliers. Then the forces of plate tectonics fragmented it into the forerunners of the continents we recognise today. When the Indian Ocean opened up, Madagascar was a part of India not Africa; then it peeled away as a separate tectonic plate. This separation was complete by about 90 million years ago, so Madagascar and the other East African islands have been out of contact with any mainland for all that time, and out of contact with Africa for twice as long. Their evolution has therefore been utterly different from that of in-shore islands such as Zanzibar. At some point the Madagascar plate locked onto East Africa and thereafter moved in sync: geologists aren't sure if it's thereby ceased to behave as an independent continent or is just biding its time.
The islands were far beyond the reach of continental land animals, and there were important gaps. No monkeys for example, leaving an opportunity for other primates, and giving rise to 100 species of lemurs. 90% of the wildlife of Madagascar is found nowhere else on the planet; the other islands are less diverse but all have their own distinctions. But then about 2000 years ago a new primate species arrived and began to change everything: humans had learned how to sail long distances at sea.
And what remarkable distances they sailed, even with island-hopping and coast-hugging: the islands were settled not from India, Africa or Arabia, but all the way from Austronesia, the region between Sumatra and Taiwan 7000 km away. These people also made astonishing voyages east to settle Polynesia and New Zealand. To all these places they brought their genes, their language, their livestock, pets and pests. They set to a-chopping at the forests of their Brave New World.
Other arrivals in the East African islands were Bantu from the African mainland, and the Gulf Arabs who from the 10th century established a great oceanic trading empire, dealing in spices, ivory, slaves, gold and textiles, and bringing Islam. European incursion was led by the Portuguese from the 15th century, once Vasco da Gama pioneered the Cape Route from Europe to India. They were swiftly followed by the Dutch, English and French. Especially on Mauritius there was large-scale migration from India, as tea plantations were established and labour imported to harvest them. Dutch and British colonial interests however focussed further east, and the French like the lemurs filled a gap. They were boosted by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and France became the major colonial power. Many islanders therefore fought and died for France in two World Wars. Thereafter imperialism and colonialism were in decline, as much because they were no longer profitable as through political agitation. Madagascar became independent in 1960 and Comoros in 1975, Mauritius from Britain in 1968 and Seychelles from Britain in 1976. Réunion remains an overseas department of France, as does Mayotte - formerly part of Comoros, it declined to become independent. So Francophones nowadays know Réunion and Mayotte from the TV weather forecast, after the presenter finishes the mainland and rattles through the overseas departments before covering the rest of Europe and the world.
French is the lingua franca throughout the islands. People in Madagascar speak Malagasy, an Austronesian language. English is widely used on Mauritius and Seychelles.
No prior visa is required for tourist visits up to 30 days, but see individual islands' "Get in". Madagascar and Comoros issue visas on arrival.
The islands all have direct flights from Europe (chiefly Paris), the Gulf states and the East African mainland, with a few from South Africa. From North America or south Asia change planes in the Gulf.
Flights connect Madagascar, Comoros and Mayotte, but to reach Mauritius or Seychelles you may need to travel via the Gulf.
The larger islands or archipelagoes have domestic flights between their main cities and ports.
Occasional ferries connect Madagascar, Comoros and Mayotte, but they are mighty slow, and might work out more expensive than flying.
- The wildlife of Madagascar is that island's big draw. Andasibe-Mantadia National Park and Andringitra National Park are two prime viewing areas.
- Lemurs are the signature beast of Madagascar, but they've also been introduced to Mayotte and can be seen in quiet areas.
- Black River Gorges are a national park in the mountains of Mauritius.
- Moheli is the most beautiful island of the Comoros.
- Réunion National Park has mountainous scenery including the active volcano of Piton de la Fournaise.
- Morne Seychellois National Park protects some of the Seychelles' most scenic tropical rainforests.
- Scuba diving: many island coasts have a fringing reef enclosing a lagoon rich in corals. The reefs occasionally cause shipwrecks to add to the underwater vistas.
- Other water sport can be found, often based at resort hotels.
- Outdoor life and hiking opportunities are many, especially on Réunion.
Seafood is the staple; beef or lamb may have flown a long way to land on your plate. Resort hotels offer the best quality dining.
The most distinctive cuisine is on Mauritius, where the Indians brew up curries and sticky traditional desserts.
Best assume that tap water is not safe to drink, but upmarket resorts may have their own treatment plant.
Alcohol is widely available in cafes and restaurants, and some islands distil rum.
The East African Islands are generally much safer than most of mainland Africa, where violent crime is sadly common. Traffic, water safety and care of valuables are your main concerns.
You don't need any specific immunisations, but it's wise to be up to date on those recommended for your home country. However bcause the island mosquitoes are capable of acquiring yellow fever, you must have a yellow fever immunisation certificate if you've recently been in an endemic country. Take precautions against mosquito bites, but short term visitors are usually advised not to take anti-malarials.
You must have adequate health insurance. Any serious accident or illness will likely mean a medevac airlift to a European hospital.
- East Africa: Nairobi is the easiest to reach. Almost on its doorstep are classic Big-Africa vistas of elephants and giraffes grazing beneath the snows of Kilimanjaro.
- South Africa: Johannesburg has direct connections, a lively metropolis within reach of safari parks and beautiful mountains.
- Gulf States: Dubai and Abu Dhabi have the most connections, and are good starters for exploring Arabian culture.