Tanzania: Relaxing on Zanzibar

1st March - 5th April 2002


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Today's plan was to sail to Stone Town on Zanzibar Island. It would be a long day, starting at 03.30 in Mtae in the Western Usambara Mountains, but I hoped that Gerald and I could be back in Dar es Salaam before 16.00, in time to catch one of the last, fast ferries to the island. After trekking up two high mountains and trekking through the Western Usambaras, I think I deserved a couple of days relaxing under palm trees on a tropical beach. We were also nearing the end of Gerald's three week holiday to Tanzania; Zanzibar would be the perfect place to unwind and relax and think about what we had achieved over the last sixteen days or so. It had also been just over eight weeks since I last saw and smelt the ocean. When I picked up Gerald at the airport in Dar Es Salaam a couple of weeks ago, I didn't have time to walk down to the port and gaze out at the ocean. Back home in Dorset I live next to the sea and I always miss the sea when I'm travelling inland for any length of time. I feel connected to home when I'm standing next to the ocean, it doesn't matter where in the world I am.

The local bus from Lushoto was fairly slow; I dozed off to sleep while we were still slowly winding our way out of the mountains and back to the main road at the village of Mombo. As we crossed the endless coastal plains towards Dar es Salaam it was becoming apparent that we would not make the last ferry to Zanzibar, especially as I had to stop at a bank en route to withdraw some more cash from an ATM. At 16.30 we arrived back at the Ubungo bus station, miles out from downtown Dar es Salaam. We decided to spend the night in the city and catch the first ferry the next morning. We negotiated a taxi fare of TSH3,000 to take us back to the Safari Inn on Libya Street. We spent the night at our now usual haunts, Chef's Pride for dinner and The New Protein Bar for beer. While we were eating at Chef's Pride, we met a couple from Norway who were staying at the Holiday Hotel on Jamhuri Street. They highly recommended this hotel, which isn't mentioned in any guidebooks, so we planned to stay there when we returned from Zanzibar as the double rooms were almost half the price of those at the Safari Inn, at only TSH7,200.

Early the next morning we took a taxi down to the port and arrived just in time to catch the first ferry of the day, operated by Azam Marine that departed at 07.30; the fare was US$35. I was expecting a more basic ferry and was surprised to be boarding a fairly modern catamaran that only took an hour and forty-five minutes to reach Stone Town. Despite still being in Tanzania we had to go through immigration formalities again at the port and ended up with a stamp in our passports that read, Zanzibar Sea Port Tanzania. There were two other westerners on the boat, a guy from New Zealand who was running sailing safaris at Lamu in Kenya and his friend who had just flown in from London. They were going to visit the New Zealanders brother, who was a diving instructor at Nungwi in the far north of the island. We were also heading for the same town and shared a taxi between the four of us. We needed to obtain a permit to drive north across the island, which cost TSH2,000. The drive took just over an hour to reach Nungwi, the road lined by palm trees most of the way until the paved road turned into a dirt track and the palm trees replaced by low shrub.

Nungwi is a large village and dhow-building centre, it also has some of the best beaches on the island and has become a magnet for tourists. The beaches here are not affected by the large tidal fluctuations that are found elsewhere on the island, especially on the east coast, where it is only possible to swim at high tide. That was the main reason why we decided to come to Nungwi as we only had two days to spend on the beach and wanted to do a lot of swimming. It seems to be a problem the world over, that wherever there is a beautiful beach it is soon spoilt by mass tourism and insensitive tourist development. The beaches at Nungwi are no exception, they are packed full with hundreds of bungalows and restaurants lining the waterfront, in stark contrast to the main village hidden in the palm trees a little further north along the coast. The beaches though were beautiful, with pristine white sand and the clearest water I had seen for a long time. I went swimming early in the morning before breakfast and again late in the afternoon, when the sun was not so fierce. During the middle of the day the sun was far too strong to be out in it for too long. I found refuge under the shady ledges formed by the volcanic rock along the edge of the beach. Everything on Zanzibar is a lot more expensive when compared to the mainland, we paid US$25 a night for a double bungalow at the Amaan Bungalows. The price of a bottle of beer jumped from TSH600 on the mainland to up to TSH1,200 on the island, either a clear case of profiteering or the high cost of transportation from the mainland.

Zanzibar has a long history that has been influenced by many different cultures over the centuries. Traders from Persia reached this region by the 12th century, bringing with them Islam and creating a powerful city-state with trade links with Asia and India. They also brought Arabian architecture, which still characterises the narrow alleyways of Stone Town today. Zanzibar reached its peak by the 16th century by which time the first European explorers arrived on the island. The first to arrive were the Portuguese, followed soon after by the British; both these European powers lost out to the Omani Arabs who first attacked the Portuguese strongholds in the mid 16th century. By the early 19th century the island was firmly under control of the Omani Arabs and trade was once again booming. Most of this commercial activity centred on the trade in slaves and ivory but also during this time clove plantations were established on the island and Zanzibar soon became the world's largest producer of cloves and hence became known as the Spice Islands.

The most notorious trade was that in slaves, which Zanzibar became infamous for. Slaves were shipped to Arabia and Persia and to the French islands of Reunion and Mauritius to work on the plantations. By the 19th century Zanzibar was the major trading depot for slaves in East Africa and up to 50,000 slaves a year passed through its markets. Slavery was made illegal in Britain in 1772 and in 1798 Britain signed a commercial treaty with Oman and from then British interests in Zanzibar began to grow. In 1845 the slave trade was just limited to that between the island and the mainland and was finally abolished with a treaty with Britain in 1873. In 1862 Zanzibar became independent of Oman and the Omani sultans ruled under a British protectorate until 1963 when independence was granted. In 1964 the sultans were overthrown in a revolution and the new president, Abeid Karume signed a declaration of unity with mainland Tanganyika and the United Republic of Tanzania was created.

After two days of lazing on a tropical beach in the north of the island we returned to spend a couple of days exploring historic Stone Town. We checked into the Florida Guest House on Vuga Road towards the south of the old city. It is a fascinating place just to wander around exploring the many narrow alleyways and basically get lost in, which we did in style. After travelling through many Middle Eastern countries I was excited to explore this most unique of African towns with its hybrid mix of Arabic, Asian, European and African architecture. I was not disappointed and was treated to a wonderful array of different architectural styles and at times I felt as though I was walking through a medina in the Middle East. The Arabic architecture is characterised by square two or three storey buildings with verandas built around an internal courtyard under a flat roof; the Indian buildings are similar and generally have a shop on the ground floor with living quarters above with ornate facades and balconies. The Old Dispensary near the port, built at the turn of the 19th century, must be the best example of Indian architecture in the town. All over the town are many religious buildings including the Malindi Minaret Mosque, the Ijumaa Mosque and the Christian St Joseph's Cathedral and the Anglican Cathedral, built on the site of the Zanzibar slave market. Five times a day the whole town echoes to the sound of the call to pray from the many mosques dotted throughout the town, you could close your eyes and easily mistake yourself for being in Damascus.

Unfortunately the Arabic style of building is not suited to the far wetter climate of the island. The flat roofs tended to collect water rather than draining it away, causing major damp problems and in some cases collapse. Many of the buildings have deteriorated over the years and have become dilapidated, although the majority of the flat roofs have now been replaced by pitched roofs, sometimes with the loss of some of the original architectural details. In 1982 the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements developed a plan to conserve Stone Towns unique architectural heritage and created the Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority, which was given the responsibility of restoring the towns historic architecture. In the two decades since it was formed over 600 buildings have been restored and many more restorations are planned. An application has also been made to UNESCO to have the town listed as a world heritage site, which will also help aid the restoration of the town.

Another interesting feature of Zanzibar architecture are the intricate carved wooden doors found all over Stone Town. Many of the doors are older than the houses they stand in and served as a symbol of wealth and status of the owner. The oldest doors are Arabic in origin and are square framed with a geometric design featuring passages from the Quran. The slightly newer doors were carved towards the end of the 19th century and are influenced by the Indian subcontinent, often having semicircular tops and elaborately carved floral designs. Other designs include images to bring good fortune to the household, a fish expresses the hope for many children, chains represent the owners desire for security while the date tree symbolises prosperity. A few doors still have large brass spikes, a custom that came from India where it was a common way of protecting doors from being rammed by elephants. The cuisine in Stone Town is the best I had found so far on this trip and probably the best I had found over the last few years travelling. Seafood featured heavily on every menu and we dined out on some splendid seafood curries. If it swam in the sea I think at some point we ate it, the Indian influence featuring heavily on many restaurant menus. Each evening at the Forodhani Gardens on the waterfront, food stalls would be set up selling all kinds of fresh seafood cooked over charcoal fires. We stopped for a glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice as we strolled along the waterfront in the evening.

On Friday afternoon we took the Sea Express ferry back to Dar es Salaam, again it was a fast catamaran doing the approximately 50km crossing in under two hours. We had reached the end of Gerald's three-week visit to Tanzania and he was due to fly back to London on Sunday afternoon. At the port, back at Dar es Salaam, we made our way through the rugby scrum of taxi drivers and walked back up to Jamhuri Street and checked into the Holiday Hotel that had been recommended to us a few days earlier. It was certainly a very nice hotel for the price and we had a large double room on the second floor with a balcony overlooking Jamhuri Street where we could sit and watch the street life go by below us. We made contact with George, who I had met when I first arrived in the city and who came out to the airport with me to meet Gerald three weeks ago. I knew he would be a good contact for finding a live African band playing that night in the city. He didn't let us down and later that evening, after dinner again at Chef's Pride, we met at our local drinking establishment, the New Protein Bar. George had also met a Norwegian girl who had just arrived in the city and the four of us went out to a club a few kilometres out in the northern suburbs. A very popular local band were playing and the outdoor club was packed with a huge crowd of people. It goes without saying that we had a great night out, a good way to end Gerald's trip, sending him home with the sounds of African rhythms still echoing in his ears.

On Saturday, the last thing we did was to go to the wood carving market at Mwenge about 11km north of the city centre, just off the New Bagamoyo road. This is the biggest wood carving market in the country, the majority of the carvings for sale are also carved at the market, but there are also some stalls selling carvings from different tribes around the country. All over the market men and boys were busy carving, mostly using African Blackwood, an ebony type of wood where the heartwood of the tree is black, but not as black as ebony, hence the copious amounts of Kiwi black shoe polish being used. We spent a couple of hours at the market during the afternoon, eventually one carving jumped out at me, an old carved stool from the Kigoma region, and it was duly packaged up ready for Gerald to take home tomorrow.

On Sunday we arranged a taxi with Peterson's brother to do the return trip to the airport. George was nowhere to be seen, we hadn't seen him since Saturday morning so we left messages on the street that we were going to the airport at lunchtime. As if on cue George arrived at the hotel about ten minutes before we were due to leave for the airport. George, Peterson and myself jumped into Peterson's brothers' taxi with Gerald to see him off at the airport. When we arrived back at the airport it seemed like a lot longer than three weeks when I had last made this journey. We had achieved a lot in a short space of time and we agreed that the trip had been a complete success. I returned with George, Peterson and his brother to the city and went back to my hotel room and for the first time in just over three weeks found myself sitting in a hotel room by myself.

Continue reading this journey: Sailing Lake Tanganyika