Island Style - Zipping Through Zany Zanzibar - It Is Hakuna Matata
It’s all about wanderlust and island dust. When we mention an island, our immediate reaction is, “Oh, how romantic”. I wonder why we’re all so intrigued by small land masses surrounded by an ocean. Zanzibar has always conjured exotic images and bright colours, blue seas, white beaches and exotic flowers in my mind.
Our ferry trip from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar city was smooth and comfortable. Calm sees made for plain sailing. Our lovely window seats enabled us to enjoy Dar's fading skyline and to see how far out to sea fishermen on kayaks ventured. Zanzibar has a huge commercial harbour which was another eye opener. There are things happening out there we have no clue about, unless we travel.
Here’s a fun fact: Zanzibar has been occupied for 20,000 years.
Traders from Arabia, Persia and India arrived in Zanzibar during the 1st Century AD by sailing across the ocean on the monsoon (trade) winds. Wealthy port cities began to spring up along the coast, and a large, sheltered harbour was constructed at present-day Zanzibar City.
During the Age of Exploration, the Portuguese Empire was the first European power to gain control of Zanzibar and did so for nearly 200 years. In 1698, Zanzibar fell under the control of the Sultanate of Oman, who developed an economy of trade and cash crops with a ruling Arab elite and the local population. The different cultures soon integrated, and Swahili became the official spoken language.
Plantations were developed to grow spices, hence, the name The Spice Islands: Ivory, from elephants killed on the Tanganyika mainland.
The third pillar of the economy was slaves, which gave Zanzibar an essential place in the Indian Ocean slave trade controlled by the Omani Sultan of Zanzibar.
Gradually, control of Zanzibar came into the hands of the British Empire. In 1890, Zanzibar became a British protectorate. The death of one sultan and the succession of another, of whom the British disapproved, later led to the Anglo-Zanzibar War, also known as the shortest war in history.
Zanzibar also boasted the first steam locomotive in the African Great Lakes region when Sultan Bargash bin Said ordered a tiny tank engine to haul his regal carriage from Town to his summer palace at Chukwani.
One of the most famous palaces built by the Sultans was the House of Wonders, which is still one of Zanzibar’s most popular tourist attractions but is currently under renovation.
On 26 April 1964, the mainland colony of Tanganyika united with Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which became the United Republic of Tanzania on 29 October 1964. After unification, local affairs were controlled by President Abeid Amani Karume, while foreign affairs were handled by the United Republic in Dar es Salaam. Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania.
Zanzibar is home to the red colobus monkey, the Zanzibar servaline genet, and the Zanzibar leopard. The genet and leopard were considered extinct, but unconfirmed rumours suggest they survived.
With our passports stamped and rucksacks on our backs, we ventured out of the arrivals hall to be accosted by local guides, eagerly awaiting to lead the way into Stone Town. Fortunately, after patiently explaining repeatedly that we were not staying in Stone Town, but were on our way to the island’s eastern shores.
We hailed an air-conditioned luxury taxi with navy frosted windows to whisk us off through the winding, narrow, potholed streets, small roadside villages, forests, and rice paddies to Kiwengwa, where we’d booked an Air BnB apartment for ten days.
Laiza, the assistant manager, met us upon our arrival and continued to check on our happiness throughout our stay.
From the parking area, I could see the bluest sea. I kicked off my flip-flops and dug my toes into the talcum-powdery beach “sand”. Extraordinary. A Cool and silky smooth texture enfolded my toes like a balm.
The small ground floor semi-detached one-bedroomed apartment suited us perfectly. The tiny garden with the cream rope macramé hammock was an invitation to relax and enjoy the swaying coconut palm fronds.
Soon we were unpacked and in our beachwear. We flung open the French doors to let the cool evening breeze filter through our new home.
While sipping drinks on the patio, we discussed our meal plans and envisioned Laiza introducing us to the local fish merchant who would supply fresh ocean treasures daily. I’d make salads and serve simple vegetables sourced from the local market. For breakfast, we’d have sub-tropical fruit salads and Zanzibari coffee.
Supper on our first evening would be something special. We agreed we’d eat out. Early bird catches the worm, but, it also meant we were often the only diners in the restaurant. We never found out whether it was us or a lack of tourists at the beginning of the season.
Mosquitoes zoomed around our ears playfully, but we were still euphoric and tolerantly swatted them away. We would switch on the air conditioner before bedtime to cool the room and expel the little critters.
A day later, we attacked them with insect killers and doused ourselves in peaceful sleep. Our romance with them was short-lived.
A memory of my Grandmama’s loathing of Mauritius came to mind “The mosquitoes there swoop down in clouds very similar to a murmuration of starlings. No amount of Gin or Tonic could save us. It’s a dreadful place.” Hakuna matata Grandma. Improved insecticides were on our side and we wouldn't let an army of mozzies come between us and bliss.
Marta, the delightful manageress, a teacher originally from Spain, introduced herself. Her daily visits were tonic as she could fill us in with much of the local lore and island history and answered our questions.
She advised us to use the in-house chef to prepare our self-catered meals. Unfortunately, our apartment did not have braai facilities, and we realised, the kitchen was equipped with the weirdest selection of random utensils, e.g. we had a cake lifter but no wooden bread or chopping board. Two knives could hardly spread butter. They were so blunt.
The fish we bought on our first day was dutifully handed over to her, and we agreed we’d enjoy Chef’s traditional local fish dish with vegetables and coconut rice at $10ppph. (We would supply all the ingredients too.)
I was invited to spend a few minutes with the chef, who introduced me to new spices and a new traditional cooking technique used by local cooks. Subsequently, I learned that “boiling” or stewing fish and meat is the preferred method in much of Tanzania.
We laid our table on the patio, and Chef served us with much fanfare. We enjoyed our meal tremendously. The flavours differed from ours with a subtle hint of garlic, ginger and chilli with a liberal squeeze of local lime juice.
The liberal portions were far too much for us, which was fortunate, and we could share our meal with our night guard.
We subsequently decided to eat out for our main meal. Our restaurant meals were often a better deal or on par with the cost of purchasing ingredients and having a chef prepare our meals. Not being able to prepare the meals with our favourite kinds of seafood was disappointing. There was the option to eat in, and one evening we put the take-away market to the test and ordered a pizza. It was delicious. On our patio we sat, Butch with his red wine and me with a Stoney Tangawizi (ginger beer) my new favourite drink.
While we stayed at Surfescape, we relaxed, slept late, and read books, borrowed from the bookshelf; I even stopped reading a particularly dull book after a few pages. We went for daily walks along the beach and experienced island life to the max.
Although we were often the only guests at a restaurant, we noticed deck chairs filling up at the resorts as European holidaymakers flew in to spend a week on a daybed enjoying copious free drinks and groaning buffet counters.
Interesting stalls selling beachwear, wraps, carved mementoes and massages opened their doors, and touts paraded, selling their respective trinkets. A walk along the seashore was not only toning but sociable too.
Young Maasai men dressed traditionally were a colourful sight as they paraded on the beach. On a few occasions, we’d be accompanied by them for a short distance. We later realised SOME men trade their companionship to single female travellers. Someone told us there is the hope/desire that these liaisons will lead to a permanent relationship and a Green card.
I did not notice female companions in a country with staunch, conservative religious practices, but I assume it exists.
At sunset, the beach would liven up with children coming down to the water’s edge to enjoy the tepid lapping waves, soccer would be played, and friends and families would gather for a chat and a meal around a small brazier.
Tourists would slide off their beach loungers, later reappear in gossamer evening wear, sipping cocktails at beach bars or taking strolls along the shore before vanishing into restaurants as candles lit up and the buffet opened for supper.
Our favourite eateries were Italian-inspired or local Zanzabari flavours and always with a view. We try to be adventurous in our choices of dishes, and will always try something new. Zanzibar has an eclectic and unique fusion of many different cultural influences which account for a variety of flavours and cuisines.
It is all very well to chill, but there comes a time when one needs to explore. We went north to the very tip of the island to a small, predominantly touristy village with a laidback vibe at Nungwi.
When enquiring about possible locations to stay, we were warned that Nungwi was a bustling, loud, noisy destination.
Our taxi driver deposited us in the central market a stone's throw from the beach, where we ducked into the nearest restaurant, one of many lining the beachfront, for a coffee and, later on, for a gelato.
The sun was shining, the tide was high, and the beach loungers filled up with gorgeous, toned girls in bikinis, straw hats and the latest sunglasses. The unmistakable scent of cocoa butter, coconut oil and a hint of jasmine filled the air as partners massaged glowing, suntanned backs and shoulders. At the same time, manicured gel fingernails scraped lip-gloss and applied apple, strawberry and vanilla flavours to pouty lips. My observations had to be surreptitious and not photographic. Nothing worse than an old lady snapping pics of young bombshells in bikinis. Don't you think?
Butch and I didn’t hang around but went exploring. Of course, luck wasn’t on our side, and soon we were drenched from a sudden tropical cloud burst, and we had to run for cover.
Lunch was at the no 1 Trip Advisor-recommended restaurant at the island’s most northerly point. Our enjoyable day ended with a browse through the market, a gelato and puddle-jumping around the market to find our driver.
We have since recommended Nungwi to a few people planning trips to Zanzibar. Only some enjoy walks in nature, discovering extinct animals as we do.
I removed the stitches in Butch’s leg after twelve days. The wound had healed beautifully. There was no swelling or infection; a plastic surgeon couldn’t have done a better job. He was ready to go snorkelling.
We tested the waters first by going for a long hike down the beach one day. The leg performed beautifully and Butch agreed and pronounced himself 100% fit.
Upon our return we celebrated, again, with a five star lunch on the beach. Toes in the sand.
I succumbed to a pair of beaded leather flip-flops, bargaining with the salesman until I thought I had the upper hand and the best price. Although extremely comfortable I doubt they'll stand the test of time. They're safely wrapped in a bag waiting for a special occassion. I have since learned that they're not exclusive and could've bought a pair in Stone Town at a better price. Hakuna matata.
Our Laiza recommended a day trip to one of the islands, swimming with the dolphins and a snorkel. We agreed and left the arrangements in his capable hands. I had heard about swimming with dolphins and looked forward to the experience.
With much excitement and anticipation, we were ready an hour before the appointed time and couldn’t wait for our taxi to arrive. He must’ve sensed our tension and resolved to get us to the boat in double quick time.
When we were fully decked out with snorkels and flippers, we were escorted to our boat. The longshoremen brought bags of fruit and Sodas, and finally, we were ready to set off. The skipper indicated where we should sit and delivered his short safety briefing.
After a few tugs on the starter cord, the engine emitted a tropical storm cloud of blue noxious fumes, and we were off.
The trans-Agulhas inflatable boat challenge has nothing on this fast-paced, action-packed boat race. Except this is no race, it’s how a hundred skippers get their passengers to the dolphins, the snorkelling venue and the island.
We spotted the pod of dolphins gliding in the surf, beautiful sleek creatures slicing through the crystal clear aquamarine waves cresting and riding them. Breathtaking and inspiring, but the thought of a hundred boats careening towards them, cutting the engines in another pall of blue twin-stroke smoke, didn’t appeal to us. Shaking our heads emphatically, our guide, unwillingly, got the message. We would admire them from a distance as we headed to the snorkelling spot.
Unbeknownst to us, we were not alone at the diving spot. There were dozens of boats behind us, all on the same mission with excited snorkelers.
The clusters of boats disgorged their masked and flippered passengers. Butch plunged in, set off as I gently glided, and lurched into the water. Entrapped, boats circled, bobbing and floating ever closer to the divers. Many unanchored. Tentatively I put my face into the water. The goggles were hopelessly too big, filling with water and drowning me. Like a cork, I bobbed out of the water and found twenty boat bows descending down upon me.
That’s when I decided I’d had enough. The thought had never occurred to me that I would not recognise our boat. For the life of me, I had no clue where our boat was. This whole outing was becoming a nightmare. Too overwhelming by far. Butch floated merrily when I clambered aboard our boat like a drowning rat. I slapped on my sunglasses, wrapped up in my kikoi and tucked into a slice of watermelon.
The next leg of our adventure was to the island, which was out of bounds for us; Bill Gates was renting it. We could only admire the island from a very safe distance.
A reef guards this coastline, and the tides determine the depth of the water. We would lie at anchor during the low tide enjoying our fresh fruit platters and sodas. Groups of tourists were ducking and diving in the shallows, chatting, enjoying the sun, and having fun while some of their lily-white bodies were bronzing.
Butch and I can only do so much bobbing, giggling, splashing, ducking, and nibbling watermelon before we throw in the towel and pack up our beach ball. Except our crew were sticking to the plan and wouldn’t budge. Not until we were neck deep in the rising tide. Like fat walruses, we all slithered and flopped back into the boat when the first engine started put-puttering, ready to head home.
Kiwengwa suited us perfectly. We could explore the local village on foot or hail a Bajaj to take us further afield, while our favourite outings were walks along the coast. The large selection of eateries gave us a choice of local and international cuisines. We could enjoy our solitude or go out and join the crowds. The choice was ours.
The manageress Marta, and her sidekick, the effervescent, delightful Laisa with his warm hugs and toothy grin, were divine. They were caring, helpful, kind and respectful of our privacy, yet both became friends we’d miss when they skipped a day.
The two young housekeepers who occasionally came by to spoil us with fresh linens and clean floors were angels, and my favourite treat was to see how they’d decorated our bed—an indulgence after living in a truck.
The weather treated us well. Never a dull day with calm seas, blue skies and the whitest softest beaches. But we were ready to pack up and head off to Stone Town after a Spice Tour.
There are many spice tours and many spice farms. Deciding which one suited us depended on its proximity to Stone Town. That we could have a home-cooked meal with a family on the farm afterwards was the clincher.
If memory serves, the Siso Spice farm was previously owned by Germans but now belongs to the local community who live and work there. Spice tours, packaged spices and herbs are produced, and mangoes, bananas and litchis are harvested and sold at the market during the season.
During our walking tour, our guide, Jackson, showed us various ordinary-looking trees that turned out to be some of the spices we use in our kitchens. I told Butch I would plant a Cinnamon tree in my garden. Bay trees as high as the sky, vanilla creepers with long pods, exotic fruit I’ve only seen in Thailand hanging ready for the picking, and the dyes one can extract from the fruit were all new to me. I loved the red lipstick fruit.
Peppercorns aren’t from the pepper tree, as I thought, but from a creeper. Walking through a wild garden was fascinating, and being introduced to fresh cardamom, cloves, mustard, and fenugreek was a treat. Mass plantings of lemongrass are a good Mosquito repellent, and we should all grow a lime tree we were instructed to do.
While we were being shown around, a youngster was plaiting a crown for the King and Queen with accompanying bracelets, a tie, a ring and earrings using coconut palm fronds. Butch and I were treated like royalty while he climbed a hundred-foot coconut palm tree to pick a coconut. The fresh coconut water was a balm, and the new satiny flesh was a treat.
The tickling of a bicycle bell, followed by a "Le Réveil" of a small brass trumpet, caught our attention. Along the potholed dirt road came the squeak of an old-fashioned delivery bicycle— seated upon it, the fishmonger. Ladies would come running and wait for him to buy fish which he'd wrap in sheets of newspaper. I loved that.
Like the pied piper and his motley crew, we followed our guide to the farmhouse for lunch decked out in our royal finery.
Our host was waiting for us, seated on the floor with various serving dishes and platters before him. As is customary in Muslim tradition, his wife, the cook, would not dine with us.
We tucked into a delectable spread of coconut rice, local spinach, a fish stew and pumpkin.
Before our onward journey to Stone Town we did stock up on some spices and herbs.
Butch has just told me that we are on our way tomorrow morning; I’ll have to speed things up to meet my deadline to post a new blog on Sunday. My Stone Town story will have to be short and sweet.
A labyrinth of alleyways runs between towering limestone houses with ornately carved arched hardwood doors with brass finishings and terracotta roofs. Stone Town is a melting pot of cultures and one of Africa’s last remaining ancient towns. It offers a rare cultural and historical insight into a former era of trade and exploration.
Stone Town is the historical centre of Zanzibar City, the capital of the Zanzibar archipelago.
As a primary trading post on the spice, silk and slave trade routes for over a millennium, Stone Town is one of Africa’s few remaining ancient towns.
Its beauty and historical value have earned it a well-deserved place on the UNESCO world heritage list.
Not only is this city visually beautiful, but your senses will be overwhelmed with the scent of the sea, spices and the calls to prayer echoing from the minarets. Butch could, if truth be told, have fewer calls to prayer!
As a primary trading post on the spice, silk and slave trade routes for over a millennium, Stone Town has been a unique meeting place, blending African, Indian, Arabian and European cultures. It is one of the few remaining ancient towns in Africa, the friendly chap in the Tourism office told us when we called to enquire about a map before taking a tour of the old Portuguese Fort.
Our Malindi Rooftop Apartment was perfect. Just a stone’s throw away from the Ferry port and in the heart of Stone Town near the night market, museums and coffee shops.
We spent three nights there and enjoyed our forays into a warren of alleys, side streets and the promenade that came alive at night when the night market started.
Stone Town reminded me of Tuscany and India all at the same time. The old colonial buildings are an eclectic mix of East and West. The restaurants serve local food but dip into the Mediterranean while honouring North and East Africa.
We investigated the markets, bought peanut brittle from a vendor, replenished our dwindling airtime from a cart and had a cup of milky tea under the Banyan tree, where we were charged double the price.
Unfortunately, our apartment sprung a leak in the bathroom, and we had to move two floors down. We were rewarded with a super meal at the owner’s restaurant. We couldn’t complain.
Tanzanite sparkles and lures tourists to the many jewellery stores nestled next to grand hotels, gift stores and antiquity shops selling masks, treasures from all over Africa and the brightest, boldest art. We could only browse and pass by the offers of a bargain and a special price offered by touts.
Being independent suits us. There are no limits nor restrictions to our forays, we do not have to be on a bus nor do we get bustled about. The world is our oyster and we suck and chew every last drop savouring the tantalising, exotic flavours each location offers.
One of the most famous musicians in the world, Farroukh Bulsara – whom we know as Freddie Mercury – was born in Zanzibar in 1946. There are many tributes to Freddie Mercury at various locations around Stone Town, and Queen fans flock to the Shangani area of Zanzibar, where he grew up.
This is ironic because LGBT persons in Tanzania face legal and social challenges not experienced by non-LGBT residents. Homosexuality in Tanzania is a socially taboo topic, and same-sex sexual acts (even in private and consensual) are criminal offences, punishable with life imprisonment.
We enjoyed a few cups of coffee at Mercury, a restaurant near the harbour and treated ourselves to a Freddy T-shirt each.
One of the highlights of our stay in Stone Town was a meal at the Ethiopian restaurant. Each course a sensory delight that tittilated our tastebuds by the time we were served coffee we were swooning.
Hamadi, you were the perfect host, always available, never without a kind word or big smile. Thank you for the time and effort you put into making our stay such a pleasant one.
Cats, crows and crabs will always be reminders of our time in Zanzibar. You can’t have one without the other. All too soon, our stay in Stone Town came to an end. It was backpacks on and back to the ferry, the Honey Badger and new tantalizing Tanzanian delights.
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