Exploring paradise in Zanzibar

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Flag of Tanzania  , Zanzibar Archipelago,
Saturday, November 13, 2010

We packed a bag and took a taxi from our hotel, leaving Kwetu behind to be watched over by the Massai 'askari' (guards) while we voyaged towards the infamous island of Zanzibar. Arriving at the ferry terminal was chaotic, there were touts climbing all over the taxi telling us not to buy our ferry tickets from anyone but them, people pointing to each other shouting "He's a dangerous man, don’t trust him, he’ll rob you, come with me!" We finally opted for our taxi driver’s mate who said he’d look after us. They flew us through the ticketing process and dropped us right to the departure gate. We thought we had made a great decision in our tout selection, but it wasn’t until we boarded the ferry that we realised our tout had got one over on us...big time! We’d stumped up $45 each way per person and only when we tried going upstairs to first class that the steward pointed out our ticket was a $30 2nd class ticket.

We explained to the staff that we had in fact paid the 1st class fare they somewhat unbelievably gave us the benefit of the doubt and we were let through to the icy-cold air conditioned, top deck cabin. Our ferry was supposedly the fast 1.5 hour ferry, but it was more than 3 hours later before Stone Town's famous horizon littered with slender mosque minarets rolled into view we knew we had finally made it to Zanzibar - an island world renowned  for its spices, beaches, crystal clear waters, Freddy Mercury and also for partaking in the world's shortest ever war in 1896 when the ruling Omani Sultans only managed to hold out for 45 minutes before surrendering to the British naval bombardment of Stone Town.

Once we docked into the port, the tourist bureau informed us that it would cost us an outrageous $70 for a taxi to our resort. We were certainly not in the mood to be ripped off twice in one day and managed to negotiate them down the 'standard' $40 fare! And so, with a Zanzibar entry stamp in our passports (it has semi autonomous status from the rest of Tanz), we climbed into our taxi with Said (our driver) and began our holiday away from our holiday.

After 30 minutes of Said's break-neck driving (which wouldn't have looked out of place on a stage of the world rally championship) he dropped us at our accommodation, Matemwe Beach village, where we were greeted by the resort's 'no shoes, no news' signpost. We knew instantly this was the place for us! We settled into the beautiful resort by jumping into the refreshing pool and checking out the resort's dive centre. We opted for a 2-dive/snorkeling package, which at $150 was nearly double the price of a similar package in Mozambique, but I was determined to get Bry diving for his birthday present.

After checking into our gorgeous beach front room, we showered and went straight down to sample some of the resort's legendary cuisine. Good food and service were things that we take for granted at home and although we’d experienced it in Cape Town, we hadn’t really had it since, until now....the staff were magnificent and the food was spectacular. Bry reckons the bbq swordfish steaks were worthy of a Michelin star, and the chef even tailor-made a vegetarian meal on the spot for me. We were in heaven!

We spent the next day (Bryan’s official ‘second birthday’) relaxing and reading our books on the beach and by the pool, drinking cocktails and meeting fellow guests at the resort. I organised for Bryan to get a massage for an hour before we sat down to Matemwe's weekly 'curry night'. Everyone was seated at communal tables and it was a great chance to interact and socialise with the other guests, whilst sampling every imaginable type of curry accompanied by a favourite Tanzanian delicacy, chipati. After the meal, just as Bry excused himself for a loo-stop, I pushed him back down into his seat as the kitchen staff came across to our table carrying a huge cake singing happy birthday in Swahili to him. Needless to say Bry definitely enjoyed his ‘second birthday’ more than his true birthday experience back on the mainland.

The next morning we were up bright and early and boarded our dalla-dalla (a local open-back bus) for a bumpy ride to our awaiting dive boat at the northern tip of the island.

I had really wanted to take the PADI open water diving course while we were in Zanzibar, but the prohibitive, highly inflated Zanzibarian prices meant I would have to wait until Egypt where it is considerably more affordable. Any disappointment I harbored at not being able to dive disappeared when one of the dive masters spotted dolphins off the bow. The other snokellers and I quickly suited up and within minutes were splashing around in the 25 degree turquoise waters, surrounded by a beautiful pod of dolphins. 
After our first dive/snorkel we were back on the boat refueling by munching down chipati's and fresh fruit while talking about the marine life we’d spotted that morning and what we’d hope to see later that afternoon for the second round. By his own admission Bry was a bit jealous at missing out on the dolphins but he was still buzzing after his first dive in over 5 years, in surely one of the most picturesque places in the world, the Mnemba Atoll. From the edge of the atoll we spied small huts on the tiny island and enquired with our divemaster the price of the accommodation. His reply had us choking on our chipati. $1500US per night....per person! We decided we were quite happy to stick with our $90 room at Matemwe.

Our second session in the water proved more fruitful for Bry and he saw loads of turtles and morays nestled in between the techicoloured shoals of reef fish. He was in his element and I was really enjoying snorkelling with our fantastic guide pointing out things you would usually only see on a dive like moray eels and octopuses. 

We had tried to extend our stay at Matemwe to a third night but it was to no avail, they were completely booked (and during low season too!) so we walked down the beach to Sele’s next door and got a cheap room for the night. Although that certainly didn’t stop us from hanging out at the Matemwe Beach Village pool for the whole day! At $50 per night including breaky Sele's was an excellent place to stay for a few days, but we knew we could only manage one night because we had to get Kwetu in for a service before the weekend. Bry reckons Sele's coconut prawn curry is the best curry he has ever eaten, not bad for $5!

The next morning we called Said, our rally/taxi driver who picked us up at Sele’s and took us on a complimentary tour of the stone town before catching our ferry. Our first stop was the town's old slave market where slaves (who had been marched up to 1,000 miles overland) were held before being sold to the highest bidder. The oppressive, claustrophobic holding pens send a shiver down your spine and you can only begin to imagine how bad conditions were when the cells were packed to their full capacity of 100 slaves. The appalling living conditions (with no light, water or sanitation) were used by the Arab traders to root out the strongest slaves (who would fetch the highest prices), while the weakest were often left to perish. This practice went unchallenged until British law banned slavery in the 1870's. It was difficult to take in the full horrors of the slave market, but we were glad that Said told us we couldn't leave the island without seeing it.

Our whistle stop tour of Stone Town was rounded off with a quick visit to the museum at the House of Wonders. We then headed back down to the port and boarded the correct ferry this time (ie the one which is actually fast) and were back on the seas heading towards Dar, with the joyful knowledge we would be spending the next few days looking for a reputable mechanic to give Kwetu a thorough service. Luckily Anna and Jereon had passed on the details of Nick, a Serbian mechanic with a kitted out workshop in Dar, who had done a great job on their Landy. 

We had truly fallen in love with Zanzibar. The whole island looked like someone had tweaked the saturation levels in photoshop. Everything from the electric turquoise water to its lush green interior was brighter and more vivid than anywhere we had seen before. Zanzibar - we will miss you.

Once we had made it back to Dar, we tracked down our dodgy ferry tout and gave him the earful of expletives that he thoroughly deserved - not that we were ever going to get our money back, but just for our own peace of mind! A note to other travellers heading to Zanzi - only buy your tickets directly from the Azam ferry terminal, not any of the travel agents that line the road...they are scumbags who love the sight of a naive mazungu arriving at the terminal.

After we had dropped Kwetu to Nick's garage we passed the time by tagging along with Jason, a Manchunian who runs the Tanzanian Football Academy, to a few training sessions at the Tanzania Football Federation headquarters, where we were lucky enough to catch the national team training before their local derby match with Zanzibar in the CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup (one of the few tournaments Zanzibar can compete in, due to FIFA’s lack of recognition). It was amazing to see what happens when young, raw, African football talent is properly nurtured. None of Jason's kids would have looked out of place in plying their trade in the English Premier League.

Jason managed to convince us to hang around in Dar for an extra night so we could meet Simon Charlton (former Bolton and Norwich legend....Bolton’s 2002 player of the season no less!) who was out on a scouting mission to sign players up and then arrange loan deals to Middle eastern clubs, now seen as the gateway for African players to get top quality training facilities before stepping up to European football. Bry had a blast with Simon and Jason, immersing himself with football talk for the whole weekend.

Kwetu came back to us in A1 shape, with every squeak and kink ironed out. Nick and his boys had done a fantastic job, but the repairs had left us flat broke. Nick and Justin (a Northern Irish ex-pat from Helen's Bay - just down the road from Bry) took pity on us and treated us to dinner and drinks back at the Irish pub. Thanks a million for all your hospitality guys, you are true legends. We talked them through our onward travel plans and asked whether a 12-hour marathon drive to Arusha was realistic. Nick, Jason, Justin and Penny all replied that we couldn't drive past without stopping by Lushoto, deep in the Usambara mountains. We had never heard of it, but figured it was worth a shot.

The next day we said our goodbyes to our pals in Dar and hit the road. After a couple of hours you could see the landscape morphing into lush, green, mountainous terrain. Pole Pole (Swahili for slowly, slowly) was the highly appropriate bold print, stenciled onto the road, it was slow going. We climbed the narrow, one lane road, which perilously clings to the side of the mountains, hopeful we would not encounter any psychotic dalla dalla’s embracing the full effects of gravity on their way down the mountain. We were not only praying that Lushoto was worth the effort....we were praying we made it there alive.

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afrikanskies on

Thank you for you comments on our blog. Glad to know that people are enjoying our pics and stories. How did you hear about our blog?
Bryan and Lani

Merinda Richards on

Yay! Thanks for putting up the Zanzibar photos guys - the place looks stunning. Glad you got a little holiday away from your holiday :0) Lots o love xoxo

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