Heaven and Hell in Zanzibar

We wearily rub sleep from our eyes as we set off in the dark at 5 am, having both breakfast and lunch on the road. Breakfast is a quick, uncomplicated affair, but the view of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro energizes even the most lethargic of us. As we travel further south, the Islamic culture becomes more apparent. Some men are dressed in tunics with skullcaps and women in full burka sway in the breeze on their way to market. We have a longer lunch than planned as Wil has to MacGyver a broken seal. The repairs set us back four hours (with an impromptu roadside lesson on Composition thrown in), so after 18 hours of travel, we finally have dinner and collapse in sweaty puddles in the stifling heat by the Indian Ocean in Dar Es Salaam.

The next morning, a truck, ferry and van ride take us to the beautiful island of Zanzibar. Although still part of Tanzania, it is a semi-autonomous country, so after a 2.5 hour ferry, another passport stamp awaits. After lunch at a local joint featuring refreshing glasses of tamarind juice (earthy, reddish, tasting like semi-sweet tart berries), we head off for a spice tour. Zanzibar is known for its spices, being the main exporter of cloves worldwide.

Zanzibar Spice Tour

The farm we visit has dozens of varieties of trees, from fruit to spice. (Fun fact: The cinnamon used for cooking comes from the bark, whereas the cinnamon tree roots smell exactly like Vick’s rub!)

We finally arrive at the idyllic beaches of Nungwi, among some of the top rated beaches of the world, right at the northern tip of Zanzibar and enjoy a twilight swim in the warm clear water and a dinner of grilled King Fish and guinea fowl.

We’re free to do whatever we want for the few days we’re in Zanzibar. Some go off on dives, others lounge at the beach or take a walk into the nearby village or watch the local women gathering seaweed, but we’re off on a snorkeling trip (USD 25) to one of the Mnemba Atolls. It’s hard to describe the raw beauty of Zanzibar.

Woman collecting seaweed

Along the 1.5 hour motorized dhow ride, an accidental pod of dolphins making an appearance in the distance. The water is electric blue in the morning sun and on the way back, a glassy jade.

Mnemba Atoll

The clarity is exceptional, the seabed easily visible at 15 meters. The diversity of the hard and soft corals is stunning. I see almost everything from “Finding Nemo” (except, thankfully, for the sharks!) I find myself in a school of a hundred black tangs, the size of two hands, playing a slow game of follow the leader, interspersed with impossibly blue tangs and a lonely bright yellow fish with embarrassingly purple lips. If you hold your breath, you can even hear them crunching on the hard corals.

Then there is a creepy school of 1 meter long needle fish and a blue/purple starfish with freakishly long arms. We have an included lunch on the beach of calamari steamed in Zanzibar spices with chapati (from the large Indian influence here), rice and salad with fresh pineapple and mango.

On the island, seafood places abound, from the quaint to the posh, and for dinner we settle for a grilled tuna steak served over rice, fries and vegetables for USD 8 right on the beach. We have been unlucky, though, in that the island has not had electricity for 5 days, something about the power line from the mainland. The hotels run on generators and ours cuts off between 2-5 am, making the room unbearably hot. After the first night we quickly upgrade to a room with a/c, worth every penny to cool the room down to the temperature of a meat locker before the power cuts off.

Bringing in the night's catch

Sailfish at auction

An early morning rise and a 20 minute walk along the beach takes me to the daily fish market, a photogenic opportunity to watch the dhows coming in with the night’s catch – tuna, swordfish and sailfish the ones I can easily identify. Everything is dragged up the beach where a wizened old man in a purple windbreaker and coke bottle glasses conducts the auction, all in Swahili.

Bidders cough, grunt or shout when they want to buy. There are no other tourists around as this is definitely a working auction. I quickly discover that not everyone likes getting their picture taken (especially the workers who drag the fish off after they’re bought and prepare them into fillets), but it’s a great experience nonetheless.

At noon, we meet up with my half-Swiss cousin who used to own a diving yacht here in Zanzibar and providentially is in the hotel right next ours. She knows all the best spots on the island and so we head over to the small Baraka aquarium, which has a turtle sanctuary housed in a natural tide pool fed by the ocean’s waters.

For about USD 5, you can snorkel with the dozen or so green sea turtles as they placidly feed on seaweed and dried fish, curiously gazing with huge liquid eyes. They share the pool with a school of jack fish, a few tangs and puffers.

A.ma.zing.

For lunch, we go to one of the many restaurants built on stilts over the ocean. While waiting for my chili tamarind calamari, we dive into the inviting waters, scattering a huge cloud of tiny silver fish. Heavenly…

Swimming amongst a silvery cloud of fish

In the late afternoon, our group goes on a sunset cruise around the northern tip of the island. I think Zanzibar has knocked off Koh Phi Phi (Thailand) as the most beautiful island I’ve been to. On the way back to shore, two pods of dolphins appear, twisting and surfacing mere meters from our dhow. We’re mesmerized and equally frustrated as we try to predict where they’ll surface next, itchy fingers on cameras.

Really? Dolphins too?

For dinner, we splurge on the seafood buffet set up on the beach at a nearby posh hotel, gorging ourselves on rock lobster, huge prawn and barracuda. A troupe of acrobats entertain us. All too soon, we bid adieu to the captivating beaches of northern Zanzibar and leave for Stone Town, Zanzibar’s capital and hometown of Freddy Mercury…

The island still without power, and without the benefit of stunning beaches, I fail to find the romanticism in Stone Town. We wander through the labyrinthine alleyways of the city, cooing over the ornately decorated heavy wooden doors and passing souvenir shops selling the same tired crafts. There are quite a lot of photographic opportunities in Stone Town and with a bit of patience, you can capture the sight of a woman in full garb passing through one of the many narrow passages… In the evening, we take in Forodhani, a newly created park by the sea which turns into a night eatery, dozens of tables set up with everything from seafood skewers (which we all pass up, protective of our stomachs) and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice flavored with lime and ginger to Zanzibar pizza, a crazy concoction of chapati, egg, meat, chili, Laughing Cow cheese and mayonnaise, all wrapped in a thin layer of dough and lightly fried. The landscape is pitch black, only homes with generators are lit up. Entire families sit out on their stoop, resigned to gathering around kerosene lamps, trying to catch the night breeze.

The best thing I’ve bought so far is Zanzibar tea, but abashedly, mainly for the plain paper bag that it comes in which doubles as a fan when the generators inexorably go off, subjecting us to the stifling heat which makes sleep nearly impossible.

The next morning over breakfast, I am secretly relieved to find out my truckmates are also bored of Stone Town, and we plot ways to kill the 6 hours we have until meeting for the ferry back to the mainland. Some traipse off in search of photos in the early morning light, others continue their quest for ice cold drinks (akin to the Holy Grail when there is no power), but we head off to a beach resort a short 10 minute taxi ride away, whiling away the hours by the pool, waiting for the tide to come in over battered calamari and spicy prawns.

We arrive back in Dar in the dark, where Ebron greets us with a meal of beef stroganoff over rice. The universe is kind to us as there is a stiff breeze through the campsite, but alas, the mosquito netting of the tent cruelly blocks all trace of it and sleep is a fitful sweaty affair. We head for Malawi at day break.

Travel tips: (1) Pack a sturdy foldable fan for those hot, breezeless nights. The mosquito-proof windows and doors on the tents are great, but the drawback is they don’t let much wind through… (2) Best buys in Zanzibar are products made on the island — teas (ginger, banana, vanilla, etc.), massage oils and soaps, wreaths made from cloves and spice packets. Stone Town has a collection of boutiques selling Maasai crafts at reasonable prices, including delicately carved wooden statues.

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