There’s nowhere like Zanzibar

It was late when we touched down on Tanzania’s island of Zanzibar on a short Precision Air flight from Nairobi.  A quick movement through the airport saw us soon in a taxi to Warere Town House, a restored townhouse in Zanzibar’s capital of Stonetown, decorated in traditional Zanzibari style, with wood carvings, mosaic tiles, tapestries and flowers.

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Warere Town House

At the guest house’s check in desk, we were met by a man whose accent sounded more Jamaican than Tanzanian, and whose long dreadlocks spilled out from underneath his red, yellow and green knitted cap.  He smiled lazily and welcomingly, and called us “man” numerous times as he searched for our reservation in his book.  Initially unable to find it, he grinned at us, muttering “One moment”, before shuffling off in the style of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, then stopping as if he had just remembered something, and wobbling away in the opposite direction.

He was soon back with two pretty cups of fragrant tea with a pink flower inside each, which we gratefully accepted as he handed them to us.  Manuel then returned to poring over his notes, apparently still searching for our booking.  After a few minutes, he looked up and smiled again.

“One more moment”, he said, before picking up the old fashioned dial-up telephone, ringing in a number and speaking in a language we didn’t know.  Finally, he hung up the receiver and smiled at us one more time.

“Ok! We are ready.  I will show you to your room.”

My friend and I glanced at each other with a smirk and some raised eyebrows before loading our rucksacks onto our backs and following him up the winding, beige stone staircase with low plants hanging over it.  When our host unlocked our room and we went inside, we found a beautifully quaint, small space consisting of two single beds with mostquito nets stretched over their dark wood frames.

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Before bidding us goodnight, our friendly host assured us that he was available for anything we needed help with.

“If you need… anything…”, he said, bringing his thumb and forefinger to his lips as if smoking, “You just let me know.”  He smiled one last time before retreating down the stairs.  I didn’t notice his gesture at the time, until my friend laughed and exclaimed that he had just offered us marijuana.  We’ll never know whether that was the case!

The following morning we took a walk around Stonetown’s narrow streets, markets and maze-like alleys.  Like Venice in Italy, it is said that the best way to see the area is to get lost in its winding and intersecting ways.  Many of the streets are inaccessible except by foot, and certain ones are filled with beautifully ornate, well preserved houses and hotels, while others conceal run down buildings.

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We bought spices in the market and sipped tea on the side of the road.  Stonetown was all music and spice, perfume and artwork.  After a lunch of traditional stew and bread, we collected our luggage from the guest house and took a taxi to Nungwi, a tiny village on the north coast of Zanzibar, where we were to spend the next three days.

Nungwi has no ATM machines and very few cars.  It is made up largely of the stretch of hotels, ranging from backpacker budget to five star, that run along the beach that curves around the north tip of the island.  Inland from the hotels, a few narrow, dusty roads are lined with a small selection of shops selling Masai art and crafts, basic groceries and hair braiding.  The buildings are simple, mostly made of grey stone or wood with tin roofs, and the roads are unpaved.

We stayed at Amaan Bungalows, an adorable 3 star resort that had come highly recommended to us by numerous colleagues at home.  It didn’t fail to live up to its reputation, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Our “garden view” room was a bungalow in the resort’s garden area, with the same style of beds as in Warere Town House, with mosquito nets draped over their frames.  The resort’s pool and bar/restaurant looked out over the sea, giving us the opportunity to watch exceptional sunsets.

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We spent much of the next two and a half days relaxing on Nungwi’s perfectly white beach, bathing in its pale turquoise sea and soaking up its glorious sunshine.

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On the second day, we also took a trip on a wooden dhow boat from the resort’s famous dive shop, Divine Diving, to the nearby Mnemba atoll where my friend dived and I snorkelled, and where the ocean views were like something from a film.

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One of the dive instructors had a South African girlfriend, who lived nearby and who ran yoga classes every morning and evening on a nearby rooftop overlooking the beach.  Yoga Zanzi became my favourite reason to get up in the morning – for two days in a row I jumped out of bed excitedly at 7.30am and dressed for an 8 o’clock yoga class with a beautiful view that made all of my muscles feel awake, stretched and energised.  Perhaps the most enjoyable class was the sunset one I took on the first evening, watching the sun disappearing into the sea, and then walking back along the beach to our resort.

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The view from Yoga Zanzi’s rooftop

We quickly realised that the best places to eat in Nungwi were not those at the hotels along the beach aimed at tourists, but the more basic places in the village.  Not far from the resort, we found one perfect little kitchen with tiled floors, plastic chairs, no frills and the best curries and stews we had eaten in Africa.  A meal along with bread or rice cost the equivalent of USD $3.50 – a third of what a mediocre counterpart cost along the beach.

On the last evening, after realising that our age had caught up with us when we left a beach party at 11pm because the toilets were filthy holes in the ground, my friend and I caught one last Zanzibar sunset.  The pink and orange light blended into the blue sea as dhow boats were silhouetted in black against the descending sun, until it finally disappeared below the horizon.

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The following afternoon, we took a taxi back to the airport near Stonetown, thinking that we had seen the last of our visit to Zanzibar, not knowing that one of the best views had yet to come.  Upon arrival at the small airport, the soldier at the locked gate looked at our tickets and directed our driver to a small, annexed section, away from the main terminal.  There, we found a building that was more of a roof held up by walls on three sides, that was otherwise open air.  A staff member checked our printed tickets and passports, and handed them back to us, nodding, without a boarding pass.  We then stepped forward to security clearance, which consisted of a table, upon which bags were placed and opened for security guards to search through, without any kind of x-ray or scanning equipment.  I groaned as I placed my rucksack on the table, knowing that its drawstring top would make it difficult to search through, probably resulting in my belongings being scattered out all over the table.  The security guard seemed to realise this at the same time.  She had a quick glance inside the top of my bag, and closed it up again.

“I do you a favour”, she said.

Passengers’ bodies were given a cursory once-over with a hand-held metal detector, and we were then directed to one side, where plastic and metal chairs lined the wall.  We still had all of our luggage.  A staff member stood at the open doorway to the tarmac, calling out flight numbers and destinations when they were ready to board.  There was no PA system, and no electronic noticeboards announcing flight details.

Our flight was scheduled for 6.45pm, and it  was now only 5.50.  We took out our books and settled down to wait, but at only 6.05, suddenly our flight was called.  Confused, we stood up and carried our luggage to the door.

“Everyone is here already”, said the woman calling out flights.  “You can go now.”

With that, we were led out onto the tarmac and toward a tiny propellor plane, where we handed our luggage to the pilot, who loaded all the bags into the back.  The plane itself was a twelve-seater – the smallest I had ever been on.

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There was no cockpit or separate section for the pilot, and sitting behind him, we could see everything he did.  As we took off from Zanzibar, I looked out the window and saw the bright blue sea open up beneath me.  The 25 minute flight to Dar Es Salaam was flown low, so that our view of the sea, the islands and the bay were among the best I’ve ever seen from above.

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While we waited for our international flight to Amsterdam and onward to Dublin in a bar at Dar Es Salaam Airport over the next five hours, we talked about this view and all the incredible views we had seen over the past four days.  The Indian Ocean had truly lived up to its reputation as a bright blue paradise.  We talked about all of our travels around East Africa, from Kampala’s slums and Idi Amin’s torture chamber to the majestic mountain gorillas in Uganda and the wildlife and landscapes we had experienced on safari in Kenya, to the spice-scented streets and beach heaven of Zanzibar.  We had seen such variety in less than three weeks, and we already had a taste for more.  Sleepily boarding a KLM jumbo jet later that night, we agreed that we were enriched, and that’s what travel is supposed to do.

2 thoughts on “There’s nowhere like Zanzibar

  1. Awh this is such a beautifully written piece! I couldn’t help but feel as though I was there experiencing it too. I’ve never travelled eat Africa despite being born a and living for many years on the continent. It looks very different to its West counterpart, our sees are not that blue and never have I met a Jamaican there hahaha. I love the pictures too. I’m glad you and your friends enjoyed your time in the East and feel enriched by it xx

    Ama Addo / Albatroz & Co
    http://www.albatrozandco.com

    Like

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