So, Zanzibar. An evocative name, for sure. I’d be fairly sure everyone has heard of it, or at least know it’s got something to do with all those delicious-sounding spices that go in the evening glass of Bombay Sapphire. But as to where it actually is – well, that’s a bit more vague.
The Zanzibar Archipelago is a small grouping of islands just off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. The main island is also known as Zanzibar, and there’s where the vast majority of tourists spend their time. Back when us Brits were shedding colonies in the aftermath of WW2, it was a British protectorate, which eventually merged with the mainland colony of Tanganyika (hence Tan-Zan-ia) after a brief spot of mild civil war. It apparently has semi-autonomous status, which as far as I can tell, from talking to locals, involves the government on the mainland taking all their money and not giving any back. A reverse-Scotland, if you will.
Anyway, enough with all that. Zanzibar hasn’t been a lifetime destination goal for me by any means. I went because I had a week going spare and Kenya Airways were offering very cheap flights to Dar-Es-Salaam. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve spent time in North and South Africa, but the East was unexplored territory. For me, I mean. I’m aware they have governments and countries and pirates of their own. I know a few people who’ve spend long stints of time in Kenya and they insist it’s one of the most beautiful areas in the world. Plus I know “Jambo” in Swahili, so I was set to go.
I arrived in Dar-Es-Salaam early morning and instantly decamped for Zanzibar. It’s about a 2 hour hour ferry ride or a 25 minute flight. I took the ferry, and after a couple of hours bobbing about, arrived at Zanzibar Town port. I was pretty jet-lagged at this point and just wanted to collapse in my hotel, but my spirits perked up as soon as the harbour hove into view. The waters are that perfect translucent turquoise hue that you’ll only really know if you’ve been to the Maldives. In fact, that’s probably the place Zanzibar most reminds me of, especially when it comes to scuba diving (more on this later). As we approached, I leaned on the railings and watched fishermen pottering about in little distinctive triangular sailed boats; a sight I’d come to associate with Zanzibar more than any other. So, chirpy outlook restored, I lugged my backpack down the street from the dock into the UNESCO-listed centre of Zanzibar City – Stone Town.
Stone Town feels like stepping back in time. Crumbling buildings, narrow winding alleys, old slavers forts…it feels at times like a microcosm of Africa through the ages, with evocative building names like The House of Wonders. I spent my first day on the island pottering about the streets, investigating various stalls peddling the spices for which the island is famed. Justifiably so; the aroma of cloves and cinnamon drift tantalisingly as you pass frantically-waving hawkers. I didn’t find time to go on a spice tour into the interior of the island to see how this famed industry works, but other travellers I spoke to highly recommend it.
As the evening closed in, I found myself at Forodhani Gardens – a small expanse of park right on the seafront. This is the centre of life in this tiny town as the sun sets. Local teenagers hurl themselves from the seawall into the sea, performing all sorts of somersaults and the like, while street food vendors set up grills and BBQs to offer up local delicacies. The unique position of Zanzibar on centuries-old trade routes, as well as its colonial history (it spent hundreds of years ruled from Oman), has led to a cuisine that liberally borrows from Indian, African and Arabic influences. Samosas, ‘Zanzibar pizzas’, delicious spiced octopus kebabs and dozens of other offerings are everywhere. I sat watching the sunset, enjoying Kenyan lager and decided that Zanzibar would do.
However, Stone Town was a mere diversion. The real draw of Zanzibar is the miles and miles of pristine beaches it offers. Almost everywhere the island touches the Indian Ocean is marked by brilliant white sand. There are too many beaches to go into any great detail, so I’ll stick to where I headed. That was North, up to Kendwa Beach and the famed Kendwa Rocks! Hotel (I feel the exclamation mark is unnecessary). Travellers on Zanzibar tend to converge on this place. I had intended to travel around the beaches in my week there, but I got stuck. Pretty much because the beach itself was jawdropping. A mile long arching curve of perfect white sand and aquamarine water. Enough to keep anyone trapped. But there was also my main reason for coming to Zanzibar – the diving.
When you’re talking about diving in Zanzibar, there is one place that stands head and shoulders above anywhere else. Mnemba Atoll. A protected atoll on the east coast of the island where fishing is restricted. Stretches of pristine coral reef inhabited by moray eels, eagle rays, mantis shrimps, hawksbill turtles and pretty much everything you could hope for. And, excitingly, a resident pod of rare humpback dolphins. I first saw them in the distance as we arrived at the atoll after 45 minutes relaxing journey by dhow. Everyone got excited, because…well…dolphins. Closer they got, and then we realised they also had the only thing more exciting than dolphins, which is baby dolphins. Doing flips out of the water. An amazing sight. So, obviously, we asked the dive crew if we could head into the water. “No no, no go in water”, was their response, I believe. Being hard of hearing when I choose to be, I naturally took this to be a clear sign to go in the water. Off we went, finning after them. Normally you’d expect wild animals to flee before loud splashy human-types, but dolphins are, of course, naturally curious. They stuck around. Whenever I dipped my head below the surface, the cacophony of clicking was almost deafening. After a few minutes, they swum off. It was quite some experience, and definitely the highlight of my visit. I returned to the atoll later that week, and they turned up again, easily keeping pace with the boat as we picked up speed. If you get a chance to visit Zanzibar, it’s incomplete without at least a snorkelling trip to Mnemba. Believe me.
So, after a week of beach lounging and dolphin bothering, I headed back home. Zanzibar is certainly not perfect. It is threatened by unregulated overdevelopment at some of the beaches, and relationships with the mainland are rocky, which can be seen in the dilapidated state of the island’s infrastructure. But it is without doubt one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. If I was to go back, I’d head to the other major island in the archipelago – Pemba. An oceanic island as opposed to the shallower continental main island, it apparently offers deep cliff dives and the currents draw bull sharks and big game fish like marlin. But for ten days, I found it impossible to leave my cosy berth in North Zanzibar. Given the ruinous cost of getting to the Maldives for those of us that don’t feel like selling a kidney, I would say it’s as close to a tropical paradise as it is possible to get. With added dolphins.