– Have you been to Africa before ?
– Does Egypt count ?
– Ha ha ha ! No, that is not Africa …
This was the very first conversation with my lovely host in Zanzibar, shortly after landing on the island. It had been an easier trip than I had expected, with a four hour flight to Dubai and afterwards another five hours to destination. The Zanzibar International Airport is mostly a large room with no windows, a long queue at the lost luggage desk and a proud sign stating that the island is a malaria free region now. That was in fact the first time I was learning about the existence of a malaria problem, but for the more cautious of you I advise to take the vaccine, it doesn’t even involve needles …
You get the spirit of the place by the time you get out of the airport and meet a crowd of people each of them waiting for somebody. It is difficult to actually find what you re looking for in that crowd, but when you finally do and rush to your bus, the driver stops you gently : Pole, pole ! There are two expressions you will hear most of the time in Zanzibar, one is Pole pole/ slowly slowly and the other one, which is also the name of a local song, Hakuna Matata / no problem. Love them, live them, remember them, just don’ t take them to work everyday.
Zanzibar is actually a small island belonging to the United Republic of Tanzania in East Africa, the name deriving from the Persian word zang-bar, meaning in fact The Black Coast. Although distances from one point of interest to another are rather acceptable, bad roads make most trips time consuming but just as fun as a rollercoaster. It took us more than an hour to get from the airport to our ocean view retreat, Miramont Retreat Zanzibar, on the other side of the island, but it was of course all worth it.
When landing in paradise, you can either sit in the sun and relax, have a drink by the pool or have fun playing volleyball with the local kids on the beach. Or you can take day trips to explore the island, step by step. One of the really fun things do is board a boat to Mnemba Island to the North East of the island and swim or snorkle in the amazingly light blue deep waters. From there, also by boat, you can take a short expedition in order to do some dolphin sightseeing. Yes, there are many dolphings living in the waters of Zanzibar and, since they are usually open hearted creatures, they won’t mind joining you for a swim.
Zanzibar is also known as The Spice Island, since from the Omani Sultans to the British Empire, growth of spices on the island has been highly encouraged. Nowadays, you can take a Spice tour, which is actually a visit to a modern community farm, to see and taste the actual plants of pepper, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and many others. After taking a guess at what a leaf or fruit might be, in order to identify your supermarket spice, you can relax for the afternoon at Nungwi Beach, where the sun rolls into the ocean.
Deep into the heart of the island, there is a land of deep shadow called the Jozani National Park, 50 km 2 of genuine rain forest. When we took a walk in the forest it was rather warm but raining heavily, so you could feel the rain drops falling down the tall trees and spot the monkeys and bush babies hiding under the leaves. The forest is set on a reef limestone terrace, so you should rather mind your step because you might step on some crabs, if you’re not paying enough attention. Also, there are beautiful mangrove areas, with flows of fresh water slipping underneath. After the walk, we went for lunch at the Michamwi Beach, with a view to the famous The Rock, a restaurant set on a rocky rather small surface.
The main city in Zanzibar is Stonetown, former center of the slave trade in the 19th century and also an UNESCO World Heritage site due to his historical and also artistic importance as a mixture of Swahili, Arab, Persian, Indian and European architecture. To be honest, little did I know about the history of the place before I set foot on it. Instead, I was indeed trembling at the thought of visiting the home of one of my favorite artists. Farrokh Bulsara, of Persian descent, was born on 5th September 1946 in Stonetown, Sultanate of Zanzibar and became known to the public as Freddy Mercury, lead singer of the legendary British rock band Queen. After seeing the small house he used to live in, on the streets of Stonetown, we moved forward to learning more about the history of the place and particularly the rather disturbing story of the slave market there. Apart from the slave trade, Stonetown used to be a major spice market, a long tradition that you can enjoy today by taking a walk in the Darajani Bazar downtown. Once in town, I mailed a postcard home and after a month an a half, surprisingly reached destination.
After visiting a slave prison and some masterpieces of local architecture, we boarded a boat to Changuu Island ( also known as Prison Island ) an island where a prison complex was built in 1893 but no actual prisoners were hosted there, instead was used as a quarantine station for yellow fever patients. Nowadays, when visiting the island you can swim in the amazing blue waters or befriend a rather large colony of turtles living there.
Driving across the island, you will probably be saddened by the small houses with no windows, lacking electricity, really bad roads and some poor hygiene. There are no supermarkets, only country stores with the necessary products. The harsh reality is that the average annual income is 250$ and about half the population lives below the poverty line. But despite the conditions, people have always found a way to create joy and they are genuinely happy to welcome visitors, particularly the children. We spent a few hours visiting a local school, we met the children and had a walk with them to the beach.