One spicy island

Zanzibar – Tanzania

May 2008

The following morning we all piled into a minivan, African-style and headed to the harbour. I think it was an old Simpson’s episode where there is a car full of clowns and they kept popping out of the car, one after another for ages. Our minivan experience was much the same as we all piled onto each other, wedging twenty of us into a tiny 14-seater van. On arrival to the harbour we simply fell out of the door one-by-one. Six extra people may not sound much but Olly, Ben and myself were all over six feet tall which will always provide a challenge when trying to park legs in a seat designed for garden gnomes. The ferry took two and a half hours to get to Stone Town, the main town in Zanzibar and we then had a further one-hour minibus ride towards the north of the island where we would be staying for the next few days. It has to be said that my first impressions of the island were pretty crap. The roads were littered with rubbish and lined with crumbly old buildings and overgrown bushes. It wasn’t exactly what we had been used to. The cities were always mental and a tad messy but the villages we had visited up until then had always been tidy, organised and interesting. Zanzibar island was like a mash up of the two. A rural area with a city mess and craziness to it. I hate to admit this but when we arrived at the ‘resort’, everything looked a lot nicer and hopes of a great time were high again. When I say resort, we were on an overlanding adventure and so it wasn’t at all your typical four star all-inclusive Egyptian style holiday resort. Our twin rooms were pretty standard but they came with two double beds and an en-suite which, considering Ed and I had been in a tent for the past twenty-seven nights was absolute luxury. Then there was the bar and restaurant area which was made out of a bamboo and banana leaf roof and a wooden decking frame and floor with no sides. It sat overlooking a pure white beach and crystal-clear waters with a lush sea breeze flowing through it. It was an epic spot. And on the beach? A volleyball net. We were sorted for our next few days in paradise. We spent the rest of our afternoon enjoying food, cocktails and banter before heading down to a beach bar and BBQ for the remainder of the evening.

The next morning was terrible, simply because I had a double bed all to myself and I only got to spend around six hours in it because we were up at 7.30am to head out for a day of snorkelling. I have no idea why, based on the fact we were already on an island and surrounded by little islands but it was a two-hour boat trip to another wee island where we would spend the day. The boat was a little traditional wooden one with benches along the sides for us to sit along and a little cabin at the back where our skipper did all the driving. The weather was overcast and grey and the waves were in full motion which left some of the weaker-stomached members of the group open to a bit of sea sickness.

Yet again Zanzibar prevailed and on arrival to our secluded desert island we were welcomed by hot sun and clear blue skies. We mosied on towards one of the island’s reefs, put on our snorkelling gear and jumped on in. This little island in Zanzibar was another one of Africa’s hidden wonders. Wild and beautiful, completely peaceful and unspoilt. The reefs were fantastic. At the time, I described the snorkelling as equalling that of the Whitsundays – a chain of islands along the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where I had the pleasure of snorkelling a few months before. I have been snorkelling to many destinations since and have unfortunately been met with utter destruction of the reefs due to lack of protection from tourists and fishing. Yes, I am a tourist visiting these places but if I can I will always try to pay a bit more to go somewhere that is looked after responsibly instead of going somewhere cheap which isn’t. After all, these days you have to go a long way to find the truly beautiful unspoilt parts of our planet which is sad. Like I said at the beginning, Africa is full of these gems because tourists shy away from the continent.

Besides being the only boat load of snorkelers, lunch involved king fish and was by far some of the best fish I have ever eaten. I was never a huge fan of fish until I discovered it tasted epic when freshly caught out of the sea and banged straight onto a cooker or BBQ – a discovery I had made in Australia. The king fish was massive, cooked on a BBQ, on a white sandy beach, under a gazebo, in the rain! Oh yes, the clouds had returned and on pretty much the only occasion on the whole tour (except the final couple of days) it rained! I don’t know why I’m grumbling because, as mentioned, rain was never an issue and the weather was nearly always awesome. Also, when I say gazebo, I mean an African-style one. As in four bamboo legs and a banana leaf roof, in other words, traditional. Also, I have said on several occasions now that roofs are made out of banana leaves, this is more of an assumption than a fact! Anyhow, the fish just melted in the mouth and, before we knew it the sun was back out and we were sunbathing on the beach enjoying a post-lunch siesta. The boat ride back to the main island was much more leisurely. Everyone’s lunch remained in their stomachs and we spent two hours rambling on about life while looking out for dolphins. Arriving back around four in the afternoon we very much felt like we had earned a cheeky beer. It had most definitely been one of those days that left us absolutely knackered even though it had been a day of leisure. We had paid 25 US dollars each for the privilege which was a bargain! Beautiful snorkelling, stunning beaches, amazing food, nobody else around, all for about £15. I think it costs over £20 just to walk around the Tower of London, with no food! That evening was a typical one of consuming beers down a bar, on a beach, in Zanzibar. I don’t remember much about it and my diary simply reads that I, ‘managed to drag myself away by around 1am to avoid making a big tit of myself’.

The following day we left the beach and headed off towards Stone Town to do some actual touristy stuff, it was nice to be heading off out and about again. Zanzibar is famous for three things; spice, slavery and Freddy Mercury although not necessarily in that order. The Zanzibar islands are known as the spice islands due to their ability to grow spices and so we were treated to a tour around one of the many spice farms that graced the countryside. This may sound like a trip to your local garden centre but it wasn’t, it was actually mildly good fun and very interesting. Who knew cinnamon came from the bark of a tree!? Of course, there was the opportunity to spend money but I failed to see the point of dragging a bag of spices around with me for the following six weeks plus I hadn’t learnt to cook yet and so I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do with them anyway. Being a tropical island there were coconuts and where there are coconuts and tourists there will undoubtedly be a man who can shimmy up a tree with nothing but a rag wrapped around his feet. It’s very impressive to watch not to mention listening to the sound of a coconut hitting the ground. I happily delved into one and as always it never really tastes how you expect it to taste. It was just water with a hint of foliage flavour.

When we arrived in Stone Town, a World Heritage Site, we were full of excitement to visit Freddy Mercury’s childhood home. Sure enough we drove past a house, someone said ‘that’s where Freddy Mercury grew up’, and that was that. It could have been anyone’s childhood home! We continued onto much more important affairs stopping at the old slave market and the nearby church used to commemorate the slave trade at Zanzibar. Well, I don’t think it was to commemorate the actual trading of slaves but the slaves themselves. Back in the day, Zanzibar was the centre of the East African slave trade, with the majority being transported to the Middle East up until the British claimed Zanzibar as part of the empire and put an end to all the nonsense. There wasn’t a great deal to look at. The most striking thing was one of the old cells that used to contain slaves before they were shipped off. The cell had a ridiculously low ceiling, was damp and had minute holes in the wall which allowed in minimum air and light. A dog on its own would have gone crazy in there, never mind a whole load of slaves crammed into it. Yet again it was another symbol of how truly terrible mankind can be to one and other in pursuit of power and money. Britain herself of course did rather well out of slaves whether through trading them or benefiting from their labour in places such as the West Indies. Nonetheless it was Britain who finally came to her senses and pushed to end it all. Britain may not have been perfect at times but she generally leads the way on a lot of issues surrounding morality and equality. If you disagree with this statement, just look at today’s superpowers (America and China) and their ongoing problems with racism, equality and human rights (for the latter).

Taken from my unpublished ‘The African Trigtale’. My experience on a ten week overland tour I did in East and Southern Africa in 2008. Kindly edited by Lauren Goringe.

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