The sunset cruise without the cruise

Jambiani – Zanzibar

I love Saudi Arabia but….. After fifteen months in the country with only one three-week trip home to the UK, I was enormously excited to be looking out of a plane window as we flew along the East African coast with it’s endless white beaches and the glistening Indian Ocean tempting me from below. As we all know, no-one knows what is going on in the world anymore, with a trip any further than twenty meters from the front door being plunged into uncertainty. Effectively banned from visiting home or visiting the Argie Ferrari in Buenos Aires, there was one remaining love in my life that was still accesible to me, Africa. Tanzania shone like a beacon of hope – rightly or wrongly shunning the fears of the world – and so, after a workmate successfully completed a round trip to Zanzibar, I had little excuse not to go myself. The irony is, I’ve always said that Tanzania is one of my least favourite African countries yet, I was about to touch down on Tanzanian soil for the third time after a debut trip on safari and to Zanzibar, a second trip to Kilimanjaro and now, a return to the Spice Islands. The objective was simple enough, talk a fellow workmate into accompanying me for the craic, find accommodation on the beach with good food and a better bar, do as little as possible for twelve days and finally, not get stranded.

Most people may not agree with me when I say that landing on an East African tropical island was a grateful return to normality but that’s exactly what it was. Life was in full flow. Never mind a pandemic, even for an island that is majority muslim it appeared that even Ramadan couldn’t stop life here. In Saudi, nothing happens during the day throughout Ramadan with every day being a long slog before the next feast at nightfall. Shops reduce hours during the day, streets are relatively quiet and last I heard it was illegal to eat or drink while the sun shone. None of this appears to apply in Zanzibar as we drove from the airport through the bustling streets of Stone Town. Women dressed in purple and gold flocked around the market stalls that lined the road as men dug away at some road works or sat outside an ATM with a rusty gun which leaves me wondering if it fires bullets or water. I wind the window down and take it all in; life is happening as it always has in this tropical part of the world. Zanzibar is a lot prettier than I remember it to be. We soon left the city, out onto a single lane carriageway that would have been a straight drive it hadn’t been for the numerous pits that threatened to swallow our car if not for a watchful driver. The countryside changed several times from forest to bushland that appeared to stretch to the horizon. Every so often a bull dozer would have cleared a small block of land for what, I don’t know. All that seemed to remain were heaps of coral rock that outnumbered the grains of productive soil. From Stone Town on the west coast we headed south east to the village of Jambiani for the only reason that I had found a hostel that looked jolly nice and had rave reviews. As is so often the case in this part of the world, we turned off the main road and onto a rocky, sandy and flooded road, everything but tarmac. The village was worn, full of buildings made from the corral stone with tin roofs with many looking abandoned. The obligatory football pitch complete with wooden goal posts stood proudly in the warm sun and we passed by numerous hand painted signs pointing the way to pizzas, hotels and bars, all of which sit along the beach where the majority of people with money can be found. This is no Cancun (thank F***), there are no multinational corporations here. Although, it’s hard to describe the businesses as local for most of the hotels and hostels will be owned by Europeans but staffed with locals. But, the origins and flow of capital is one thing, a responsible business a whole other. Our hostel, Teddy’s was perfect. I could retreat to my own private room with outdoor bathroom and sleep to the sound of the ocean. Barefoot was standard with clean white sand everywhere. A pool featured as the centrepiece not that it was required for the most beautiful of beaches lay only meters away and when the tide was in, a dip in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean beats any pool. When the tide went out, it revealed an expanse of sand and rock stretching for a kilometre or two to the horizon where the waves could be seen crashing onto a distant reef. The only distraction from this scene was the food, cold beers and cocktails at the bar, operated by some fantastic people. A common complaint on accommodation booking websites is the speed of service in countries such as Tanzania and the likes but seriously, what’s the rush!?

We took our time. Have breakfast, drift away to lounge in a hammock, go for a swim, read, swim, listen to a podcast. Then reconvene for lunch and a few beers before repeating the cycle again in the afternoon. Surprisingly, for two farmers, work as a topic of conversation was as far as could be. I was worried we would get bored but the days strolled by and my hunger for another chilled out day increased exponentially. We did make time for a boat trip. I was told to get on with my PADI qualification but it felt like too much exertion yet I knew a snorkelling trip had to be done at the very least. And so one day after breakfast, we jumped into a minivan and headed over to the south west of the island around one hour away through rural villages and an endless expanse of bush. Arriving at a small bay everywhere looked busy but on closer inspection very little was happening. We met our skipper for the day and along with his assistant we discovered we had the boat to ourselves which was probably a good thing considering the relatively small size of it. With no idea what to expect we fired up the outboard motor and headed towards a strip of land floating on the horizon that constantly sank and rose as we spent an hour negotiating what was quite a rough bit of sea. The sun was shining but the wind appeared to enjoy these parts, although luckily this was one of those times I didn’t get sea sick. It’s a strange phenomenon, seasickness, for sometimes it tries to kill me and other times it leaves well alone. Finally, we pulled up alongside the island we had been aiming for and we were immediately sheltered from the wind, and the swell was killed off by a reef on the far side of the island. Everything was calm, the sun shone bright overhead and there were two other, almost empty, tourist boats in the area. Snorkel and flippers on, I fell into the inviting waters to be immediately greeted with water filling up my nose. A regular complaint of mine which is caused either by my big nose or my beard which doesn’t like to make a good seal with a snorkel mask or, maybe I’m just a bit of an idiot when it comes to snorkelling. Either way I made it work and set to enjoying what is usually a disappointing and disheartening shell of a former reef. Yet no, this reef was alive and dare I say doing quite well. It was surprisingly full of colour with reds, greens and purples, corrals of all shapes and sizes, blobs of coral, discs of corral, branches of coral. Some of the corral was tipped with flourescent lilac sparkling like a seedy night club and the whole scene danced in the sunlight that cloaked the reef from above. The usual array of fish completed the scene with one species brave enough to swim right up to the camera and I swear would have punched it in anger if it were able. I was pleasantly surprised and made a point of spending as much time in the water as possible. Lunch was just as spectacular as we landed on a sandbank not far from the reef. In another time I believe this sandy island would be rammed with boatloads of tourists all doing the same as we were now, but these are no normal times and we found ourselves alongside two other boats, four tourists and four crew. For once I suspect, the number of crabs and seagulls outnumbered people. As is typical of this part of the world, within minutes we were sat under a makeshift gazebo, ice-old, fresh fruit juice was served and a BBQ was lit. Onto which went an assortment of seafood including a couple of lobsters, a heap of shrimp, several pieces of fish and a healthy dose of calamari. This was served up with as much chapati and rice one could eat. The scene was simply incredible. Sat on top of the small sandbank, crabs scattered everywhere, digging holes and hiding from the seagulls resting at the opposite end to us. Fishermen in traditional sailing boats drifted past from time to time with small tropical islands breaking the endless sea, all basked in a gentle breeze and a bright warm sun. In complete contrast, the trip back to the mainland was hairier than the trip out, the swell was bigger and we got drenched as we bounced over the waves that resulted in a surprising chill but, that’s all part of the fun isn’t it?

After several more days of allowing a hammock to consume my life we headed back out onto the water for a sunset cruise. The last time I did this in Zanzibar chaos swiftly followed as twenty young passengers attempted to drink the entire alcoholic contents on the boat and…… failed. Thirteen years on, I jumped onto a much smaller boat with ten bottles of beer between the three of us who had decided to go. A very different experience admittedly, but no less exciting as we enjoyed our drinks with the warm water running through our toes as we sat on the edge of the boat with our legs hanging in the water. There is something extremely peaceful being on a sailing boat as the day draws to a close. We explored the north eastern coastline for a good while before turning into some mangroves just for the sake of it. I guess this was the result of the strange time for a sunset cruise to begin which was 3pm in the afternoon – long before the main event – and interestingly it would have appeared the captain ran out of things to do and dropped us off at a seaside bar a good forty minutes before the sun was even skimming the water. This was apparently part of the plan because our return taxi would be meeting us here but still, instead of being out on the water at sunset, we found ourselves on dry land, sat at a table and surrounded by people taking the usual sunset Instagram photos, and missing it because of a trip to the bar or the toilet; such is life. In fairness, when we returned to the hostel we were offered our money back, but why would we take it? We got a cruise and we got a sunset, what’s more we had a great time. The beauty of travelling to Africa is that she is consistent. You know things will never quite play out as you expect them to, but you also know you are guaranteed a bloody fantastic time no matter what.

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