A travelogue on Zanzibar, first published in Outlook Traveller in 2004 but no longer online.
Whoosh! I broke the surface, arms flailing, looking wildly around. Where were they? All I could see was the open ocean, and the choppy water rolling around me. Then, Jan, a gregarious Dutchman, surfaced about thirty metres to my right and waved frantically at me. He pointed downwards in quick stabbing motions. Hope renewed, I slammed my goggles back on and dived, gazing expectantly around. At first, nothing. A flash of movement, and I looked down instead of around. What I saw made me gasp, and I had to force myself to breathe normally as I watched a school of dolphin serenely float not ten feet below me in the Indian Ocean.
There were seven dolphins, with two babies, and they swam close together, no doubt exchanging amused notes on the strange fish staring at them. They were at the very depth where the sun’s penetration ended – a solar deity was pointing them out to me, or so it seemed. I forgot all about my companions and even the mild panic that had been with me since the start (as a diffident swimmer in the open ocean). I just floated along on top of them, gazing in rapture, until they vanished into the darkness below.
Zanzibar is located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. Known by locals as Unguja, Zanzibar was once a critical trading hub and has, at various times, dominated the lucrative spice and slave trade markets. The archipelago – Zanzibar consists of Zanzibar island, Pemba, and a series of smaller islands – was inhabited by a mix of Tanzanian Bantus and Arab traders until it became colonised, in turn, by the Portuguese, Omani Arabs, Germans and British. When it gained independence in 1963, Zanzibar joined hands with Tanganyika to form the Republic of Tanzania, although relations between the archipelago and the mainland have always been strained.
Nevertheless, Zanizbar is a little island with a little bit for just about everybody. For sun seekers, the beaches on the north and east coasts are excellent in all the idyllic lying-on-a-hammock-under-a-palm-tree-by-the-emerald-water ways that beaches have ever been described. For culture and history buffs, there are several minor ruins that give a fuller sense of Zanzibar’s Arab history. Sports lovers will delight in the island’s world famous scuba diving and snorkelling. For living culture enthusiasts, days can be passed just chatting with the friendly Zanzibaris under the shady awning of their shops. And then there are the show-off dolphins that leapt, dived, somersaulted and back-flipped as we went past.
For most travellers, the first point of contact with Zanzibar is Stone Town, a place well worth some quality exploring. The city is quite tiny, which at first I found hard to believe given how often I got lost in its labyrinthine maze of streets. But the smallness makes it just as easy to get your bearings as to lose them. I walked down narrow, curving streets, bounded by old concrete buildings on each side, often stepping into a shop to allow the traffic to pass by – on most streets there isn’t even room for two-way traffic let alone pedestrians.
Stone Town is a blend of old and new: timeworn facades with ornate engravings open quite often into modern showrooms or cyber cafes, low-hanging Arabic balconies covered with vines shelter street vendors hawking gimmicky handicrafts. It’s certainly tourist kitsch run wild but it also possesses an odd charm, a pleasant intermingling of the ages. There are more than a few decaying architectural wonders and, when I combined that with the salt in the air, the crassness became tolerable.
If poking around Stone Town is a quiet way to spend the daylight hours, then visiting the sea front at night provides a vibrant finale to your day. The Forodhani Gardens (a fancy name for two square lawns separated by a low stone wall), so nondescript in the sunshine, come alive at night with all sorts of cheap local food to die for. Watching calories here is futile so try the sumptuous Zanzibari pizza, which is like one of our stuffed parathas, but better. Add to that a baked cassava, a few donuts and a soft drink, and it will all be less than Rs. 50. Even for a budget traveller like me, that left enough dough to hit some of the nightspots that dot the seafront. These pubs cater largely to tourists so while I found enough diversity in drink and music, the only local ambience came from the setting.
Still, there aren’t many better moments in travel than turning away from the waterfront as the dhows come in for the night and quiet descends on the ocean, sipping some South African amarula or East African Kilimanjaro beer, and watching (or dancing with) elastic-bottomed Caribbean salsa queens ease you into a night of revelry. Zanzibar may be in Africa but it’s one global island.
I went to Tanzania from the US, so you guys will have to check on airfares.
From Dar-es-Salaam, you can get to Zanzibar by either boat or plane. The boat costs about $35 and the fast one takes about 3 hours. An interesting option while returning is to take the night ferry, which allows you to spend a night at sea, although rough weather (I was lucky enough to get caught in a storm!) can make it a less-than-pleasant experience. On the plus side, you get to save on a night’s accommodation, so if you do take the night ferry, get there early to grab the best seats.
To enter Zanzibar, you need a Tanzanian visa.
Walk around Stone Town. For excursions to other parts of the island, you can get on a tour bus or take a dalla-dalla (picture a Maruti Van serving as a bus). If you use a taxi, bargain like hell.
Where to Stay
For backpackers and those watching their money, the Jambo Guest House is great value – $10 a night with some bargaining. The rate includes a free pick-up at the dock, a fabulous local breakfast and help with arranging tours. It also offers free movies and subsidized internet access. Rooms #1 and #2 are the only ones with A/C, wink wink.
For higher end travellers, and those staying overnight at the beaches, look up a guidebook. In general, the island caters to you so accommodation is not cheap and you should feel free to bargain.
What to Eat
The island does offer cuisine from all around the world but the Forodhani Gardens are simply a must. But be careful of uncooked food and beware of seafood out of season.
What Else to Do
Pemba: You can get to Pemba from both Dar-es-Salaam and Zanzibar by air or boat. Pemba is just opening up to tourists and contains better diving and snorkelling waters than Zanizbar but has little else to offer besides sun, sand and sea. Restless backpackers seeking peace and freedom from tourists are already exploring the other islands, but you’ll have to find creative ways of doing so since they are well off the beaten path.
Spice Tours: Zanzibar used to be a vital trading post because of its abundance of spices. Several operators offer tours in which you visit various spice plantations and sample crops ranging from cinnamon to jackfruit. As an Indian accustomed to all kinds of spices, I found it all less of a novelty than the Westerners did but since most tours also include visits to a couple of ruins and a beach, its worth the $10. Watching Westerners going goo-ga over nutmeg and cardamom is itself worth the price of the tour!
Jozani Forest: Located in the centre of the island. May be of interest to wildlife aficionados, although its offerings are pitiful compared to the grandeur of Tanzania’s other wildlife reserves.
Other Tours: There are a wide variety of tour options and these provide a relatively inexpensive way to visit several things at one go. One option I haven’t discussed elsewhere is to visit a nearby island (I’m forgetting the name) where you can tour an ancient prison, view giant turtles and red colobus monkeys, and get some snorkelling in. I had to choose between this and the dolphin tour on my last day, but I’ve heard that this is a good visit as well.
Shopping: Zanibar offers good shopping at all ends of the price spectrum. Clothes and handicrafts seem to dominate the market.
Take everything on word-of-mouth recommendations, but especially regarding tour operators and lodgings. Speak to as many travellers as you can before deciding.
Watch for street touts and con artists. The island is pretty safe but the overabundance of tourists can mask a great deal of poverty outside Stone Town. Take normal travel precautions and close your heart to the most pitiful of sob stories. A fool and her money are all-too-soon parted.
A little bit of Swahili goes a long way. Knowing the number system helps you bargain with the street vendors. And you’ll find that jambo (hello), asante (thank you) and the over-used hakuna matata (no worries) roll quite nicely off the tongue.
Bargain, bargain, bargain.