What we know:
An Island in the Indian Ocean.
Armed with our walking backpacks we bum a lift into the docks. The land of Muggers (Top TIP: It is well worth the money spent on good quality walking backpacks.) We’ve barely arrived when behind a grilled window we spy their latest victims > All whimpering in time three young lassies awaiting the arrival of the police. The hustlers and the general chaotic pushing and jostle at the ferry ticket windows make it an ideal place for pickpockets and the like. A bloke offering his assistance approaches us. I give him the bum’s rush, but he lingers on. We learn that the fast ferry has slipped harbour some hours ago so we move on down the line to the next window. The slow ferry does not leave for another few hours. The next window Express Ferries has a Hydrofoil just about to rev up.
Our self-appointed assistant makes another bid to have him self-employed. This time in perfect Swahili I tell him to get lost “You might not believe it buddy but I am perfectly capable of purchasing a ferry ticket”. He is still unwilling to let go. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other showing the palms of his hand as if to say I have not got your wallet yet.
The ticket clerk asks if he is with us. Why, I don’t know but I get the feeling its code for to be on your guard. With no time to waste we start to walk down the gangway. Some second sense tells me this is the most dangerous time. Our man’s harassment and pestering is all part of a well-drilled plan to disorient the potential target. Sure enough two finger happy blokes are sauntering up through the boarding passengers. They stick out like sore thumbs. It’s the old knock on the side from one to the other trick. I shift my backpack to my right side. On receiving the bump I stick my elbow into his partner with some force along with a large smile of apology. I point to his co-worker. ‘Not my fault old buddy blame your man, he I am sorry to say pushed me’.
We board intact. Ten minutes on a rattle of well-worn rivets the Russian Hydrofoil comes to life. We don’t quite glide out of harbour passing the moored Dows but resort to a better-known old Royal Navy tactic of slipping out to sea unnoticed. A large diesel smoke screen wafts its way from the stern as a film of oil calm turbulent flat blue seas begins to slide by. The spurting engines labour to bring her up to foil speed. Scarcely are we in the clear when she not surprisingly digs her port foil into the oncoming swell. The resulting lurch sends all those on the upper deck staggering from one side to the other. If it’s going to be like this the whole way to Zanzibar there will be many aboard that will see their breakfast for the second time long before they see the Spice Islands.
Florence is definitely a daughter of a seafaring man. She soon finds her sea legs and is mobile around the decks. She returns after a mooch around the vessel to report that Nick is aboard. Definitely a leading contender for one of the sick bags he is sitting alongside the engine compartment looking a rather vanilla colour. Zanzibar cannot come into view too soon for him.
One hour later we arrive not to the smell of Spices but to the stench of over flowing sick bags. Our first view on approaching the landing wharf is a large fort overlooking the harbour. Typically Arab in style it was the last sight for many a slave in the middle of the eighteenth-century. Over 50,000 slaves were auctioned in the slave market ever year. It was one of the last places in Africa to give up human trafficking. To the right of the fort the people palace and further to the right a tree covered gardens overlooked by the House of Wonders, or Beit-el-Ajaib, as it is better known. Everything is evoking expectations exceptionally exuberantly, but not until one gets ashore.
First, it’s a stand in front of the table job, Passport, Yellow card, ten US dollar bills. With the wail of Allah announcing noonday prayer followed closely by Taxi, Taxi, we take our first steps ashore.
With Nick once more in tow ignoring the cluster of Taxi drivers who are in a state of confusion as whether to face Mecca or the incoming passengers we walk towards the Old Town known as Stone Town.
Pungent mouth-watering smells pour out of the Jamituri Gardens. (The garden we saw on our way into the landing jetty). Stalls shaded from the tropical sun under lampposts of trees are selling spiced curries; fried octopus, roasted sugar cane, cassava, meat, and ice cream are in full swing. We walk through licking wonderful mango ice creams clearly the place to visit later. The heat is oppressive so we hop into a taxi and head for the African House Hotel which had been the ‘British Club’ in days long gone, when the Island was a British protectorate.
The hotel stuffed with arcane memorabilia, a packed bar, and a restaurant over the bar overlooking the sea, it is the place for us. Nick on the other hand cannot free himself from the anxieties of security. He finds the standard of the rooms not to his liking. Following a few beers he departs to find a more modern set up. Crashing out for an afternoon siesta we install ourselves in room five under two hefty ceiling fans. Our room is charming, large and spacious with old world beds and a rough iron balcony that looks out onto one of the many narrow pedestrian street of Stone Town.
We awake to the evening shriek to get the prayer mats out. The maze called Stone Town has comes to life, with every turn and bend bringing a surprise. Heavy decorative doors pepper the narrow whitewashed lined streets with their brass-studded facades indicating the occupant’s wealth while hiding family lives from public view. Well-trodden flagstones lead from one street into another. Tree-studded squares full of hole in the wall shops selling local crafts, art, and fruit. Thanks to the tourists revenue, restoration is going on everywhere in a rush to save the remains of this unique old town. Overhanging balconies, verandas, decaying bath houses and the Sultans palaces are all getting a makeover. It is one of those places where the hours fly by without you noticing. Daily life is right in your face. School children chant the Koran through open classroom windows while upstairs a family row can be heard coming to boiling point.
It is a massive puzzle you’re looking around, waiting for each other to reappear from a doorway or around a corner.
Luckily all alleyways eventually lead either down to the sea or out onto the wrong side of town. We emerge alongside a restaurant named Sinbad the Sailor. According to the bible this is where Mitu an Indian Spice guide hangs out who gives the best Spice tour on the island. Natural Chewing gum tree, natural lipstick tree, hair gel tree, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, and between the lines some natural grass. We have no trouble finding him and signing up for tomorrow’s tour, which includes a big-hearted lunch. That arranged we wander over to kitchens under the trees where we had passed by on the way from the docks. A large helping of fried prawns has us truly stuffed we return to our lodgings to find the bar heaving. We sleep like logs.
Breakfast with Mitu blowing his taxi horn is a gobble and go job. Still munching we are greeted not by Mitu but Mohammad. Our tour group consists of a large US marine type plus girlfriend, a Dutch family and one or two of those ‘don’t say a word unless spoken to’. Mohammad enjoys his work and it shows in the response he gets from all except of course our two ‘avoid speaking to strangers’. He is well versed in his subject and by the time he has introduced us to turmeric, soap ball tree and every other spice you wish to name. All are obliged over a very spicy lunch to buy the visitors pack that will remain on a kitchen shelf well passed its best before date.
On the way back we make a pit stop for fresh coconut milk.
It takes little persuasion to convince Mohammed that we also need a cooling off in the Indian Ocean. A short bumpy ride brings us to the end of a rough track and we fall out of the truck and walk out of the dense vegetation onto a very small beach. The swim is wonderful. All those too shy to strip bake.
Just up from the beach are the remains of a slave holding hole, the function of which Mohammed explains to the discomfort of our American. Apparently after or before the sale of the merchandise they were held in these holes. One could almost hear their cries of fear echo from the grey walls. It’s not a pretty sight.
This is not the first time Mohammed has been here and I get the distinct feeling it is one of his little extra earners. Out of nowhere two youths appear. What follows is a demonstration of how to get one of those coconuts from the top of one of those bending trunks called a palm tree. All that is required is a length of rope or raw hemp. Wrap it around the trunk and twist to form a second loop. Step into the loop. Crouch and with hands extended leap onto the nearest trunk. It is however advisable to check that no other has scaled the tree while you were not looking and replaced all the nuts on high with empty ones. Before you could hear the Awa our climber is dropping nuts.
He has scaled the trunk baboon technique. Grabbing the trunk with his feet he whips the loop that is around the tree upwards while pushing with his feet. Then leaning back into the loop around his back he repeats the procedure till with lighting speed he reaches the canopy some sixty-meters up. He is back down as quick as a fireman’s greasy pole decent. Mohammed invites any of us punters to have a go. I put my money on the hefty marine. With some good Corps rhetoric he makes it up just about as far as his own nuts. The hat is passed around to show our appreciation even the gob smacks are hooked. Following a prolonged pee the hat contents has being dive out! Mohammed takes the driver seat. (Top TIP: Do the tour it’s an excellent day out.)
We are dropped off at the Jamituri Gardens much to Florence’s delight. for the evening meal > Pressed sugar cane, fried prawns, fresh lemon drinks, and Pizza. Returning to the African Rest House the bar is heaving. There is not a corner of the Island that some one or other has not been to.
We learn of a small Island where a German woman has set up the most incredible Eco friendly huts. The island is total made from living coral and has a reef of superb diving quality. The snag is that the accommodation is not quite finished and the only way of getting out to it is by local boat. Furthermore, one has to book back in Dar es Salaam.
With coconuts tree climbing hermit crabs the whole description over a few beers is far to mouth-watering not to give it a try. I place a radio phone call to the mainland see if it possible. We sleep with dreams of slaves, spices, blue water, Man Friday and Robinson Crusoe.
Morning and I get a call from the Silver Sands to say that we can indeed visit Chumbe for 80$ US each for two nights Florence free. The accommodation is not quite up to scratch yet, but if we are interested there is a boat departing later in the afternoon from Mbweni Ruins Hotel.
Bragging one of the most spectacular marine coral gardens to be found in the world I book without hesitation.
Eddy the taxi drives us out to Mbweni Ruins hotel where we lunch and partake of the hotels swimming pool while awaiting the return of the Chumba ferry. Eventually a small boat makes its way ashore through the Mangroves. All too soon after lunch the blue, blue water is slopping over the gunnels. Florence takes refuge in the bow while Fanny and I get soaked.
The Island to the south of Stone City appears in the channel between Zanzibar and the mainland. A white lighthouse looms larger as we approach a deep shelving rocky beach. Set in a small cove in a semi-circular arc are seven simple decorated Banda’s that look like a line of fifteenth-century Spanish Conquest helmets standing on their peaks look towards the turquoise Indian ocean. We come ashore beside a small pier to be greeted by the brilliant smile of a large German woman. She is somewhat taken aback that we have arrived in the first place. She is also obviously leaving stepping on to the boat.
Ya, Ya, you booked by phone, Ya no problem we make a plan Ya. While the boat is loaded for the return journey we are issued with curtains for blankets and eventually given a friendly wave from the Fräulein as the boat reverses out into deeper waters. With a parting assurance that there is an abundance of cold beers the boat disappears. A young man dressed in ranger shorts leads the way up to our Castaway hut. I have an uneasy feel about the Fräulein (which was indeed to prove right a few days later).
Our home for the next two nights is state of the art eco architecture. Wooden stairs lead up to a latted floor to reveal a wonderful airy room with a bamboo shutter that open upwards making public the whole room to the Ocean. There is no ground water on the island so each hut unit collects its own water from the roof which is then stored below to be heated by solar panels for hot showers or kept cool for drinking water by passing through a sophisticated, filtering system. Any surplus water is drained down to the veggie plot. Photovoltaic panels provide light, and composting toilets provide fertilizer for the garden.
Without another soul around apart from Man Friday the cook and his wife I forget my flatline trepidation. Two days of pure adventure lie ahead. Enjoy, enjoy perhaps my early feelings are a little over the top.
Settled in we venture forth into the islands home-grown forest, home-grown being the operative word. (All trees have arrived either by birds dropping seeds or by the ocean coughing up the odd coconut.) The battle of roots is a beauty all on its own. Every root twisting and fighting for what little freshwater there is. Some hang in the air while others; disappear in a tangle of large communication cables into the very coral itself. Florence finds it all a bit creepy and we have to agree in the fading light that it imparts a feeling of death and rebirth all at once. The trail itself also feels weird underfoot > A mix of composting vegetation on top of the hard and uneven dying or dead coral that is changing slowly to stone. After a few minutes the thud of the breaking waves marks the end of the trail. We come out on what side of the Island we don’t know. Large coral blowholes give us our earliest hint of just how high the island is standing above the sea.
An incoming wave reminds me that Neptune has not done with me as yet. During the high of the weather bomb in the Fastnet in 1979 individual waves had your name written on them. This one, which has my name, only explodes out of the coral puffing hole to soak me to the laugher of the girls.
Resisting venturing down any other tracks with the light fading we return in time for dinner a rather dismal effort but the sundowners on top of the lighthouse one hundred and twenty-three steps up make up for the culinary disaster. The day ends with a canvas framed in our open window hard to surpass. The emerald-green of the island is surrounded by vivid shade of translucent hues of blue. Like the blues one sees when flying over coral reefs. All is ablaze in the setting sucking horizon sunset. The whole painting is a canvas of tranquil peace with an enormous sun reminding us of our fragile vulnerability. Sleep is to the whisper of lapping waves than caress the shore and tantalising whiff of tropical breeze.
With the heat of the early morning rays creeping up along our toes we awake at the crack of dawn. Breakfast lives up to dinner. The tide is on the ebb and the Island is emerging from its watery surrounds. We set off on a foot on a circumnavigation exploration of Chumbe, which now stands like a mushroom on its exposed bed of coral and rock foundations.
Crystal clear pools containing bishop hat starfish guard pools containing money – cowries’ shells. There is nothing like rock combing pools and crevices to pass the time away. We just complete the walk around the Island with the incoming tide up around our knees. A batty artist and his nephew have materialized along with a Norwegian red-headed babe off the afternoon visits by the boat. Over lunch with the added visitors our ranger has an urge to explain the whole Chumbe project. He gets as far as explaining that the reefs around the Island were designated as off-limits to the local fisherman before any further explanations are nipped in the bud by incoming tide.
With some coaxing we prevail on him to swim out and get the smaller boat that is moored on the opposite side of the pier. It’s time for a dive on the reef. Splash! Four hours later with fingers crumpled we swim ashore. (Top TIP: If you go snorkelling wear a tee-shirt and get someone to coat your back with anti Lobster juice.) There is little point in describing this dive other than Fire coral, Leather coral, Brain coral, Fan coral, Table coral, Whip coral, Parrotfish, Butterfly fish, Triggerfish, Sweet lips fish, Bat fish, Hawksbill fish, Blue spotted fish, Groupers, Unicorn fish, Trumpet fish, Lionfish, Stingrays, Moorish idols, Black spotted puffer fish, Skunk, Anemone fish, Cray fish all in full colour. If only the food had complimented the day we would have spent a day in Paradise.
A warm beer and more of last nights dish is a far cry from what we were demanded to pay with the full force of the Zanzibar Police lead by Rommel herself on our return to Stone town. For now all we want to do is dive again in the morning.
This time Florence is taken under the wing of a ranger who has joined us. It is wonderful to see her swimming below me pointing. I try to find some Turtles feeding on a large boulder coral with no luck. Time slips by so quickly we are surprised to see our man approaching to take us off the Island. We pack and say our good-bye to the Roseate Terns and arriving back at the Mbweni Ruins Hotel. There is no sign of Rommel to be had anywhere but our loyal taxi driver Eddy has turned up. We can’t wait around all day for her so I leave a note stating that I presume that we will settle our bill on my return to the Silver beach hotel through whom we had made the booking in the first place. A Bad Move.
We stay the night in the Haven hotel disturbed by a phone call from Rommel demanding 400$US > somewhat of a jump from the 160 bucks quoted by the Silver Beach. I explain that we are only on Zanzibar for a few days and I was not carrying that amount of hard cash on me. She would have to wait until I returned to the Silver beach on the mainland to be paid. There was no fear that we would do a runner as my Jeep was in their compound. She could ring and verify the fact if she wished to put her mind at rest.
Furthermore they had in their safe a wad of dollars belonging to me for safekeeping. The old cow seems happy enough with this arrangement, while I felt more than pissed off with the rip off.
We have another few days so we set off to visit Nungwi at the northernmost tip of Zanzibar. It is not in the Bible but we heard that it had a wonderful beach. Here we stay for two days soaking up the silver beach and warm Indian Ocean. Photo no – cd In the meantime Rommel unknown to us has called up reinforcements. An undercover cop approaches us flashing his secret service anti terrorist badge. I am requested to report to the northern Island District Police barracks. I explained that we are without wheels to be informed that a jeep is on its way with more enforcement. On its arrival it becomes clear that Fanny, Flo and I are not a security risk so we all settle down for a spot of lunch.
We arrive at the police station where the Commissioner advised me that Rommel is on her way. What arrived was a woman in a state of high paranoia due to lack of funds. She claims that she was relying on the 400$ to pay her staff. I am somewhat sceptical of this remark, as in the first instant she had no idea that we were arriving on Chumbe to be ripped off. Not speaking the local lingo I am at some disadvantage when she speaks to Commissioner. The whole affair is becoming ugly and extremely distasteful. Eventually it is decided that the matter would be resolved back in Stone Town.
With all of us back on the jeep I calm Fanny and Florence. Rommel sitting in fronts of us with the commissioner produces a portfolio containing photos of Chumbe and the overall plan for its development. He is suitably impressed. More so than the President of Zanzibar who according to Rommel when presented with the project retorted that …“So you here to prove that the rocks are alive…” Yet in his ignorance of the nature of coral he granted a lease to Rommel by placing a conservation order on the reef and the Island with the undertaking that its prime function should be education. I think if he only knew that education has long been put on the long finger and replaced by extortions on unsuspecting tourists. the Nincompoop now sitting in front of me would long be chucked off the Island.
We arrive at the police station in Stone Town this most unpleasant woman has the effrontery to threaten my wife and child with the possibility of prison. Nice one Rommel just the attitude Zanzibar could do with. It takes all my Gaelic blood not to clock her one. The District Commissioner has thank God enough cop-on to call Silver Sands. They confirm that Williwaw is in their compound and funds in their safe. The Bitch had never bothered to ring. The commissioner apologies for the hassle and requests a lift home with his bag of rice. Herr Rommel leaves with a display befitting the swine she is.
Boarding the Ferry in the morning, the old bags’ long shadow touches us once more with the port officials enquiring had the matter being settled. Once more while the Commissioners sleep is disturbed with a phone call we are made to wait. (On my return to Ireland I wrote to the Minister of Tourism making him aware of the whole event. A letter of deep apology was received. I can only hope the cow got an earful as Chumbe deserves better. Irrelevant of all the hassle it was superb.)
Aboard is Nick he had escaped to Pemba Island for the duration of his visit. With Florence on the bridge the ferry pull away from the dock. Rommel no doubt is instigating a full Island search for us once more. A taxi to the Silver Sands and a fax to the Mbweni Ruins Hotel confirming payment of 160$ ends our Zanzibar Adventure.
Fanny’s Nikon gave up the ghost on Zanzibar so before we move on it is a trip into Dar es Salaam in the hope of getting it fixed.
I give a mature lady of Nicks vintage and nationality a lift into town. She is another South African full of bullshit with the same problem as Nick, wanting to get from one dot on the map to the next without mixing with the great unwashed or stopping. She turns out however to be of gentile stock. Her eyes speak of a tender and hurt person. Revealing that she is travelling with a good friend or lover she has verbal diarrhoea the whole way into town. Her trip has turned turtle and she is thinking of jumping ship and taking a job back in the Old Farm House. It’s a small world – maybe Nick can drop her off on his way back.
With the camera in sick bay we head off to get our small gas bottle refilled. After several bum steers we eventually arrive at Agrip Fuel Depot. Parking outside the gates “I’ll just be just a jiffy, back in a few minutes” – boy was I wrong. Black African bureaucracy brings its full might to bear. To fill my 2.9-kilo bottle takes twelve bits of paper, six miles of walking from one office to the next and two hours of queuing time before I escape back out the gates without official clearance to do so. We just make it back to the camera shop in time. The news is good the Nikon is Oxo.
That night around the bush TV we meet up with Paulo a Sicilian he has just arrived from the Masai Mara on the Serengeti Plains. He is living in Ethiopia where he administrates the Vatican Aid program. A wild weedy bloke full of energy and extremely partial to the weed he invites us to visit him in the only country of Africa that has not changed since King Solomon’s times. “It is full of unknown cultures, tribes, and beauty that will take your breath away.” Paulo is so passionate about us making the effort to visit Ethiopia we promise to look him up if we venture in that direction.
By the time he has described how he fixed the engine mounting out on the Serengeti in the middle of nowhere (carving a temporary mounting out of wood with his penknife) it is the early hours of the morning when I retire. We awake to booming music coming from an orange Russian Man truck. Paulo with the crack of his ass showing has been at it covered in oil since first light. The news is not good and major surgery is required. We depart later in the morning wondering if he will ever make it back to Ethiopia in one piece.
For some stupid reason we go up the coast to Tanga by way of an unmarked road. Four hours of mud and a ferry crossing convinces us that the better option in the main drag. We eventually find our way inland onto a main looking route arriving in Tanga to dine in an Indian restaurant and kip for the night in an old world majestic colonial building called the Bandorini Hotel. Owned by an Indian/English who is still lamenting the bygone days of colonial panache living. Our room echoes of opulent living is overlooking the harbour over a tiled archway much in need of repair.
Tanga, Tanzania’s deuxième port is a lethargic backwater somewhat off the beaten track for Overlanders. In the morning we take a short trip out to Pangani recommended by the Bible as being fantastic. Pitch No 101 is in a friendly Aussies new compound. He has a fetish for boats, trucks, and any other junk. There is sweet f a in Pangani except the river estuary and a mediocre beach, which is hardly worth the long walk down to. Whoever checked the place out for the Bible must have got laid when they were here.
Apart from us the only two other people around are an Israeli and his brothers who have difficulty proving that they are Tanzanian with their American Twang. “You know buddy that Jerusalem is the only three-dimensional city in the world – you can walk across it on the rooftops, on the ground, and under the ground.” WOW!
Hugging the Kenyan border we head inland skirting the Usambara Mountains up to Moshi the gateway to Kilimanjora, Kilima Njaro in Swahili, or Oldoinyo Oibor in Masai.
After a long drive we arrive. Pitch no 102 is in behind a bar and disco so it’s not surprising that we take off early in the morning. Our destination is not Kilimanjaro 5895m first climbed in 1889 by Hans Meyer/ Ludwig Putscheller nor its summit craters Kibo and Mawensi both of which are connected by a broad saddle of 4660m across. The thought of lugging a backpack for three to four days uphill even if the views are out of this world has zero appeal in the stifling heat. Ngorongoro is for us.