Zanzibar, the most exotic island of all?

An ancient, crumbling, Arabian nights fairytale island, surrounded by the brightest turquoise water. Once a major trade capital for spices, silks, slaves and more, it’s the original melting pot, mixing ancient Africa, Arabia and India, with the Chinese and then the Portuguese following in later centuries. It’s a very visceral history that you can see, smell and feel in the air around you.

18 years ago, while doing an overland through east Africa, I arrived in Zanzibar and fell for its many charms. In three weeks time I will finally return, and I am wondering how much it has changed or not? Here’s my memories from the first time.

Getting to Zanzibar.

The ferry to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam was not the most reliable, or safest. We’d booked the morning ferry, it breaks down, we¬†wait a few hours and catch the mid afternoon one, a four and a half hour trip sitting on our packs on the deck, in the bow of a very full boat, towels over our heads to ward off the intense sun. Then there was the mad scramble to get off the ferry, through immigration and pound the streets to find a room – $15 a night for four to share, with very dodgy mosquito nets. My notes at the time said “the Sambusa, down an alley, past the rubbish dump – nice little room though.”

Prison Island.

We took a dhow out to Prison Island, a tiny island with a little sand bar beach, just a few meters wide, extending out into the true blue water. There’s remnants of an old prison, and a small population of very old, very huge giant tortoises, who in spite of being very wrinkly, are very adorable. We sunbath in the hot sun and cool off in the water until the wind comes up and starts scouring our skin with sand. We head back to Zanzibar in a choppy sea and get drenched in very salty sea spray, and need a very good warm shower on our return.

StoneTown, Zanzibar.

We explored the Byzantian alleyways, the old fort, the sultan’s palace – the architecture was amazing, but most building were run down, worn out, peeling and in need of some renovation. We spent more time wandering the streets and alleyways than we did on the beaches, it was just so fascinating. We dined cheaply but well. Beers at Africa House, fresh coconuts on the beach, calamari for dinner at The Dolphin, and back for omelettes for breakfast. Freshly cooked seafood straight off the stalls in the marketplace, and calamari stew at the Floating Restaurant next to the market. Fish coconut curries and banana milkshakes at Caymur’s. I wonder if any of these places still exist? – apart from the markets, probably not!


The Beach, Zanzibar.

We grabbed a ride in a jeep to Jambiani, a popular beach a two hour drive to the opposite side of the island to StoneTown. On the way we stopped off to see the endangered red colobus monkeys. What is surprising is that we didn’t also do a spice tour, to one of the spice plantations, given Zanzibar’s fame as a spice island – having grown up on farms in NZ we didn’t see anything interesting about visiting a farm. The beach was stunning – when we arrived the tide was out about 500m, and by late afternoon it was right back up the beach lapping our toes. The local kids were busy selling us papaya and coconuts, and were just gorgeous to watch.