28 May 2016

Zanzibar - Island Bliss

Dhow in Zanzibar
Just the name Zanzibar has always conjured up the notion of an exotic island, the smell of spices and the lure of white sands.
Whilst the island remains very undeveloped to our Western eyes, it is a magical destination.

The warmth hits you as you emerge from the tiny airport. Luggage is stacked in a pile so it's quite a scrabble to locate your bags. Luckily our plane was rather empty so it was not a huge problem.
The road up north is fairly decent with well behaved dala-dalas. Verdant green coconut palms, hundreds of banana trees, lush undergrowth and decrepit looking shops. Very reminiscent of our trip to Goa in India except that the road is not as twisty!

The local transport, called Dala-dalas, crammed with many bodies looks unique and funny.
These are converted small lorries with two rows of wooden seats at the back, called dala-dalas (or dalas for short) and they carry passengers on local runs around town and to outlying suburbs. 
We also passed carts pulled by cows. Apparently, if the cows are used as "transport" they cannot be sold for meat. Some unscrupulous owners will try and sell them in an area where they are not known.
However, as the island is only 85 km long, this is not always possible!

The village of Nungwi has very potholed, dusty dirt roads so getting to Double Tree by Hilton is a bumpy experience and our first introduction to "The African Massage" as labelled by all the drivers. At first approach this was rather off-putting and scary - where are we headed??
The Double Tree by Hilton is behind gates and an absolute relief to see, eventually!
Our first beach walk was hot, but interesting, as we are in dhow building territory. The guys were building fires beneath their boats so we asked them why they were destroying them! The answer was that they were sealing the hulls. This happens on a daily basis with some boat or other and makes the beach walks interesting.
Sealing the dhow - Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar

The beach has numerous "beach boys" offering tours or souvenirs. Some just won't take no for an answer and this can be somewhat irritating.  We all have to earn a living somehow I suppose.

 The tides in Zanzibar are just amazing. At low tide one can walk knee deep for ages and ages. At Nungwi beach one can get all the way out to the dhows just by walking. The sea is gloriously warm!
Some of the beaches on the east coast have huge expanses of sand at low tide, making swimming impossible.

Our first tour was to Jozani Forest with a private guide who was most informative.
The roads are good in most places but driving is slow with many police stops along the way.
This brings a whole new meaning to the saying "Grease my Palm" I have never seen such slick operation before. The driver palms a note, rolls down his window, has words with the cop, if the cop is not happy about something, the driver extends his hand with the money which is not even visible, then shakes hands with the cop, who just as quickly palms the money! If all is OK, then the money goes back into the glove compartment for next time. Quite hilarious really even though totally corrupt.

Jozani Forest is home to the Red Colobus monkeys which are endemic to Zanzibar.
The monkeys live in troops of 30 - 50 and do get into fights with rival troops from time to time, according to our guide. The monkeys are free within this large reserve so watching them leap with total abandon from the high branches with such ease, is incredible. Very difficult to photograph though, as the forest is quite dense. Our guide was able to mimic the calls and so get us to a spot where there was a small troupe.

"The word "Colobus" comes from Greek ekolobóse, meaning "he cut short", and is so named because of the significant reduction in size, or complete lack of an opposable thumb in comparison to other primates. To make up for this, they have four long digits that align to form a strong hook, allowing them to easily grasp branches and climb.

Locals on the island have called the Zanzibar red colobus kima punju which means "poison monkey" in Swahili because of their strong smell unlike other monkeys. This has caused people to hold negative views of the monkey and even to say it has an evil influence on trees on which they feed, ultimately killing the trees.
They also eat leaf shoots, seeds, flowers, and unripe fruit. It has also been found eating bark, dead wood, and soil It is one of the few species that do not eat ripe fruits; it has a sacculated stomach with four chambers specific for breaking down plant materials, however it cannot digest the sugars contained in mature fruits. Because the monkey feeds on young leaves (though not limited to them), there are instances where it consumes charcoal, which is believed to aid their digestion of the toxins (possibly phenolic compounds) found in the young leaves of the Indian almond tree and mango tree"
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Depending on the time frame, there are walks in the forest - our guide showed us various species of trees and plants. The boardwalk in the Mangrove Forest is fascinating - with the Black, Red and White mangroves all having different root systems, its a tangle of roots!
Mangrove Forest in Zanzibar

These trees form an important habitat for many fish and crab species who live in salt water.

 For anybody who enjoys nature, this forest is a must visit - unfortunately, we did not have enough time to just wander.

Zanzibar is predominately Muslim and the females are all clothed in traditional Muslim dress.
The school girls wear cream and blue (Junior School) and the High School pupils wear white and black. Schools on the whole are without windows and are often very depressing long buildings.
Every district has at least one school and there are hundreds of children in Zanzibar!

There are private schools at higher cost in some areas.
The children all look very happy and carefree: the girls especially always seem to be giggling at something or other.

Stone Town 
Heading into the city one gets the feel that the tranquil beach scenes are far behind.
Everybody is bustling along, cars are everywhere vying for a parking spot and there are many pedestrians. The local people do not like having their photographs taken and the unfriendly looks are enough to put one off anyway. This is so different to the people of India who simply love have their photos taken and would ask our names and where we were from. Different cultures - different ideas - it all makes for interesting travel experiences! One gets the feeling that tourists are not really welcome in Zanzibar unless you chance upon somebody from the Mainland  of Tanzania. For us this was a little off-putting as most countries welcome visitors to their shores.

The inner city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000 and is best explored on foot.

Our guide first showed us the local market - oh my word - the flies on the fish and meat were enough to turn me into a vegetarian with immediate effect. Really, really gross and off-putting. How anybody can buy goods housed in such unhygienic conditions, is beyond my understanding. But it is a must see nevertheless as there are other goods for sale once you squeeze past the smelly fish and meat sections.

A sad site to visit is the  former Slave Market site. Just going down to the cramped quarters that housed the many slaves gave me the chills as it was so inhumane.
Whilst there was a slave trade in many countries around the world, Stone Town was apparently  one of the world's last open slave markets, presided over by Arab traders until it was shut down by the British in 1873. The slaves were shipped in dhows from the mainland, crammed so tightly that many fell ill and died or were thrown overboard. 
With a small chamber housing 50 men and a slightly larger one housing 75 women and children,
this underground chamber sent chills down my spine and I could not wait to get above ground again.
Slaves were apparently tied to a tree then whipped with a stinging branch to test their mettle.
Those who did not cry or faint fetched a higher price at market.
An Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ was built on the site and the former whipping tree is marked at the altar by a white marble circle surrounded by red to symbolise the blood of the slaves.
The man (Mr Steere) who wrote "A Handbook of the Swahili Language: As Spoken at Zanzibar" in 1885, is buried behind the altar of this church.

The life size statues, sunken in a pit in the grounds outside, bear chains and are a grizzly reminder of a bygone era.

Slave Market Site Stone Town

Being a mainly Muslim community, there are 53 mosques, whose muezzin cries vie with each other at prayer time, 6 Hindu Temples (we saw a Jain one) plus one Catholic and one Anglican church, all in Stone Town.

The Old Fort, was built around 1700. It was used by the Arabs to repel the Portuguese. In the 19th Century the fort was used as a prison and a place of execution. The old fort is now a cultural centre where there are classes in drumming, henna painting, Zanzibar cooking and there are drama and music performances in the open air theatre. There are many shops and a restaurant inside and at night there are often Taarab, Ngoma (local styles of music and dance) or movie nights.

The House of Wonders was unfortunately closed for renovations. However, a little greasing of the palm would perhaps gain you entry if you are willing to risk the building falling on your head! We preferred to retain both our money and body parts.

Stone Town

Stone Town

 Spice Tour:
Zanzibar, the Spice Island!
Zanzibar got this handle a result of being one of the world’s leading producers of spices such as clove, nutmeg and cinnamon in the 19th century. Today, cloves are still exported.

Cloves are known in Zanzibar as the king of spices and cinnamon as the queen.
The bark of the cinnamon tree smells simply divine and nothing like the packaged variety in our supermarkets.The leaves and roots of the tree are also used – to treat stomach problems and as a decongestant. The seeds look like slim dark acorns.
Peppercorns come in black, green, white or red - all the same but just at different stages of maturity.
The vanilla is a creeping plant with dark green pods. The plant must be pollinated by hand using small sticks. The island lacks a specific bee found only in Mexico, so for each vanilla bean that is produced, hand pollination is required—making vanilla production on the island very labour-intensive.The pods turn yellow, are picked and then left to turn brown in the shade.
The lipstick tree fascinated me as the red from the berries looks just like lipstick when rubbed on the lips! This fruit is also used in red curries.
The tour concludes with a guy climbing a very high coconut palm tree and coconuts are given to those who would like to drink the milk.
Our gifts were amazing - woven hats, a watch, a ring and a lovely oval basket to store our spices in.
All beautifully woven in next to no time.

The red of the Lipstick Tree!

Zanzibar is all about beaches, snorkeling, diving and just enjoying the powdery white sand and the gloriously warm water. So with this in mind, we took a tour of the East Coast beaches. The villages are very basic, often with no running water. It seems a harsh life in such a verdant land where crops grow in abundance. One surmises that services should be provided by the government for basics like electricity and water? Seems these have not yet reached all of Zanzibar?

The low tides on the island mean that runners and cyclists can go forever on the beaches of the East coast. This is not great for swimmers though as one would have to walk for ages to get to deep water!
When we first booked at Nungwi Beach, we could not understand why the blurb said "swimming is possible at low tide" Now I can understand the concept as the tides have such huge variances. Thankfully, one can swim at Nungwi during low tide although it is still somewhat of a trek! On the East coast beaches, this really is not possible.
For those looking for an unusual dining option, there is the Rock! Whilst the food reviews are not great, getting to the restaurant at high tide, means getting into a dhow! At low tide, one can just walk to the stairs! It's a funky concept and worthy of a photo at least!
The Rock Restaurant Zanzibar

Paje beach is windy!!!
Which makes it great for kite surfers but not so pleasant for sunbathers. It appears to be a lively spot during season - rather quiet out of season though as the swimmers would prefer some of the other beaches on the island.

 Impressions of Zanzibar:
Villages are soooo very basic and not very picturesque

The local women are very traditional in their Muslim dress code which is very colourful

Women fish in their clothes in Nungwi using nets and sticks
The dhow making industry is alive and well in Nungwi
Dhows and fishing methods are still traditional in this modern world
Low, low, low tides!!!
The "Beach Boys" are very persistent which becomes rather irritating
Cows and donkeys still used to transport goods on carts
Dala-dala's are the order of the day for transporting locals - always crammed to the gills!
Flies are everywhere! Apparently not in summer though.
Sunsets are glorious
The weather is superb if you love being warm!

Another spot to visit is the small Turtle Aquarium in Nungwi
Info below courtesy of Zanzibar Travel Guide

Mnarani Natural Aquarium

"Hawksbill turtles have traditionally been hunted around Zanzibar for their attractive shells, and green turtles for their meat. In 1993, with encouragement and assistance from various conservation bodies and some dedicated marine biologists, the local community opened the Mnarani Natural Aquarium (open 09.00–18.00 daily).

In the shadow of the lighthouse ('Mnarani' meaning 'place of the lighthouse' in Swahili), at the northernmost tip of Zanzibar Island, the aquarium was created around a large, natural, tidal pool in the coral rock behind the beach. Originally set up to rehabilitate and study turtles that had been caught in fishing nets, the aquarium project expanded to ensure that local baby turtles were also protected.

Turtles frequently nest on Nungwi Beach, and village volunteers now mark and monitor new nests. The resulting hatchlings are carried to small plastic basins and small concrete tanks at the aquarium where they remain for ten months. By this time, they have grown to ten inches and their chances of survival at sea are dramatically increased. All bar one of these turtles are then released into the sea, along with the largest turtle from the aquarium pool. The one remaining baby turtle is then added to the pool ensuring a static population of 17 turtles.

In September 2005, this equated to four hawksbills (Swahili: ng'amba), identified by the jagged edge on their shell, sharper beak and sardine diet, and 13 seaweed-loving green turtles (Swahili: kasakasa). The aquarium manager, Mr Mataka Kasa, keeps a log book detailing all eggs, hatchlings and releases. On 5 June 2005, the sanctuary released its first tagged turtle, as part of a worldwide monitoring programme.

In spite of the aquarium being little more than a glorified rock pool, it's fascinating to see the turtles at close quarters. Further, the money raised secures the project's future, and goes towards local community schemes – in a bid to demonstrate the tangible value of turtle conservation to the local population. With luck, this will lessen the trade in souvenir shell products and ensure the species' survival.

On a practical note, when timing your visit, the water is clearest about two hours before high tide (Swahili: maji kujaa)."
Turtles in Zanzibar
 We loved our short stay on this island - it's an interesting mix of old traditions, combined with modern hotels catering to the ever expanding tourist trade.

Good-Bye Zanzibar!

© Judelle Drake

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