Zanzibar has always sounded exotic and romantic - and up there near the top of my bucket list.
We celebrated our ‘big’ wedding anniversary sitting on a bench in Forodhani Park, in Stone Town looking out at the boats bobbing at their moorings off the beach and the smoke of many fires, hanging in the warm, humid evening air as we tucked into a large, red crab, cooked to perfection with a slightly smokey flavour. Dessert was a sweet Zanzibar pizza - more like a folded flapjack filled with banana, and passion fruit, a dash of honey on top. Delicious.
Getting from Cape Town to Zanzibar was painless -
except that Kenya Airlines used a very old plane for the
route - no entertainment and no aircon for the five hour
flight. Bit of a sweat …
but we handled that as well as the two-hour layover at
Nairobi Airport from 4.30 a.m, without too much trouble.
Stepped off the connecting flight in Zanzibar at 9am, into
a wall of heat and humidity - phew!
Never really got used to it for the entire stay.
There was a distinct smell of stale body odour as we entered the terminal building - maybe it was the soldiers in their thick fatigues or the very bored-looking immigration officials sitting in their small, claustrophobic cubicle mumbling about yellow fever. I said the we were too elderly for the inoculation and so skipped the needle.
“No English, Swahili”.
My country, my rules.
No problem, “No Swahili, English”.
Pressure on my arm. “Relax” in my ear from my dear wife - she reads me well!
And suddenly there was a soldier with an AK47 standing alongside me … he waved us through.
On the other side of the building our taxi was waiting as arranged.
We had arrived in The Third World.
Our first exposure to real potholes came during the 30-minute drive to our hotel on the outskirts of Stone Town. The once, tarred road was now a dusty, muddy mess. Cars weaving in all directions at a crawling pace, trying to dodge the holes - if the hole had water in it, go around, chances are it will be quite deep. Maybe even take the entire bloody car.
Both sides of the road were lined with food stalls, raw food, fruit and vegetables, cooking fires, crisp chicken kebabs, plantains and sweet potatoes.
Vendors offering herbs and spices, raffia bundles (a very popular item, used to weave bags, baskets and fans), second-hand furniture, long wooden poles for building houses. Most stalls had rustic banana leaf awnings or large beach umbrellas for shelter from the scorching sun. It was like driving through a continuous outdoor market.
Arrived, checked in, dropped our bags - travelling light - we each had a cabin bag and a backpack and mine contained about 12kg of camera equipment.
Time to get some up-close exposure (excuse the pun) to our environs.
We couldn’t wait to explore this old city.
We had been warned of “the dangers of Stone Town” so kept a tight grip on our belongings.
It didn’t take long to realise and confirm that this was probably one of the safest cities in the world! Security cameras on every corner. If a local is caught pestering a tourist, it’s time in jail. And there’s Sharia law - a deterrent in itself.
Step onto the pavement in front of the hotel and we are open to the first of a hundred or more encounters with salesmen.
“Jambo, wanna taxi?”
“Wanna go to Prison Island?”
Shake the head.
Everyone had a service or product else to sell!
Everyone was very friendly.
No aggression or racism like back home in South Africa.
What a pleasure.
“Mambo”, “Wanna cashew?”, “Water?”, ”Peanut?”, “Wanna guide?”
now we’re getting somewhere … a guide would be good.
I have found that in a foreign country, especially where there is not
too much English spoken, it’s always a good idea to do an
orientation tour. We carried on just walking and looking.
And being approached constantly by ever-hopeful salesman.
There are two forms of greeting - Jambo, the more formal
‘how do you do’ and Mambo, a more casual ‘hi’.
The response to Jambo is Jambo, the response to Mambo is
‘poé, poé’, ‘cool’.
Stone Town is city originally built by Arabs who ruled at the time. They used hard local stone to build the place - hence the name. Plastered and painted (seems to be the first and last time), it’s a warren of narrow streets and alleyways - none wide enough for a car but there are many bicycles and motorbikes flying around, hooting at every (blind) corner. Most of the place is paved, a more recent addition I would imagine, sloping downwards slightly from the edges to the centre
so that there is a constant flow water in the middle.
Delivery and the transport of goods is made by porters
pushing wooden trolleys on motorcar wheels.
“Wanna guide?” Must have been the tenth offer for this
service in 30 minutes.
(Now, I wouldn’t admit it but we were actually lost in
the maze. Similar to stop g your car and asking someone
for directions ...).
Keeping pace with us as we looked around, telling about what he would offer on a three-hour walking tour of Stone Town. Speaking good English, easy to understand, he continued to follow as we walked, explaining what we were seeing as we moved. We wanted to find a local restaurant where the “locals” ate - as all good tourists do. “Ah, Lukman’s” and with that we had our guide - but officially, for the following day at 10am. Ali.
He showed us to the restaurant, explained the protocol and waved farewell.
Most of the restaurants on the island are Halaal so alcohol is not sold.
Some will allow you to bring your own.
We browsed. No menu, the food was moving around in front of us.
“First pay, then cook, then eat”.
Carry your food to a table and get stuck in.
We shared a local silverfish, it was cooked in a hot wok as we watched. Crisp, delicious. Perfection.
The restaurant has an enormous tree in the centre and the roof is a canvas awning - very rustic, indigenous.We decided that, if we could find our way back to our hotel from Lukman’s in the middle of Stone Town, we would try and return for supper to sample something else. I had an idea in which direction the sea lay and used this as a sort direction finder. I was getting my bearings. Most times it worked out fine.
Back to Lukman’s at 8pm, we had succulent, skewered prawns, octopus tentacles and calamari for supper. I snuck in a bottle of “Miss Lucie” in a backpack but was spotted and told to pack it away.
We met Ali, the next morning at ten, he was waiting in front of the hotel as promised.
US$15 for the three to four hours. It was hot.
Front steps of a mosque at prayer time.
It was humid. I started sweating as I left the
Ali looked cool.
The three of us walked, The old Dispensary, the Music Academy, the Sultan’s Palace (now museum), the old Fort/gaol/market/amphitheatre. I was soaked - even Maureen started to
Ali was cool.
We saw Freddie Mercury’s “faux house”, a purely commercial tourist trap, then saw his actual house, (Stone Town original), drank a sparkling water the (ex) British Club (now restaurant), Roman Catholic Cathedral, Tippu Tip the slave trader’s house with its inhumane dungeons and secret tunnel to the beach through which slaves were loaded and unloaded, the Anglican Cathedral built on the site of the main slave market.
I was soaked, my underpants were wet and chaffing, my camera backpack was sticking to my
T-shirt which was glued to my back!
I asked Ali how he stayed so cool? “Cotton, you must wear cotton”.
At the next clothing shop I bought a cotton shirt.
The shops in Stone Town are basically small rooms (average about 2X3 metres) packed with product. A pair of double doors are closed and locked at night. Clothing, curios, hardware, groceries, fruit, art galleries - all use outside walls and steps for their product displays.
There is little room inside. Shopkeepers sit on the steps in front of their shops, waiting for customers or trying to entice them to enter.
But I digress…
The indoor fish and meat market, raw, smelly, dirty, flies everywhere. This is absolutely an exercise in unhygienic food processing.
The next-door fruit and vegetable market - bye-the-way,
I was now walking like John Wayne,
couldn’t put my legs together - raw ruled!
My new cotton shirt was wet, wet, wet.
I showed this to Ali “Ah, you must also eat (some sort of)
spice”, that I’d never heard of”.
Always a catch!
Arrived back at hotel at 2pm and we both collapsed on
loungers at the pool! The water was warm but soothing
never-the-less. I sat spread-legged on a step.
Ali had told us about the evening food market which from 6pm, transformed the seafront Forodhani Park into an enormous kitchen. about 50 fires, each offering a different take on local delicacies, chicken kebabs, chicken schawarma, crab, calamari, octopus, fish, pizza (Zanzibar-style), fruit, juices, vegetables and more!
We ate there every night until we moved on to our next stop at a beach resort.
A taxi from Stone Town to our new accommodation about 8kms further up the Northwest coast. En route I asked for a detour to the local spice farm, by now I’d been studying maps and pretty much established my bearings, what a treat that turned out to be! The taxi waited while we were guided around the farm by a very knowledgeable, twenty-something.He spoke excellent English which he’d learned at school and had an extensive knowledge of the spices and fruits the on the farm.
From nutmeg to cloves and bayleaves to lemongrass, we didn’t miss a thing. We also saw all the fruits grown on the the island - and then sat down to a tasting! Fresh from the tree, juicy and sweet.
These guys can work a coconut like magic!
At the end of the tour, he
proudly presented Maureen
with broad brimmed ladies
tiara, a necklace and a
drawstring handbag -
I received a tall crown and a necktie - all made from the palms he had been weaving as we walked.
So, on to the hotel. And what a surprise that was - very modern, all glass and stone, state-of-the-art gym, three pools, everything that opens and shuts. Shown to our suite - sitting room, dressing room, bedroom, enormous bathroom, all air-conditioned - this could be a nice way to end our few days on the island.
As a water-restricted Capetonian, the first thing M did was have a hot, deep bath - but only after I worked out how to turn on the hot water heater at a wall switch the lounge.
Blew my nose, threw a couple of tissues in the toilet and flushed.
Had a shower.
Now here’s the rub (and not with a towel).
The shower leaked, the bath leaked, the toilet leaked, the handbasin leaked. The floor was soaked and the floor was highly polished marble! Breakneck smooth.
I called reception, when he finally understood what the problem was there was “no problem, we come now - fix”. They brought piles of big, soft absorbent towels and threw them all over the floor. “Wet gone - fixed”.
And so it was, couldn't argue about that.
We lived with towels on the floor for the rest of stay.
We ate dinner in the hotel restaurant. Four or five other tables with diners. “Sorry, no wine, beer or alcohol - halaal.”
Ok not a problem, we’ll bring our own. That was perfectly acceptable. Nearest bottle store was 40 minutes away!
We ordered a couple of grilled prawn skewers as a starter and then kingfish as the main course.
Supper was taking a while to arrive - all tables had ordered but no-one was eating. We started chatting across the room, the Indian guy from Durban had ordered a hamburger, his wife, curried fish stew, and so the evening progressed. After an hour I called the maitre’d and suggested that he perhaps follow-up on service. “Coming soon”.
No food appeared.
After waiting for two hours, our food arrived, stewed prawns - not grilled on a skewer.
Main course, seared tuna - not kingfish. The hamburger man got kingfish!
I had a very difficult (as far as getting the true story was concerned) conversation with a waiter who explained that, as he understood it, once everyone had ordered, the chef went to the local market and bought the ingredients, this cut out wastage but sometimes he got it wrong.
The next day at 9am we ordered a taxi via hotel reception. Intended a trip to see some of the Northern beaches, have a general look around and buy some beer and sparkling water which no-one seemed to sell.
I checked very hour, no taxi. Each new person at reception promised to confirm with the taxi service. At 4pm, I told them to “cancel” the cab. I later found out that the taxi had arrived at 9.30 but the person on duty at the time, had no idea who it was for!
Maureen put her hand on my arm and whispered in my ear …
We walked about the area the following day and found, almost next door, a very quaint hotel run by a really switched-on Italian couple. Decided on a very late lunch of superbly prepared and presented grilled calamari accompanied by a very a bottle of Kilomanjaro beer to quench the thirst and a very palatable chenin blanc with the meal.
Maureen was feeling a bit under the weather - still taking her malaria tablets and one of the possible side effect was a sore stomach - she had that side effect - in spades! I had started with the tablets on arrival and decided that I would risk malaria rather than suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous medication, so I was OK. But we couldn’t leave the hotel. The pool was the furthest and there was toilet-to-pool-lounger distance check before we could sit and relax.
Ordered room service for supper - toasted cheese and tomato - 2 slices for me.
A slice of dry bread and some black tea for M.
It arrived an hour later, mine was on a large toasted bun about the size of a loaf of bread. Cheese, tomato, onions, pickles all drowning in mayo and butter! Maureen’s dry toast was on a similar bun with butter and tomato smothered in mayo!
Decided not even try and fight it, so climbed into bed and read a book.
The next morning Maureen was worse, we’d run out Ammodium (2 boxes).
Time for a doctor.
Thought: don’t risk trying to arrange through our hotel reception, it may never happen, go next door.
So I did.
Explained my concern and with no trouble at all, a doctor was called.
Half an hour later this little local fashion statement arrived at our hotel, with his driver.
Everything he wore had the correct designer label.
He had qualified three years before in Zanzibar. Knew right away what the problem was.
Told us that Zanzibar was, and had been for some years, a malaria-free area (so much for the travel doctor we went to for advice). He put M on a drip, added vitamin B-something and then sat chatting to us until it was empty. He and his driver took us to Stone Town to the ATM - not too many about - I paid him, he was dropped at the hospital in order to analyse all Maureen’s samples and the driver took us back to the hotel.
An hour later, I received a full, 2-page report for submission to Discovery as well as a copy of his bill. Discovery, true to form, paid about 10% of the cost - always some excuse.
That afternoon we went for a walk, I had been told there was a fish market on a nearby beach.
We walked a couple of kms in 40º plus (add humidity).
In the distance I saw a market, under the shade of a cluster of tall palm trees we walked though it onto the beach!
Hundreds of brightly dressed people waiting for the fishing boats to return. We waited and sure enough they arrived.
It was chaos, men wading out to the boats, carrying buckets and waving cash. They were bidding for fish and as soon as their bucket was filled, they returned to the beach, cleaned the fish and set up a table from which to sell them. More boats arrived, there was a constant flow of men wading back and forth, gutting fish, selling fish, women in bright clothing buying from the vendors.
I was in camera heaven click, click click - didn’t know where to look first!
This little trip to the beach was one of the highlights of our time in Zanzibar.
We left for our return flight early the following morning (I had personally negotiated a pick-up with a taxi driver), sweated our way into the cool air conditioned interior of our plane home.
I shot around 1700 images.
Now, almost a month later, I’ve discarded about half, am processing the rest and adding all the required info before submitting them for sale.
I will return!