Zanzibar (3) – Stone Town and Prison Island

Our holiday has come to an end, and we’re sat at Zanzibar’s little airport, practically hugging a fan, as its so hot and stuffy in here. The airport is small and basic – the check in desks are basically outside and the bags are weighed on old fashioned scales with a pointer.

We had a wonderful last day here, although it got off to a shaky start. We had a city walking tour and a trip out to an island planned, but our driver yesterday didn’t know what time we were to be collected. Eventually, by chance Mum bumped into our guide for the day, whist she was down at the business centre to print off our boarding passes for our flights home.

The city tour was interesting, but I for one was suffering from the heat. Stone Town is made up of many small, mostly dirty streets, very few of which have street signs. It’s known for its attractive wooden doors, but many of them are blighted by electricity cables running through or across them. I found it a little odd that much of the information we were given seemed to focus around pointing out hotels and being told how many stars they had.

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The main focus of the tour was a visit to the old slave market, a place I found very disturbing. We went into one of the slave chambers, a small underground room with very little light or air, where about 75 slaves would have been held for 4-5 days before being taken up to the auction area, the site of which is now the Anglican Cathedral. There’s a very evocative commemoration to the slaves outside the cathedral.

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After the city tour we walked down to the beach and took a boat over to Prison Island. The island is named after a prison that was built there but never used, as it was instead used to quarantine those with infectious diseases such as TB and cholera. Now it’s used as a hotel, and also houses a tortoise sanctuary.

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We heard slightly different stories about the tortoises along the way, but the basic facts were that the origin 2 or 4 tortoises were a gift and came originally from the Seychelles. They’ve now multiplied to 100-200! The oldest tortoises are huge – they can live to around 200, and the original tortoises are still there. Many of them have their age painted on the back of their shell.

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After the tortoises we went back to the boat and headed out to a good snorkeling spot nearby. It was so restful just floating around and watching the fish swim by, and there were even starfish.

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Finally we had to head back to the hotel, where we were able to take a shower and change clothes before heading to the airport, and the long flights back home.

Zanzibar (2) – Dolphins and Colobus Monkeys

We were picked up at 7am this morning to drive down to the south end of the island to go swimming with dolphins. Assuming, that is, that the dolphins were in the mood. We were met by a group of three young lads, the oldest maybe 20 and the youngest about 14.

As the tide was out, we were taken part way out in a small boat, then we had to walk a little way through some very shallow water, over some sharp rocks and coral before reaching the boat that would take us out to the dolphins. One of our guides carried the boat’s engine with him, Mum and I were just concentrating on not falling (not entirely successfully – I sank suddenly into a small hole and scraped up my ankle, and Mum had to be grabbed by one of our guides at one point).

We set off and motored for quite a long way parallel to the shore. At a certain point, one of our companions, Rashie, pulled out a snorkel, a couple long sticks and a buoys and jumped overboard. Mum and I initially though that he was going to be accompanying us in the water, and was going to check out the area, but it turned out that he was going fishing. We never saw him again. Apparently he would fish for about 3 hours and then swim back to the shore.

We continued for quite a while, and saw another couple boats carrying hopeful dolphin swimmers. Ours was a traditional wooden boat – much nicer than the other modern boats that we saw.

The sea seemed pretty rough, with rather large waves. I have to admit, I couldn’t help but wonder how we were supposed to swim in it, snorkels or no. It also did cross my mind that this might be the sort of place where sharks like to hang out…

After sitting and sitting and no signs of dolphins, I had pretty much come to the conclusion that the dolphins weren’t going to show, and tried to reconcile myself to the fact that we’d had a nice boat ride in any case. Afterwards, Mum said that exactly the same though was going through her head.

Finally, just when we’d given up hope, our skipper called out to the young lad who was driving us and pointed to the horizon. I couldn’t see anything, but it appeared that the dolphins had shown themselves. We followed the direction he pointed, and were quickly joined with another 3 boats. Mum and I put on our flippers and masks, and, the skipper beckoning urgently and making swimming motions, I climbed over the side of the boat and jumped.

Used to swimming in the local pool, I threw myself full force into a front crawl, and then very quickly floundered… not used to flippers, my feet were doing nothing but dragging me down, and not used to a snorkel, I couldn’t catch my breath. After some pathetic gasping, and a small amount of panicking I hauled myself back to the boat and crawled back on again to get my breath back, Mum looking worriedly over the edge.

I sat for a few minutes and tried to get my breathing back under control. Our skipper suggested tightening the strap on the mask to get a better seal. I tried, only to have the strap pop out. By this point, the dolphins had moved on, so we followed them, and Mum went in. Finally, the skipper managed to fix the mask for me, and after sitting and breathing through it to get used to the sensation, I went in again.

This time was much more successful. I still found it hard breathing through the snorkel, but prepared for it, I didn’t try and expend any real energy, just moved my legs gently, floating… and there they were, right underneath me… DOLPHINS!

It was such an amazing experience. Sometimes they swam close to the bottom, which thanks to the clear water, we could see quite nicely, and sometimes right by use, usually in small groups. Each time they moved along, we climbed back into the boat and followed, before going back in again. In total, I think we went in about 10 times. The last time, I was able to count about 20 individuals swimming along beneath me.

All to soon it was time to leave the dolphins and head back towards the shore, with a stop to do some snorkeling closer to the shore. With hindsight, I wish we could have done that bit of snorkeling at the beginning, as it would have given an opportunity to get acquainted with the whole snorkeling concept in shallower, calmer waters, without the added excitement of trying to find the dolphins.

We saw lots of small colourful fish in that second snorkeling session. The most exciting, I think, was large angel fish.

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Snorkeling over, we went back to shore, and were directed to a small outdoor restaurant for our lunch – fish, of course, along with rice, chapati and a coconut sauce, followed by fresh oranges and banana. As we ate, we watched the fishermen come into shore with their catch.

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After lunch, we headed back in the direction of Stone Town, first making a stop at the Jozani Forest, renowned for its Colobus monkeys. Along with our guide, we walked through the forest, finding monkeys at every turn, not hard to spot at all! They’re funny looking fellows, with an electric shock hairdo! The monkeys weren’t shy, but the leaves made it hard to get a clear photo. The combination of dark face, light coloured fur and very contrasty light didn’t help matters either.

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Once we had our fill of colobus monkeys, in part guided by the fact that we (or at least I), were struggling in the midday sun, we met up with our car and drove a short distance through the the forest to the mangroves. We followed a boardwalk through the mangrove, and I also walked a little through the mangrove, clambering root to root. Our guide gave us plenty of information about the different types of mangrove and also pointed out some fiddler crabs.

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Finally, back at the hotel, we decided to take a swim and desalinify ourselves and then later took some photos of the sunset. We were hoping for some nice dhows to cross the sunset but unfortunately they never quite got their alignment right! We finished our day off with a long chat with 3 other guests and a late dinner up on the fancy seafood terrace, which only has about 5 tables. The food was great, and the atmosphere was lovely. A perfect last night, sitting out under the stars.

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Zanzibar (1) – Spice Tour

We left Kenya this morning and caught an early morning flight to the islands of Zanzibar. We flew with the delightfully named Precision Air, who sport propellor planes with a gazelle on their tails. I was entertained by the in flight magazine which seemed to feature a single author who wrote quite a few interesting articles about life in Tanzania, and the opening announcement by the pilot which went along the lines of ‘Welcome to this Precision Air flight to Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam. We are operating this flight with a delay today due to personal reasons’. Mum and I had a lot of fun trying to guess what the personal reasons might be, and I think it’s going to become a standard joke between us.

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As soon as we stepped off the airplane we were aware that we were in a totally different climate than the parks where we’ve spent the last couple of weeks. The ground was very wet and it was an extremely humid 27C. There are palm trees all around, and everything looks very green and lush.

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Before entering the terminal building we had to show our yellow fever vaccination certificates, and then we were allowed in to fill out yet another immigration form, more or less identical to the ones we’d had to fill both on arrival and departure in Kenya. A long stand in line to buy the visa, and give yet more fingerprints – again, as on leaving Kenya – all fingers of both hands, and both thumbs, and we were allowed out. My minimal use of Swahili (Ahsante sana = thank you) earned me a big smile and a thumbs up from the immigration officer.

As arranged, our driver and a local agent were waiting for us outside the airport, and they very speedily delivered us to our hotel in the centre of the main city, Stone Town. Along the way we organized some tours for the coming days, including a spice tour for this afternoon. After checking into our hotel, and getting our bags up to our room, a process which ended up taking a couple hours because the room wasn’t ready, we were ready to go out for lunch and our tour.

Our guide took us to a local restaurant where we could sample the Zanzibari cuisine. I was hoping to try ugali with coconut and cashew sauce and vegetables, but unfortunately they’d run out of coconut so I had to settle for a vegetable biriani instead. It was served with plenty of raw onion and chili, along with piri piri sauce on the side. Very tasty, and a nice introduction to Zanzibar.

After lunch we drove about 15 minutes out of town to a spice plantation. It was totally different than I’d expected. I’d been envisaging large fields, but in fact it was a tropical forest, with all sorts of trees and spices mixed up. It was really an eye opener to see how all the spices we find in our supermarkets are grown and to taste how different they are when they are fresh.

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The plantation guide carried around a pocket knife which he used to dig up and clean roots, and cut open fresh fruit. He started out by digging up some fresh ginger root which was remarkably potent compared to our normal supermarket ginger. We also sampled turmeric (turned my hands yellow), fresh pepper (really blows your mind), along with a number of tropical fruits, such as star fruit, passion fruit, and coconut, which one of the workers shimmied up a coconut tree to collect. He detached them and let them drop to the ground with an almighty thud – you would really not want to be underneath!

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Truth be told, we saw so many different spices, I’ve forgotten what they all were now!

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