Sometimes when the rain is pouring down outside and you’re on your last-minute packing frenzy for the next adventure, you pull up video from the last epic dive holiday and hope the Universe is kind and the water is clear and the land and sea critters cooperate and the forces of whatever conspire to allow the spaceship to fling you safely towards the little speck of an island in the middle of some faraway ocean…
Yeah, this is real. I took the footage myself. There are even some clips I should include but didn’t get around to editing (and, yes, at the end…the current was that strong!).
Early on this Sunday morning, the small plane carries its payload from Pemba back to the relative civilisation of the island of Ugunja where two of its passengers are to spend their last full day in Zanzibar exploring the streets, sights and sounds of Stone Town.
It is something of a sensory overload, this urban-ish smell of more densely-packed humans, the noise and bustle of cars, the barking of street vendors and flurry of tourists galore, compared with the tranquility we’ve just left on Pemba: the sweet fragrance of flowers in the air, a magical carpet of stars in the sky, African nocturnal critters rustling in the bush, crickets and bushbabies our nighttime soundtrack. And playing over in my mind is the hilarity of the prior night’s bushbaby “hunt” involving a baited stake-out, hoping to lure the small beasts with a mango while we hid, cameras peeled and giggles stifled, behind a wall. Meanwhile the bushbabies laughed at us from the trees above and made off with the mango after we got tired of the game and went to bed. A fruitless fruited effort, as it were.
Stone Town is essentially the crumbly remains of the capital of the old Zanzibar Sultinate (crumbles observed literally, as we walked past the blue cheese-like bits of a building that had recently succumbed to time and gravity). Stone Town was a big deal in its day: the hub of the spice, ivory and slave trades in East Africa in the 19th Century. Today the old city it is a World Heritage Site, though its largest industry these days is in catering to tourists.
We’re staying at the Stone Town Café and B&B in the thick of the Shangani section of town; blocks to the waterfront and not far from the two landmarks we’re keen on seeing here: the slave market site and the Darajani spice bazaar. I’ve chosen this place in part because of their work with the Creative Education Foundation, a schooling project that gives a Waldorf education to disadvantaged kids in Zanzibar. Disadvantaged kids back home look like sultans compared with the level of poverty found here. And because music is integral to their curriculum, I’ve brought with me things that can’t be gotten on the island: a stash of recorders (the musical kind) and some yarn for their arts projects at the suggestion of Judi, Stone Town Café’s owner.
Stone Town feels 10 degrees hotter than Pemba, although the thermometer reads virtually the same. So we pack water, have a nice meal of these Tanzanian breakfast chapatis of which we’ve become raving fans (they resemble a delectable cross between crêpe and injera), and take to the streets of Stone Town for our day of sightseeing.
Shops and more shops line the narrow maze of cobblestone streets, and we’re harassed every several metres to buy a souvenir or six. We dodge the crap-sellers (an I ❤ Tanzania mug is not on the liste de courses) by ducking down emptier streets, and wend our way towards Darajani market. Asking directions, we’re led by a guy to the market and find we need to lose him by promising to come to his spice shop later (our mistake: he pops up unexpectedly and repeatedly throughout the day, “you promised to come to my shop but you didn’t…” I would ironically meet his long-lost twin in Istanbul the following evening).
Finally, we reach our destination. Outside, tropical fruits from pineapples to mangoes to rambutan are on display. Inside, my stomach turns as we enter the ‘hall of meat’. The fish section is more interesting (and palatable), as every imaginable fish is on offer. Then we find the spice stands and my inner cardamom goddess dances with joy; I’m on the lookout for the merchant with the freshest-seeming stock. I love perusing the aisles, laden with every variety of local banana, taking in the pungent aromas, the piles of chilies, vegetables, fruits…everything here piques my senses.
I haggle with a merchant for kilos of turmeric, cardamom, cumin, star anise and of course the local cloves. My spice stores now overflowing, we’re off to find a market of a different variety.
Exotic as Zanzibar sounds, its roots are in Africa’s darkest trades: slaves and ivory. Its spice trade, while sweetening the air, was also mired in shadow. Slaves worked the plantations that grew the spices to serve Omani and European needs. A vicious circle, which only partially ended when the slave market on Zanzibar was closed in 1873. The slave trade continued underground on Zanzibar for decades, and until 1909 in Pemba when those slave markets were closed as well.
Zanzibar was the Arab world’s largest slave market. Slaves were used to transport ivory to the coast, their handlers fetching double remuneration: for both the goods and their haulers. Those not carrying ivory were marched as bound animals, heavy wooden stocks around their necks, hands tied around the beams to thwart escape, from places like the Congo and Zambia. Many perished, some escaped and some were sold or traded along the way. Many others died as they were packed into the hulls of the trading ships bound for Zanzibar’s shores. Bodies of the recently- and not quite-dead were thrown overboard so the slave traders didn’t have to pay duty on their stale cargo. As if this treatment wasn’t inhumane enough, the humans-turned-chattel were then confined to underground holding rooms on the slave market site for days with no food, water or daylight (save a small window carved into a stone wall for ventilation), awaiting auction day. 75 were kept in a single 30 or 40 square metre cell, where many perished in the process. It was said that the strongest (quality merchandise if you will), after surviving the holding room and the requisite lashings while tied to the market’s central tree, fetched the best prices at auction.
Entry to the underground slave holding rooms
Sculpture at slave market site
An Anglican church now sits on the slave market site. They’ve set up a room inside one of the buildings with a pictorial depiction of Zanzibar’s slave history. Outside, a Swedish artist has carved a sculpture that incorporates some of the market’s original chains and shackles; in seeing these I think that no level of tribute could ever right the wrongs inflicted here. Even the distilled version of the atrocities turn my stomach; I can’t at all fathom what the survivors endured…surely this is the definition of ‘a fate worse than death.’
So with this historical dark stamp on our hearts, we wend back towards the B&B via some quieter roads not taken. We pass the old fort (a plaque is inscribed with ngome kongwe: Oldest Castle), stumble across a wood craftsman’s shop and purchase a couple of miniature Zanzibar chests as mementos, then decide to make a 2nd trip to the spice market (running into and dodging our “you promised” friend again) to haggle anew for a pile of goods to fill C’s spice shelves too. Returning to the same vendor near closing time had its benefits – I think he got the better deal than I.
A monsoon-like thunderstorm heralds our pre-dawn wake-up call, rains so intense that we’re concerned the plane won’t take off. But as we get closer to the airport, the skies clear and we’re shuttled through security for this next leg of the journey that will transport us back to Europe.
As we while away the hours on the flight, my mind replays our adventures in Africa, under and above water. With faraway friends, you must treasure each moment spent with them, as life sometimes gets in the way of life and you don’t know which visit may be your last or when the next will come. 💗
We say our goodbyes at Istanbul airport and my Calvin boards his flight home. And I, with melancholy heart, walk towards passport control to continue my adventures in this old-meets-new city, background music resonating in my head, “Istanbul not Constantinople.”
The tropical air hits my senses as I step off the plane and onto the tarmac. Warm, dense, smoky, organic air that wraps itself around you like a woolen blanket on a 27-degree (C) day. This air feels almost colourful and somehow different than the Central American jungle aromata I’ve experienced. There is a tinge of jasmine and spice and human je ne sais quoi…
I complete the form and hand it to the immigration officer. “How do you like your President Trump?” is the first question I’m asked on African soil as I hand over my US passport. And so, the first interaction here is laced with humour; the local smiles are infectious and inviting. I’m travelling with my co-adventurer, Chris, the Calvin to my inner Hobbes, and we’ve just landed in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
And so begins my first foray onto this new and exotic continent. We board the 12-seater Cessna that will transport us from bustling Ugunja (the main island, to which we’ll return at the end of the trip for a day of sightseeing) to rustic and less-travelled Pemba, for a week of diving in its pristine waters 50km to the north. I’ve been incredibly busy these past weeks, and have had little time to do much more than find lodging. So what I know of where we’re headed is roughly this: Pemba is a volcanic island (unlike Ugunja, which was attached to the mainland at some point in its geological evolution); as such, Pemba is purported to be hillier and more lush than its sister-isles. These are fertile spice islands, known worldwide for their quality cloves. They also grow cardamom, star anise and cinnamon. The dive sites are reportedly pristine. Electricity is via generator. Internet is sporadic. There is no hot water. Local fauna includes the galago or bushbaby. All my senses (tentacles?) are on high alert.
C and I are the only foreigners on the small plane (I, more foreign than he in these parts, since Americans are not travelling abroad much these days, especially to predominantly Muslim destinations) and I am seated next to a petite older woman with perfect skin. She’s wearing traditional Islamic dress, the Abaya and headscarf, and mouths prayers to herself for the duration of the flight. We two are the only women on board and she and I smile and nod at each other in greeting. The men chat in Swahili and take selfies. This flight feels no different than any of the other small puddle-jumpers I’ve taken in far-flung locales over the years, save the outfits; the cobalt and turquoise of the water as we fly over reminds me of what awaits.
Eddie picks us up in his air-conditioned van, and with good humour tells us of his life on Pemba. He is one of 5 children from one of his father’s 4 wives. In the back seat, we do quick math and estimate 28 siblings. We’re not-so subtly reminded that we’re the anomaly in a culture accustomed to child brides and polygamy. Real Housewives of Pemba could be a thing, I think, as Eddie alludes to the modern challenges inherent to these old customs.
I can’t help but feel, as we pass scores of half-built, thatch-roofed mud houses during this ride to our destination, that we’re meant to find gratitude for the plenty we have that enables this adventure in a land of have-not. Houses half-built due to lack of resources, the building of which I could probably fund with my meagre pocket money. It’s a mixed feeling: a respect for those who can do so much with so little and shame (or maybe it’s guilt) for having relatively much and with it buying hedonistic thrill. I find comfort in the fact that my bag contains some gifts for a local school in Zanzibar, which I will deliver at the end of the trip.
We bump and bounce across subtly-paved roads, dodging chickens and scrawny cows, motos, bicycles and pedestrians as we wend our way through Pemba’s remote villages to Swahili Divers and Gecko Nature Lodge on the northwest side of the island. It’s remote, for a given value of remote in this place. The nearest village is called Makangale, about 5km away. The jungled countryside is a lush and vibrant rainbow of greens; the ground, in contrast, is dusty and dry. Rainy season looms in the not-too-distant future. We pass multiple dala dalas, the local mini-buses, piled-high with bodies and cargo; going where, I’m not clear, as larger villages give way to smaller and we enter a stretch of road that takes us through the Ngezi Forest Reserve, a protected swath of jungle at the north tip of the island. As if on cue, a band of Pemba vervet monkeys makes an appearance. We slow for a photo op, and they retreat into the trees after seeming to approve our passage. After over an hour of driving, we arrive at our destination; one of only a handful of guest houses and hotels on the entire island. Remote is an understatement. The air smells of jasmine, and the contented buzz of the honey bees in the trees resonates along with the sound of cicadas and birdsong to create something of a soundtrack to the already long day (and it’s still before noon).
We are greeted by a veritable United Nations… our hosts are Russian, French and Batswana. Staff is local. We later meet other guests from the UK and Ireland, Argentina and Denmark. You never know who you’ll meet in these sorts of places, and among our diving companions are an IT geek, an Argentinian telenovela star, a pediatrician, a kite surfing champ and a Richard Branson wanna-be.
The first day is for getting settled and acclimated to the place, as the term “Africa hot” is articulating its definition. After this, we quickly fall into the diver’s routine: Wake. Eat. Dive. Surface interval and snacks. Dive. Eat. Siesta. Play. Eat. Talk about the day’s dives. Crash; hard.
On our first day of diving, we head south to Njao Gap. This easily becomes one of my top 5 dives ever after the first 5 minutes of the first dive. And so goes the rest of the day. Unlike the diving we did in Thailand last year, these waters live up to their reputation as containing pristine and insanely vibrant reefs. Being hard-to-access has its benefits, namely thriving schools of fish and spectacularly healthy soft and hard corals.
Day 2 is Lighthouse Point. Less impressive because it is a more exposed dive site and therefore more susceptible to damage from storms and current. That’s not to say the dives weren’t amazing, just… already spoiled by Njao.
Day 3 blows both Njao and Lighthouse out of the proverbial (and crystal-clear) waters. At Fundu Gap, we’re carried away, quite literally, by the massive current. I am nonetheless mesmerised by this dive site, with its exquisite coral and teeming schools. The dive is not without its hazards, as I am bitten by a rogue clownfish protecting its den from the paparazzi. I’ve nicknamed him Cujo. And, although I’m ridiculed on the dive boat, I wear my battle scars well. The boat ride home treats us to a rainy season surprise; a downpour of the tropical torrent variety, soaking our already waterlogged bodies to the core.
Grey faced moray
Anemone fish/clownfish (AKA Cujo)
Schools of fish
Manta point, Pemba
Day 4 is back to Njao and then a final farewell at Fundu for Day 5, where the (even stronger) current whisks us across the wall at what felt like warp speed. Imagine sticking your head in a jacuzzi jet, trying to swim and simultaneously navigate its rollercoaster of current. Hearts racing, we surface, and glad to be back on the boat too…that last dive was harrowing at times.
Over the course of the week, we see impressive schools of surgeonfish, glassfish (cardinalfish), and butterfly fish, some little brownish-red ones I need to look up. We see tons of clownfish and anemonefish, plus my favourites from this region – the Moorish idol (think Gill in Finding Nemo), plus moray eels, spotted garden eels, trumpetfish, triggerfish, a very cool mantis shrimp, which I had never seen on a dive before, a dozen types of nudibranchs and the little goodies – fire gobies and a little orange and white cutie that looks like a drum of some sort and I can’t find it in a fish book. Of Nemo fame, we’ve seen the gang: Jacques (banded coral or cleaner shrimp), Peach (starfish), Deb (black and white damselfish), Bubbles (yellow tang), Bloat (puffer), Gurgle (fairy basslet) and of course Dory (blue tang), as Pemba is known to be home to over 400 fish species. My inner mermaid does backflips at each dive site.
Between lunch and dinner, which is eaten late here to accommodate sunset-watching, there are siestas on the deck and mini adventures. One afternoon we took bikes to nearby Ngezi Forest Reserve for a guided walk through the jungle. Our guide was most useful in pointing out the ginormous millipedes that he promised wouldn’t kill us. And the gracious great hornbills that took my breath away on first sight. Then he showed us the bats. Pemba is home to a species of giant bat called the Pemba flying fox that looks more like a cross between a Pomeranian and an accordion, only much larger. Luckily, they live high in the trees and don’t seem to have much interest in humans.
Pemba flying fox
Vervet monkey, Pemba Island
Green tree snake
The locals, however, show a great deal of interest in us, greeting our foreign faces with shouts of “bye bye” – its origin indeterminate. We’ve learnt some local greetings, too: jambo (hello); asante (thank you); karibu (welcome); and we try to incorporate these as we ride through the village. The smiles, stares and waves follow us like we’re celebrities. There are simply No. Tourists. Here… Bliss.
Another afternoon, we kayak south to Njao gap, exploring the unspoiled coastline, hoping that this place remains as undeveloped as most of the other places one reads about in travel mags aren’t. We explore the rocky shores, finding limestone outcroppings teeming with crabs (the click-click of their claws on the volcanic rock sounds like a miniature tap dance recital) and a mangrove-lined lagoon rife with birdsong, paddling back to home base just as the sun begins to set over the Indian Ocean.
Sunset over the Indian Ocean
And so the African sun also sets on our last evening at the lodge. The next morning is an early wake-up call to catch a flight back to Zanzibar for a day in Stone Town, the island’s old capital.