The name had captured my imagination since I was a young child poring over my stamp collection, imagining what these faraway countries must be like – and I liked the way ‘Zanzibar’ rolled off my tongue. It doesn’t need any adjectives to describe it because it is … Zanzibar!
After our week in the Maasai Mara rollicking with apex predators, we thought a short sojourn in Zanzibar would be the perfect way to unwind. The flight was less than 2 hours and we flew via Kilimanjaro making a brief stop there. That gave us such a thrill … as if sitting on the tarmac can somehow be compared to climbing the great mountain!
We landed in a hot and chaotic Zanzibar airport. Everyone made a beeline for the immigration cards (none were distributed on the flight) and elbow space was in short supply. We breezed through immigration as we didn’t need visas, waited for and eventually collected our bags, found our transport to our hotel – Jafferji House and Spa. More importantly, we read on the the in-flight magazine that the biriyani in Stone Town is one of the best. As I was travelling with a biriyani connoisseur, lunch was easily decided.
Jafferji House was recommended by our friends at Oryx. The owner is a renowned photographer, Javed Jafferji and all the suites were adorned with his many magnificent photographs. It is a lovely place located right in one of the narrow paths in Stone Town. The car had to be parked on the main road and we had to wheel our luggage over uneven meandering alleys to get to it. The lady at the reception was less than enthusiastic to receive us and when we asked about photography walking tours she seemed clueless. Not a good start. Having said that, everything else during our stay was great. The rest of the staff were friendly and helpful. The girls there were impressively strong as they hauled our luggage and camera bags up a narrow and steep staircase to our room on the 3rd level!
Courtyards inside Jafferji House
First order of things was to find our way to The Silk Route – where the delectable mutton biriyani was found and consumed with approval and gusto:-) Zanzibar was a melting pot of African, Arab (the Omani empire had its capital in Zanzibar in the 19th century), Indian and European cultures and the cuisine reflects that wonderful eclectic mix.
Getting lost in Stone Town is quite normal. The streets are narrow and there are innumerable side streets that you can’t quite work out which is the main street and which the side street. We meandered through the narrow alleyways and remembered landmarks and signs along the way so as to retrace our steps … I have to say we fared rather well without having to resort to leaving a trail of bread crumbs.
The Zanzibar Archipelago lies in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Tanzania. The main islands are Unguja, Pemba and Mafia and many smaller islands. The capital of Unguja is Zanzibar City, and the most famous section of Zanzibar City is Stone Town. “Stone Town” is a UNESCO world heritage site and gets its name from coral stones which were used as the main construction material. In it’s heyday Zanzibar was a major trading hub for spices, which is why it is also known as the Spice Islands. It was also the launchpad for many an exploration into Africa’s interior, the most famous of which was the quest to find the source of the Nile by Richard Burton and John Speke and later David Livingstone. It has a dark history too of being the centre of slave trade where slaves were auctioned off and sent to destinations all over the world; but equally it was also the centre from which abolitionists like David Livingstone campaigned to bring about the end of slavery.
We meandered back to our room after that hearty satisfying lunch and googled walking tours in Stone Town and one name kept popping up – Yusuf. Yusuf had very high ratings and excellent reviews and so we decided to give him a call. And yay, he was available the next day. With that set, we wandered around ourselves and could see how easy it was to get lost. The alleyways are filled with shops selling all kinds of things – art, clothes, souvenirs and touting was ubiquitous.
Street photography was not easy as most Zanzibaris did not approve of their photos being taken. There were some friendly ones like the chap who lived in Oslo for 18 years and then decided to come home and set up a local art shop. We asked him if it was safe to walk around Stone Town and he assured us it was very safe indeed – just don’t display your camera if you’re walking around in the evening and also it’s easy to get lost. Hmm.
In the evening we booked ourselves a much needed relaxing massage at the Cinnamon Spa and hoped like hell we wouldn’t lose our way walking back in the dark (we didn’t). We ended our day with dinner on the rooftop with a glass of Kilimanjaro beer.
From waking up to the sounds of grunting hippos in the Mara to waking up to the call of the muezzin, from an earthly wake up call to a spiritual one. What a wonderful world we live in. After a hearty breakfast, we waited for Yusuf, our walking guide. We received a history lesson as we walked with Yusuf through the alleyways to the Old Arab Fort, the House of Wonders, Forodhani Gardens, the seafront and through the meandering alleys once again into the hub of activity that’s Jaw’s Corner, past churches, mosques and hindu temples all crowded together and through the famous Darajani Market and on to the old port to see the famous dhows of Zanzibar.
Higgledy-piggledy we wove our way around this labyrinth. We made a stop at the former Slave Market and to the Anglican Church which had an interesting feature of upside down pillars – constructed in error when the chief engineer was away on home leave!
In our walkabout Yusuf pointed out the various types of architecture – Arab, Indian, Chinese, European. Stone Town is famous for its carved wooden doors – mainly Omani Arab which have a rectangular top and the Indian style which is rounded on top.
The doors of Stone Town
Zanzibar’s most famous son is Farrokh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury. He was born in Stone Town, moved to India where his parents were originally from before they settled in England where he eventually found fame and fortune as the frontman of the rock band, Queen. (I know he doesn’t need an introduction but just in case …). He never returned to Zanzibar. Homophobic Zanzibar however happily exploits his name and in our walks we would pass ’The Mercury House’ where he was born – now a tourist stop and a place of pilgrimage for die-hard fans. There’s a Mercury Restaurant and Mercury Bar … the irony seems lost on the locals.
By the time our ‘half-day’ walk was done, it was almost 3pm and we decided for lunch we would try another famous biriyani at the Maru Maru. (I did say I was travelling with a biriyani connoisseur, didn’t I?) Verdict – good but the Silk Route was better. We had the rest of the day to walk around ourselves and just relax in the hotel.
The next morning we couldn’t decide if we should go to the northern part of the island where the spice centre is or to take a boat to Prison Island. What was certain was where we were going to have lunch. No, not biriyani again. This time we thought local cuisine at a local restaurant. In the meantime we wandered around Forodhani Gardens and we contemplating calling Yusuf and voilà, the man was right there by the seafront! He didn’t have any clients so it was agreed that he would accompany us to Prison Island. We also asked him for directions to ‘Lukmaan’, the local restaurant that had great reviews. He gave us directions then paused, looked at us and decided we would get lost and so walked us all the way to ‘Lukmaan’. We kept mental notes of our route so that we could find our way back. As it was a Sunday, the church crowd was spilling out as well. It was quite chaotic in the narrow lanes.
Lukmaan reminded me of local restaurants at home – it was a typical ‘nasi kandar’ restaurant. The place was full – locals and tourists alike were queuing up to place orders. We had a local man share a table with us and as we stood out like sore thumbs, he asked where we were from. When we told him, he exclaimed ‘what a long way you have come’ and wished us an enjoyable stay as we sat eating companionably across from each other. The place was hot and the fans did nothing but distribute hot air about. So it was a quick meal and we were out of there.
Later that afternoon, we made our way to the seafront where Yusuf was waiting. He had arranged a boat and off we sped to Prison Island. The local name of this tiny island is Changuu Island. Originally intended as a prison colony, it was only ever used as a quarantine facility for yellow fever. The waters surrounding the island was simply exquisite – blue and green and turquoise, quite captivating as the colours dazzled in the afternoon sun.
The old buildings were restored 2006 and a secluded and private resort was opened. The Changuu Island Private Paradise is very popular with honeymooners. The only other inhabitants in the island are the giant Aldabra tortoises. A big conservation effort is being under taken for the care of these old and gentle creatures. The oldest was 192 years old!
We spent a couple of hours walking around the island, were delighted when a peacock strut his stuff as if putting up a show for us, walked on the beach for a bit and down the pier like models under Yusuf’s direction – apparently it’s his ‘speciality’ to take photos of his guests as they walk toward the camera:-).
We took the boat back and we were treated to what is a daily occurrence in the evenings – boys diving into the sea. It was quite an entertaining spectacle. The boys were of all ages ranging from 7 years to 20 something year olds. As the sun set, we took photo after photo as they displayed their athletic and acrobatic diving skills.
On this our fourth and last morning, we did our souvenir shopping and a last wander around, feeling quite happy to have been able to visit this exotic part of the world. Stone Town bustles and pulsates with life and colour, its rich cultural heritage apparent despite the urban decay.
“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open”. ~Jawaharlal Nehru~
For more photos of Stone Town, please click on the following link: http://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/2017-Zanzibar/