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Zanzibar: Uncovering the legendary island

There are worse ways to get somewhere. I’m on the top deck of large ferry, face smeared in sun-cream and hat pulled tight over my forehead, watching the ships and cranes and chaos of Dar es Salaam slowly recede. It’s hot up here, but there’s just enough headwind to temper the heat. Beer in hand, I spend a contented two hours watching the Indian Ocean and contemplating my destination.

Zanzibar. There are few place names more evocative or more immediately mysterious. Like Timbuktu, or Xanadu, the name Zanzibar conjures up images at once beautiful and barbarous, of slaves and sultans, of luxury and lust; the glorious fusion of African mystery and Arabian opulence.

The island was always a key prize for colonial powers – first Portugal, then Oman, and finally Britain all claimed it at one point or another. Strategically located on the trade routes between East Africa and Asia, Zanzibar’s natural harbour, relatively temperate climate and fertile land made it a natural stop. The Sultan of Oman liked it so much he moved his entire court to the island, in the process anointing himself the Sultan of Zanzibar. It was also a vital station on the slave route: Arab slavers, after long and often arduous expeditions into the centre of Africa, returned to Zanzibar with their precious human cargo where they would sell it to the highest bidder.

Things have changed a bit since then, of course. Zanzibar is now a somewhat reluctant part of the state of Tanzania, although the island does retain a degree of autonomy; and it is no longer a trade stop, the advent of air travel and the rise of port cities like Mombasa and Dar es Salaam (just ‘Dar’ if you’re in the know) having rendered it redundant for this purpose.

It is, however, still breathtakingly beautiful. As the ferry approaches the capital, Stone Town, the ocean water changes colour abruptly, to the luminous aquamarine created by the happy coincidence of bright sun, white sand and shallow water. I can already see glimpses of the architecture for which Stone Town is justifiably famous.

We have to go through the rigmarole of immigration and customs – little more than a formality to assert Zanzibar’s nominal independence, although officials do check for yellow fever vaccination forms; it is advisable to have the vaccination and bring the proof.

Outside is a madhouse. Dozens of touts and taxi drivers vie for your attention, and it can be quite bewildering if you’re unsure what you’re looking for. We’d arranged transport and accommodation beforehand; this is generally recommended.

Our driver – a short, non-communicative fellow – takes us through Stone Town and onto the straight, single-lane highway that runs along Zanzibar’s eastern coast, through thickets of lush palm trees and fields sown with the crops of vanilla and cardamom that give Zanzibar the moniker Spice Island.

The credit crunch means I’m staying in budget accommodation, and for S$20 a night I’m fully expecting to share a sweaty room with 11 drunken Australians at an inconvenient distance from the beach. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Kendwa Rocks is breathtaking, a collection of disparate bungalows atop a hill that sweeps down to the longest beach I have ever come across; from the hotel steps to the sea itself is a good 150 metres of pure white sand.

Near the sea is a scattering of deck chairs and thatch awnings, with a typical backpacker-style wooden restaurant and bar serving superb seafood curries, shisha pipes and very cold drinks all day long. It’s not strictly a budget hotel; while there are dorm rooms, they are clean and comfortable, sleeping a maximum of four, and there are plenty of other options, including a private beachside bungalow with air-con for only $80. Hammocks are strung between palm trees, and I spend most of the afternoon napping in one with my book over my face. Occasionally, I inelegantly struggle out of my hammock for a brief swim in the warm sea. It’s from here that I watch the sun set into the Indian Ocean. Sunsets in Africa are not gentle events; they are almost violent in their intensity, the colours fighting to stay alive rather than fading into dusk. They are completely unlike sunsets in Asia, where pollution prevents the light from asserting itself.

It would be a mistake, however, to spend too much time here; lovely as Kendwa is, Zanzibar is more than tanning by the beach. I return to Stone Town, a town that has more in common with the mazy casbahs of Algiers or Tunis than it does with the rest of Tanzania. The streets cut narrow paths through imposing buildings three storeys high, all with Islamic-style domed windows and ornate, magnificent doors; the buildings are scruffy and ramshackle, but echo a previous century where Stone Town was opulent and important. At first glance, it’s an intimidating city, but everyone is unfailingly friendly and I soon lose any sense of unease.

It’s worth taking a few hours to wonder through Stone Town’s streets – as well as the sights and sounds, there are plenty of shops selling cheap trinkets and souvenirs, as well as some more serious shops selling excellent art. Particularly recommended are sketches of some of Stone Town’s famous doors.

As evening descends, I head to the main square near the port. Relatively quiet during the day, at twilight the square becomes the town’s main hub: fishermen grill what’s left of their catch and sell it to you for a pittance; women gossip on the park benches; and teenagers throw themselves off the pier into the sea, the complexity of their mid-air acrobatics increasing in direct proportion to the number of spectators.
It’s a wonderful scene, made all the more so by the knowledge that none of this is for the benefit of the casual tourist. One gets the distinct sense in Zanzibar that while tourists are appreciated for their income, and treated very well, Zanzibaris would be doing much the same if we weren’t there.

At the end of my all too brief holiday, I treat myself to a dinner at the famous Livingstone Hotel. The restaurant is on the beach, so I slip off my sandals and rest my feet on the sand, this informality a wonderful contrast to the immaculately laid table. Run by an Italian, the restaurant serves the best food I have had in Tanzania, and compares favourably with top restaurants anywhere – and nothing costs more than $15.

After dinner, sitting with a shisha pipe and listening to a local guitarist strum his own compositions, I reflect on my trip. Zanzibar’s blend of history, architecture, food and beach make it unique, and the island’s laidback charm and air of optimism is irresistible. I understand why the Sultan of Oman moved his capital. It’s an affordable, exciting and extremely exotic destination, and in a year when the world turns its focus to Africa for the World Cup, it would be a tragedy if some of the spotlight didn’t fall on Zanzibar.

Getting There

Kenya Airways flies from Singapore to Zanzibar via Nairobi. Going to South Africa for the World Cup? Budget airline 1time flies directly to Zanzibar from Johannesburg.
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