Published: November 16th 2007September 23rd 2007
From Arusha we caught a bus across to Dar es Salaam on the coast. This was our first good look at the Tanzanian countryside outside of National Parks. Compared to the other Eastern African countries we've been in, Tanzania is much hotter, drier and dustier, with big open plains and rocky hills, dry scrubby brush and boulders. Which makes it all the more impressive when you suddenly notice Mt Kilimanjaro looming over the plains, grey and huge and snow capped. Sometimes you see it at the end of a tree lined, green verged suburban avenue in Moshi. It's quite spectacular.
Our arrival in Dar Es Salaam was to prove particularly frustrating. First the taxi driver ripped us off on the way to our hotel. We agreed a price (already too high) but when we got there we didn't have the right money so he just kept the change, mumbling something about "something for my pocket" as Adam tried to physically prevent him from getting back in his taxi before giving us our change. Then realising he was about to have a scuffle in an alley with a slightly drunk taxi driver over about $1, decided it probably wasn't worth it.
Then, the Curry we had that evening proved to be quite possibly THE most bland we have ever had. EVER. But also the most expensive. We thought the Germans had most successfully killed the curry cuisine with their blunt refusal to eat anything more spicy than a currywurst, but this place had swept the board on tasteless. With a further kick in the slats they tried to overcharge us for an extra dish and three drinks even though we were one of only two occupied tables.
Our only reason for going to Dar was to get to Zanzibar and we were hoping it was going to be worth the effort. The next morning another taxi driver had dropped us off at the port. We braced ourselves for the onslaught of the touts, and the driver parked in front of the ferry office, pointed at it and told us not to speak to anyone, go straight in and buy our tickets direct from the office. All very well but he had parked in front of the wrong ferry office, so we were left on our own, wandering the quay trying to find the right office, backpacked up with big
signs over our head saying "TOURISTS! please rip us off!". We fended most of them off and eventually found the right one, but one of the touts tried to claim us as his own on our way over which caused a major ruckus outside the ticket booth. Surprisingly, it appears that chesty fighting is common even in the developing world.
To get to the island you have to take a ferry across the channel to the island which takes about 4 hours. Any longer than that and we would have joined the hoards of vomiting people crammed inside. There were very few people who hadn't turned a slightly odd shade of green and slumped to the floor on the rather lurchy trip across to the island, but fortunately we weren't one of them coming as we do from seafaring stock. 8 )
We had been warned by other travellers and the guidebooks that as soon as you leave the gates of the ferry terminal you will be accompanied by 'Ticks'. These are local layabouts who can't be bothered to get off their arse and get a proper job, instead choosing to hang around outside the ferry terminal gates
and follow tourists to their hotels where they hope to get a commission. We knew our 7 were dodgy when the hotel on the slightly dog-eared pamphlet they waved at us had actually closed down about a year prior. So ensued a Cat-and-Mouse game of guess the hotel, feinting down one alley only to quickly back-track to see how many of them we thought we had lost were still following us. It turned out to be all of them. As soon as we got rid of one by basically telling him in quite clear English to F#@$ Off, one of the others would quickly attach himself to us waving the same defunct hotel leaflet and blatantly ignoring our attempts to ignore him. We should have just got a bloody taxi.
Until it happens to you, you have no idea how IMMENSELY annoying it is to have somebody following you around, trying to guide you to a hotel that your guidebook is doing a perfectly good job of doing. Who won't listen to anything you tell him, whether you're polite or rude, who won't leave you alone unless you inflict serious physical harm on his person, and unless you get
rid of him will increase the amount of money you pay for the hotel so he can get his commission. Frustrating is not the word. We stated in no uncertain terms that if the annoying #@$# sat outside the hotel trying it on got so much as a cent we were going to another hotel. I hope he got nothing, the look on his face looked like he did when he finally slunk off. It seemed acknowledging his presence was our downfall...
It is really unfortunate that the authorities on Zanzibar don't do something about it as it put a serious damper on our initial impression of Stone Town, but what are you going to charge them with... incessant badgering?
We walked around a few hotels getting some quotes, all of which were a bit above our budget. We knew this beforehand but if the annoying clingers-on were going to get their money we were going to make them work for it, dammit! Ignoring the few hundred offers for a taxi in the few yards between each hotel we were beginning to wonder whether we had made the right choice to come to Stone Town at all... Luckily
Our friendly Stone Town guide
we stumbled upon Manch Lodge, a lodge run solely by Rastas. Awesome.
It seemed the same rastas were on shift 24 hours a day, completely compus mentis during daylight hours, devolving to a sort of insanely happy cheshire cat-like presence in the deck chairs out front from about 9PM onwards. I wonder why. All sound and perfectly happy to inform us as to the Muslim cultural do's and dont's of life in the town. It happened to be Ramadan when we were there so we asked one of the locals what it was like, it would appear some of them aren't as devout as I you would think... One of the local women delighted in telling us how her husband attempted to sneak in covert sandwiches during the daylight hours of fasting while she was at work, only to be caught red handed when she returned home and the daughter grassed-up her old man! Fantastic!
They don't all cheat though, the rastas who ran the place were all up at the crack of dawn making breakfast, and they wouldn't have a bean until sundown when they could finally have something to eat. A more friendly bunch you couldn't
meet if you tried. However, a hotel like that wouldn't be complete without the resident loony, which turned out to be a rather cahoonered Italian woman we met at breakfast who slurred and talked really slowly and later turned out to be a bit of a coke head. Nothing like showing the locals what a great bunch we Europeans still are... Slavery, Land grabbing, drug taking...
Among other things, Zanzibar has long been a spice producing and trading post. During the slave trade periods, so many peoples passed though (Europeans, Arabs, Asians...) and the climate was perfect for most spices. So they ended up growing almost all of them on big plantations. A spice tour is one of the standard tourist activities on the island.
The tour was quite interesting; we're used to tipping the spices out of a Schwartz jar and it was cool to see where they really came from. Against the advice of the guide, Marianne insisted on trying the "quite spicey" fresh green peppercorns (which look like innocent juicy little berries) and spent the rest of the tour coughing, sneezing, sweating and wheezing along at the back of the group. After a brief visit
Baths from the days of the Sultanate
to the 'slave caves' which used to be used by one of the English chaps on the island to continue the newly illegal, but still lucrative slave trade, we ended up on a fairly deserted stretch of beach where the sea was the clearest we've ever seen it. Absolutely amazing... until an overland truckload of Mzungus arrived and took over. Oh well.
One of the bars in Stone town was the place to be for a sundowner so we had a wander over to see what all the fuss was about. The place was Mzungu-tastic with everyone hoarding to the front of the balcony to desperately photograph a not particularly impressive sunset. We ended up chatting to a middle aged American - Aussie couple who happened to be jet-setting their way around East Africa. They were very nice, seemed to be experienced travellers who had a firm understanding particularly of the differences between the west and Africa, the hardships they endure compared to our relatively easy going way of life, and an incredibly PC outlook on their once in a lifetime encounter with another culture. All summed up in the statement that "the Indigy-widgies insist on shaking hands all
time. They're so friendly and you don't want to be rude but it makes you feel so dirty. You have to keep using the hand sanitiser all the time". Wonderful people.
It's easy to detract from how amazing Stone Town is despite all the touts, big hotels, horrible fellow tourists and other niggles. It is like Lamu only more on the beaten track, but we knew to expect this. It played an even bigger part in the slave trade than Lamu, and combined with the booming spice trade, made it a sprawling cosmopolitan town with stacks of history. The same beautiful narrow streets and carved wooden doors, but on Zanzibar these are complimented by several much bigger stately old official buildings. Customs buildings, port buildings, local government buildings; some used by the Brits as diplomatic buildings during the colonial times.
Wandering through the town one day we looked a bit lost and bumped into a friendly chap called Masoud. He asked us if we wanted to see the old baths and the market which we agreed to, so on a seemingly random wander through the mazelike streets of Stonetown we made our way towards that side of town.
We had stopped to photograph one of the many intricately carved doors when the owner of the house came out and asked us if we wanted to have a look around inside..!? Not one to turn down an offer like that we had an ad-lib tour of the blokes gaff. It was a huge old traditional Zanzibari house which seemed to be held together with planks of wood badly nailed together, with half of his (numerous) family running around the place. It turns out that it used to belong to one of the more wealthy slave traders on the island and you could see it would have been magnificent in its heyday, even if most of the dingy downstairs rooms were used to house more slaves than they should have comfortably held (at all). The guy even looked genuinely surprised when we gave him some cash for the privilage of being shown around. We considered offering to buy it, imagining ourselves picking up a bargain and spending our lives on Zanzibar doing up historic buildings. But our travel funds didn't stretch to properties in World Heritage Sites.
Our guide Masoud who had patiently waited outside then took us
Stone Town Fish Market
not the one where they cook them for you
on a tour through the winding streets of Stonetown to the old Sultans bath, the market and a few of the other sites, then guided us back to our hotel... we gave him a few shilling to say thanks and he also looked inordinately grateful - we thought it was a bargain for the tour we had! We bumped into him the next evening while we were having some food. We bought him a few beers and quizzed him about life on Zanzibar, and what it entails being Muslim, then when we were finished he took us to his house to meet his mum! We were flatteringly introduced as his English teachers as we stumbled our way through what little Swahili we knew...
In the evenings on the grassy area in front of the old fort (Forodhani Gardens) there's a great open air fish market / grill. You choose one of the many stalls (usually depending on which tout is most persuasive since they all have the same stuff), choose what you want to eat from the piles of fresh fish on the table (tuna, barracuda, lobster, prawns, snapper, octopus, loads more...) and they grill it for you. Very
good and about as fresh as it comes, but make sure you negotiate you prices before you get it cooked, and make sure the stall holder themselves see you pay their assistant, otherwise they'll claim you didn't pay. We bumped into Dan and Dave, our Aussie raft mates from Jinja in Uganda, who were seasoned negotiators on the seafood stalls so we were ok.
Anyway enough about the town. All these lovely buildings and mosques overlook a strip of beautiful white sand and the most incredible turquoise water we've ever seen. Even in Stone Town, the main port, the sea is stunning. We decided to do a couple of refresher dives off Stone town as a warm up, to see what it was like and help us decide whether or not to do our Advanced Open Water qualification... we were glad we opted to do the warm-up dives first as One Ocean in Stone Town was an awesome dive centre who were very professional and had a class outfit. The two dives we did on some of the minor reefs and a small wreck off Stone Town were fantastic. We couldn't wait to get out to the less built
up beaches and do some more diving!
Kendwa is one of those beaches. It's on the Northern tip of Zanzibar and the beach is beautiful. The long curving stretch of white sand, flanked by palm trees on one side and crystal clear blue water on the other, is a picture postcard view of paradise. Although we admit the constant offers of a massage got a bit wearing after a while...
We decided to go for our Advanced Open Water. After lots of recommendations we went with Scuba Doo, a brilliant dive operation (Spanish Dancer was one we had been told to steer clear of and after talking to the guys at Scuba-Doo we were glad we did. A couple of years ago one of the Dive leaders got a couple lost as he had apparently badly misinterpreted the currents, when they surfaced they were nowhere near where their pick-up boat was expecting them to be and it didn't find them. The dive leader also didn't have a locator bouy. Anyway, as they were now on the surface they were more susceptible to the currents and winds and started to drift... for 28 hours... They were out in the
open ocean drifting towards Kenya before a spotter plane eventually found them. No thanks!).
As Marianne's floaty feet were still playing havoc with her bouyancy we decided to do a few more dives to get back into the swing of things, before doing the 30 m deep dive as part of the Advanced Open Water. One of our first dives with Scuba-Doo was to Mnemba Island. It is a privately owned retreat off the North East coast of Zanzibar, with the entire island available to rent for a the bargain price of $275000 per week. We considered two weeks but thought it a bit excessive... Anyway, we thought it was a bit common because Matt Damon (!) had been there the week before. It's right in the middle of a marine reserve (not that you'd notice with all the fishing boats that were there) which is itself surrounded by a large reef.
The diving was fantastic. We qualified off Belize a couple of years ago (we weren't in the nature reserve) and although there were plenty of fish, Zanzibar beat it hands down. We saw more fish than we ever thought possible to be in one place at
the same time: a White Tipped Reef Shark (a not too common sighting for the area) and a couple of turtles, a couple of Frog Fish (quite possibly the most bizarre looking fish ever, also a not too common sighting), Lionfish, Scorpionfish, Barracuda, Silversides, an enormous Potato Grouper, Moray, Snapper, Trumpetfish, Toby's, Idol's, Tuna, Angelfish, Clownfish, various Nudibranch's (no we've not made it up, they're fantastically coloured Sea Slugs), Shrimp, Triggerfish, Pipefish, Lizardfish......the list goes on. After finishing one dive, we were having lunch on the boat when Willy our Kenyan dive leader pointed out a couple of Dolphins that had just surfaced. We donned our snorkel and flippers and were quickly back in the water clumsily swimming feet away from a pair of incredibly graceful Dolphins. A fab experience, even better cos we could cross off the $50 "swim with Dolphins" trip, Bonus!
Basically if fish float your boat (so to speak) then Zanzibar is seriously the place to dive, and considering how cheap it is to do the courses a seriously good place to come to qualify. Our Advanced Open Water involved 5 more dives, including Deep Dive (30m), Underwater Navigation, Peak Performance Buoyancy, Fish ID and
Photography. Every dive was different. Even just messing around among the jetty poles of the nearby posh hotel we found amazing frogfish and lionfish. Marianne discovered a previously unknown talent for sketching fish on the "fish ID" dive (NOT). Also that her sense of direction was every bit as bad underwater as it is on land. And that floaty feet (leading to less than graceful upside down swimming) are not desirable for Peak Performance Buoyancy. And we got to take photos of fish (which is harder than it looks) - you can admire the results in the pics.
We stayed for just over a week in the end. Kendwa has a Full Moon Party on the beach so we hung around for that. Wished we hadn't bothered because it was a nasty combination of drunk 21 year olds (though yes, mostly female John and Nick) and the worst possible Europop.
After 10 days we were in serious danger of staying indefinitely and despite the lure of spending our entire budget just on diving it was time to move on. We have a music festival to get to, Malawi here we come! AdnMaz Travel Map
There are more photos below