Zanzibar – exotic travel on a budget!

In January 2011, Simon and Jeanneke from the Design Mine team took up the challenge of travelling to an exotic location on a tight budget.

Overall, the mission was very successful, and even the food poisoning and forty degree nights without air-conditioning were forgotten once we laid their eyes on the sight of these azure seas and palm fringed beaches.

Makadi Beach, south of Dar es Slaam, Tanzania

Thanks to Kulula’s affordable specials, we flew from OR Thambo (JHB) Airport to the capital city of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam. We planned to stay in Tanzania for a month, so we had plenty of time to explore. We landed late at night and caught a taxi to Mikadi Beach, on the coast just south of Dar es Salaam. Mikadi Beach is isolated and there’s not much to do around there, but if you have extra time in Dar es Salaam, it’s a close beach to get away to.

Anxious to explore the city, we headed back to hot Dar es Salaam. We strolled in the streets, popped in at little cafes to watch chefs make chapattis, tasted local cuisine, bought delicious tropical mangos, and drank sodas out of glass bottles.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

A mission building in Bagamoyo, north of Dar es Salaam. In the 19th century Bagamoyo became the centre of the East African slave trade as the final point from where slaves from the interior of the country left the African continent. Bagamoyo (“Bwaga-Moyo”), which means “Lay down your heart”, was appropriately named as this was the last time slaves would ever see their homeland.

After sweltering in the city for a few days, the beach was calling again, so we boarded a ferry to Stone Town, Zanzibar. Stone Town is an evocative location with its mix of Arabic, African and Indian cultures. We arrived at the port greeted by hot chaos and papasi (Swahili for ticks – street touts), while in the distance the picturesque facades of dilapidated buildings synonymous with historic Stone Town stood to welcome us.  After filling in forms and getting our passports stamped, we negotiated our way through swarms of sun burnt tourists and more papasi to find our taxi driver from Jambo Guest House holding a sign reading “Simon David”.

Stone Town is made up of fascinating old multi-storey buildings, woven tightly together, opening up onto narrow alleyways zigzagging through the dense urban fabric. In awe, we set off into this maize. Eventually we reached Creek Road which bounds Stone Town to the east. We zig-zagged through a haphazard crowd of stalls lining this road, selling everything, from soap to car spares and lots of interesting foods. We then ducked back into the maize in search of the Darajani Market just off Creek Road. This market is a real treat for the nose, selling spices from Zanzibar, but also anything and everything else! We browsed through the stalls sniffing vanilla and cinnamon, and feeling the soft textures of colourful kangas (cotton wraps worn by women all over Tanzania). For just a few dollars, we bought bags of Zanzibari coffees and teas, differently flavoured with vanilla, ginger, cardamom and mango.

The streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar

The streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar

Stone Town, Zanzibar, by night

Back in the maize of alluring alleyways lined with tall cracking walls adorned with historic carved doors and brass details we observed island life go by: young Muslim girls dressed in their bui-bui’s (cover-alls) sharing stories, boys kicking a soccer ball around in small open spaces, and Muslim men carving wooden furniture.

Now we found ourselves spilling out onto the Western boundary of Stone Town, Shangani Street on the ocean. From here we walked to the beach and watched a spectacular red African sunset over the Indian Ocean dotted with dhows. Sounds of local Zanzibari music came from an upmarket hotel set in juxtaposition to the beach where poor locals cool off in the turquoise ocean.

As hungry explorers, we made our way to the well-known Forodhani Gardens to try out local cuisine. Every evening Zanzibari chefs set up informal stalls in the gardens between the Old Fort and the ocean. Both locals and tourist are attracted to the food market to meet friends, watch the sunset and to feast on seafood, Dar Pizzas, fresh fruit and much more. We tasted beef and chicken Dar Pizzas, which are beef and chicken fillings with egg, cheese and mayonnaise fried in chapatti wraps  (local bread, similar to Indian naan). After dinner, we strolled to the water’s edge to buy ice cream and our night’s supply of water.

A girl sitting in the narrow streets of Stone Town

A boy on one of Zanzibar’s spice farms

Stone Town’s Catholic Church

After a few hot days exploring the ins and outs of Stone Town’s dense maize of alluring streets, the idea of turquoise waters splashing up on stretches of pristine white sandy beaches backed by lush green vegetation and palm trees, as described by travel guides and as portrayed on photographs from websites of luxury resorts, sounded idyllic! And so we booked our places on a “share transport” minibus to the east coast.

The east coast of Zanzibar is well known for its seaweed plantations. Women harvest seaweed, which is then exported for use in a wide variety of products, at low tide. The tide on the east coast pulls out extremely far, which makes seaweed harvesting possible at low tide, but also only offers the opportunity to swim at high tide. Seaweed is most abundant on Unguja’s east coast from December to February.

Another down side to the east coast, in addition to tide dependant water activities, is that the white beaches are littered with black dry seaweed.

Apart from chilled Kilimanjaro beers at a local bar, and the soothing mellow voice of Bob Marley reassuring us not to worry about a thing, there wasn’t much keeping us on the east coast. The next morning we headed back to Stone Town and made arrangements to go to Kendwa in the north of the island.

A dhow amongst the seaweed in the shallow waters of the east coast of Zanzibar

We decided to be really adventurous and take the transport the locals use, ‘dala-dalas’ (a small truck retrofitted with benches, a roof, and steel cage edges). And so we hopped onto a ‘dala-dala’ and  prepared for about a two hour journey to Kendwa, at the very north of the island. ‘Dala-dalas’ are very similar to South African minibus taxis – they are never full… there is always space for a few more people and their luggage, even when each passenger has another one on their laps, and they have another on theirs! After an adventurous journey, we finally arrived at Kendwa, looked up from the dusty road, and set our eyes on the wide expanse of white sand lapped by the most idyllic turquoise waters we’d ever seen. We realised that we had eventually found Zanzibar’s slice of paradise!

The following few days are imprinted on my mind as a magnificent montage of images of tourists lazing under palm trees, brightly coloured tropical fish, azure waters stretching to the horizon, and dhows sailing past the golden setting sun.

A dhow along the northern coast of Zanzibar near Mnemba Island

Simon relaxing on the beach while a dhow sails by on a sunset cruise off the northern coast of Zanzibar near Kendwa Rocks

Design Mine’s travel tips: costs, fast facts, safety tips and health tips (January 2011)

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