We made our way into Dar Es Salaam with a short flight and a taxi to a cheap hotel in the centre. Dar is known for its traffic jams which we soon experienced with many entrepreneurial young men using the gridlock to peddle their wares. We saw a hugely diverse range of goods being offered at our car windows. From snacks to knicknacks (snicksnacks), tupperware to hardware and childrens toys to combat knives. After a quick shower we were back in the traffic market and on our way to the much talked about Addis in Dar. A beautiful Ethiopian restaurant on a rooftop rimmed with coloured lamps. The food was delicious and was very similar to the Ethiopian food we were familiar with at home This was our one aim for Dar Es Salaam and so we slept happily in the knowledge that in the morning we would be ferried across to Zanzibar.
Ah Zanzibar, an exotic name we had heard only in stories and knew little about. A small island off the coast of Tanzania which was once its own country. A bustling trading port established by Oman and soon to became its own sultanate. The island became a rich and important trade centre for spices and slaves. Slavers would lead expeditions into the African interior to buy slaves from tribal elders who would then be used to hunt and carry ivory back to Zanzibar. The slaves would then be sold on to the middle east. Even after slavery was abolished it remained a vibrant trading centre and is home to large Hindu and Christian populations as well as multiple sects of Islam.
After being scammed on ferry tickets, fighting off nausea and crowds and watching a bad hollywood movie with no sound we pulled into an exotic looking port with an ancient town rising behind it. A strange and unnecessary customs interaction led us out into the wet heat of Stone Town to be met by a smiling man named Yussuf. Yussuf was born and bred in Stone Town and now managed a simple guest house in the centre. He deftly led us through rambling alleyways of crumbling and beautiful buildings filled with bustling marketplaces and the smell of spices and intrigue. We arrived to drop our bags, keen to explore.
We had no idea what to expect of Stone Town, although we carried a slight trepidation due to stories told to us in Arusha. Of acid being thrown into the faces of tourists and that it was home to “real” Muslims who threw stones at you if you were dressed wrong or if you took a photo of them without asking. However, these predication’s were soon dissolved beginning with Yussuf explaining to us that it was safe to walk anywhere in Stone Town at any time of the day or night.
Our first exploration through the maze of Stone Town was a mission to find Lukmaan’s for lunch. As we snaked our way through the narrow and twisting alleyways we were amazed with the welcoming warmth of the locals. In fact the scary stories began to fade further and further away to become isolated incidents, more myth than everyday life. The people of Zanzibar were incredibly welcoming. Most people we came across, whether man women or child, greeted us with open smiles. The majority of them not even trying to sell us anything, but simply welcoming us to their diverse town. Even at night the streets were alive with children running around playing ball, the many seated curbs of the streets filled with friends and families hanging out discussing the stories of their lives. We were surprised with the comfort the town settled into at night, there are not many places in the world you can walk down a narrow dark alley alone with an expensive camera and feel safe. Zanzibar relies heavily on tourism on top of the spice trade which gives it its nickname of the spice isles and prides itself on being one of the only places where religions and races live happily cramped together in close proximity creating a vibrant community rather than conflict.
Moseying around the sculptured stone streets we enjoyed getting lost and chancing upon sights rather than hiring a guide or using a map. After a few days of these wanderings we began to find our bearings, sort of. With the recognition of familiar landmarks we were able to turn ourselves around to the desired direction, such as the large baobab tree, Zanzibar coffee, a friendly wood carvers shop, cat alley (a spot we anointed thus as it was always filled with alley cats that were fed in the evenings by the locals) and the strange and wonderful ‘Jaws corner’. An open community courtyard were a bunch of the alleys would converge used as a gathering place by the local men. Late in the evening the corner courtyard was packed with men watching a single television together.
Rainy mornings flooded the narrow streets and quickly washed away leaving puddles for most of the day. As we wandered our way to breakfast the streets were filled with children on their way to school, in matching uniforms, smiling brightly at us. Being a tourist destination the streets are filled with souvenir shops and although many of them house the same things, there are more than your average share of interesting shops in Stone Town. The particularly interesting shops are bazaar’s filled with Indian and Arabic oddities and antiques. Nautical devices, deities, stones and brass, masks and maps. We had a great time sifting through their wares knowing that we could not afford to send giant brass lamps or diving helmets back to Australia. The ubiquitous Tinga Tinga style paintings which lined the safari route in mainland Tanzania were everywhere, but also there were a few galleries which showed us the artistry possible in the style.
Wanderings through the bewildering maze led us to a small doorway with a woman who beckoned us to enter the museum. The price was cheap and the door intriguing so we entered a cool stone antechamber which we soon realised was the beginning of an ancient roman bathhouse. The museum was not really museum, but a few small plaques which was really suited to the place which needed to be experienced more than written about. Large open chambers and beautiful light filtered from curved windows and domed ceilings. A barber once sat in the entrance to cut hair and to lend razors which were apparently for shaving ones privates. We climbed around the whole place removed from the sweaty streets and made strange noises into the large chambers creating odd echoing ghosts of ourselves.
Being a centre for the slave trade, there remained a few small remnants of the dark history. We visited the old slave markets which were housed in a grand old building with a small set of stairs heading down into the cellar. The tiny cellar used to contain holding cells for the slaves about to be sold in the decadent hall above. The tiny cramped prison was a disturbing reminder of the way the people of Africa were treated by the rest of the world.
In the evenings the best views of the sunset were down by the beach. With beer and cocktail in hand we would watch the fishing boats and the local kids swimming in the harbor. One of the biggest attractions in Zanzibar is the night market on every night in the Forodhani gardens by the bay. Many of the stalls sold fresh seafood caught that day shoved on sticks and barbecued with the many Mr’s trying to get you to try their wares. Another specialty of the market is ‘Zanzibar pizza’, a pancake like pastry with toppings of ether sweet or savoury and fried on both sides.
Our first day trip discovering one of the many small islands in the Zanzibar archipelago was Changuu, more commonly known as ‘Prison Island.’ Organised with the help of Yussuf we wandered down the wharf to a small boat, the water was warm on our feet as we climbed in and the smiles high on our faces in anticipation of greeting the famous inhabitants of the isle.
White sands greeted us and we took a walk to explore the small island. Our first stop was to see the famous giant tortoises! One of the only places in the world which is home to these huge and ancient beasts, the island houses a sanctuary protecting them from extinction. Beginning with the gift of a small group of tortoises from the neighbouring country of Seychelles in 1919, the tortoises flourished only to be poached to near extinction shortly after. With the help of the world wildlife foundation the government of Zanzibar built a large compound to protect the tortoises and they are once again beginning to flourish. We walked among the tortoises from tiny little babes to huge lumbering giants, greeting its oldest citizen with respect, a tortoise of 191 years. Having witnessed the changing landscape from a small atoll in Seychelles to Zanzibar is no small feat.
Yussuf then gave us a short tour of the namesake of the island through the decaying remains of the prison come quarantine buildings. Many parts of which had been restored and made into accommodation and restaurants.
After we had had our fill of island history we returned to the boat to maneuver to the other side of Prison island to access the reefs.
We used our exotic sojourn to the spice isles to spoil ourselves with amazing and diverse food. This was most likely the result of having a diet that consisted mostly of beans and rice during the residency, but possibly also because we love food. A highlight of our food adventures was a dinner on the rooftop of Emerson Spice. An impeccably beautiful hotel, the Emerson Spice was an old spice traders house which had been completely rebuilt. Large Arabic doors and curved windows opened into the foyer and led us up a central staircase with hanging plants and increasingly beautiful views across the rooftops. Arriving early to a beautiful little rooftop we drank excellent and potent cocktails as the sun set over the old town. The dinner was an amazing degustation and the service was perfect. The host, adorned in immaculate robes talked to us in detail about the menu, the source of the food and the quirks and beauty of Zanzibar as the full moon began to rise. It was a special full moon, the blue moon. A rare extra full moon as the calendar caught up with the lunar cycle.
One thing which Zanzibar is known for is its doors. There are many, many tours of the old town to simply view and hear about the amazing variety of old and unusual doors. Family’s, traders and different races and religions had doors carved to represent their trade and identity to those passing in the street. Adorned with detailed carvings and large brass spikes, they were varied and amazing.
Short and sweet it was time to leave the crumbling, tangled streets of Zanzibar. We were sad to leave this beautiful town, but before we took our leave there was one more thing to visit, Mercury House! Freddy Mercury was born in Stone Town originally named Farouk Bulsara and spent his first few years there before moving to India and then England. It is claimed in many buildings around Stone Town that the Bulsara family lived there so who knows what authenticity the Mercury house holds. It wasn’t a particular interesting attraction, just a door with some photos of Freddy. But hey, gotta love the enthusiasm Stone Town holds for the rock icon.