The Beaches and Blues of Zanzibar

With my exploration of the dirty, sometimes smelly and always interesting alleys and corridors of Zanzibar’s Stone Town behind me I set out to the northern tip of the island in search of turquoise colored water suitable to swim and snorkel. Just outside the market area near the Dalla Dalla “bus” stop I found Hijja, a native Zanzibaran who runs a small business with shared offices renting motorcycles (ph. 077-749-0808). The first Honda XLR 250 he offered me had a rear tire not ready, in my opinion, for the roads of Zanzibar, particularly those in the south. He doesn’t own all of the motorcycles he sells, but acts as agent and my chosen bike was had for about $25/day and a direct phone number to Hijja in the event anything happened. He’d be by my side with a replacement in an hour or two. So with simply my small backpack strapped to the back of the seat I headed out to explore the island.

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The truly bearable lightness of exploring (being) idyllic Zanzibar by a small bike – with only my backpack.

It only takes a few hours to ride from one end of the island to the other. My northern destination was Nungwi a small village at the very northern tip of the island. According to guidebooks this section of the island is perhaps most popular for young people looking to swim, snorkel, dive, drink and party. But rolling into the dusty town I wondered where the tourists were hiding. I had passed a couple dirt tracks heading west with hobbled together and crudely handwritten signposts but I stayed on the main road until it ended at a dirt and sandy track. Women with baskets, bananas and buckets balanced precariously but confidently on their heads crisscrossed the track while men on bicycles or pulling handcarts carried white sacks filled with corn, flour and charcoal. Shacks of wood, bamboo and corrugated metal served as storefronts for soft drinks, snacks and vouchers for airtime credit for the two major cellular providers in the country – Celtel and Vodacom.

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Sad to see exhibits of modern plastic society strewn over the roads of Zanzibar.

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There’s other kind of trash that litters the landscape too.

Riding through the dirt track I was greeted with both odd stares and thumbs up. Heading back down the paved road I was horrified by the blue hue emitting from clearings where tall grass had once towered by the roadside. Hundreds, if not thousands of plastic water bottles, grocery bags and soft drink containers squashed were accumulated and seemingly permanently fixed to the clearing. Plastic. It’s something that I’ve come to curse over the 45,000 miles and more than 23 countries I’ve visited on this journey to date. At least with glass bottles that have a return deposit value there is an incentive to keep these. But plastic containers or grocery/retail sacks simply get tossed out of the windows of cars, dropped by pedestrians and strewn by bicyclists. It’s ugly. And it’s a problem.

Refuse or garbage collection is a concept hardly embraced outside most westernized countries or bigger cities. Here on idyllic Zanzibar it’s easy to look the other way or find “cleaner” parts. But somebody or something needs to take responsibility or soon the island will be a trash dump or even worse the beautiful crystal clear waters will be the next place people attempt to hide the trash. Charge deposit for the plastic and require the distributors of goods to take back the trash is one option, but certainly not economically viable at face value. Trash bins? I saw none of the island outside the resorts or bigger (read: more expensive) hotels. And I don’t mean to pick on Zanzibar as this problem is not isolated to Tanzania nor this tiny island. But here it screams louder and it strikes a noisy chord that affects the heart.

I turned down a rough and dusty track with sand and big rocks and the litter of blue plastic along the way. After a couple kilometers came upon a few shacks selling batik sarongs, a few Masai people sitting in traditional garb sporting their ubiquitous sticks and a couple budget hotels. Around the corner the turquoise blue of the Indian Ocean grabbed my eyes like a huge magnet. A nearby bar with chairs and tables in the sand accommodated a number of Mzungus sipping cold Kilimanjaro beers or brightly colored drinks adorned with umbrellas. I was far removed from the head-balancing ladies and charcoal toting bicyclists. But I was in Zanzibar. It wasn’t long until locals were pitching me for snorkel or dive trips or simply sunset cruises in traditional dou sailboats.

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Looking for the beach. Where the heck am I?

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Looking for paradise in Zanzibar. Beachside cafés and cold beers.

The first few places I tried were fully booked but ended up finding a clean room at Safina Bungalows. Not directly on the beach but a scant 50 meters from the water that stunned me upon finding this swath of paradise. Nungwi is a strangely cobbled together collection of hotels, shops, bars and restaurants hugging the western shore of the north tip of the island. Wandering through the maze of properties that are connected by shared doors yet divided by shared fences and walls. There are no roads, per se. Rather tracks that wander through properties. It’s hard to tell when one business starts or another ends. But it’s all rather intoxicating as the beach calls me for a much needed dip after the two hour ride here from Stone Town.

For the next two days I explored the eastern part of the island stopping at one of the tony five-star resorts in Matemwe, The Fairmont, for a cold drink and a sandwich. Bungalows spread out over the expansive property looked out over white sandy beach and turquoise water and where just off the coast sits the Mnemba atoll – the perfect diving and snorkeling destination. But at $409 per night the guests here were in for a quick fly by. And sitting pool-side or on one of the beach lounges one could certainly bask in the idyllic tropical setting yet have no touch with the Tanzanian and Zanzibaran reality outside its guarded gates.

For accommodation I cruised to the south end of the island to Paje where a $29 room (Kitete Guest House ph 224-0266) on the beach complete with mosquito net and a simple restaurant with cold beer was more my speed. Though finding the handful of beachside hotels here was a bit challenging; requiring me to ride through the sandy (deep) streets of Paje. Happy to be riding a light enduro I had fun in the sand – – an experience much different than when I’m riding Doc full loaded — when I loathe the sand. At Paje By Night, a local bar and guest house I shared a beer with new international friends while tiki -style torches provided the tropical mood and serene setting the differentiates the somewhat hectic if not kinetic pace of Nungwi to the north.

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Fishing in Nungwi on northern Zanzibar.

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The coastal route to this hamlet took me through coffee, maize, spice and vegetable farms and pass small villages down dirt tracks. Then just outside of this village I passed through a small, yet dense forest which part serves as a reserve and home for birds and the velvet blue monkeys in residence. As for the beach at Paje, I have to admit that while quieter, wider and longer there are two issues that nagged me while wondering what was wrong. Had I not been to Nungwi, Paje would be paradise. But spoiled by the accessible water, clean beach and classic scene of traditional fisherman at sunset, Paje comes in second place. First, it’s got more seaweed than the eastern beaches. Second, at low tide one must walk for seeming hundreds of meters to get to water more than knee deep. High tide? Not a problem. Though with the massive tide changes I must admit that for shell collecting and beachcombing, Paje was perhaps the best I’ve seen since Bahia in Brazil.

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Collecting shells and evidence of sea-life. A very zen-like activity to do at sunset and sunrise. Where can I store these on my bike? Take a picture instead?

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At more than $400 per night one must question do you get what you pay for?

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I love portraits taken roadside after stopping to communicate with the local people and experiencing the local color. The girl simply looking for coconuts while below my man is heavy into charcoal production and distribution.

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So the next day I decided to return to the north and eastern side of the island. This time instead of crossing the same tracks twice I decided to take the route through the center of the island and perhaps the last main road that has yet to be paved — though they’re working on it. Here passing hundreds of young girls dressed in the traditional muslim headscarves and boys tending cattle or goat, I slowly cruised for two hours over rocks, dirt, sand and through detours where new bridges were under construction. At one of these a boy sat under a tree looking up. I stopped and high in the tree another boy was trying to shake loose fruit – what looked like large avocados.

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Looking for another road.

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One of the last stretches of unpaved main roads on Zanzibar. I had to take before the asphalt takes over.

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I stopped roadside later where a group was making and packing charcoal. Fascinated by this phenomenon and no duly concerned that the unending supply donning the backs of bicycles, I know that this isn’t good for the environment. Here roadside my charcoal entrepreneurs spoke no english. But yet we seemed to communicate quite fine with smiles, sign language and the few words of Swahili I could muster up. When two school boys stopped to see this strange Mzungu in the middle of our “conversation” i heard what sounded like a gunshot from across the road. Just then one of the school boys darted at breakneck speed into the forest, only to emerge a few moments later with a massive coconut. The sound was the coconut hitting the jungle floor. And finding this massive jewel means money, food and more to the young 12 year old boy who reached the drop point first.

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Kendwa beach. Perfect.

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Fresh fish for sail on the beach. Look at the red one!

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My basic, but clean and comfy room at White Sands in Kendwa. Next time I’ll stay at the Fairmont.

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Paje and the Kitete Bungalows. Nice long, wide and peaceful beach.

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Traditional Masai Warriors in a non-traditional role selling African art on the beach in Nungwi.

For my last night on the island I decided to return close to Nungwi and settled on the White Sands Hotel on the beach in Kendwa just 5km south of Nungwi. Another $30, fresh fish dining in the sand as the community of fisherman working in unison prepared their boats and nets for the nightly ritual. Before hitting bed I watched the frenetic moves of drunken dancers at a beachside club just down from my hotel. Happy to watch rather than participate I soon planted my body under my mosquito net and prepared for the journey back to Zanzibar Town to catch my flight back to Dar.

1 reply
  1. scatalano
    scatalano says:

    Allan – Africa looks amazing and it seems like you made it out of South America just in time given the news today from Chavez about Columbia! Stay safe – and keep posting…I’m anxiously traveling along with you from my desk.

    Reply

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