By John van de Ruit
My fascination with the East African island of Zanzibar began at boarding school. I have a vivid image of a poster that once graced the wooden partition of my working cubicle. It painted the picture of a white, sandy beach almost slithering into a bejewelled, turquoise sea. In the foreground of the picture languished a stark naked beauty stretched out on a towel in a terribly inviting pose.
Unfortunately, this idyllic poster was frustratingly marred by the large inscription of ‘ZANZIBAR’ emblazoned across the image. Sure, it was pleasing to be informed of the location of this sumptuous, secret beach but the careless manner in which the second ‘Z’ covered the model’s privates was a galling and continuous letdown for any self-respecting, horny teenager.
The second reason, of course, is that Zanzibar was where Freddie Mercury was born.
I have developed a nasty habit of late airport departures. No matter how much time I allow for various last-minute sundries, sure as weekend rain I find myself weaving through traffic in a great state of agitation, simultaneously hawking the clock and lambasting slow-moving, dim-witted, myopic hog swine in the fast lane.
Minutes before our planned departure, I predictably remember a plethora of vitally pressing household chores that I neglected to complete thanks to a combination of international cricket and chronic laziness.
Backwashing the pool, on the face of things, shouldn’t take the average pool-owning human more than 200 seconds. I somehow manage to triple that. Finding a bloated kamikaze frog stuck in the pump delayed matters, as did a burst rubbish bag en route to the outside bins.
Further unnecessary security checks, an odd-sock crisis, a meandering chat to our neighbour about the state of the nation, and a last-minute panic over passports complete the picture.
The horribly bottom line: Jules and I were running horribly late for our next intrepid adventure. ‘Horribly late’ became ‘just in time’, and we took off into ominous thundery skies.
Landing in Dar es Salaam at night obscures its size. It is a big, bustling port city with a sense of thriving African vitality about it. Our taxi driver extolled the virtues of the place and claimed that our hotel, The Serena, has been frequented by notables such as former United States presidents Bush and Clinton.
No surprise, then, that we were halted some distance from the hotel by armed guards who inspected the underside of the car with a mirror and then checked for the old tell-tale bomb in the boot. Finding nothing but a scrabbly old backpack and Jules’s considerably more elegant suitcase, they waved us through to the hotel reception where a metal detector waited.
Having travelled in rather loose-fitting pants, I was sadly forced to part ways with my belt at the entrance and shuffled into the elegant lobby of The Serena, holding myself suspiciously with the left hand while shaking hands with the right.
The morning was a sauna. Queuing up at the ferry port with what felt like every Tanzanian and his dog, was a bustling and aromatic experience. A great melee of passengers, touts, ferry staff, security personnel, hawkers, well-wishers, baggage handlers, tearful relatives, men with enormous amounts of luggage, women carrying children, children carrying even smaller children, and even smaller children carrying nothing whatsoever.
The packed ferry sliced through water impossibly azure, heading northeast into the Indian Ocean. Ninety minutes into the journey, the great island of Zanzibar rose into view. It was far larger than in my imaginings and the rooster perched on Jules’s favourite suitcase seemed to agree as he gazed out longingly toward the shore.
The overhead television screen crackled into life with a loud warning – or perhaps it was a salute or high praise in a language I didn’t understand. But wait, the first word seemed to strike a chord. Hey, I know that word…
“Bismillah!” (In the name of Allah)
Stone Town is a labyrinth of alleyways bisecting immense buildings of fading Arabic opulence. It’s a heady mix of bohemian beauty, decaying charm and a thriving, happy Tanzanian energy. The ubiquitous “hakuna matata” is on the lips of every local you meet. This delighted Jules, who has an unnatural passion for The Lion King for a woman of her age.
While I mumbled on about Disney’s exploitation of Africa while grimly slurping on the straw of my Coke, my life partner skipped along the path, belting out: “When I was a young warthog!” at a surprisingly misguided volume.
We sauntered through the garden where Freddie Mercury stumbled out his first steps. A hawker selling postcards even showed us the house where young Freddie was allegedly born. Suspicions over the truth of this were raised when the man seemed to point out the Department of Sanitation, and demanded five dollars for the privilege of his brief company.
I obviously did the only sane thing one could do in such awkward circumstances: I flatly refused to succumb to his five-dollar extortion attempt but, sensing bad blood in the air, splurged 10 dollars on his postcards – all of which involved a stick man rowing a dugout.
Thankfully, the altercation ended in joyful “hakuna matatas” and a series of complicated handshakes.
We strolled on, drinking in the buildings of Stone Town with their shuttered windows. It reminded me of another World Heritage Site town that we have had the privilege to explore – Luang Prabang in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Clearly, the World Heritage Site judges have a soft spot for shuttered windows.
The Zanzibar Serena Inn on the sea fringe of Stone Town is a beautiful place to stay, stunningly decorated in what can only be described as Afro-Boho-Colo-Chic. It’s luxurious without feeling opulent, and with its outlook over a tranquil bay, the inn is a thoroughly nurturing and relaxing place to escape the world.
Highly advisable is a good old languish beside the swimming pool, which borders the sea wall. I can also recommend timing your afternoon swim with the arrival of the tea and crepes cart. It doesn’t get much more zony than reclining in your lounger, devouring a raspberry and chocolate crepe, sipping on a mug of camomile tea, and observing the great sun as it plunges into the sea.
It was an early Saturday evening and a hotly contested local beach football match broke out within view of our balcony. By the time the light faded, I had the score down as four goals each. In truth, the team wearing no shirts – and often no shorts either – should have built a commanding lead. It was obvious they were sorely let down by their rotund striker, who consistently fell over when attempting to shoot. Furthermore, their left back’s controversial tactic of repeatedly hoofing the ball far out to sea and swimming madly after it seemed, from the comfort of my balcony, a waste of time and good possession.
The Serena also owns a beautiful stretch of beach some 20 kilometres across the island, which we explored the following morning. It was idyllic, although I can sadly report there was no naked supermodel with a ‘Z’ through her privates.
The hinterland of Zanzibar is typically tropical and intensely humid away from the cooling sea breezes. This is where the vast percentage of the locals live, trade and carry out their lives independent of tourists.
We passed through fields of herbs and spices which, a few centuries ago, made Zanzibar one of the world’s great ports. Cardamom, clove, nutmeg, tropical fruits and vegetables changed hands in a flurry of scooters, cars, pedestrians and the odd panicked chicken. Even a dramatic cloudburst did little to worry the locals as they hustled and bustled around spazas and humble stores.
Having spent much of the day baking in the sun and wallowing in the ridiculously warm ocean, we returned to Stone Town and set about finding a bar to ward off our considerable thirst. Not far from the Big Banyan Tree (which is by no means small), we chanced upon just the place. It was a laidback, beachside bar and grill, edging the port. We halted when we read the sign above the entrance: ‘The Mercury Bar’. Not only an excellent watering hole, but a place to pay homage to a voice that sound-tracked much of my youth.
Queen wasn’t playing – Tracy Chapman was. Her voice seemed to speak to the scene before us. Young children frolicked in the sand while a dredger laboured to deepen the channel. A number of immaculately dressed Tanzanian ladies drenched themselves alighting from a precarious fishing boat. Elsewhere an old man relieved himself against the sea wall with equally fading blue and red graffiti. A crow and a seagull tussled over something as the smiling waiter brought us cocktails loaded with fruit juice so sweet it puckered our cheeks.
Around us, other travellers gathered and sat, ordered their drinks and surveyed the scene. Locals mingled at the bar, drinking Kilimanjaro Beer as Chapman’s voice faded on the system and disappeared altogether.
Jules and I gazed out at the tableau and attempted to take stock of a whirlwind visit to a country that felt at once foreign and familiar. We longed to explore more of Tanzania, the wild savannah in the west and Kilimanjaro up north. But memories were made in Stone Town, where East Africa’s real and romantic collide in a tantalising fusion for the senses to untangle.
And then, splicing through the middle of our conversation, Queen’s unmistakeable harmony danced out over us: “Is this the real life or is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. / Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see.”
IF YOU GO
fastjet utilises its Airbus A319 aircraft to fly between Johannesburg and Dar es Salaam three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with fares starting from R1,600, inclusive of all government fees and taxes. Call +27 (0)11 289 8090, email [email protected] or visit www.fastjet.com to find out more or book a ticket.
Flights depart from Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport at 14h15, and land at Dar es Salaam’s Julius Nyerere International Airport at 18h50. The return flight from Dar es Salaam to Johannesburg departs at 10h30, landing at 13h20. Dar es Salaam is one hour ahead of Johannesburg.
From Dar es Salaam, travel to Zanzibar by pre-booking a direct flight on local airline, ZanAir or a ferry service from the Port.
fastjet also flies domestically within Tanzania from Zanzibar to Kilimanjaro, and Dar es Salaam to Kilimanjaro, Mbeya and Mwanza.
South African passport carriers are exempt from applying for a visa for business or leisure stays of up to 90 days or less, and a valid Yellow Card (International Certificate of the yellow fever vaccination as approved by the World Health Organisation) or a statement of medical exemption is required.
Source: The Intrepid Explorer