Island Of Bounty
Words & pics Aaron Gekoski
You’re off to find a home base in Zanzibar, how wonderful! What’s it like?” comes the inevitable question when friends hear I’m going to set up camp on the legendary Tanzanian island. Confusion normally follows: the truth is I’ve never been. Having spent the last few years hopping around Southern Africa, my partner and I were a couple of broken journalists in need of a home. We’d lived in Cape Town (too big), Bulawayo (no ocean), Tofo (too isolated) and various other pockets in Southern Africa. Finding that perfect base was becoming an issue. The main criteria in our search included decent transport links back to the UK, world-class beaches, and – of course – diving. Out came the map, we ruled out entire nations on the basis of corrupt governments, a lack of fish to photograph or crappy transport links. Unguja, the largest island in the Zanzibar Archipelago – a tropical-island-paradise – seemed to tick the boxes. How could we not fall in love with it? With typical impulsiveness we book our flights and begin daydreaming of life in a Bounty advert.
Our first experience of the island comes in the manic form of Stone Town, the old quarters of the capital, Zanzibar Town. The best thing to do here is to forget the guidebook and get lost amongst the higgledy-piggledy alleyways of crumbling coral stone houses. A slave trading hub in the 19th Century, Stone Town is a fascinating blend of Arab, Indian, African, and European influences. Our noses lead us to a market where vendors sell plump mangos, handmade soap and mountains of spices. Shops erupt with bright scarves and fabrics, whilst the mosques, stylish hotels, bazaars and palaces reflect the city’s diverse heritage. Eyes were made for places like Stone Town.
As the light faded, we head to Forodhani Gardens, the city’s seafront night market, where food vendors are setting up their stalls. In front of them, children hurl themselves into the ocean, forming passable flips as they connect with the water. Around the square locals and tourists gather to chat and sip a tasty concoction of sugar cane juice mixed with ginger and lime. We try a famous Zanzibar Nutella and banana “pizza” - in reality more of a stuffed pancake. Either way, it tastes pretty good. We shun the pricey marlin, red snapper, lobster, kingfish, prawn and tuna kebabs for Archipelagos restaurant. An excellent, if fortuitous choice - it ends up becoming our favourite eatery in all of Zanzibar. I salivate over perfect fillets of red snapper (for me, the tastiest fish around), whilst Gem falls unnervingly quiet as she tucks into a Swahili prawn curry.
From the bowl to the beach
Over the next couple of days we visit nearby Changuu Island, which was employed as a prison for slaves in the 1860’s. We’re accompanied by a couple of boats full of tourists who don neon vests, hot pants and bikinis. They clearly haven’t done their research: despite its commercialisation over recent years, Zanzibar is 99% Muslim and remains a fairly conservative country. Apart from scantily clad morons, the only other inhabitants of Changuu nowadays are the Aldabra giant tortoises, originally a gift from the British governor of the Seychelles. Craning out ancient necks to reveal grizzled faces, it would appear they rather enjoy being tickled on the chin. Despite a tendency to veer away from ‘tourist’ activities, we also sign up for a Spice Tour, which involves visiting a local farm to see how spices such as cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg are cultivated. It’s well choreographed stuff, but interesting nonetheless.
Having ticked off a few of the city’s “must-do” activities (OK, so our Lonely Planet didn’t stay down for long), it was time to escape the stifling heat and get down to some diving with One Ocean, Zanzibar’s largest and oldest dive operator. We load our gear on to their traditional dhow and move across the gloriously flat, clear water to Pange, a small sandbank just 1.5km from shore.
I rolled into the Indian Ocean and was embraced by 27-degree water. Acropora, brain, honeycomb and stag coral erupt out of Murogo Reef’s sandy bottom; perfect marine sculptures. In amongst these works of art we spot various nudibranches, pufferfish and boxfish in all shapes, colours and sizes, along with a giant school of yellow and black sweetlips. Pange North, our second site, is renowned for its giant coral outcrops and bommies, which I promptly gloss over in favour of the tiny inhabitants. Whilst I’m loathe to anthropomorphise fish, this dive kick started a love affair with pipefish, who seduced me with their doughy eyes, cute snake-like slither and patient temperaments: attributes that make the underwater photographer in me weak at the knees. My fawning didn’t stop there – it turns out that Zanzibar is teaming with the little fellas.
A school of whiskery, striped eel catfish, packed together in a ball, finally pulled me away from the pipefish, as did a mantis shrimp protecting its lair with typical ferocity. The mantis’ bright colouring is a perfect fit for an island like Zanzibar and if there’s a more photogenic creature in the whole animal kingdom, I’m yet to snap one. So far so good.
The next day we dive Murogo again, this time finding a rather ornate leaf fish, who looked a little fed up. Then again, with their down-turned lips that look as though they’ve been injected with collagen, when don’t leaf fish look miserable? It attempted to escape my lens, fell on its side, then made an attempt to swim to some nearby coral. We then moved on to Pange South (gigantic porcupinefish, lots of parrotfish, more nice coral and bommies).
Although Mnemba grabs the diving headlines (more about this later), we left Stone Town pleasantly surprised by the quality of diving there: the coral and macro life’s a solid eight out of ten. We hired a car from a chirpy wheeler-dealer known as Pweza - which means octopus in Swahili - before heading to the northern beaches of Nungwi.
Before hitting the water, we spent a couple of days at Mnarani Turtle Conservation pond, a community-based NGO who rescue and rehabilitate sick and injured turtles. At this natural pond, visitors get to scrub algae off the hatchlings and feed juveniles seaweed whilst learning about turtle behaviour and the environmental threats they face. Each February the local community comes together to release the turtles back into the ocean.
One morning our guide, Suleiman, took us to Nungwi’s fish market. The sun edged up over spindly palm trees and threw a golden veil over the returning dhows. As the fishermen pulled in, they offloaded gigantic devil rays and sailfish, dogfish and yellow fin tuna, plus a few species I don’t even recognise. Although these reefs have been chronically over fished, it would appear that life thrives in the deep blue.
Further down the beach you’ll find a strip of hotels and bars inhabited by an eclectic mix of Speedo-clad Frenchmen, cremated elderly Italians, and backpackers who come for their sex, drugs and rock and roll fix. The beach with its powder-soft sand and turquoise water is gorgeous, if a little clichéd.
Divine divings’ Elzemiek, a leggy Dutch blonde who knows a thing or two about marine biology, fronts a Spanish-run operation. They took me to dive Mbwangawa with its sweeping wall of petal coral. The setting is great, but there’s a disappointing lack of life and little to see other than an octopus, who slinked out of his hole and posed for a picture.
If the first dive was a touch bland, the second made up for it. Shane’s Reef is so packed full of macro life I could have spent days down there if it hadn’t been for my darned computer beeping at me. We saw a huge black frog fish, purple leaf fish, flying gurnard, crocodilefish, flounder, thornback cowfish and scorpionfish: an array of very chilled out, highly photogenic fish that allowed me to sit my lens right on the end of their patient little snouts.
But the most exciting resident is an ornate ghosted pipefish: my first ever (and – I’m sorry to say - superior to the standard pipefish in every way). Upon seeing it, my emotions were split 50:50 between sheer astonishment that such crazy looking animals exist and perplexity: what sort of life does it have, just hanging there upside down for weeks/months/years on end? Doesn’t it get vertigo?
The big one
We continued our journey around the island. Next destination – and the one we’d been really excited about – Mnemba Island. Located 2kms off the tip of northeast Unguja, the island features a single luxury lodge, operated by andBeyond, which is definitely out of our price range. Most visitors to Mnemba either stay in Nungwi or Matemwe, a long stretch of beach lined with – on the whole – large, rather sterile hotels that cater for package holidaymakers. Our first night is spent at Bluebay; an Italian-run operation that can accommodate over 200 visitors and boasts yummy buffets featuring an imposing array of animals. That night I, sample nine species.
The next morning I stumbled to One Ocean Matemwe clutching my stomach. No need for weights today. I’m joined by owner and founder Gary, an ex cave diver from Australia who’s been based on Zanzibar for 17 years. When he arrived on this coast there were few hotels. “Those were the days,” he says, wistfully.
We chew the breeze on the 45-minute boat ride, along with 12 other guests. We got to Mnemba and wrestled for space amongst a handful of operators and numerous fishing boats. Although $3 from every dive goes to fisheries to protect Mnemba, it is rarely patrolled and - inexplicably for a world-famous dive destination - fishing takes place right on top of the most popular reefs.
Despite the crowds, once we hit the water we only encounter a handful of divers. The conditions are exquisite – 40m visibility and 26 degree water. The skipper dropped Gary, myself and manager Sylvia off on top of Moray City, a coral outcrop home to masses and masses of reef fish and morays (the hint’s in the name). I make furious “OK” signals to my buddies: it’s more than OK though – it was a superb start.
Sylvia led a dive on Kichwani and turned out to be a willing and patient model. We witnessed schools of butterflyfish involved in a feeding frenzy, along with gigantic numbers of yellow snapper. I finally understood how Mnemba got its reputation.
Our day got even better on the second site, Aquarium (after all, what famous dive destination doesn’t have a site named “Aquarium”). A gentle current eased us to 28m, as a juvenile turtle flapped by, barely a speck of plankton between the two of us. It took a seat on some coral and posed for a photo. Whilst it’s not uncommon to see turtles here, Gary later informs me that just a few years back he’d regularly see 10-15 on a dive.
I was too wrapped up in the scene to notice a pod of dolphins speeding by above us. After I finished with the turtle, I did something rare for me: I tucked my camera under my arm, shook out my muscles and simply rode the current, taking in a superb diving spectacle.
The next day Gem and I move to Matemwe Beach Villas, a boutique lodge with easily the finest sand we’ve ever stepped on: it’s almost like dust. It’s more our scene and we salivated over the food, particularly the breakfast of pastries and homemade jams, poached eggs on a caramelised onion and cheese scones, with bacon, green pepper coulis and balsamic glaze. It was the perfect stomach lining for another trip to Mnemba.
We visited another section of Aquarium where three leaf fish and a red scorpion fish made me regret choosing a wide-angle lens. On the dive a French lady managed to simultaneously flood One Ocean’s camera and run out of air. Thankfully she was within grabbing distance of the instructor. Back on the boat, manager Sebastian – the unfortunate owner of the camera – looked less than impressed. For our second dive we spent over an hour exploring the shallow, remarkable coral life of Small Wall.
Onwards and southwards
The failure to notice dolphins the previous day would have upset me greatly if our next destination had not been Kizimkazi. This small fishing village in southeast Zanzibar is one of the best dolphin spotting destinations in all of Africa. American/Zimbabwean, Stratton Hatfield, who works for voluntourism company African Impact, takes me out. Stratton reminds me a little of Into the Wild’s Alexander Supertramp. He’s done more in his 23-years than most do in a lifetime. We headed out in the afternoon, when the wind normally picks up and there are fewer tourists to contend with. Sadly it’s not unusual to see four to five boatloads of tourists dropped on one pod of dolphins. We spotted a half-dozen-strong pod and were dropped off in the water ahead of them. The dolphins approached and began cartwheeling around us, before diving to the seabed and swimming upside down, scratching their backs on the sand.
As the light gradually morphed from white to orange, we began to make our way back to the mainland. En route we spotted another pod of up to 20 dolphins. The guys at African Impact allowed me to slip into the water alone to take uninterrupted shots. For ten glorious, unforgettable minutes I was accepted into the dolphins’ family.
The trip to Kizimkazi leads us to nearby Paje. This chilled out kite surfing community has a long, quiet beach lined with small independent lodges and restaurants. Whilst the diving doesn’t rival Nungwi or Mnemba, the coral life – particularly at sites Powoni and Barracuda Point – is magnificent and there are no other dive boats in sights. A lack of tourists, great reefs, dolphins and just 45 minutes from Stone Town: who knows, we may have found ourselves a home.
BEST TIME TO DIVE:
October-March, before the long rainy season, which will affect visibility. Humpack whales arrive around July and generally stay until November.
WHO TO KNOW:
Baboo can organise car hire, tours, safaris and trips to local islands. In fact, there’s very little he can’t do www.zanzibarbabootours.com.
Fly from Johannesburg to Stone Town with Mango www.flymango.com.
WE STAYED WITH:
Matemwe: Matemwe Beach Villas: www.matemwebeach.net
Bluebay Beach Resort: www.bluebayzanzibar.com
Nungwi: Mnarani Marine Turtle Conservation Pond: www.mnarani.org
Paje/Jambiani: Garden Bungalows www.gardenbungalows-zanzibar.com
Source: The Divesite