African oasis

African oasis

Relaxed Holiday

secluded A beach at Prison Island. photo Sanjay austa

As soon as I land on Zanzibar Island, I am assailed by a battery of taxi drivers. “Jambo,” shouts one in their midst and I quickly signal him out. Jambo is ‘hello’ in Swahili, but I assumed he is from hotel Jambo — the hotel I had called for reservations. But before I can get into his taxi, another taxi driver tries to wean me away saying, “Don’t go with him. I will take you to a better place.” It took some jostling before I am allowed to get into the car and drive off. In India, taxi drivers are competitive, but thankfully, not so cut-throat, I thought.

There are more pleasant ways of arriving in Zanzibar Island — a semi autonomous part of Tanzania. The best one, and favoured by most tourists, is flying in direct and not sail in like me from across the African mainland. If you fly into Zanzibar you will be rewarded with fantastic aerial views of turquoise and blue waters and views of the emerald eden-like islands of the Zanzibar archipelago. Zanzibar is indeed quite an African oasis. Who would imagine white sand beaches on the African continent? But every year, this beautiful island attracts thousands of tourists from around the world — chiefly from the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Most tourists visiting the mainland for its wildlife, round off their trip by cooling their heels in the cool, calm waters of Zanzibar.

Almost all beaches in Zanzibar are beautiful but there are more secluded beaches to the north of the island. However, if you want a cultural experience, you must stay in the historical Stone Town, which is right on the harbour. Stone Town is a quaint little town, which lives up to its name. Everything seems to be built with stones here. The houses are built with it and the narrow lanes that run through it are paved beautifully with it.

The town with its maze of lanes and alleyways has a Chandni Chowk feel to it sans the clutter, open drains and the cluster of electricity wires overhead. It is great to walk in these lanes hemmed in by tidy buildings on both sides. The doors of Zanzibar are famous for their elaborate and symbolic carvings. They have both Indian and Arabic influences.

Zanzibar was directly on the trading route to the African mainland from both the Indian sub-continent and the Arabian peninsula. No wonder you can see the influence of both the cultures in Zanzibar. There are not many old buildings here. Old Fort is a ruin of a huge fort built around the 18th century by the Omani Arabs. Beit El- Ajaib or House of Wonders is a significant building on the island.  It’s a high ceiling three-storey building near the port, built as a ceremonial house for the sultan in the 20th century. This building has the biggest and the most ornate doors in Zanzibar. It has a museum with a rich exhibit of tools of various trades, dresses, dhows and other memorabilia, depicting the history of settlers on the island.

Beit El- Ajaib looks over the Forodhani Gardens, which has a great spread of sea-food, cooked fresh by vendors. It’s a great hangout place for locals and tourists alike. If you get up early, you will find long queues filling water from a community tap. The island is plagued by water shortage. But electricity is the main problem. There has been no power on the island for over a fortnight. The underground cable coming in from the mainland is snapped underseas and it would be many weeks before it is restored again. All the hotels on the island run on generators. There are no streetlights and it can get very spooky getting to your hotel when it is pitch dark. The locals light candles or sit outside their houses on benches in the dark drinking soup or chatting.

The Zanzibar archipelago has beautiful islands among which the islands of Pempa and Prison are the most famous. I visit Prison Island, which is a convenient one hour boat’s journey from Zanzibar. It was used to house convicts but later used as a quarantine for traders coming with illnesses from Asia and Arabia. Today, Prison Island’s main attraction, besides the soft white sandy beaches, is the population of giant turtles. They are painfully slow and lazy and prefer to eat out of your hands than search for food on their own.

If you visit Zanzibar, you cannot miss the spice tours. Spices have been growing in Zanzibar ever since traders from Asia introduced it here. The tour is done on a dhala – dhala or minibus that leaves in the morning for a day-long excursion into the orchards, deeper into the island. It’s a 30 USD tour (including a lunch in a village ) and the guide takes you to the spice orchard where you are shown various spices on the island from the common ones like ginger, clove, turmeric, etc., to the exotic nutmeg, which is a mild intoxicant and consumed mostly by women. The tour also includes a bit of  history as you are taken to the sultan’s royal bath.

Most of the beaches promise dolphin watching. It’s mostly dolphin chasing as hapless dolphins are spotted and chased on boats for tourists by tour operators. But, thankfully for most people, Zanzibar is an idyllic beach destination where one can just sit back and relax.

Travel tips

* How to get there: There are no direct flights to Zanzibar from India. To get there one has to get to Tanzania or Kenya first. Kenya Airways has regular flights from Mumbai via Nairobi to Dar es Salaam. From Dar es Salaam, you could either take a two-hour ferry to Zanzibar or take a flight.

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