The Indian Ocean Islands – North Coast

3rd March 2013

The northern peninsula of Zanzibar is truly stunning, and for anyone with a passion for beaches it has all the elements of paradise. It is hard to imagine any traveller arriving on a fine day without a gasp of admiration for the startling translucent waters washing over fine coral sands and wide views across the Indian Ocean.

Here, on the northernmost tip of Zanzibar Island, the air feels fresh from its wide sea crossing and so susceptible to the slightest nuance and reflection as the sun rises and sets. The sand shores up against the land in unfeasibly fine, sinkable pale drifts, and the beach makes its changing way around the headland, depending on the tide. When the tide is out the way is opened to walk the long distances exposed and bathe in shallow pools left warming in the sand. Crabs scuttle among the odd flotsam of shells and shapely coral, and colourful women sing and chatter together as they gather around their wide fishing nets, fully clothed and knee-deep in pale turquoise waters to survey their days catch. Tin pots worn on their heads – for convenience- catch and reflect the gleam of the sun, and their songs rise and fall on the wind. These beaches are the life force of the nearby local villages, and children scour the shoreline daily gathering shellfish for suppers while women fish in the shallows.

Zanzibar’s North Coast – History

This region was once the domain of the WaTumbatu, ruled by the Mwana wa Mwana Queen of the northern reaches of Zanzibar. There are a number of historic ruins at Fukuchani and Mveleni, on the road to Nungwi, which are outwardly thought to be a 16th century legacy of the Portuguese, but which are likely to have the much older remains of an older Shirazi settlement beneath. There is little imaginative background to the naming of Ras Nungwi, as Ras means headland and Nungwi is Swahili for north, but the whole headland is made up of a number of coves and beaches around the rambling sprawl of Ras Nungwi village. The land here is essentially coral rock, affording few possibilities for farming, and life on the peninsula can be tough, despite its natural beauty. The people of Nungwi have developed an impressive reputation as a rural population with a head for politics. Unfortunately their general affiliation with the opposition party is said to have resulted in a reluctance for the ruling party to provide them with basic amenities such as water, (a scarce commodity on this island), electricity and roads. But as a result many areas remain largely undeveloped, despite a sudden growth of tourist development in certain areas. The finest, most upmarket accommodation in this area, Ras Nungwi Beach Hotel is situated on a wild and unspoilt stretch of beach to the North East of the peninsula, with acres of low bush extending to the far horizon in an easterly stretch. Between 30 to 40 minutes walk west around the headland leads past Nungwi lighthouse and brings you to the ever-increasing sprawl of budget lodges, a popular ‘backpacker village’ clustered around a good but generally crowded beach. A wide choice of restaurants, bars and dive centres attracts an excitable crowd with a will to party, and the atmosphere here is certainly an attraction, especially after sundown. Continuing westwards, a further 30 minute walk around the headland brings you to the lesser-visited haven of Kendwa Rocks, a speciality backwater for budget travellers seeking a less sociable haven of peace and natural calm, where clear beaches, pristine clean sea and a quiet life form the essence of the Zanzibar island idyll.

Nungwi is not only a naturally attractive beach location, but there are a number of local areas to explore at leisure and it is popular for diving, snorkelling and fishing around the close offshore reefs.

The villages here are primarily fishing villages, and to the northwest of the peninsula is one of the main centres for Zanzibar’s traditional dhow-building industry. On a beach just beyond the village the boat builders still occasionally create the ‘sewn boats’ that so perplexed Marco Polo, weaving wide planks together with rope made from coconut husks. The elegant crafts that they construct are wrought from natural materials close at hand, and especially the hardwood timbers of the trees that grow nearby.

Further east, at the point at which the road diverges to each side of the peninsula, the old Mnarani Turtle Sanctuary is a pretty natural rock pool formed in a coral inlet which has been made into a protected aquarium, watched and tended by local people. This has recently been enclosed within the grounds of the Baraka Beach Bungalow Annex, but the management claim to be amenable to allowing visitors in. The colourful pool within forms a sanctuary for small and shiny-shelled green and hawksbill turtles whose livelihood is severely under threat, because locally sea turtles have traditionally been regarded as a food source, and their shells sold for ornaments. Because the locals here make some money from donations, there is a chance that awareness of the need for their preservation will spread. Zanzibari turtles are now desperately endangered, and further threatened by on-shore developments that confuse their sense of time with lights which look to them like a full moon, so they are lured onto the beach to lay their eggs at completely different times of the month. But there are signs of giant sea turtles on the Nungwi beaches, leaving a trail as wide a caterpillar tractor in the sand as they leave the sea in the early dawn to lay and bury their eggs on the beach, and they are frequently encountered by divers. Tourists can play a part in the attempt to preserve the species around these islands by taking vigilant care not to buy goods made with tortoiseshell.

Zanzibar’s North Coast – Diving Nungwi

For those who would like a chance to see the turtles swim in wider waters, along with the possibility of a glimpse of a dolphin and a mass of reef fish, there are PADI certificate dive centres at Nungwi on either side of the peninsula. The dive centre at Ras Nungwi Beach Hotel is well equipped to train beginners and runs regular PADI courses, which should be booked in advance.

Diving is notably good around coral reefs off the north east of the island and skirting the Mnemba Atoll, and there are plenty of options for beginners and experienced divers alike.

Resident pods of dolphin here are frequently seen on dives or on the way to or from the dive sites, and are fun to swim with if they are in the mood to do so.

There is plenty to excite experienced divers if they dream of wall dives, night dives and drift dives, (again, advise the dive centre in advance), or wish to explore deeper waters where lush coral gardens can extend as far as the eye can see. In the deeper channels barracuda, kingfish, tuna and wahoo hunt together with large Napoleonic wrasse, graceful manta rays and sharks, whereas the in the shallows a huge variety of Indo-Pacific coral gardens are the playground of colourful tropical fish.

Zanzibar’s North Coast – Beach and reef walking.

The tidal extremes of the beaches all around Zanzibar Island make for stunningly scenic walks around the headland at low tide, and those at Nungwi are especially beautiful, being mainly wide expanses of sand dotted with numerous translucent pools. At this time it takes just 30 minutes to walk from the backpacker lodges to the Eastern beaches, or otherwise around to Kendwa rocks, (about 3km southwest of Nungwi village), where there is usually still a beach at high tide and some fine reefs to snorkel. The unspoilt natural delights of Kendwa Rocks can also be reached on the daily boat taxi from Amaan Beach Bungalows and by road.