The sun begins to dissolve into the horizon, perfecting a sweep of unknown orange against pure pale blue, and Stone Town stirs with the wakefulness of night. Muezzins in their different mosque towers call the faithful to prayers again, dogs bark and children shout as they play football in open corners or dive into the harbour waters and demonstrate feats of bravery with their friends. A crowd starts to gather along the harbour front and in Forodhani Gardens, where smoke is beginning to rise from barbecues at the assorted food stalls and the curio markets are assembling by gaslight amid a hubbub of banter and chat.
History of Zanzibar’s Stone Town
Zanzibar Stone Town is an extraordinary place. UNESCO has recently declared the old town one of the world’s historic cities, and at last more attention is being paid to its desperately needed conservation.
The old quarter roughly forms a triangle in the middle of the West Coast of Zanzibar Island, bordered by the sea on two sides and the Creek Road to the east. Continuing east beyond the Creek Road, Stone Town rambles into Ng’ambo – ‘the other side’ – a wide expanse of modern blocks and tin roof housing that contains the growing population of modern-day Zanzibar.
The old city, however, remains a living monument to the culture and histories of its curious mix of East African, Arab, Indian, Persian and European conquerors, traders and seafarers, and continues to thrive as a commercial centre.
The ancient maze of narrow streets is a romantic hotchpotch of historic old stone buildings built close for a cool respite from the tropical island sun and shaded by elegantly carved balconies, loggias and verandas that cling precipitously overhead – close enough to catch a whisper or a kiss. These historic stone constructions are homes and hotels, restaurants, guesthouses, offices and shops, whose stone and wood structures are still the backdrop for tropical Arabian-style nights, cloaked women heavily scented with spice and illicit romances eluding the boundaries of a strict social code.
Houses of the most wealthy and influential are built from coral stone, in the Arabic style, usually contained within a walled central courtyard accessed through one grand door. The door, being all that could be seen from outside, was considered the outward expression of the wealth and standing of the household within, and often was built first.
Many remain to this day, with elaborate carvings of patterns of lotus flowers, fish and vines or dates, and sometimes inscribed with passages from the Koran to tell of the household within. In accordance with the customs from Persia and Iran many of the doors are also studded with impressively polished iron studs, sharply pointed to ward off ill-intentioned marauding elephants…despite the striking lack of these on the shores of Zanzibar.
The best way to explore the old town is on foot.
A walk around Stone Town may take a couple of hours as an evening stroll, an afternoon or all day, depending on how lost you wish to get. (It is also possible to take guided walks with a tour operator or local guide. Organised walks with a tour operator usually take between 2 and 4 hours and cost $15-20 per person; see list for reliable operators). The history of the town is evident wherever you look, for it is a town in which every old building tells a story of the past.
A Guide to Stone Town
The Forodhani Gardens are a focal point of the town near the harbour and a good place for a central bearing. Perhaps take a soda here, consider the fact that these gardens were once a railway yard, and look back towards the panoramic vista of strange and beautiful architecture that stands in its variation behind. This area of town becomes a focal point of town when the sun sets, and crowds gather to walk, talk and eat together. The harbour front is lined with rows of food stalls, illuminated by flickering gas lamps, selling a bewildering array of barbecued seafood, kebabs, burgers, and fresh juice drinks.
The Forodhani Gardens go by many names. When they were officially laid out in 1936 they were named the Jubilee Gardens to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of Sultan Khalifa bin Haroub, Sultan between 1911-1960. But after the Revolution in 1964 they were renamed Jamituri, The People’s Gardens in English.
The bandstand in the middle of the garden was used by the sultan’s army band to entertain the people, and the white arch was built for the arrival of the British Princess Margaret in 1956. Unfortunately, she arrived at the dhow harbour instead, and the arch was never used in its official capacity.
Directly behind the gardens, across the Mizingani road is The Arab Fort, (also called The Old Fort, Ngome Kongwe in Swahili, or Gereza, meaning Prison). It is one of the oldest buildings in Stone Town and with a strange and changing history. The present two-storey, high-crenellated-walled structure was built by Busaidi Omani Arabs between 1698 and 1701 after they defeated and ousted the Portuguese.
It became the basis for their defence against the vanquished European occupants and also the Mazrui, a rival Omani group, who occupied Mombassa at the time. Somewhat poignantly they chose the site of an old Portuguese church as the site for the stronghold, and parts of this original building, dating from between 1598 and 1612, can still be distinguished in the inside wall.
During the 19th Century, the fort became a prison, and regular exemplary punishment or even execution was meted out to prisoners outside the east wall.
In the early 1900s, its purpose softened, and it was used as a railway workshop for the Bububu Railway steam train. The track ran seven miles between town and Bububu, and never extended the further 24 miles to Mkokotoni as originally planned. It passed so close to the houses that pedestrians were forced to duck into doorways at its approach, and became a principal means of transport for people, livestock and produce between the rural areas and the market.
At the end of the First World War, the railway was extended to transport sand and stone from a quarry at Chukwani for the construction of a new port by land reclamation at the present site. But when the work was completed the days of the railway were numbered, and finally, it closed in August 1929. The railway yard in front of the port was landscaped and so transformed into the public park that remains today.
The Fort also had a new lease of life; the British restored it in 1949 and converted the main courtyard into a Ladies’ Tennis Club. There was no further work on the Fort until 1994, at which time the excellent outdoor theatre was constructed in conjunction with the development of the Zanzibar Cultural Centre.
The Fort is now open on regular weeknights for dancing and drumming shows and is an ideal arena for staging the Festival of the Dhow Countries in July, during which films are shown in the amphitheatre and bands perform to an excitable open-air audience in the adjacent enclosure. A tourist information desk inside the entrance provides details of performances and other events at the Fort and around town throughout the year.
Beside the Fort, the pale and elegant elevation surrounded with wide but skinny-pillared verandas is called Beit al-Ajaib, The House of Wonders, for when it was constructed it was the tallest building in East Africa, and decorated with the first electric lights on Zanzibar and the first lift. British sailors called it ‘the Sultan’s Christmas Tree’. This unusual construction was designed by a British Marine Engineer and built for Sultan Barghash as his ceremonial palace in 1883, on his return from exile in Bombay – the architecture has a distinctive Indian influence.
Now the lower floor and gateway of The House of Wonders is a marketplace for arts and crafts, particularly batiks and basketwork. The entrance has an excellent example of elaborately carved Zanzibari doors, which were originally covered with gilded texts from the Koran, and outside are two impressive 16th-century Portuguese cannons. Although the palace suffered great damage during the 1896 bombing, it has been well restored. The exterior entrance is similar to its original state, just thankfully lacking the menagerie of caged lions and other animals which, in the days of Barghash, were arrayed outside its gates.
The rapidly growing families of the sultan’s harem soon outgrew their town and country residences, and in 1956 Sultan Majid deemed it necessary to add another palace alongside the original Sultan’s Palace, called Beit al-Hukm. The latter addition to the palace complex did not survive long, having taken the brunt of the bombardment by the British in 1896 following Sayyid Khalid’s attempt to usurp the throne upon the death of the previous sultan, Sayyid Hamed (1853-96). The efforts of the British reduced the new palace to rubble, and it was subsequently made into a garden. The building that has since been built in its place houses the Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority.
Royal Attractions in Stone Town
The former palace Beit-al-Sahel was built by Sultan Said between 1827 and 1834. The old Beit al-Sahel, Palace at the Coast, was the Sultan’s townhouse, and by all accounts a pretty two-storey whitewashed building with red and green tiles. After the bombardment of 1896 that destroyed Beit al-Hukm, the palace was rebuilt. It subsequently became The Sultan’s Palace and the residence of the sultans and their families following Sultan Khalifa’s occupancy in 1911 and until the Revolution in 1964. After this time it was called The People’s Palace and became the seat of the Zanzibar Revolutionary Council.
The palace was once also home to General Sir Lloyd Matthews, the Welsh commander of the British-influenced Sultan’s Army, who remained here until his death from malaria in 1901. It now houses the amusing and interesting Palace Museum dedicated to the opulent reign of the Busaidi dynasty of sultans. Visitors wander through the state and private rooms on 3 floors of the old residence, where exhibits include ageing parchments showing International trade treaties and royal portraits as well as a room dedicated to the fascinating runaway Princess Salme and an intriguing range of furniture.
One room is divided in two to show the remarkably different aesthetic tastes of the Sultan’s wives, and the bedrooms display a dubious line in Formica wood-effect wardrobes, apparently favoured by the last Sultan, Jamshid bin Haroub, who was overthrown from the palace during the Revolution. Open Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am – 6 pm, Entrance $3.
It is sometimes possible to visit the adjoining Royal Cemetery, which contains a half-finished tomb of Sultan Seyyid Said and his sons Khaled, Barghash and Khalifa. The mausoleum was started by Majid but left unfinished when he found himself open to complaints from puritans of the Ibadhi sect.
Historical Buildings in Stone Town
Continuing northeast along Mizingani the wide flat-faced buildings that look slightly as if they have had too much sun are soon to be given a facelift when the old Hotel Le Grand is restored to a wonderful thing again by the Halcyon Hotel Group, the force behind Blues Restaurant. Next door, is the Old Customs House, with finely carved doors and fresco-green coloured walls.
Further along, the Mizingani Road towards the port stands the elegantly restored Ithna’sheri Dispensary, first commissioned by Sir Tharia Thopan as a charitable dispensary for the poor. It faced directly onto the seashore until the 1920s when the New Harbour was built on reclaimed land in front of it. The foundation stone was laid in 1885, although the honourable Thopan was not alive to see it, and his wife continued the work.
Fredrick Portage, the consulting engineer who oversaw the final completion of the building in 1894, commended the craftsmen for their fine workmanship, and indeed the ornate balconies, (inside and out), elaborate stucco work and stained glass windows withstood a harsh test of time during the following years. The building continued as a charitable dispensary after the death of Sir Tharia Thopan, and also housed a resident doctor and pharmacy, but the occupants were forced to flee the island during the 1964 Revolution.
The building then fell into the hands of the new government, which had neither the money nor the incentive to maintain it. Twenty-five years of neglect later, the Old Dispensary was rented from the government by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture which implemented a conscientious program of conservation-restoration that remained staunchly true to the original authentic materials and design.
Somehow the three-storey structure manages to combine an outer appearance of elegance and ornate detail with an internal sensation of solidity, created from rich, thick wooden floors and balustrades, and huge, cool walls surrounding a light, airy courtyard. The building today houses a number of offices, and a French Restaurant, Chez Marina, Tel: 0747 410244, occupies a prime position on its uppermost balcony, with fantastic views of the sunset over the harbour. A small craft market and a good bookshop operate on the ground floor.
A good ten-minute walk along the Malawi Road, past Cinema Afrique, brings you to Livingstone House, the base used by missionary and explorer David Livingstone in 1866 to recoup and prepare his supplies for his final arduous journey into the interior. The house now contains the offices of the Zanzibar Tourist Corporation, although they are not evidently willing to offer advice or show you around, it is occasionally possible to find someone at the desk and catch a brief glimpse of the cavernous stone interior. If this extra walk for possibly little reward does not appeal, turn right off the Malawi Road and head back into the labyrinthine heart of Stone Town….
Just behind the Tree the Malindi Ijumaa Mosque, a common name for all large and central mosques, meaning simply Friday Mosque, on account of the importance of the Friday gathering here. This one is an impressively modern construction. A mosque was originally built on this site by Muharmi Arabs and later enlarged by the Mwinyi Mkuu in 1839. It was then fully renovated in 1994 in the modern Arabesque style. There are thought to be around 48 mosques within the boundaries of Stone Town, a space not much greater than 200 acres, but many are very unostentatious and barely distinguishable from nearby buildings.
A short distance down this road is another main right-hand turn, which leads to The Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ. The cathedral is an appropriate mixture of Gothic and Arabic styles and was built on the site of the last open slave markets in the world, under the supervision of Bishop Steer (1874-84), who was also the first man to translate the bible into Swahili.
The mission was instigated by his requests made to Oxford University and a speech by Dr David Livingstone at Cambridge University describing his personal experience of the horrors of the slave trade. There followed the formation of the Universities Mission in Central Africa, (UMCA) which united the efforts of Britain’s four most important universities at that time. The first service took place on Christmas Day 1877, four years after the slave market was finally closed by a reluctant Sultan Barghash and a year before the Cathedral was finished.
The slave chambers still exist below, and a guide from the church can take you down into the grim dark chambers and regale you with tales of the injustices suffered, although the dimensions of these cells speak for themselves. Most of the guides work for the church and also provide a colourful account of its interior. A red circle on the floor before the altar marks the spot on which stood a post where slaves were tied and whipped and all around are reminders of those who dedicated their lives to ending the abominable trade.
A central crucifix is made from the tree beneath which Dr Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia, and a stained glass window is dedicated to his memory. The stained glass window behind the font remembers those men who died at sea in the Indian Ocean while fighting the slave trade, and plaques on the walls remember missionaries and servicemen who died in action.
The altar is decorated with mosaics donated by Miss Caroline Thackeray, who reigned as head teacher at the St Mary’s School for freed girl slaves and their children for over 25 years. The impressive ruins of this old school and its chapel can still be seen in the extensive grounds of Mbweni Ruins Hotel, surrounded by a fine botanical garden.
Continuing west along Mkunazini Road towards the heart of Stone Town, and at its end turn right onto Katificheni Street and take the first right again onto Hamamni Street, to find the Hamamni Persian Baths on the right-hand side. These large and elaborate Persian-style steam baths were generously donated to the public by the royal bathing enthusiast Sultan Barghash, and built by Hadj Gulamhussein in the 1880s.
They have not been in use since the 1920s, but have been excellently restored to allow visitors today to gain a fair impression of how they must have been when they held water and functioned. Numerous rooms surround a central fountain courtyard, with areas for steam baths, plunge pools, shaving and ablutions. They have now been declared a protected monument to retain them in their present state. To look around, look for the caretaker, Hakim Wambi, in the building opposite. He will give you a guided tour and extract an entrance fee.
From the Hamamni (‘Place of the Baths’), it is just a short distance to St Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral, on Cathedral Street, (which can be reached, among other routes, by turning left, left and right, right!) The Cathedral was completed in 1906, built by French Missionaries and designed in the Romanesque style by the same architect who designed the basilica of Marseilles. Many of the first Christian converts were freed, slaves. A very mixed Catholic community use the Cathedral regularly for mass, and occasionally it is open for an opportunity to have a look at the badly restored murals inside.
Tucked between Shangani Street and the delightfully named Suicide Alley, are the impressively large and astoundingly dusty remains of the Africa House Hotel, formerly the English Club from 1888 until Independence, and one point of the old town where sundowners on the seaside veranda have become something of an institution. It is, without doubt, the best spot to watch the sunset over the sea, but while in bygone days this was a rather elegant choice, nowadays visitors perch on an inglorious veranda and are conscientiously ignored by a motley crew of high or disinterested waiters.
It is fun to climb the vast wooden stairs and peer around the now deserted dining room, filled only with shafts of dust-filled sunlight and an excellent collection of black and white photographs hanging lopsided along the walls. These are worth the climb if you are passing, and perhaps you can galvanise someone into getting you a drink. The lower rooms and surrounding alleyways are frequented by the less exemplary members of Zanzibari youth and are not recommended for night-time wanderings. The Africa House still just about operates as a budget hostel, but you will not find it listed below, as sadly the accommodation standards are so low that we do not feel it worthy of inclusion, however historic the location.
Stone Town – Tippu-Tip’s House
The house where the infamous Arab merchant known as ‘Tippu Tip’ enjoyed his old age in wealth and comfort can also be seen in Shangani, behind the dilapidating Africa House Hotel. It has now been converted into flats and is a private residence, but the carved doorway leading into a courtyard beyond provides a sense of the old slaver’s past grandeur.
The most notorious of all slave traders, Hamed bin Mohammed el Murjebi, was born in 1840 to a Muscat Arab merchant, although he also had African blood and it is said that his grandmother was a slave. This fearsome and powerful merchant warlord was widely known as Tippu Tip, sometimes also spelt Tippoo Tib. His nickname is said to have come from the sound of his muskets firing, although it is also said to refer to his physical nervous habit of blinking his eyes very rapidly. (Apparently, a local bird with distinctive blinking eyes is also known locally as Tippu Tib.)
Tippu Tip, Chief Mirambo and Mutesa were the three most powerful potentates of the interior during the 19th century, ruling vast tracts of land by force and fear. Tippu Tip took control of the previously uncharted forest west of Lake Tanganyika and developed his bush ‘empire’ of over 10,000 sq miles with the firepower of his muskets. He is said to have transformed the currency of the interior from barter to currency – initially the exchange of cowry beads and then Maria Theresa dollars.
Although nominally subject to the Sultan, to whom he would bow whenever he returned to the island on which his fortune was accumulating, Tippu Tip was an independent ruler of the land that few others could navigate or control. The Sultan was happy to know that trade from the interior was routed through Zanzibar, and even those who deplored the nature of the slave trader’s wealth were forced to turn to him for assistance.
David Livingstone, the British missionary and famous explorer of the African Interior found that his survival depended on the assistance of the slave merchants whose trade he found abominable and shaped his life to stop. Journalist Henry Morton Stanley then enlisted the help of Tippu Tip when he sought to follow Livingstone, and then to carry out subsequent near-fatal expeditions in cahoots with King Leopold of Brussels to rescue and resupply Emin Pasha in 1867, somehow cutting a swathe with one of the most dangerous marauders of all.
The explorers and missionaries then provided the old warrior with a means to a pension in his latter years, exchanging a free reign to exploit the natural resources of the interior in return for his promise to abstain from capturing slaves in the Free State established by the British.
Emerging from the back of Tippu Tip’s house brings you back to Shangani Street and into the vicinity of The Serena Hotel, which has been redesigned and redeveloped on the site of the old Extelcoms Building and the next door ‘Chinese doctor’s house. The hotel still houses some of the ancient old telephone equipment in the reception area.
Further along Shangani Street Back towards the Forodhani Gardens, on the corner after the Tembo Hotel, you can still see the original building of The First British Consulate, (now covered with advertising boards and housing an inglorious internet centre). To your right, over and around the bridge/ tunnel, is the moving sad site of the Zanzibar Orphanage.
Continuing Southeast along Kenyatta Road and then Kaunda Road, parallel to the waterfront brings you to the Peace Memorial Museum, opposite the park called ‘Mnazi Moja’, (‘One Coconut Tree’ – although there are lots), on Creek Road. The main museum building is designed in an impressive, symmetrical classical/Arabic style, and was built in 1925 by the British architect John Sinclair. He had quite a monopoly on major building design in this part of town, as the long road out to the museum also passes his other work along the way.
One is The British Residency, just past the Portuguese Arch at Vuga Roundabout, and then on up Kaunda Road past the High Court of Justice, also designed by Sinclair. The museum houses an eclectic collection of memorabilia from all eras of Zanzibari history – an interesting although the dusty and dishevelled array of items from the slave traders and the sultans and the Mwinyi Mkuu, and from the early European explorers and missionaries, including Livingstone’s old medicine chest.
There is also a translation of the first century AD text, the ‘Periplus of the Erythraen Sea’ and a number of ancient black and white photographs showing Zanzibar during the colonial period – mainly the damage done by the British to the palace complex in 1896. Opposite the Peace Memorial Museum is the Zanzibari Natural History Museum, home to an impressively dusty collection of stuffed birds and animals and bones – apparently including those of a dodo.
What to Do on Zanzibar Island
(prices are per person, based on two people travelling, they decrease for a group and become slightly ridiculous for single person, who may consider joining with others.)
City Tour, (c. $15-20) is usually a half-day walking tour with a bilingual guide, which can be arranged to include a guided tour of the Anglican Cathedral and slave chambers.
If you still have time on your hands in Stone Town, it is also possible to arrange excellent Swahili cooking lessons at the Arab Fort.
A trip to the Spice farms (c.$10-$30, depending on the size of the group) usually takes about half a day. Following your nose and tasting a variety of brightly coloured fruit is a fun way to spend a morning. It proves an invigorating educational experience as you translate a multitude of different pods, blossoms, and barks into the aromatic coloured powders that may be more familiar in the kitchen at home, and taste hundreds of new and familiar fruits (around 57 varieties are grown in all!).
Additional fun may be had with the ‘Lipstick pod’, used both as the colouring for Tandoori meals and for women wanting a touch of vibrant colour on their lips. The walk can also be combined with a slap-up spicy lunch cooked and prepared on the farm, and can also include a visit to the Persian baths at Kidichi or a stop at Mangwapani beach en route.
All of the tour operators listed below will organise trips to spice farms, and usually, each favours a different farm. Many include other activities along the way, and it is becoming more popular to include a lunch stop. The well-renowned individual tour leader Mr Mitu is highly recommended for group trips, organising a full-day tour including lunch and a trip to the beach for a very reasonable price. His offices are signposted just behind Malawi Road, near Cinema Afrique.
For those missing the safari action, or just seeking a bit of natural seclusion, Jozani Forest is an unusual little nature reserve halfway between Stone Town and the southeast coast. (c. $15 from town, $15 entrance, or about $35 if combined with a full-day trip to the East Coast)
Jozani Forest reserve has various nature trails to explore through different natural habitats that include a mangrove boardwalk, a botanical nature trail and the monkey-sighting site. Each of these potentially provides opportunities to catch a glimpse of a number of interesting rare species, such as the rare and handsome Red Colobus Monkey (Piliocolobus Kirkii) endemic to Zanzibar. These fiery-coloured primates sport a dashing white mane and seem unfazed by passing tourists following the ‘monkey trail’. Despite instruction not to get too close to the primates for fear of passing on infections, they are strangely keen to demonstrate extraordinary jumping and mating skills at very close proximity.
The mangrove boardwalk may provide a sighting of the rare Zanzibari Coconut Crab, (Birgus Latro) that is also found on Chumbe Island. Thought to have descended from a hermit crab, this lumbering old crustacean grows up to 1.5 ft long and can weigh between 5-6 lb. It eats coconuts and climbs trees, giving rise to the old belief that it could scale a palm to claw coconuts down to eat. Its less congenial name is the ‘Robber Crab’, due to its ingenious and successful ability to pilfer food. They are known to slice through tin cans and pots and pans to get to the food inside.
The dry, seasonal woodlands are also inhabited by the less rare but perhaps more endearing Bushbaby (Galagoides Zanzibaricus). This small but long-tailed woolly primate has a distinctive ‘whoop whoop!’ call, but its nocturnal habits make a daytime sighting rare. Sykes Monkeys, Small Buck and Bushpigs are also often seen in Jozani Forest. All walks should be accompanied by a guide, and the $8 entry fee allows visitors to cover all walks at their leisure.
A half-day tour to Mangapwani Slave Caves ($15) takes a scenic route about 11km north of Stone Town north up the coast road, to a natural cave that may or may not have been used for holding slaves, and a man-made chamber that definitely was. The sites are close to a good beach overlooked by the Aga Khan’s new restaurant, which provides a good seafood and meat grill for $25 per person in an idyllic setting.
Boat trips and Dolphin Safaris from Zanzibar
There are pods of bottle-nosed, humpback and spinner dolphins all around Zanzibar and Pemba Island, and these are commonly spotted on dives and boat trips. Resident pods are commonly spotted around Fumba and off Mnemba Island on the northeast coast, however, the dolphins that receive more attention than most are those around Kizimkazi, the site of the increasingly popular Dolphin Safaris. This is commonly a trip out in a local boat, spending about 2 ½ hours scouting the waves for a sign of the resident bottle-nosed or humpback pods.
All the dolphins are wild, and sightings are never guaranteed, and the humpback variety is generally much shyer than their co-species, and if they do not want to play they need not hang around, as both varieties can swim much faster than any flipper-clad swimmer. The local industry that has sprung up here has benefited the Stone Town tour operators more than the people of Kizimkazi and the tourists more than the dolphins, but around 9 out of 10 return home satisfied with a closeup view of these exceptional animals.
Rates range from Tsh 10,000 ($15) per person on the basis of two people in a boat travelling from Kizimkazi Village, or around Tsh 25, 000 for a boat from Kizimkazi Dimbiani accommodating any number from one to ten people on the excursion. Trips are usually around two hours long, but if you are nice to your boatman and there is a successful sighting he might be persuaded to stay out for an extra half an hour.
Island Hopping around Zanzibar
The closest island to Stone Town is called Changuu, Swahili for ‘Tortoise’, in reference to its unusual residents. The island is also called and is said to have once been owned by a wealthy Arab, who used it to detain unruly slaves… A prison was actually built on the island by Sir General Lloyd Matthews in 1893, who spent much of his time in Zanzibar apprehending ruffian slave smugglers and other insurrectionists, but the prison was actually never used. Instead, it became a quarantine station for immigrants entering coastal East Africa. Frangipani-lined pathways were planted for the quarantined ‘inmates’ to enjoy a fragrant night-time stroll.
A half-hour boat ride from the harbour brings you to this small and pretty island surrounded by coral reefs and a clear sea, making it a popular spot for snorkelling.
Snorkels can be hired beforehand or on the island for Tsh1000 per day, and most swimmers set off from a sandbank beach facing the town that gets smaller and smaller as the tide comes in and more and more excursion boats stop to moor against it.
The island itself is picturesque and pretty and provides a rare opportunity to sunbathe. A path leads all around and takes about ¾ of an hour to walk. Along the way, it passes large pits in the ground, which were quarries for coral rag and used to build houses some of the original stone houses in the Stone Town and Dar es Salaam
One of the main attractions of Chunguu is its resident population of giant tortoises, believed to have been brought to the island from Aldabra in Seychelles in the late 18th century. They used to roam the island freely, but a decline in population followed a trend in visitors stealing the pocket-sized babies, and they are now contained within an appropriately vast pen. Visitors can climb inside and feed these seemingly pre-historic reptiles with oranges, mango peel and greenery, for which they seem grateful and tirelessly devour.
There is a plan to free the massive creatures again while continuing to protect the now thriving young. There is little hope of casually stealing a full-grown male, as their body weight is a number of tonnes and would require the strength and determination of at least four grown men.