The Indian Ocean Islands – West Coast

5th March 2013

The West Coast to the north of Stone Town is the main area for industrial and fuel depots, and military bases and government buildings. All of these are regarded as fairly serious business, and it is advisable not to take photographs or wander too closely to any of these properties. But the coast road also wends its way past the ruins of historic palaces and some surprisingly good beaches, and also interesting caverns and caves. The best parts of the West Coast are all accessible on an easy and enjoyable day trip from Stone Town.

Zanzibar West Coast – History

Sultan Said and his sons appreciated the joy of a fine country residence in easy reach of the town, and chose to build palaces beside the sea on this Northern stretch of coast.

About 3km along the coast road you reach the ruins of Maruhubi Palace on the left-hand side. Sultan Barghash built the palace in 1882, to contain his extensive harem, reputed to have been 99 concubines, and one true wife. The sultan was not renowned for his kind heart, and many dramatic rumours concern this palace and grounds in which it is said he spilt the blood of any offending concubine or wife. Stories tell how the autocratic Sultan would pick six concubines at a time, who would all risk death if he was not satisfied by their performance, and then these women would be replaced in order to keep the hareem at the statutory figure of ninety nine. Concubines were also generously put at the disposal of any passing Arab guests, but then would have to be killed so that they would not then bear the fruit of other Arab tribes.

It burned down in 1899, destroying the ornate wooden verandas and craftwork that once surrounded it, and leaving only the supporting stone pillars standing. The Peace Memorial Museum has a photograph of the palace when it was still intact at the end of the 19th century, and it is also published in Historical Zanzibar, Romance of the Ages, which shows a collection of photographs from the Zanzibar Archives.

Since its demise the surviving marble has been stolen from the once fine baths, but both the sultan’s bath and all the women’s cubicles can still be explored. The remaining stone structure gives an eerie sense of what once was, and the extensive mango and coconut palmed groves and wide round water ponds give a sense of the environment in which the concubines and eunuchs once whiled away their days.

A little further north is the less well-preserved ruin of Mtoni Palace, built between 1828-34 for Sultan Said and said to be his favourite of all his residences. This first palace had two floors and several surrounding buildings, including a mosque, bathhouses and an elegant tower that served as an ornate veranda for private meetings and contemplation. Said’s daughter, Princess Salme grew up as a daughter of one of his concubines and describes her childhood at Mtoni in her Memoirs. She describes how the palace was always busy with innumerable staff, visitors, wives and concubines of all nationalities, and the courtyards were home to elegant tame birds such as peacocks, ostriches and flamingos.

Mtoni Palace is now in ruins, since a fire destroyed it in 1914, although for a while the mosque escaped the fire damage and remained in good condition. All this changed when it was used as a warehouse during World War One, and the remains were then cleared to make way for the oil depot. To visit the ruins take the narrow track to the left just before the oil depot.

Soon after Mtoni on the northwards journey brings you to the curiously named small village of Bububu, a quiet, slightly rural coastal region with an exciting number of stories that accompany its peculiar name.

Stories as to why Bububu is called Bububu are fun to relate if only to repeat its monosyllabic name. Some say that the name came about as a result of two boys who lived in the area who were both mute. The name for someone with the affliction of no speech in Swahili is ‘bubu’, and so the name came from the emphasis on both, so Bububu.

A slightly less ridiculous explanation relates to the Bububu railway that ran between 1904 and 1929, covering the seven miles from the edge of the clove plantation to the Old Fort in Stone Town. The locomotive was a steam engine, and it is said the name is an onomatopoeic interpretation of the sound of the chuffing train…Bu-bu-bu-Bu-bu-bu .

However it seems that the name might have been in use even before the steam train, and some suggest the name comes instead from the fresh water spring that bubbles nearby, and from which the majority of the island receive their water supply.

From Bububu a small track leads west and onto a pretty and popular but very unspoilt beach. Here is Fuji Beach and a good place to rest halfway up the coast, or an easy daytrip from Stone Town. A small local restaurant and bar serves inexpensive meals and drinks on the beach.

The road also branches east at Bububu and heads inland to the spice plantations, where the tours take place. About 4km along this road there are old Persian Baths at Kidichi and about 3km further inland some similar but less accessible ruins at Kizimbani. These were built for Sultan Said’s second wife, Binte Irich Mirza, known as Schesade, granddaughter of the Shah of Persia, supposedly at her request for something to remind her of home. Schesade or Sherazade was known to be a strong willed woman who loved game hunting on horseback, and these baths were designed to be visited after just such feisty exercise.

The baths at Kidichi have an underground furnace to heat the floor and water, and the high pointed chambers are beautifully decorated and detailed with a delicate stucco-work showing flowers, palms, dates and birds. Much of the bathhouse has recently been whitewashed in an attempt at restoration. These are now the only remnants of her palace that once stood here, as the rest was built in wood and did not withstand the ravages of time. The baths on Sultan Said’s estate at Kizimbani are very similar in design, but without decoration.

A few kilometres further north is the turning to Mangwapani, and the site of two strange caverns near the beach. To the right hand side of the track lies chilling evidence of the determination of slave-traders to continue in their livelihood after it was made illegal by the British in a treaty with Sultan Barghash in 1845. Here is a deep subterranean stone chamber, its hipped roof just jutting above ground level and broken at the centre by a rough stone entrance. Illegally held slaves were led across a removable bridge and down into the darkness, and then imprisoned by a heavy wooden door overhead. Apparently a path was carved through the coral rock between the chambers and the beach, so that prisoners could be transported to the sea without being seen, but unfortunately this has since been blocked by falling rock.

On the left hand side of the track to Mangwapani there is a path to another cavern, but this is a natural limestone cave and contains a cool, dark pool of fresh spring water. Traditional stories tell how this spring was discovered by a young slave of a wealthy Arab named Hamed bin Salim El-Harthy. The boy was herding his master’s goats when one was lost, and its cries were seemingly coming from under a bush. The boy searched beneath the bush and discovered the cave, which has since provided good water to nearby villagers. The cave is also thought to have spiritual powers, and, along with a number of natural caves around the island, it is used by some as a place to leave offerings to spirits that might dwell there and provide help in times of sickness or need.

Further north, on the road leading up towards Nungwi, another such spring is found in the northeast corner of the ruins of a coral rag house at Mvuleni. These ruins ostensibly date from the sixteenth century, although it is thought that there was a Shirazi settlement here before this time, and the remaining present structure was probably constructed by the Portuguese. The house had simple pointed stone arches and the appearance of a fortified domestic dwelling, with thin gun slits evident in the gatehouse. Across the road at Fukuchani are the remains of a similar construction, although this was almost certainly built over a much older building dating from the 9th century.

The western coast road to the north comes to a natural end at Mkokotoni, before veering around to the Eastern peninsula past the interesting old ruins at Mvuleni and Fukuchani (see below) before reaching Nungwi. Mkokotoni looks out onto Tumbatu Island, an island with a history and a present reputation for its aloof and proud inhabitants who do not much welcome visitors.

There is a long history of grand royal family on Tumbatu Island, but their reign was ended by an untoward attack by piratical Arabs, who later moved south of Tumbatu and quietened down. The ‘Mwana Mwena’ of Tumbatu was traditionally considered Queen of all of northern Zanzibar, but she made a bit of a blunder when she gave the island to the Portuguese and then set off to Goa and became a Christian. She never regained her popularity, even when she came back and tried to smooth things over, and her son took on the rule. The people of the island, known as WaTumbatu, speak their own dialect of Swahili and are famous throughout East Africa for their skill in sailing and navigation. At Makutani, at the south-eastern end of the island, there are ruins of a substantial Shirazi settlement, with remains of a large mosque and houses, thought to have been founded in 1204, by Yusef bin Alawi. In the 13th century an Arab geographer named Yakut travelled to Tumbatu and recorded that the inhabitants were Muslims who had withdrawn to Tumbatu following an attack on them elsewhere. A local chronicler records that a leader of the royal family of Tumbatu, probably Yusef, ruled until the town at Makutani was attacked and destroyed by piratical Arabs and the importance of his reign diminished in the 15th century. But the people did not flee, and started a new settlement on the northern shores of the island. Those wishing to visit Tumbatu Island are obliged to first visit the Mkokotoni police post to obtain a pass, and then find a dhow or boatman to carry you over. The trip can be arranged from the port at Mkokotoni, and due to the reputation of the people of Tumbatu it is advisable to find someone who might be able to make an introduction for you on arrival.

The island of Tumbatu may have been one of the earliest Shirazi settlement in the Zanzibar archipelago, but the people of the island have also traditionally held very strong beliefs in African magic, Shataani. Superstitions concerning boat travel are especially strong, and one enduring belief is that all visitors to Tumbatu should be clean. Men who have not washed their body since sleeping with a woman are not supposed to take a boat, and any woman who has her period is certain to be responsible for the death of all on board if she dares to cross these waters before it is over. While many admit that the intensity of this magic is getting less strong, a dhow that recently overturned and drowned twelve is widely thought to have been as a result of a woman who pretended she was ‘clean’, but lied.

Mkokotoni is a rural fishing village with a bustling market and rows of dusty dukas selling a motley assortment of fruit and random ‘essential’ imported goods. A wide dark beach reaches down beyond the market place and forms a harbour for the dhows and outriggers and their assorted cargoes that pass between here and Tumbatu island.

There are echoes of colonial order and administration as you enter the village through its sleepy police post, and to the eastern side of the market and beach a few grand buildings are dotted in the trees, a legacy of the British station once held here. In 1984, some Chinese coins were found on the beach, themselves a legacy of a much more ancient age of trade between Zanzibar and India, Arabia and China.