The Indian Ocean Islands – Zanzibar

7th March 2013

A sense of Zanzibar drifts in the mind’s eye as a fairytale island, eliciting images of Arabian nights, awash with romance and spirits that dwell among the bizarre and beautiful ruins of its ever-elusive history. It is said that sailors smell a scent of spice on the wind before their dhows beach on the white coral sand shores, and on arriving they discover a land quite distinct from any other. And so it remains in most part today, an oasis of green amid a startling turquoise sea, its rural centre alive with the drifting pace of a non-motorised existence, sustained on foot or bicycle in the intermittent shade of palms and heat of a tropical sun.

The islands of Zanzibar are just dots on a map in the great Indian Ocean a few kilometres from mainland Tanzania, a tiny portion of the great Republic, and yet Zanzibar has evolved a history and reputation that far exceeds its size. The archipelago of Zanzibar is a world of irreconcilable paradox, a plentiful island paradise that has born witness to a harsh and cruel history of domination and slavery. It has emerged in the 21st century with a heady brew of mixed African and Arabic cultures and religions poised between the bedrock of tradition and the pressing imperatives of the modern world.

All at once you might look out across the translucent, shimmering channels of the Indian Ocean and see a wooden dhow skimming the waves beneath a billowing sail, built to a design unchanged for centuries, and watch it moor beside a shiny new hydrofoil.

You might walk through streets of private homes that have been lived in by generations since 1800, and then return to an elaborately carved antique Arabic four poster bed to switch on cable television by remote. This is the paradox of ancient and modern in present day Zanzibar. Times are changing in these remote Indian ocean islands, where in the past three years they have embraced technological advances that took the western world a century. Until 1995, there was just one television on Unguja, Zanzibar Island, attracting a large crowd to its screen on the Creek road. While this still operates in the midst of a popular coffee baraza, Stone Town now has numerous Internet cafes, there are televisions in the villages, and the modern world keeps on rolling up to its shores, seeking an island retreat but also enjoying the luxuries of satellite tv and telephone connections, email and hairdryers.

Zanzibar Island, Tanzania

Zanzibar is an archipelago of islands, the largest of which are Zanzibar Island, called Unguja, and the island of Pemba. The next largest, Tumbatu Island, off the northwesterly tip of Unguja, is rarely visited by tourists, but is the site of an early Shirazi settlement that may even be the first in this region. The smaller satellite islands include Chapwani, Bawe, Chumbe, Chunguu, and Mnemba, most of which can be visited on boat trips from the Zanzibar Island, although Mnemba is reserved exclusively for guests staying at the lodge there. Zanzibar Island is 86 km long and 39 km wide, and is separated from the mainland by 35 km of sparkling Indian Ocean over a shallow coral shelf. Pemba lies 41 km northeast of Unguja, and is much smaller – about 64km long and 22.5 km wide – and is separated from the mainland by the narrow but extremely deep and often dangerous Pemba Channel, which drops to over 1000m deep. Here swim the larger creatures of the sea, the whales, sharks, barracuda and huge manta rays that peruse the clear, salty depths on the outskirts of the reefs.

The islands are coral rock outcrops that were once mainly forested, but are now predominantly agricultural farmlands with numerous spice and coconut plantations dating from the days of the first Sultan. The last remaining areas of natural forest are protected, such as Jozani on Zanzibar Island and Ngezi and Msitu Mkuu on Pemba. Mango trees have been planted throughout the main islands, with the greatest number on Pemba, and baobabs have seeded and rooted wherever there is enough earth to sustain them. Villages cluster in the shade of these great life-giving trees, and beyond them stretch wide, open areas of low bush. Farmers in these rural regions trundle their home-grown produce to the main road at the islands’ centre on ox-cart, bicycle or on foot, and then onto the island buses that ferry back and forth from the central market in town.

Much of the land provides fertile soil that allows for a fantastic range of fruit and vegetable plantations to continue flowering throughout the year. Rice has been grown on Zanzibar since the Persians first planted it on arrival, and is now a staple dish although much is imported. The eastern side of Zanzibar Island is exposed coral rock with a thin covering of vegetation, and many of the coastal villages are dependent on fishing and the growing evolution of seaweed as an export crop to Asia. The fishermen operate mainly on a level of small-scale subsistence, using nets, lines and hand-held spears and sticks. Women ply the shallows with nets and poke sticks for octopus at low tide, and gather shellfish to supplement the family meal while tourists devour the last remaining octopus. Seaweed farming provides an important economic income for local women, who are responsible for the plantations. They cultivate their crop by attaching small sprigs of seaweed to strings, which are then pegged out in rows just beneath the tide line. These plots require a great deal of work and attendance, although the crop can increase ten-fold in a couple of weeks, and the harvest is then taken to a central co-operative at which they are paid by the weight of their crop.

The island bedrock of coral rag is the basis for the roads, on which many tyres are burst, and is used to build rugged homesteads, combining coral rocks with a limestone ‘cement’ that you can frequently see being made on the sides of the road. As on the mainland, it is common to see houses that seem to have been abandoned halfway through the building process, although it is rare that this is the case. Invariably the vast expense and effort involved in building a house results in a long-term ‘layer by layer’ approaches, with additions being made in accordance with erratic income flow. The trees growing through the centre will be felled just before the roof is added.

Zanzibar beaches & coast 

The best beaches on Zanzibar Island are to the North and East, where the sun shines on luminescent clear waters in a range of striking turquoise blues, and the sand is clean and bright and fine. On the whole, the beaches on the West Coast are generally less inviting, as this is the central region for industrial development and fuel depots around Stone Town. Nevertheless Mangwapani and Fuji and Mbweni and Kisimkazi remain clean and quiet enclaves on the western shore to escape the madding crowds. All the islands are surrounded by rich coral reef, which protects the shoreline and also results in wide flat shallows that are invariably subject to tidal extremes, although these are less extreme on much of the west coast.

Zanzibar – Climate

The climate of Zanzibar is generally hot, between 21-29oC, and becomes increasingly humid from mid-November to March, when air-conditioning becomes a welcome treat.

The ‘long rains’ – masika – fall between April and May, although showers often continue through June – so finishing later than on the mainland. Early July to October is coolest and driest, with an average temperature of 21oC in August.

The ‘short rains’ – vuli – should fall in November, usually intermittent showers followed by sunshine. It is hot and dry and humid between December and March, when the island is subject to the north-east monsoon wind – Kaskazi – and is slightly cooler during the months of Kusi, the Southwest monsoon, between April to November.


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