Zanzibar… notes from an African island

Dhow building can be a slow process in the African sunshine
Dhow building can be a slow process in the African sunshine

Sadly the weather here in South Wales continues to be too wet and windy to contemplate any decent walking, though fortunately we’re not as waterlogged as those poor people living on the Somerset Levels. It’s hard to imagine we were running the Clevedon 10k in the area at the beginning of December and my heart really goes out to all those who have had their lives turned upside down by the flood waters.

Anyway, as we’re not doing anything outdoorsy at the moment (except training for the Newport Half Marathon) and my daughter, Elinor, keeps posting stunning photographs of Zanzibar on Facebook, I asked her if she would be the first-ever guest blogger on The Walker’s Wife. As she was brought up to be obedient (tongue in cheek), she obliged.

So whether you’re reading this from waterlogged Britain, icy-cold US or somewhere slightly more pleasant, here’s the latest from sunny Zanzibar where the roads are bumpy but dry and a new source of bat poo is exciting local villagers.

So it’s over to Elinor…

A beautiful African sunset, Zanzibar
A beautiful African sunset, Zanzibar

Travel in Zanzibar is either expensive or uncomfortable. The dala dalas, converted trucks with two benches inside, cost under a £1 to travel 40km from Nungwi to Stone Town but even if you’re lucky enough to get a seat your journey is still likely to be pretty uncomfortable. That’s because there’s a good chance that someone will be sitting on your feet in the narrow aisle, or even worse, practically perching on your lap. Fortunately, this is normally a woman or a child because once the dala dalas are full, men normally opt to sit on the roof. A return taxi journey will cost a very good haggler £24, although tourists generally end up paying a lot more!

The dala dalas tend to get a little overcrowded
It’s sitting on feet room only on this dala dala

Fed up of both, I was delighted when I found a bike tour which not only included visiting many places I wished to go, but for which I was the only tourist signed up for the day.

We set off bright and early. Manchano, my guide, told me he’d chosen the best bike for me because I was the only one doing the tour. “It even has three gears,” he boasted proudly.

After eight weeks on Zanzibar, I know the area well enough to know that the roads are constant hills, up and down both ways, bumpy dirt tracks, rocky surfaces and sand. Glancing at my mode of transport, I hoped the tyres were massively under-inflated for a reason and that the brakes worked; three gears wouldn’t be much help but definitely preferable to none.

Nungwi village, Zanzibar
Nungwi village, Zanzibar

Manchano put my helmet on backwards and off we went. It wasn’t long before we turned off the main road, down some bright red dirt tracks and stopped at our first village, Tazari. Though the village of Nungwi is full of rubbish and animals and children trampling through it, I’ve always been impressed by how tidy the areas off the beaten track are. Zanzibaris take great pride in their villages. Even when the roofs of their clay huts have collapsed and they are living in a shell of a building with only plastic sheeting to protect against the elements, the dirt roads are swept clean of fallen leaves and litter, fruit and vegetables are laid out in an orderly fashion and homes are built around trees and nature, not over it.

Inland there's plenty worth seeing on the island
Inland there’s plenty worth seeing on the island

Tazari is an incredibly poor village, even by Zanzibar standards. The mainly rocky ground is not very fertile and villagers can only grow enough for themselves, making trading an issue. Animals, unlike elsewhere in Zanzibar, are either kept in airy sheds or tied up because they can’t risk losing any. Most of the men work as fishermen and travel to Nungwi everyday for work.

Manchano and I left our bikes and walked away from the hub of the village, two local men leading the way. Less than a year ago, in May 2013, a fisherman, mad with his dog, took the animal to a small underground opening in the rocks and left him there. Three days later, feeling remorseful, he returned to search for the dog. When he entered the underground opening he found two large, connected, caves, full of crystals and stalactites reaching hundreds of metres back towards the village.

The cave entrance had been hidden by shrubs
The cave entrance had been hidden by shrubs

Both entries had been obscured by overgrown shrubs but when villagers learnt of the discovery they searched and found four entry points. Manchano and I were joined by two more men who set up four large torches.

We entered the cave, still untouched by man, squeezing beneath low ceilings, passing over loose rocks, slippery mud and uneven steep and unstable surfaces. Large openings full of stalactites contrasted with tiny dark areas where it was impossible to illuminate my path. Manchano is the first and only person to bring tourists to these caves but, in time, I’ve no doubt that tourists who are fit, versatile and don’t suffer from claustrophobia will provide a welcome income to this poor village.

These magnificent stalactites were first seen in 2013
These magnificent stalactites were first seen in 2013

For now, the real asset of the discovery has been bat faeces! Bat poo had been scrapped from the village roofs for years and used as a fertiliser but the sun dries it out quickly, making it difficult to spread. The caves are home to thousands of bats, with the result that close encounters are almost guaranteed as they circle around you; I had several near misses as swarms of bats circled looking for places to land.

A solitary bat is surrounded by plenty of precious poo!
A solitary bat is surrounded by plenty of precious poo!

The underground protection from the sun means that bat poo here, as well as being in abundance, is moist and perfect for farming. Hopefully, as a result of this discovery, the desperately dry and infertile land will flourish.

We returned to our bikes to find a large group of children gathered around them. Word had spread that a Mzungu, a white person, was in the village and they’d all come for a look during their school break. Although very friendly and happy to see me, Manchano told me that when he first started bringing tourists to the village, the children cried in fear of the white people. He didn’t elaborate until I’d later been pelted my rocks by another group!

A blonde westerner attracts attention from local children
A blonde westerner is bound to attract attention from local children

Kilimani was the next stop on our tour, a large village full of blacksmiths who make the tools and nails for the dhow building industry. I’d passed the dhow building area in Nungwi on my way to meet Manchano that morning so I was surprised when he told me that the blacksmiths make over a thousand nails a day and their work is never in short supply. Nails have to be ordered well in advance and purchasers must wait their turn to receive their supply. Dhows are the traditional wooden boats and, although Arab in design, they are the most widely boats used for tourism, fishing and transport on Zanzibar.

Despite the high demand for their products, the dhow builders almost never seem to be working and boat repairs can take a frustratingly long time, which makes it difficult to imagine them putting pressure on anyone to make the nails as fast as the blacksmiths were churning them out.

A blacksmith hard at work
A blacksmith hard at work

Cycling through the countryside of Kilimani, the next village along to Tazari, past large baobab trees, shadowed by the palm trees, the sweet smells of fruit growing in vast quantities, was easily as enjoyable as the tour destinations. Children smiled, greeted me with cries of ‘Jambo!’ (Swahili for hello) and waved frantically to get my attention. It was a shame when we joined the main road again. As we neared Fukuchani, a group of girls no older than 10, threw small rocks at me as I passed. Although slightly hurt to be targeted, this did feel like a more appropriate response to white people than cheering.

Zanzibaris have been colonised more than once, taken into slavery to be beaten and murdered and, more recently, had their land destroyed to make way for hotels and resorts by, and for, westerners. Surely it is safer for their survival to be mistrusting of foreigners?

At the ‘Fukuchani Ruins‘ the reoccurring problem of unknowledgeable local guides reared its head again. Previously, I’d been told that the hospital in Stone House had been a slave prison (it hadn’t), a beautiful building was a mosque and I couldn’t go inside (it was the Peace Palace Museum, a popular tourist spot which welcomes visitors) and that a school used to be the slave market (also untrue).

The entrance to the Mvulini ruins
The entrance to the Mvuleni ruins

So, I’ve learned to do my own research and to take everything I’m told with a pinch of salt.  Manchano said the ‘Fukuchani Ruins’ had been built by the Portuguese and because the Portuguese took children as slaves, parents now tell any naughty child that if they do not behave they will take them to the Mzungus. It’s true that the ruins in this area were once believed to be Portuguese, however recent studies conclude that the buildings are more likely to be of Swahili origin, inhabited by powerful local men. Furthermore, this larger but badly damaged building is actually the Mvuleni Ruins. The Fukuchani ruins are on the other side of the road and to the north, although I did catch a couple of glimpses and agreed with Manchano that these were far nicer.

The open corridor alongside the ruins
One of the corridors running inside the fortified ruins
Here, the rocks where the building has collapsed still remain exactly where they fell and palm trees, bushes and plants grow inside the building’s remains, enticing large butterflies. Mangoes and bananas grow in the thick forest around the ruins and the location is everything I imagined jungle ruins to be – far better than those in the Indiana Jones films! Next to the ruins is a cave, half concealed in shrubs; its crystal clear salt water once supplied the fortified house.
Looking up to the cave entrance from underwater
Looking up to the cave entrance from underwater

Now it provides the perfect place to cool down after a morning’s cycling. Manchano and I enjoyed an eerie but very refreshing swim in the dark cave before we hit the road again for our 10km ride back to Nungwi.

Wow! Cycling in the sunshine, swimming in cool cave waters, mangoes and bananas growing around ancient ruins… I’ll admit I’m very envious of my daughter right now.

Leave a Reply