Zanzibar: Crossroads of the Indian Ocean
There's something so exotic about the name Zanzibar that the uninitiated might conclude it is not a real place at all, but simply a name from a fairytale of the east, or the thousand and one nights. But Zanzibar is indeed a real place - Or rather places. For Zanzibar is actually the name given to a cluster of islands that nestle in the waters of the Indian Ocean just off the coast of mainland Tanzania, East Africa. The two principal islands in the group are Unguja, also known as Zanzibar Island (just to confuse you further) and Pemba. Smaller islands are scattered around these, which range from mere sandbanks to those with their own ethnic grouping and a fierce sense of identity.
Most accounts of Zanzibar in travel literature and fiction begin with a description of the port of Stone Town, the island's capital, from the sea. It's certainly an unforgettable sight, and one likely to make even the most hard-nosed, jaded traveller ooh and ah with excitement. Minarets and graceful, curved towers rise above the turquoise waters, the smell of cloves wafts on the breeze, and Arab dhows with sails the shape of the crescent moon bob gently in the harbour.
For a look at one of the many other faces of these multi-talented islands, grab a scheduled charter flight across from the mainland. Your little twin-engined plane will swoop low over the white flecks of waves, flash past white beaches and spice plantations before bumping onto a tiny runway fringed with palm trees, in front of a low, white building with children waving frantically from its roof. You'll feel like a character in a Graham Greene novel.
However you arrive, you'll fetch up in one of two places eventually - the narrow, winding streets of Stone Town's old quarter, or the glittering beaches of the coast. Everything will seem a little strange, a little disturbing and very, very exotic. But the Swahili people of Zanzibar have been welcoming strangers to their country since the first Phoenician ships blew into the harbour on the north-west monsoon of 600BC, or thereabouts. They've seen Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Portuguese, Indians, Chinese, Americans and British ships anchor offshore in the centuries since, so not much can faze them. Ancient visitors to the island came to trade - gold, silks, ivory, spices, animal skins and, most notoriously, slaves.
But many stayed, intermarrying with the locals to form a culture that's uniquely diverse, and producing a race of people who regard hospitality to strangers as a sacred duty. The word you'll hear first, and most frequently throughout your stay, is karibu ('welcome' in Swahili). And astonishingly, considering a colourful history of conquest, slavery and revolution, they mean it. So even if a whiff of drains mixes occasionally with the aroma of spices, or exhaust fumes sometimes taint the sea breeze (this is, after all, a third world country), you'll leave with the Zanzibar of your imaginings still intact in your mind.
It's a travel agent's cliché, but Zanzibar really does have something for everyone. If your idea of heaven is to lie on the most perfect of perfect beaches, undisturbed by anything more than the occasional hermit crab, you'll find tiny, abandoned coves where you can forget the rest of the world exists, and stir only to flop into the bath-warm sea. But if lying immobile on the beach fills you with horror and your burning desire is for colourful local traditions, crumbling picturesque ruins and dim, fascinating markets, Zanzibar has all this in spades, too.
And if, like most of us, you'd prefer a bit of both, the small size of the islands and proliferation of places to stay in all price ranges makes Zanzibar the ideal destination for touring. For water sports enthusiasts, the coral reefs and open sea between Zanzibar and Pemba are justly famous for the quality of their snorkelling, diving and big game fishing.
When to Go
Zanzibar is a year-round destination. The coolest months are June through October, when the temperature averages 26 degrees Celsius. This can soar to over 30 degrees in the hot season from December to May. During November (the 'short rains') and between April and June (the 'long rains') rainfall is higher, but mostly rain in Zanzibar takes the form of a short, sharp shower in the morning or afternoon, followed by the return of the sunshine.
High season is June, July and August, and mid-November to early January. During these periods many of the more upmarket hotels may increase their prices, but smaller establishments and backpacker places keep their prices constant throughout the year.
Zanzibar Events Calendar
Eid el Fitr
Eid-el-Fitr is the festival at the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Also known as Iddi or Sikukuu (days of celebration, festival or holiday), this festival is a time of gift giving and of giving alms. The fasting of Ramadan is meant to remind people what life is like for their less fortunate brethren and the alms giving at Eid (known as Zakat-el-Fitr) is a continuation along the same idea. Both fasting and the giving of alms are two of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. Because the Islamic calendar is different from that of Christians, the dates for Ramadan and Eid change every year by about 11 days. The beginning of Ramadan will fall in late October 2003, lasting until late November.
Ramadan is a holy month in which drinking, smoking, and eating is prohibited. Dress codes should be strictly adhered to. Some restaurants are closed during this month and outside town it can be difficult to get any food at all during daytime hours during Ramadan. Many discos are also closed during Ramadan. Eid is a nice time to see all the little girls in their new dresses and the boys in their new sneakers/trainers.
The girls wear kohl around the eyes regardless of age, and the boys run around firing cap guns. There is a general feeling of celebration as people go from house to house visiting friends and relatives, and attend Taarab concerts and discos at night. Ramadan lasts for one full cycle of the moon and is followed directly by Eid, which lasts for four days. The festivities can be seen at the Mnazi Moja grounds across from the National Museum or at the Kariakoo fair grounds out by the Main Post Office.
A four-day-long celebration, Mwaka Kogwa is best observed at Makunduchi, a village in the south part of Zanzibar. The origins of this holiday are Zoroastrian (a Persian religion older than Islam). It is a celebration of the New Year and some of the events include huge bonfires and mock fights. These fights are between men who defend themselves with banana stems (in place of the sticks that were formerly used), and this fighting, in which everyone gets a chance, is said to let everyone air their grievances and so clear the air as the new year rolls in.
As the men fight, the women stroll through the fields singing songs about life and love. They are dressed in their best clothes and are taunted by the men after the fight is over. The festivities vary from village to village but Makunduchi is where the biggest events take place. All are welcome for the festival because it is a local belief that anyone without a guest for this holiday is unhappy. The Mwaka Kogwa festival takes place at the end of July.
Zanzibar International Film Festival
ZIFF presents the annual Festival of the Dhow Countries during the first two week of July. The festival celebrates the arts and cultures of the African Continent, the Gulf States, Iran, India, Pakistan and the islands of the Indian Ocean, collectively known as the Dhow countries. The centrepiece of the festival is a film programme consisting of both competition and non-competition screenings. Fiction and documentary film and video productions compete for Golden and Silver Dhow Awards. While competition films are limited to productions with Dhow country connections, the festival programme includes films/videos from all over the world addressing themes which reflect concerns within the Dhow countries.
The main festival venues are Ngome Kongwe (The Old Fort) and Beit el-Ajaib (House of Wonders) in historic Stone Town, Zanzibar. Activities and events include music, theatre and dance performances, workshops and exhibitions. A large Music programme also runs for the festival featuring artists from Tanzania alongside international acts. Many of these events are staged in Forodhani Gardens and free to the public. There are also workshops and seminars for women and children, and Village Panoramas which reach about forty villages across the Zanzibar islands of Unguja and Pemba.
ZIFF is undoubtedly the most prestigious and exciting cultural event of its kind in East Africa. For further information, contact:
ZIFF, P.O.Box 3032, Zanzibar,
Tel: 255 (4) 747 411499.
Web site: www.ziff.or.tz
International Triathlon & Marathon
Sport tourism is off with a bang in Zanzibar with the Annual International Triathlon and Marathon events scheduled to take place in early November. Over the past years, both events have been successful in drawing participants from East Africa, Asia and Europe. Both the Triathlon and the Marathon are Olympic distances and take place in some of Zanzibar's finest locations.
Information concerning participation in either of these events can be obtained from The Secretary, Zanzibar International Marathon Committee, P.O. Box 1410, Zanzibar.
Getting there and around
Visas and compulsory documents
Visitors from the USA and Europe require visas to enter Tanzania. These last for three months and cost around $30. Multiple entry visas, allowing you to leave and return to Tanzania as many times as you like in the three month period, cost around $50. Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous state within Tanzania, so although you don't need a separate visa to visit the islands, you will need to show your passport. Also compulsory is a certificate to show you've been vaccinated against yellow fever. A $20 departure tax is levied if you're leaving by air, and a $5 port tax applies when you book a ferry ticket. This is payable in US dollars only.
Frequent ferries - four or five a day in both directions - make the crossing between the port of Dar-es-Salaam on the mainland and Zanzibar. The fastest journey time is around 75 minutes on the hydrofoils operated by Sea Express; the slowest is the overnight trip made by the Flying Horse passenger ship. Fares on the faster services average around $35 for non-residents. Ferry tickets can be bought on the spot or in advance from the row of booking offices next to the port in Dar-es-Salaam. Non-residents must pay in US dollars rather than Tanzanian Shillings. Timetables and prices are displayed on boards outside each office.
The MS Sepideh ferry runs once a week from Mombasa, Kenya and Tanga, Tanzania to Unguja and Pemba. Fares are around $40.
There are no direct flights from the USA to Zanzibar. KLM, Kenya Airways, and North West Airlines offer fares to Zanzibar from a range of East, Central and West USA cities, which cost from $1600 to $2500 depending on season. Stopovers are in Nairobi or Amsterdam, then Dar-es-Salaam. As flights from Europe - and especially London - to East Africa are among the cheapest around, you may be better off buying two tickets - a cheap fare to London or Milan, then a separate scheduled or charter ticket on to Zanzibar.
From Europe, the principal carrier to Zanzibar is Kenya Airways stopping over at Nairobi. Numerous airlines including British Airways, Sabena and KLM fly to Dar-es-Salaam, from where you can catch a ferry to Zanzibar. Charter flights from Europe, especially Italy, fly into Zanzibar almost daily, and some holiday companies, such as Kuoni, may sell 'seat-only' deals on these.
If your air ticket takes you only as far as Dar-es-Salaam and you're in a hurry to get to Zanzibar, Precision Air (+255 2230029) and Coastal Travel (+255 2233489) both provide scheduled charter flights in small twin-engined aircraft. The flight costs $55 plus $4 tax and takes around 20 minutes.
Travel between Unguja and Pemba
Zan Air, a local charter company, runs a scheduled service between Unguja and the town of Chake Chake on Pemba three times a week. A single fare is $80. Coastal Aviation (www.coastal.cc), another small local company, also runs flights from Zanzibar to Pemba and back.
The MS Sepideh, run by Mega Speed Liners, runs a service five times a week between Unguja and the port of Mkoani, at the southern end of Pemba island. The single fare is $30 for a three-hour journey.
Unguja and Pemba are small islands, and thanks to a wealth of transport and (relatively) good roads, travelling around them is quite easy. The options on Unguja include hiring a vehicle yourself, be it a car, jeep or motorcycle. Renting is cheap (around $25 a day) and easy, provided you have an International Driving Permit - these are checked frequently by police, so don't be tempted to chance it. Drive with extra care, especially if you've hired a motorbike - traffic on Zanzibar is chaotic and pileups frequent. Most tour companies (listed in the Tours and Travel section of this guide) can hire cars, jeeps or minibuses. Honda 250 motorbikes can be hired in Stone Town from Ally 'Keys', a colourful character who can be reached on 0747 411797.
Cars with driver are also available. In addition, a plethora of tour companies and freelance 'guides' offer group transport to and from the coast and arrange trips to other areas of interest on Unguja and Pemba. Prices, reliability and condition of their vehicles vary so if you're concerned, use a reputable tour company such as Zan Tours (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) or Fisherman Tours (email@example.com), or a private guide such as Hisdory Jumane (firstname.lastname@example.org).
For those on a tight budget, or for shorter distances, dala-dalas (trucks converted into passenger vehicles) and local buses run all over the island, with fares starting from just a few shillings. They congregate in the Creek Road area of Stone Town - just turn up there and enquire as to the right route for your chosen destination. Bear in mind, however, that this form of transport will be significantly slower and less comfortable than a minibus, and that accidents involving buses and dala-dalas are frequent.
Zanzibar, and especially Unguja, is an ideal place to explore by mountain bike due to its flat terrain. Reasonable quality mountain bikes can be hired from several of the tour companies in Stone Town.
When most of the Western world was still sunk in the darkness of the Middle Ages, Zanzibar was already a meeting place for traders from the great Oriental cultures - China, Persia and Arabia. It nestled in the middle of its own mercantile civilisation, stretching from Somalia in the north down the coast of East Africa to Mozambique in the south. This kingdom and its inhabitants were known as the Swahili - the people of the coast. They traded gold, ivory and cloth with visitors from across the Indian Ocean, built handsome stone houses and had well developed systems of government. Envoys, merchants and even pirates from as far away as Japan and Russia came to Zanzibar and its environs in sailing ships, blown across the seas by the north east monsoon and returning, their holds laden with trade goods, on the south west wind.
The first Europeans to 'discover' Zanzibar were the Portuguese, who arrived in the late fifteenth century. In keeping with their conduct in the rest of their empire, they had little interest in the place beyond keeping it out of the hands of their enemies. They built a fort or two, introduced the sport of bullfighting to Pemba, and a few choice words into the Swahili language. In fact, the Portuguese words still in use in Kiswahili give a fairly good impression of how the Portuguese spent their time here: Meza - table. Mvinyo - wine. Pesa - money.
Chief among the trade visitors to Zanzibar were the Omani Arabs, who had developed one of the most powerful navies in the Indian Ocean, the centre of a thriving sea-going commercial empire. The Sultans of Oman accrued immense wealth by mounting slave trading expeditions into the African interior, shipping their captives back to the Persian Gulf and selling them as household servants or plantation labourers. It was Zanzibar which became the hub of this commercial empire, a handy storehouse for slaves fresh from the interior, who could be confined on the island until the ships which were to transport them north were made ready.
In 1828 the flagship of Sultan Seyyid Said, one of Oman's most powerful and influential rulers, landed at Zanzibar. The Sultan had previously been too busy defending Oman against its many would-be conquerors to visit the island in person, but he was enchanted by what he saw. In contrast to the dry, rocky desert of Oman, Zanzibar was green, lush and filled with sources of fresh water. More importantly, it had strategic advantages - safe, defensible and closer to the African mainland, the source of his wealth. In 1840 Said moved his entire household to Zanzibar and declared it the new capital of his empire.
Said and his many relatives and associates built numerous palaces, bath houses and country manors on Zanzibar, and introduced the commercial farming of cloves, sugar and other crops. Said's empire went from strength to strength, fuelled all the time by the flow of miserable humanity that marched in chains from the regions of the great lakes and beyond, to be sold for ever higher prices in the great slave market in the middle of Stone Town.
But it couldn't last. By 1890, the British had put an end to the once-great empire of the Omani sultanate. By a combination of bribery, diplomacy and the odd judicious naval bombardment, Britain abolished the slave trade in East Africa and ultimately declared Zanzibar a protectorate. The then Sultan, Ali, became a British vassal, and between them Britain and Germany carved up the Sultan's domains, which had once stretched as far inland as Lake Malawi. Although the sultans remained nominally on the throne, their power was ended and their wealth used up.
The era of the British on Zanzibar, which saw the slave market destroyed and an Anglican cathedral built in its place, lasted until 1963, when power was formally handed back to the Omani sultans. But the reign of the new sultan was short-lived - he was ousted in 1964 by a violent revolution, and today lives quietly in a bungalow on the south coast of England.
After the revolution the new Zanzibari government joined with the post-independence government of mainland Tanganyika to form a single state, renamed Tanzania. Zanzibar was run along socialist, single-party lines by the new revolutionary government, and received political support and financial aid from countries such as Bulgaria, East Germany and China. However in the 1980s the first presidential elections took place, and Zanzibar's economy slowly became less state-controlled, with some private sector enterprise being allowed. The first half of the 1990s saw the rise of a multi-party system of government and the development of Zanzibar's newest industry - tourism.
Zanzibar's most famous son - Freddy Mercury
Freddy Mercury, real name Farouk Bulsara, was born in Stone Town, Zanzibar, on September 5th, 1946. Freddie's parents belonged to the Parsee faith, the ancient Zoroastrian religion originating from Persia. Many parsees emigrated to India during and after the Arab conquest of Iran, resulting in a sizeable Parsee population in India, some of which travelled to Zanzibar to work for the British government. Freddy lived in Zanzibar until the age of seven (spending some of his early years in the building that is now the Gallery Zanzibar shop on Kenyatta road). At seven he was sent to boarding school in India, returning to Zanzibar occasionally until his parents emigrated to the UK before the revolution of 1964. Freddy went to art school in England and eventual rock stardom with his band Queen, becoming the world's best known Asian pop singer before his untimely death from an AIDS-related illness in 1991.
No one single attraction can beat an afternoon strolling through the narrow streets and winding alleys of ancient Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar. You'll get lost - everybody does - but don't worry, you'll emerge from the cool, shady lanes into the blinding sunlight of the seafront eventually. Until then, you'll find something of interest around every corner - an Arab archway leading into a white-walled square, with the sound of prayer coming from behind the walls of a mosque. Or perhaps you'll stumble upon the Darajani market, with symmetrical piles of oranges, baskets of spices and enormous chunks of fresh fish arranged under palm-thatch shelters.
Ladies will glide past, shrouded in black Islamic headdresses. Old, long-bearded men in white skull caps will look up from their games of Bao or dominoes to greet you gravely as you pass, and small children will take your hand and invite you to join their games in the overgrown remains of Indian townhouses. Remember to keep looking up - below a blue strip of sky, ornate shutters are thrown open and neighbours lean across the narrow gap between their homes to swap gossip and jokes, hang out washing, or just watch the world go by three storeys below.
Look out for Arabic coffee sellers, strolling along the streets with their charcoal braziers and bronze pots hanging from a yoke across their shoulders. Or porters manoeuvring wheelbarrows almost as wide as the alleyways they're passing through, shouting 'hodi, hodi' ('let me pass'). As evening falls, the seafront comes alive with stalls selling fried fish and chicken on skewers, hurricane lamps illuminating piles of squid and octopus and mounds of chips. Sugar cane is pressed through an antique mangle and funnelled into glasses - cool, sweet and instantly refreshing. Small boys strip naked and leap off the sea wall into the oily sea, turning pink as the last rays of the sun fade and the muezzin begins his wailing call to evening prayer.
As well as the magic of the streets, Stone Town does have certain historical buildings that are worth a look. The Palace museum and the Old Fort on the seafront both house collections of furniture and clothing from the days of the Sultans, and the Palace museum has a room dedicated to Princess Salme, daughter of Sultan Said, who eloped with a German businessman in the 19th century. The Anglican cathedral, built on the site of the old slave market, has a crucifix made from the tree under which the explorer David Livingstone's heart was buried. Nearby are the underground chambers in which slaves were kept, forced to crouch on stone shelves less than two feet high.
A spice tour is probably the best way of seeing the countryside around Stone Town and meeting rural communities. Any guide or tour company can arrange a spice tour for you, with one of the best known being Mr Mitu's (tel: + 255 24 2231020). As an alternative to an organised tour, get in touch with a local eco-guide such as Hisdory Jumane (email@example.com, www.earthfoot.org/guides/jumane.htm), who will provide a slightly more personalised and tailormade experience. Guides will take you on a walking tour of the spice farms at Kizimbani or Kindichi, picking bunches of leaves, fruit and twigs from bushes and inviting you to smell or taste them to guess what they are.
Pretty much all the ingredients of the average kitchen spice rack are represented - cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, chillies, black pepper, nutmeg and vanilla - the list goes on and on. Local children follow you all the way round, making baskets of palm leaves and filling them with flowers to give to you. At lunchtime, you'll stop in a local house for a meal of spiced pilau rice and curry, followed by sweet Arabic coffee and lemongrass cake. Many spice tours include a visit to the Persian baths built by Sultan Said for his harem, and stop at Fuji beach just outside Stone Town for a swim on the way back. The average price for a group spice tour is $15, including lunch.
Jozani Forest, about 20 minutes drive outside Stone Town on the main road towards the east coast, is a conservation project aimed at preserving some of the last indigenous forest on the island. The forest is home to a unique species of monkey, Kirk's Red Colobus, as well as the rare forest antelope, Ader's Duiker and many species of birds. A guided walk through the mangrove trees that form part of the forest takes about an hour. The entrance fee for visiting the forest reserve is $8.
Jozani do's and don'ts
- Do not touch the monkeys or approach them too closely. They are wild animals and susceptible to human diseases such as colds or flu.
- Do not feed the monkeys.
- Only walk in the forest when accompanied by an official guide.
- Drive slowly on the road through Jozani - monkey occasionally cross the road.
Zanzibar has many offshore islands, many of which provide a stunning location for a day trip or a longer stay. Boats to any of the islands off Zanzibar or Pemba can be hired easily from local fishermen - in Stone Town, ask at the 'big tree' opposite Mercury's restaurant on the seafront, or arrange a day trip with one of the tour companies listed in this guide.
Prison Island is one of the nearest islands to Stone Town - just fifteen minutes or so by boat. It is also known as Changuu, and its original use was as a prison for renegade slaves punished by their master, an Arab landowner. Later it was taken over as a quarantine station by the British army, and another prison was built but never used. The large house on the island was built by British general Lloyd Mathews, commander of the army of Sultan Bargash.
Today prison island is a pleasant, if somewhat unexciting, destination for a day trip, with a nature trail that runs around its circumference, a small beach and giant land tortoises, some of which are reputedly over a hundred years old, in a pen. The island has some excellent coral formations just offshore, providing a good opportunity for snorkelling, and the restaurant in Lloyd Mathews' old house sells snacks and drinks. There is an entrance fee of $4, payable only in US dollars.
A slightly more upmarket choice than Prison Island, Chapwani, or Grave island is the site of a luxury hotel, but day visitors who come to eat and drink in the bar and restaurant are permitted. Chapwani is the site of a British naval cemetery, final resting place of sailors who perished while serving in Zanzibar. The victims of the World War One attack on the HMS Pegasus by the German warship Konigsberg are also buried here. It's interesting to wander around the graveyard and decipher the ages and causes of death of the servicemen - many died from tropical disease, or were killed in skirmishes with local slavers.
Chapwani also has a beautiful white, sandy beach and a small population of duikers (a type of miniature antelope), as well as some interesting birdlife.
Bawe island is further away from Stone Town than Changuu or Chapwani, a good forty five minutes by motorboat, and consequently less visited. It has no facilities of any kind so bring enough food and water with you for the whole day. The beach is excellent at low tide, with unusual stone formations, and there is some good snorkelling to be had on the island's reef.
6 kilometres south of Stone Town, surrounded by pristine coral reef, Chumbe Island Coral Park is one of the world's newest and most successful eco-tourism projects. In 1994 the reef surrounding Chumbe island was created Tanzania's first Marine National Park. The island itself, covered with lush mangrove forest, is a designated forest reserve. Chumbe Island Coral Park won the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award in 1999, in recognition of seven years' conservation work carried out in co-operation with local fishermen, now retrained as marine wardens. Chumbe island contains a lighthouse, built by the British in 1904 and still operational, a ruined Mosque and the lighthouse keeper's house, now converted into a spectacularly-built education centre and restaurant.
Visitors can come for the day to snorkel over the incredible coral reef, which contains over 90% of all coral species ever recorded in East Africa. The reef, declared the 'world's best shallow water coral reef' by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, is home to over 370 species of fish, turtles and dolphins. Guided walks are also available through the island's coral rag forest, interspersed with intertidal pools and huge baobab trees, which supports a unique flora and wildlife population including the rare - and enormous - coconut crab.
But to experience Chumbe Island properly, stay the night in one of the seven 'eco-bandas' that nestle in the forest. Each is a two-storey, private cottage constructed out of local materials and decorated with shells, driftwood and colourful local fabrics. Water and energy on Chumbe are self-sustaining and provided by nature - the roofs of the bandas and the education centre have been designed to catch and filter rainwater, which is then heated by solar power. Beds are high in the palm-thatch roof, with a personal air-conditioning system that involves raising and lowering the front wall of the bedroom like a portcullis!
All profits from tourism on Chumbe Island are re-invested into the conservation and education programs operating in the Park, and the island is staffed and managed by local Zanzibaris from the fishing community, with voluntary support from overseas experts. Day visits are $70, and overnight stays, including full board and snorkelling equipment, start from $150 per person in low season, rising to $200 in high season.
For details email: firstname.lastname@example.org or ring +255 24 2231040. Further information can be found on the project's website: www.chumbeisland.com.
Alternatively, leave the better-known island of Unguja behind and set sail for Pemba - smaller than its neighbour, lusher and hillier. Scarcely any tourists come here, and the beaches are unspoiled and otherworldly. At night the wind that whispers through the clove plantations which cover most of Pemba might bring the sound of distant drumming. But don't be tempted set off toward the noise - in the 1930s Pemba was famous the world over for the power of its sorcerers and magicians, with devotees of the black arts coming from as far away as Haiti to be initiated into the rites of Pemban witchdoctors. By all accounts Pemba is still a centre of witchcraft today, but visitors will be unlikely to see any hint of the occult. Instead you can float across spectacular coral reefs, laze on those untouched beaches and explore the winding hills and dense vegetation of the interior.
The tiny number of visitors to Pemba every year means that the island has little in the way of tourist infrastructure - which for alternative travellers is the main attraction. Small guesthouses are dotted around the island, and a couple of upmarket diving hotels have recently opened.
Visitors may be surprised to find that bullfighting is a popular local sport, supposedly imported by Portuguese invaders in the 17th century. The Pemban version, however, simply involves testing the skill of the bull in a series of bold moves by the matador, after which the bull is loaded with flowers and praise, and paraded around the village.
Misali Island, to the west of Pemba, is reputed to have been used as a hideout by the notorious pirate Captain Kidd, who is even said to have buried treasure here. Today a conservation program has been established, and visitors can come for the day, snorkel off the beach and walk in the forest. Locals believe the island is holy, having been used by the prophet Hidara as a prayer mat. Visitors to the island are asked to respect local customs and beliefs.
The seafront fish market at Forodhani Gardens, in the middle of Stone Town, is THE place to come for fresh, inexpensive seafood. Skewers of kingfish, prawns and tuna are grilled on makeshift barbecues and served up with piles of salad, chips or naan bread. The market opens as soon as the first catch of the day is in, just after dark. If you're a veggie, try Zanzibar Pizza - more like an omelette - and wash it all down with freshly pressed sugar cane juice. A steaming plate of fish or lobster will only cost around $3.
Outside Stone Town, no particularly well-known restaurants exist, but the food all across both islands is consistently good and extremely well-priced, with the staples being pilau rice, fish and seafood. Sauces are usually spicy curries, with coconut milk added for flavour. Fruit abounds on Zanzibar, and banana, pineapple, coconut, jackfruit, mango or papaya follow any meal. Tea and coffee are often flavoured with lemongrass or cinnamon.
Zanzibar, and especially Stone Town, is a shopper's paradise. The narrow winding streets are lined with stores selling local crafts, antiques, jewellery, clothes and spices.
The Zanzibar Gallery, on Kenyatta Road, Shangani, sells a huge range of printed fabrics and clothes plus silver jewellery and locally made massage oils and perfumes, as well as a range of handmade bubble baths in glass bottles. The Gallery is also a publishing company, and sells a range of books on local history, plus coffee table and photographic books, guidebooks, novels, address books, calendars and postcards featuring photographs by the shop's owner, well-known photographer Javed Jafferji. The Gallery Zanzibar also sells batiks, paintings and antiques from all over Africa alongside printed t-shirts and other clothes. There is a branch of the Zanzibar Gallery on Gizenga Street, and either shop can be reached by telephoning 024 2232244.
The Orphanage Shop, near the Old Fort, sells crafts and paintings by local artists and the orphans themselves, plus bolts of brightly coloured fabric, which the in-house tailor can make up to your own design.
Two of the best souvenirs to bring home from Zanzibar are: Kangas and Kikois - the brightly patterned fabrics worn by local women and men respectively are used by locals as a matching skirt and head covering, or in the case of men a casual alternative to trousers. For tourists, they make an excellent souvenir and can be used as a bath towel, beach wrap or sarong. For ideas on how to wear your kanga, along with a few cheeky cartoons, look for the Krazy Kanga Book by Pascal Bogaert, on sale in the Zanzibar Gallery.
Bao games - Bao is played on street corners and in village squares across the whole of East Africa, with regional variations. It consists of a carved wooden board, with rows of largish holes, into which seeds are dropped, functioning as both counters and dice. It's surprisingly easy to pick up and very addictive. Bao boards come in all shapes and sizes, from small folding ones ideal for rucksacks, to huge, ornate antique boards which double as tables. Be sure to buy some spare seeds at the same time as they have a habit of getting lost.
Zanzibar Chests - Arab-style wooden chests inlaid with brightly polished brass are hand-carved in many workshops in Zanzibar and come in all sizes, from tiny jewellery boxes to enormous trunks.
Beware of buying large polished shells, lumps of coral or tortoiseshell products in Stone Town or on the beach. Their collection and sale is illegal, and many of the species they derive from are already endangered.
Zanzibar do's and don'ts
Zanzibar on the Web
Copyright © Gemma Pitcher 2004