Zanzibar: Crossroads of the Indian Ocean

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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.

Why go?

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.

Mwaka Kogwa
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:

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.

By boat
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.

By plane
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 (, 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.

Getting around

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: or Fisherman Tours (, or a private guide such as Hisdory Jumane (

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.

Zanzibar's History

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.

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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, an ...