Zanzibar: Crossroads of the Indian Ocean

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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, 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.

Stone Town

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.

Spice Tours

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 (,, 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

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.

Offshore Islands

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

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.

Chapwani Island

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

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.

Chumbe Island

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: or ring +255 24 2231040. Further information can be found on the project's website:


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.

Eating Out

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

Page: 1 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 ...