A Travellerspoint blog



Spice in the Indian Ocean

Zanzibar. Just the name sounds so exotic. It is ringed by white sand beaches and exotic coral reefs teaming with marine life, has a dark history in the slave trade, is covered with spice farms, and is alive with Swahili culture. Wooden dhows are still built on the sand and ply the old fishing routs. Kids scurry about the narrow alleyways of stone town, playing football in any opening they can find. Men sit and play games and women dress in the traditional kanga. From the start Zanzibar was amazing and so far has the most character of anywhere else we have seen in our small view of East Africa.
Stone Town from the Ferry

We spent our first three nights at the pyramid guesthouse. A great budget place well adorned with Zanzibar beds in every room. These are high wooden beds that are ornately carved and have 4 four tall posters romantically draped with mosquito nets. The name comes from the incredibly steep stair case leading up to the upper floors. We took in our sundowners at Mercury’s bar, named after Freddy Mercury of queen who was boor on Zanzibar. Meals were had at the famed street venders serving up all sorts of delicacies from the sea. Lobster, Crab, Prawns, Squid, Octopus, and many different types of fish were laid out on tables in front of Smokey BBQ grills. At first this was disappointingly touristy but as the night grew long more and more locals showed up and tourists departed. We wound up eating hear every night, hooked on fresh sea food served up on paper plates. This along with sugarcane juice and a desert of banana chocolate chapatti pizzas fresh from the grill was our diet while in Stone town. We decided to do the spice tour, which was as disappointing as we expected but I was nice to learn more about how all the spices we use in our day to day cooking are grown and we got a little taste of the beach on our way back. We spent the rest of the time just wandering around and getting lost in the maze of alleyways that makes up stone town. This old Swahili city was enchanting. It was the Muslim holy month of Ramadan so it was really quiet during the day but everything came alive at night . After the sun had set and the days fast would be broken people would come out to socialize.
Pyramid Hotel
Sunset from Mercury’s
Stone Town
Stone town Waterfront
Masi Man on a cell phone
Stone Town
Street food from the Sea. So Good.
Spiral coconut tree. Inspiration for tropical cocktails.

We set out on our 4th day to find the beach and do some scuba diving. The local transportation on Zanzibar is shared trucks called dala dalas. These are long bed trucks with benches running down each side and covered with a short roof. From the market on the edge of stone town these were constantly departing in all directions. We had a hell of a time finding the right truck; all the while being hounded by “friendly” touts who would not leave us alone without following us to the truck and then demanding a commission. You would think that after 10 months of travel we would be able to beat the touts at their own game but they are truly relentless. We finally got on the right truck, refused to pay any commission or negotiate, and were off. We decided on a beach on the northeast called Matemwe. From here you could easily access Mnenba Island which is said to have the best diving on around Zanzibar.
Matemwe Beach

We had made arrangements to stay at Mohamed’s Beach Camp, a small four hut accommodation right on the beach run by an enterprising local. Mohamed was incredibly friendly and accommodating and shared is story of success with us. He came from a broken family and grew up with next to nothing. He told us most of the time that his mother and him did not have food to eat and really struggled. He managed to learn English and went to work in a hotel. After a few years he had saved enough to buy a motorcycle. He then rented this out to the gusts at the hotel and earned enough to buy a 2nd motorcycle. Before long he had saved more money, sold one of the bikes, and managed to buy the small plot of land were we stayed. He said he was completely wiped out from buying the land and it took many years before he had enough to build. Now he has a successful little business on a prime stretch of beach.

Meghan relaxes at Mohamed’s
Local homes in Matemwe village made from coral

There were a few up market hotels tucked away down the beach but we were right next to the village and got to observe the daily activity of the people. This was fascinating and the most rewarding part of our visit. The community relied on the sea to provide for it needs. When we arrived all the fishing boats had just come in and their was a lively fish market on the beach. Men huddled around strings of fresh fish haggling over the price. Little kids waited to earn a few shillings by prepping the catch on the beach. Squid and octopus were prevalent here and all around the beach kids were beating octopus with wooden sticks in the sand. This was to tenderize the meat but also got the ink out, turning the white sand black. It seamed like the whole village came out for this and were actively involved in bringing the boats in, getting the fish on the beach, selling, buying, and cleaning. We found out how fresh the fish was latter that night when Mohammed served us up some incredible coconut snapper that was caught a few hours earlier. The next day the boats were already out when we woke up and the tide was going out. By low tide all the women were out in the shallows tending to seaweed gardens that filled the lagoon inside the coral reef. Kids played on or around the few boats that had been left behind or rode their fathers bikes up and down the long tidal plain. A few men also stayed behind working on their boats or doing maintenance. All the fishing boats were outrigger canoes fit with a sail. All the building materials were taken from the forest giving individual character to the hand crafted vessels. Later that day after walking up the beach the boats started to come back in. I waded out into the shallow waters of the lagoon and watched them silently glide by me. I felt like I had slipped back to a simpler time.

Fish market on the beach
Fresh Catch
Local boy with freshly cleaned and tenderized octopus
Women Harvesting Seaweed
Seaweed drying on the beach
Dhows coming home from a day of Fishing

Next day it was scuba time and we were on the boat early. We had to motor up the shore a ways to a break in the reef before we could cut across the island and the surrounding dive sights. We were paired with a nice girl who was on her honeymoon and our dive master Mario, an Italian who loved being the center of attention. The other divers in our boat jumped out at different dive sites and we got to explore ours on our own. We saw many fish but the real highlight was a sea turtle. I had seen one in the Cook Islands from a good distance but this was Meghan’s first, and it was up close and personal. The turtle was just chilling out on some coral and we were about 5 feet away from it. It just checked us out and kept on doing its thing undisturbed. The second dive was a wall dive. A near vertical embankment of coral plunged into the ocean well below our diving depth. A light current meant that we did not have to swim that much, just sit back and enjoy it. On this dive we saw two large white tip sharks, but from a safe distance. When we got back on land we took advantage of the pool and lounge chairs at the nicer resort were the dive shop was located before heading back to Mohamed’s for dinner. After seeing so much Squid and Octopus on the beach I thought I would give it a go and was not disappointed, I did not know octopus could be so tender… not chewy at all. The squid was equally impressive and I was stuffed when I finished my plate. Matemwe was incredible, the complete lack of tourists on the beach was a refreshing change from most beach destinations. Sitting in the shade watching life unfold in front of us was all the entertainment we needed.

Our Dive Boat
Mnenba Island
Fresh from the underwater world
Pool Poaching
Low tide was a great time for a ride on the beach.
Mohamed’s beach camp from the water

Posted by pmunson 23:01 Archived in Tanzania Comments (2)

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