A personal introduction
An artist could find genial occupation for years; but your matter-of-fact … tourist would vote the place slow, of course, see nothing in it, and sigh for a future of broad streets and civilisation, broad-cloth, bottled beer and blacking; and from such revilers of the picturesque I trust a kindly Providence may long deliver the quaint, queer, rambling old Arab town of Zanzibar.by J F Elton, Travels and Researches among the Lakes and Mountains of Eastern and Central Africa (1879)
Zanzibar is one of those magical African names, like Timbuktu, Casablanca and Kilimanjaro. For many travellers, the name itself is often reason enough to come. Yet although expectations run high, awareness of the reality on Zanzibar and its neighbouring islands is often rather hazy.
Like many visitors, we discovered the islands only recently. We both had friends who had sailed from the mainland Tanzania to Zanzibar, and returned eulogising about the intoxicating aroma of spices, the amazing beaches, and just how cheap it was – but somehow neither of us made it there.
When we eventually visited in the early 2000s, stylish lodges were starting to flourish alongside backpackers' beach hideaways, and flights around the islands were becoming easier. On that first trip we also discovered Mafia – a smaller and quieter archipelago to the south, with fewer visitors, spectacular diving, and a more recent accessibility.
It's now five years, and many trips, since our first encounters, but the magic remains. It's impossible not to smile as you approach from the air, looking down on sparkling turquoise waters, darkened only by patch reefs, and punctuated by the billowing triangular white sails of passing dhows. Then, as you step off the plane, Zanzibar's blend of warmth, humidity and aromatic spices envelops you in the exotic.
Palm-lined stretches of powder-white coral sand line the coast for miles. Below the waves, iridescent fish flit amongst brightly coloured coral gardens, overshadowed by the occasional pelagic looming out of the blue from the depths of the Indian Ocean. From the turtles that nest here, to the whale sharks seen annually off Mafia, there is always something unexpected awaiting the diver and snorkeller.
On land, too, take the time to look beyond the gaze of most visitors. It may not always be easy, but it's worth it. While researching this guidebook, one particular day started off in much the same way as any other: we'd progressed slowly along the coast, wishing for the time to take a dip in the sea, but instead stopping at every hotel from backpackers' dives to exclusive lodges. Some were good and some bad. On leaving one that was just plain ugly, a man on the back of a scooter shouted to us, 'Are you the guidebook authors?'
We stopped to talk, and as we listened the situation became clear. Mr Mustafa was a village elder who had had worked as a driver for the government around Zanzibar Town. Several years before, he'd set up a small project to preserve an area of native forest: Ufufuma Forest Reserve. Prior to arriving for this trip, we had tried to contact him about the project, but we'd heard nothing and so given up on him. Meanwhile he'd waited patiently for us to come and see him on the island. When we didn't arrive, he had eventually persuaded a friend to drive with him and help scour the coast for us.
We took that next afternoon off, away from the beach lodges, to visit his beloved reserve. Clambering through Ufufuma Forest that day, we saw why he had been so passionate about it. We followed him, and his fellow guides, through the forest, finding Kirk's red colobus monkeys, identifying trees used for local medicines, and stopping to explore several sacred caves that are used for local ceremonies. Mr Mustafa explained why it was so important to let the world know about Ufufuma Forest. His village had a history and a culture that was bound to the forest. It was vital to protect this, and if visitors could only come and see it, they hoped that it would bring in some much-needed cash to their economy – and stop others from cutting down the trees for firewood. Like many rural Zanzibaris, the villagers at Ufufuma were not rich; yet we felt both privileged and humbled to spend time with them. Their enthusiasm and warmth was infectious, and made this one of our favourite days on Zanzibar.
The message is clear: for some of the best experiences, get off the beaten track, perhaps with some of the islands' residents. Backpackers might feel the pull towards the popular low-budget haunts around Kendwa and Nungwi, but there are also some great (and equally inexpensive) places to stay on Zanzibar's east coast – which don't throng with budget travellers, and where your welcome will be all the more genuine.
Don't discount the less well-known areas of Zanzibar, Pemba Island or the Mafia Archipelago. The stunning new Fumba Beach Lodge in southwest Zanzibar is trail-blazing a new part of Zanzibar in some style; ecologically sound places like Chumbe Island demand a close look, and on Pemba – where tourism is scarcely in its infancy – an altogether slower pace of life beckons. While for those who want to escape to simple, small lodges with great diving and snorkelling, the handful of lodges on Mafia are already becoming firm favourites.
These islands now receive more than 100,000 visitors every year; about one in every fifty is likely to have a copy of this guide. We hope it helps you to get there, to choose the right places to stay, and to make the most of your time on the islands. But more than that, we hope that it will give you the confidence to venture off on your own, away from the lodges that we've so carefully described, to explore and to meet people like Mr Mustafa, and his community at Ufufuma – for their sake, as well as for the good of your holiday.