Zanzibar: Spice world

Its name is associated with everything exotic and timeless, romantic and aromatic; William Gray gets stirred up in Zanzibar

5 mins

It was late October and the first whisper of the north-east monsoon scuffed the sea, streaking flecks of white across its azure surface. From the vantage of the Cessna, I could make out several dhows far below, their lateen sails taut before the breeze, glowing like the wings of swans in the glancing light of dawn.

Like me, they were heading east, out across the Indian Ocean, to a small archipelago lying 40 kilometres off the coast of Tanzania. I could see the largest of the islands now – a broad smudge of green beneath towering thunderclouds. As we began our descent, turbulence rocked the Cessna, almost as if we were struggling back in time – crossing a threshold from the present to the past.

That, at least, was my preconception of a visit to the legendary spice island of Zanzibar – a journey back through two thousand years of history. As early as the 1st century AD, the same north-east monsoon winds that were now buffeting our tiny, single propeller plane, bore merchants from Arabia, Persia, and beyond, to the Zanzibar archipelago.

Their dhows arrived with porcelain, cloth and beads, and in March, when the winds veered to the south-west, they returned home laden with ivory, gold and ebony.

Later, in the 8th and 9th centuries, Islam was carried to Zanzibar on the very same trade winds. Many of the indigenous people of the East African coast and its offshore islands adopted the new religion. They called themselves Swahili – from the Arabic word sahil, meaning ‘of the coast’. Gradually, the Swahili intermarried with Arabian and Shirazi (Persian) settlers, laying the foundation for Zanzibar’s intriguing history and cultural mêlée.

Hamisi, my guide, met me at the airport and we drove the short distance to Zanzibar Town, the island’s main settlement on the western coast. At its heart lies ancient Stone Town – a labyrinth of streets that thread between looming buildings like paths in a narrow, twisting canyon. Nothing wider than a donkey cart can pass through Stone Town, so we abandoned our minibus on the outskirts and walked the last few hundred metres to my hotel.

The streets were clogged with human traffic

Women dressed in black Muslim robes glided past, silent as shadows, while children played marbles, laughing and cheering as they chased them down the paved alleyways.

The heat was crushing. Scuttling after Hamisi, I cowered beneath lime-coated walls, cracked and pitted with age, and now seared by the full sun. In places entire buildings had collapsed into a jumble of white limestone rubble – dazzling in the sunlight that streamed through an otherwise unbroken canopy of corrugated rooftops.

Stone Town exuded an atmosphere of palpable decay. In many ways, it was the ancient, crumbling time capsule I had always imagined. But the years have not passed it by completely. The occasional Coca-Cola sign is perhaps inevitable and, here and there, a satellite dish has taken root.

From some of the intricately carved wooden doorways emanated the timeless and pungent aroma of cloves, but others advertised e-mail services. Chalked on a wall, all but bereft of its whitewash, were the latest results from the English Premier Football League.

I checked into Emerson’s & Green Hotel, a beautifully restored palace that used to belong to one of Zanzibar’s richest men. My room was on the fourth floor, at the summit of a stone staircase that climbed past ornate wall hangings and antiques.

Inside there were more elaborate furnishings, including a four-poster bed draped in mosquito netting, but it was the balcony that formed the natural focus of the room. One half was a sunken stone bath, open to the sky and surrounded by tropical plants. A carved trellis screened the room, framing one of the finest views in Stone Town – a rusty patchwork of rooftops, pierced by the tower of a mosque; the seafront peppered with dhows and cargo ships; a coral island in the distance.

‘Truly prepossessing was our first view’, wrote explorer Richard Burton, when he visited Zanzibar in the mid 1800s. ‘Earth, sea and sky all seemed wrapped in a soft and sensuous repose!’

But not all early travellers waxed lyrical

In 1866, Livingstone turned his nose up at Zanzibar Town. ‘The stench is quite horrible’, he wrote. ‘At night, it is so gross and crass, one might cut a slice and manure the garden with it. It might be called ‘Stinkibar’ rather than Zanzibar.’

Senses fully braced, I followed Hamisi on a walking tour of Stone Town later that afternoon. However, the sewage problems that so affronted Livingstone are now a thing of the past. Ancient drains are being renewed as part of the town’s ongoing conservation programme – an internationally funded scheme which has led to the restoration of some 600 buildings since it started in 1982.

Stone Town’s architecture is a rich blend of African, Arabic, Indian and European influences. Some of the most impressive buildings, like the Old Arab Fort and the House of Wonders, date from the period of Omani rule which began at the end of the 17th century.

But it’s the details, not the landmarks, that caught my eye – in particular, the carved wooden doors, of which there are 560 in Stone Town. Some have floral designs, others have lions, vultures and snakes, but perhaps the most intriguing are the ones studded with brass spikes – a throwback to an Indian tradition when doors needed protection from elephants.

There are no elephants on Zanzibar, Hamisi assured me. Just some monkeys and maybe a few leopards in Jozani Forest. Following centuries of cultivation (largely for the island’s spice plantations that once produced 90% of the world’s cloves), only isolated fragments of Zanzibar’s original vegetation remain.

One such vestige, Chumbe Island, lies just a short boat ride from the seething streets and busy waterfront of Stone Town.

The following morning, Hamisi drove me to the Mbweni Ruins Hotel where a small skiff was about to make the 6km crossing to the diminutive island. Chumbe’s virgin coral reef, formerly part of a restricted military zone, was declared Tanzania’s first marine national park in 1994. Together with the island, which is protected as a forest reserve, the whole area is known as the Chumbe Island Coral Park, and was recently announced as the global winner of the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow awards.

More than ecologically sound...

Approaching Chumbe, we tucked into the lee of the island’s low limestone cliffs. The sea’s surface was clear and vibrant, like freshly crafted stained glass – a window on a world of technicolour corals. The helmsman eased the boat across sandy shallows, but I waded the last dozen metres to shore. There is no jetty on Chumbe Island – or anything that could potentially harm its fragile coral reef.

The seven thatched bungalows on the island have state-of-the-art ‘eco architecture’. Each one is constructed entirely of sustainably harvested mangrove poles and thatch. There are solar-powered halogen lamps, composting toilets and a rain catchment device that provides all freshwater needs. Used water is filtered through a special garden stocked with nutrient-absorbing plants to ensure that no waste reaches the sea.

But Chumbe is more than just an ecologically sound retreat for foreign tourists. In addition to the bungalows, there is a striking education and dining area (resembling a miniature thatched version of Sydney’s Opera House) where local school children learn about the importance of coral reefs and forests. The only other constructions on the island are the ruins of a small mosque and an intact stone lighthouse, built by the British in 1904.

Salim, one of Chumbe’s new team of fishermen-turned-rangers, led me to the top of the historic tower for a bird’s-eye view of the island and its surrounding reef. From the blustery balcony that circled the lighthouse’s original lamp, the green mantle of Chumbe Island’s forest provided a unique glimpse of what the entire Zanzibar archipelago must have been like before humans arrived.

Over 60 species of birds have been recorded on Chumbe, including a rare breeding population of roseate terns. If reintroduction plans are successful, this speck of land may also prove to be one of the last refuges for Aders’ duiker, a small, shy antelope that is running out of places to hide elsewhere in Zanzibar.

Chumbe’s coral reef is a crucial sanctuary

While many of the reefs that surround other parts of the Zanzibar archipelago continue to suffer from heavy fishing pressure and the impact of coastal development, Chumbe’s reef still supports 200 species of hard coral – 90% of the total ever recorded in this part of the Indian Ocean.

Equipped with masks, snorkels and waterproof guides to the fish and coral, Salim and I swam out to the reef crest – no more than a few dozen metres offshore. An hour, perhaps two, passed as we drifted above surreal citadels of corals and giant anemones; shoals of fish flickering amongst them like pulses of electricity.

By the time we returned to shore, the tide was ebbing and the sun had laid an amber path across the still waters of Chumbe’s coral lagoon. After the noise and bustle of Stone Town, Chumbe felt quiet and detached – though as I discovered later that evening, the island’s nightlife can be pretty wild.

Soon after dusk, thousands of land hermit crabs emerged from burrows in the forest to begin their nocturnal foraging. Chumbe’s giants also roused themselves. Reaching nearly half a metre in length, the coconut crab is king of the crustaceans. But it’s also secretive and highly endangered, and even three hours of scouring Chumbe by torchlight wasn’t enough to allow us to spot one.

Hamisi was waiting to collect me when I returned to Zanzibar Island the following morning. We drove north through regimental ranks of coconut palms before delving into the more unruly growth of a spice plantation. Although most of the archipelago’s cloves are now produced on neighbouring Pemba, a spice safari on Zanzibar Island is still a ‘must-do’ – not to mention a revelation for the senses.

Parking the minibus in the shade of a large fig tree, Hamisi led me along a network of footpaths. Every few minutes he paused, flicked open his pocket knife and dived into the undergrowth – reappearing moments later with a mischievous smile and a handful of leaves, pods and roots. ‘Guess the spice’ was obviously one of his favourite games.

I wrinkled my nose at each offering

Attempting to play the connoisseur, but all too aware of that unused bottle of dried and shrivelled mixed spice lurking somewhere in my kitchen. To my delight (and surprise), I correctly identified ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. But frankly, when it comes to spices, I am nasally challenged. Despite Hamisi’s best efforts and countless clues, vanilla, lemon grass, cardamom, turmeric and even cloves completely escaped me.

Back in Stone Town that evening, the rooftop restaurant at Emerson’s & Green hotel was playing Pavarotti when the evening call to prayer began. It was a strange duet – an exotic fusion of voices that anywhere other than Zanzibar might have sounded absurd.

The booming tenor and the wailing mosques never came close to striking the same note. But as I had learnt, even during my brief stay on Zanzibar, there is something utterly compelling about its paradoxes. Where else in Africa could you sleep one night in a 17th century Persian palace and the next on a pristine coral island?

From ancient Stone Town to Chumbe Island’s high-tech eco-lodge, Zanzibar blends past with present into a wonderfully chaotic experience – bewildering and unforgettable, like a handful of freshly plucked spices.

When to go: Although often moderated by a sea breeze, Zanzibar has a tropical climate with high humidity and temperatures averaging 27-30 degrees C. The coolest and driest months are June-October. Heat and humidity build towards the onset of the north-east monsoon (Nov-Dec), prior to the main rainy season from March-May. The rain is not constant during this period – there are often good deals on accommodation and excursions, but poor visibility for keen snorkellers and divers.

Health and safety: On arrival, you will be required to show proof of yellow fever vaccination. Malaria is endemic throughout Tanzania – take precautions by sleeping under a net, using repellent and starting a prophylaxis course before leaving home.

Take sensible precautions while walking around Stone Town: avoid displaying expensive cameras or excessive amounts of cash. At night, keep in a group.

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