Hop to it – the amazing Zanzibar archipelago

WT Writer
Mar 21, 2018
White beaches, stunning sealife and a private island – Anthea Rowan takes her daughter on an exploration of the amazing Zanzibar archipelago


Dar es Salaam shrinks below me, its tin-roofed sprawl receding as we soar into a white sky. The land yields to sea, buffered by a ribbon of beach that runs for hundreds of miles, the ocean myriad hues of blue and green. I can see coral reefs rise on a shallow tide, like something beautiful caught beneath glass.

My daughter Hattie and I are heading for tiny Thanda Island, the first stop as we island-hop our way up the Zanzibar archipelago – a convoluted affair of planes, boats and automobiles. This feels like the best kind of travel; there is adventure in the getting there.

We land on Mafia Island’s short strip and trundle overland in a shambling taxi and down the mile-long Kilindoni jetty to board a boat whose roaring power slices a white wake through waves as spray salts our skin.

A speck of land on the watery horizon grows as we near. We slow to a putter and then, as the engines still, there is silence, except for the stroke of sea on sand and the wind rattling palm fronds. There, right on the beach, is Thanda’s enormous, elegant villa in front of a quintessentially tropical backdrop. With its sleek lines, it is startlingly different from anything on this Swahili coast.

Its owners, the entrepreneurs Dan and Christin Olofsson, began looking for the perfect island retreat a decade ago. But islands for hire, despite the dozens that string the east African coast, are harder to come by than you might think. They dismissed the Seychelles (“spectacular but developed”), Madagascar (“beautiful but lacking infrastructure”) and Mozambique (“interesting but occupied”). Uninhabited Shungi Mbili (now Thanda), spied from the air, was deemed perfect: a smudge of sand with an emerald interior, salt-white hem and waters the vitreous-blue of a Bombay Sapphire bottle.

The household tips out to greet us and we’re offered homemade juice. “Or bubbly if you like”, suggests hostess Antigone. She and her partner, Oscar, Italians with years of experience on the Kenyan coast, show us around the house. Powered by solar (there’s no mains electricity on the island), its water supply either harvested from rain or desalinated seawater (nor fresh water), the house sprawls over 1,200 sq m. The huge aquarium is a focal point and five en-suite bedrooms open to generous decks. Glass bifold doors concertina open wide so that the breeze is funnelled through big, bright rooms.

Nothing, apparently, is too much here. Do we want a drink? When do we want lunch? Would we like red or white with dinner? An enormous fridge is thrown open and we ponder its contents before plucking out our choice.

We help ourselves to fins and masks and head into the sea. Thanda lies within the Shungi Mbili Island Marine Reserve, which was designated a protected area in 2007, but no protection was started and stripping of the reef continued unabated. Thanks to Thanda’s efforts, that has stopped; the marine park is demarcated with buoys and Thanda sponsors conservation programmes. The revival can be seen in the returning sea life; we see a pair of bat fish, a stingray, an octopus glaring at us from his hole, coral bravely growing back in delicate branches of cupcake pink.

An aerial view of Thanda Island

An aerial view of Thanda Island

The next morning, before breakfast, we take the mile walk around the island. In sinking tide we notice an oyster-encrusted reef. Oscar spots us drooling. “You like?” he asks. We nod and he roars in Kiswahili towards the island’s interior. A waiter races forth proffering the requested iron bar and hammer and Oscar sets to work. As if by magic, another waiter appears bearing welcome drinks.

Thanda’s luxury — sumptuous furnishings, opulent bathrooms (inside a double shower, outside a huge tub), fine grape, fabulous food, a bespoke glass-sided pool like a giant Perspex box on the sand – isn’t surprising. These are the details that make it more home than hotel: Bose sound docks, flamboyant kikoys (sarongs), a library of well-thumbed Hemingways, piles of board games and colourful, uncoordinated towels around the pool that make it feel like a kicked-back family holiday house, where the linen never matches.

For two days we play at castaway and pretend it’s ours, but then it’s time to explore some more. More than 30 islands bead the Zanzibar archipelago.

We’re working our way north, from one of the smallest (Thanda) to the biggest — Zanzibar. Linking them by boat is our middle stop of Mafia — nothing sinister here, it takes its name from the Arabic morfiyeh, “group of islands”. At 17 miles long and 10 wide, it is considerably bigger than Thanda.

Moments after arriving at Pole Pole, a luxey little eco-lodge, we’re herded on to another boat (this one slower, gentler and wind-powered) because, as the hostess Paola exclaims, “the turtles are hatching”. On board we’re warned there must be “no getting in the hatchlings’ way, no treading on their runway; your footprint is like the Grand Canyon to a baby turtle.” We nod earnestly.

Our expedition takes us to Juani, one of three smaller islands next to Mafia, which we trek across explorer-style, single file. We emerge on to a holiday brochure beach: Persil-white next to blue sea, empty except for the stern turtle protection squad and another boatful of guests who clearly didn’t get the memo. We tut to one another as they plod across the sand leaving Grand Canyons all over the show; we smooth them over smugly with sticks. The turtles hatch, 70 of them, and scramble for the sea. Even teenagers present are rapt; not one looks at their phone.

There is more life to be seen under the water. I nervously take the plunge and do a first dive under the watchful instruction of the slick team at Mafia Island Diving. I can’t refuse: Mafia is ranked among the top 10 dive sites globally. I tip over backwards into the sea as I’ve seen a thousand divers do on National Geographic. My nerves dissolve as soon as I’m beneath the surface and surrounded by plunging reefs, bouquets of luminous coral, schools of fish scaled with silver, a turtle grazing peacefully on coral. I marvel that she is one in a thousand that survived to adulthood. My regulator purrs rhythmically as its bubbles rise above my head in celebration.

We’re too early in the season for Mafia’s famous whale sharks and our island- hopping itinerary means we can’t dally to see the humpbacks.

Later, aboard Coastal Aviation’s archipelago skipping service (it has more than 100 flights a week between islands), I imagine I see them from the air, their atoll-sized shapes shadowing the aquamarine beneath me, rendering little white-sailed dhows toy-tiny. It’s a 30-minute flight back to the mainland, where we change planes and hop 20 minutes out to sea again to Zanzibar. This is easy-peasy exotic transport, the tropical version of swapping buses at a bus station.

A game of jump and kick on Stone Town beach

Zanzibar’s capital, Stone Town, seems electric after the unhurried peace of the southerly islands — big, busy, boisterous. Hattie and I trot to keep up with Farid as he snakes through its narrow alleys, a profusion of shops spilling out gaudy merchandise and heady scent; streets hung with artwork ring with bicycle bells and the whine of Vespas. Our guide’s canary-yellow kanzu billows around him.

Farid’s grandparents came from Yemen, Java, the Comoros. “Zanzibar is like soup,” he says. “Many tribes, many flavours.” Before the Suez Canal gouged an easier passage, “everybody came past: Bantu, Persians, Arabs, the Portuguese”. The Omani chased the Portuguese off, then came the British, who abolished the slave trade, built the first school and taught the islanders to play football. “Four hundred years ago some Swedish women came; there are people here with Nordic heritage,” Farid adds.

The Kenwood blend of races in this tiny capital is visible everywhere, not just in the different skin tones, from pale mocha, like Farid, to ebony, but also in the buildings – one small corner has a Catholic church, a Jain temple and a mosque. “Zanzibar was very tolerant,” Farid says. The town is chock-full of splendid Omani palaces in varying degrees of dress-up or collapse, depending on ownership: the House of Wonders is forlorn, crumbling, closed.

The two Emerson hotels, built in the 19th century, are glorious examples of Arab, Indian and Omani grandeur that have had significant facelifts. One evening we eat at the Secret Garden — exactly that, an oasis of green hidden within ancient walls. Even Stone Town’s modest buildings bear gorgeously imposing doors, each passing identity drawn differently, depending on the shape of the door and the patterns carved into it.

Sated with cultural soup, Hattie and I head to Matemwe in search of sand, sea and silence; Stone Town, with the muezzin’s cry and the shriek of vendors, is colourfully cacophonous. Matemwe, on the other hand, in the northeast, is where island life potters on in idyllic ignorance of what everybody else is up to. It has the longest beach on Zanzibar, stretching from the Retreat, where we are staying, in a powder-pale curve to the south. We’re at one of the hotel’s four lovely two-storey villas, with a vast wooden veranda that leans across dense forest towards the beach, and a rooftop terrace with a plunge pool, as well as its own butler.

I ask Mubarak, who takes us to the fish market, if I could walk the length of the beach. Mubarak sizes me up. “No, it is far, you are old.” I ask Ross, the Retreat’s general manager, instead. He deals a softer blow. “Well, at low tide I can do a 30-kilometre jog without running out of sand.” We walk it later, not 30km (given my dotage), but enough to witness the village spill on to the beach to play football matches; there are several strung along the sand. “We all support Man U,” Mubarak tells me. “My son’s a Chelsea fan,” I say. “And Chelsea,” he adds diplomatically.

Asilia, the Retreat’s owner, plans to shave off a section of the southern beach to try to protect turtle nests from beach traffic: bikes and Beckham wannabes. To the north are secluded coves. Here we watch shadows grow as the sun goes down. Out there at sea – just two miles away – lies Mnemba, dubbed Millionaire’s Island for the price tag that goes with it. Yet dive schools take their guests snorkelling around Mnemba’s reefs, which means total privacy isn’t necessarily assured.

That wouldn’t happen at Thanda where, thanks to a 1km buffer of protected ocean round the island, you stay in glorious seclusion.

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Credit: Anthea Rowan / The Times / News Licensing