Graham Fiford

GRAHAM FIFORD enjoys the sights, sounds and smells of Zanzibar

They say when you arrive in Zanzibar you can smell the soft scent of exotic spices carried along on the warm ocean breeze. A word of advice for new arrivals, though: Just don’t breathe in too deeply. You might detect some of the less pleasant odours that overcrowded African cities are renowned for – fetid shanty towns, open sewers and a hotchpotch of other familiar city air pollutants.

One ox power. Picture: Graham Fiford

Arriving at the palm-fringed Zanzibar Airport near the capital, Stonetown, was a shock  even by African standards. Baggage handling was a tractor-drawn buggy loosely draped with a tarpaulin. The customary airport carousel conveyor was replaced by a hole-in-the wall where the luggage was unpacked and placed on a table for identification.

We arrived in a tropical downpour. Sadly, our clothes were damp when we came to unpack them. Our bags must have been on top of the baggage tractor!

The driver of our hotel transport, Suleiman, was there to greet us, widely waving a sign of the hotel’s name. But having introduced himself, he promptly disappeared into the throng mumbling something about fetching the vehicle.  Half an hour later a smiling Suleiman duly returned with his vehicle putting an end to our consternation.

The hour-long drive along narrow, winding roads past palm and clove plantations to our beach resort was unnerving but the skillful Suleiman dodged cheeky jaywalkers, darting piglets, meandering ox carts and overcrowded taxis.

Beach in Zanzibar. Picture: Graham Fiford

For our South African co-travellers this journey had the familiar feel of home to it. On our arrival at Mapenzi Beach Hotel, staff with welcoming smiles, iced fruit drinks and warm towels greeted us.

Zanzibar is hot in summer – an uncomfortable 35 – 38 degrees C most days, which makes the white beaches, cooling ocean waters and fringing coral reefs a necessity.

The problem with exclusive resorts in far-flung locations, I find, is that you tend to become a captive of your own environment. There’s little available close by to provide a welcome distraction from that seemingly endless cornucopia of food in the giant, open air, thatched dining area round and three-meal-a-day binging, interspersed by lazing in the sun.

Sorry, but I get bored lying on a beach lounger contemplating what I’m going to eat for that evening’s main course. I found myself playing peek-a-boo with an electric blue-headed tropical tree gecko or trying to count the coconuts on the palms.

For those prone to the same restless energy I would recommend a walk to the exposed rocky coral reef at low tide – if you have the stomach to navigate the many gardens of prickly sea urchins you will encounter along the way.

An old fisherman in Zanzibar. Picture: Graham Fiford

Also worth a visit is the fisherman’s village a short walk up the beach. But brace yourself for the shock of seeing the lamentable Third World living conditions in stark contrast to five-star beach resorts nearby.

Take a trip to nearby Stonetown, so-called because the early Portuguese settlers used rock and coral to build their first permanent fortifications, some of which still stand. Wandering past ornate hand-carved doors in the back allies and pathways of Stonetown, was like going back in time.

There are, of course, the obligatory “tourist ticks” in Stonetown  such as the Portuguese fort at the harbour entrance, the House of Wonders museum – the first building in the island to be electrified, and the cathedral erected by the island’s previous British rulers on what was once a renowned slave-trading market square.

Guidebooks advise tourists to avoid the town’s fresh produce market because of the unsanitary conditions, legendary throngs of pick pockets and not-so-fragrant smells emanating from its open-air fish and meat stalls.

The House of Wonders in Zanzibar. Picture: Graham Fiford

Other excursions can be undertaken – guided snorkeling off Mnemba island, now a marine reserve; deep sea fishing and scuba diving out of Nungwi; jaunts on the “Blue Safari” tour to spot wild swimming dolphins and enjoy a seafood barbeque on the beach and a trip to the Jozani Forest to see the island’s endangered red colobus monkeys.

Otherwise you can always pretend to be Robinson Crusoe and lull yourself to sleep on your favourite beach lounger to the sounds of the Indian Ocean breeze rustling the palm fronds …