by Monisha Rajesh
Getting lost is the only way truly to understand a place – and in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, getting lost is a rite of passage. A living museum, its labyrinth of streets, houses, mosques and Hindu temples is packed with Gothic and Italian windows as well as towering teak doorways studded with copper and brass. A wrong turning can lead to what appears to be someone’s washing line, but duck under the colours flapping in the barbecue-scented breeze and you may find yourself in a courtyard resonating with beats from a portable radio, the buzz of friends playing cards and children playing football.
In 1994, William Dalrymple visited Zanzibar and wrote in an essay: “In most parts of the world today the traveller tends to get a sneaking feeling that he has arrived a generation too late… in Zanzibar, by contrast, the traveller is rewarded with that rare feeling that for once he has got there in time.”
It has been just over 50 years since Zanzibar gained independence from the British. However, an after-lunch stroll around Stone Town reveals that, architecturally at least, their legacy remains. One landmark is the coral-stone Anglican Christ Church Cathedral, built on the site of the great slave market which existed until the abolition of slavery in 1873, after an appeal made by Dr David Livingstone and his team of missionaries in 1857. The altar is believed to sit on the spot where the slaves’ whipping post used to be. Just to the left of it hangs a small crucifix in homage to Livingstone. It is carved from a piece of wood from the mvula tree in Zambia under which his heart is buried.
Other key locations around Stone Town include Africa House, a popular spot for sundowners that is so British colonial in feel – from the high ceilings fitted with lightly spinning fans to the staircases with teak banisters as wide as your chest – that a pith helmet and a pair of plus-fours wouldn’t seem out of place. Across town, by the sea, the government building that housed the British consulate between 1841 and 1874 was once a hub for explorers such as Burton, Speke and Grant, who launched their global adventures from the building whose paint is now crumbling off in large flakes.
Few consider the island’s south-east, where the lodge owners prefer to keep their gates open and to engage with local communities. An hour’s drive from Stone Town is Red Monkey Lodge on Jambiani beach. On the way there, as we passed through Jozani Forest, a rowdy crowd of red colobus monkeys dashed across the road, babies clinging to their chests, and disappeared into the branches of the mahogany trees.
Moments later, a barely legible sign pointed down a dirt track. My taxi driver followed it, bumping over ridges before stopping in front of what looked like the set of a Del Monte fruit advertisement from the Eighties: a lone palm tree leaned over an upturned fishing boat and the green water was marbled with curves of navy, white and blue indicating the varying depths. Burning underfoot, the sand looked and felt like sifted flour and the sky was the colour of Delftware pottery with little more than a spritz or two of cloud.
From the moment the resident rooster heralds daybreak, it is impossible to lie in bed for long. Kitesurfing is the most popular pastime, owing to the “kuzi” – the southerly wind – from mid-September onwards and then the “kaskazi” – the northerly wind – from Christmas until the beginning of March. After lunch, as the wind picks up, the sky resembles an Emma Bridgewater design dotted with multicoloured kites. For those who are less active, Jambiani is perfect just for wading. You can walk out for hundreds of yards with the water at waist height, crystal clear and at a constant temperature of 24C (75F).
Much like Jambiani, Michamvi is deserted, the only visitors being the white crabs scuttling away from Trish’s dogs. In the evening, when the tide goes out, it’s possible to wade 10 yards to the sandbanks and sit on the sand as miniature squid wriggle in pools and the sun beams its last.
For those keen to explore the north of the island, one treat is Matemwe Beach Village. Its beachfront bungalows are cosy but small, encouraging guests to get out and swim, dive or borrow thick shoes to walk across the reef which, unlike Jambiani, is home to sea urchins. The lodge has no Wi-Fi and shuns the slightly shoddy carvings of giraffes usually found in gift shops, supporting instead the crafts of the local village. Wander down to the shore at dawn and take in the beautiful sight of bent-backed local women gathering seaweed at low tide. While other hotels pay such women to harvest elsewhere and not disturb guests, Matemwe encourages them to sell their dried seaweed, used in soap and shower gel.
It’s worth making the trip to Matemwe just for the evening barbecues, held within a torchlit compound. Guests mingle at communal tables, chattering through the smoke as charcoal glows under foil-wrapped fish, flame-tinged sweet potato, and hunks of skewered mutton slicked with home-made chilli sauce.
On the way out of Zanzibar, revisit Stone Town to forage in second-hand bookstores and antique shops and hunt down the home of Zanzibar’s most famous son – Farrokh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury. It is now part of the Tembo House Hotel, marked by a heavy old door numbered 139, but worth visiting for the photo montage on the wall. A closely guarded secret is the rooftop of the Emerson Hotel – one of the highest spots in town, hung with latticework lanterns and blessed with a breeze. Settle in with a Sunset Glow cocktail (martini rosso, gin, lime and tonic) and listen to the distant bells of the Anglican Cathedral as the sun squats on the horizon before melting into a thin strip of pink across the sea.