Zanzibar, Pemba and Mafia Islands

Before Tanzania became Tanzania, there was the African continent part called Tanganyika (named like the lake), and Zanzibar Archipelago (including Pemba and Mafia), but after a short independence from colonization, they combined to form Tanzania in the early 1960’s. Zanzibar island itself is called Unguja, since local people refer to Pemba, Unguja and a few other nearby smaller islands together as Zanzibar. Mafia Island is associated with the Pwani region, further south along the Indian Ocean coast, and just the name alone created enough mystere to justify a visit.

Sunset from the west coast of Zanzibar

Zanzibar was the cheapest, easiest and most convenient to get to, although we pay about 10 times the price to ride the same boat locals take for the 2-5 hour sailing (depending on the boat and time of day you go). Our first days were spent on the east coast, at Mustafas near Bwejuu, and Demani Lodge near Jambiani, and a short visit to Stone Town on the west port side. Then we made it north to Kendwa and Nungwi, where we were surprised to find a lot of Masai warriors on the beach. They spoke Italian, Spanish, English, German and Dutch, depending on which lady they were speaking to, and somehow managed to succeed in selling what some so affectionately call a BCH (‘black cock holiday´).

Traveling with Olli, at our porch camp at Nyamisati

We had a normal beach holiday, splashing around in crystal blue waters, and managed to ward off the Masai´s at a couple beach parties. We went back to Stone Town to meet London guy and his friends, and wandered thru the old town´s maze of Arabian-influence architecture and once-upon-a-time thriving madina. The wooden doors always caught my eye, and the Indian food we ate was quite possibly the best Indian food I´ve ever tasted.

Turning ruins into atmosphere – the garden at Emerson Spice Hotel

Pemba was worlds apart from Zanzibar, a more conservative, Islamic island years away from Zanzibar. It was quiet, rustic, rural and wild, and we explored the island by foot with the chief’s son as our guide. He took us only because he wanted to practice his English, but I’m sure we were more rewarded by the experience. We stayed near Mkoani port, sleeping in our hammocks at LaLa Lodge, where the absent owner was actually visiting for the first time in 6 years. He seemed completely disinterested in making any money out of the business, as he spent his time there helping with construction and didn’t bother charging us for our drink tab. We probably could have stayed for free too, but it seemed reasonable to pay $10 to access his private bedroom and use the toilet and hot shower.

Unloading the Mafia ferry

I´ve never seen a loaded refugee boat in person, but I felt like I´ve boarded one after our visit to Mafia Island. A wooden boat with a dingy motor, big enough to maybe fit 50 people, crammed nearly 150 with all their cargo, luggage, babies, live chickens and dead fish, and headed out for open sea from Nyamisati at 3 am to arrive in Mafia more than 5 hours later. I sat on a narrow bench, a woman under the bench and her head by my feet, with my head on a corrugated steel panel half-awake for the journey, and my sleeping half thought ‘well, if it sinks, I know I can swim.´

Snorkeling with whale sharks in Mafia

After arriving dry and whole, Mafia Island was well worth it. The deep-sea port was nearly a kilometer long, so disembarking was a lot easier than wading thru the mud in Nyamisati. We rented an entire house for maybe 40 euros a night, right off the beach, and got picked up by fishermen to swim with whale sharks. We didn’t time the tides right so had to wade out a kilometer to get into the boat, but that was also totally worth it after snorkeling just inches away from juvenile whale sharks. I can’t even imagine the intimidation from a full-size one.

Getting to the beach thru the mangrove channels at low tide

We visited the Rufiji Mafia Marine Reserve at Utende and tried our luck at climbing coconut trees. Olli could do it without breaking a sweat, and we had a few fresh coconuts to drink. We slept in our hammocks at some hotel that sketchy Hassan runs and drank a bottle of sparkling South African wine next door that took 3 hours to arrive from the time we ordered it. It gave us enough time to plan the rest of our Tanzania trip and do some yoga, so we couldn’t complain, and since then yoga has become of nearly every day. After returning to Dar and before heading to Malawi, we actually found a place to buy yoga mats (or something like it), and bought one each. It wasn’t til the next day in Mbeya that I opened it and realized there was a picture of Mecca on it, and I had accidentally bough a prayer mat. Ooops.

Tanzania, take 2

Me and my friend Lucy decided over a champagne breakfast back in September in the Icelandic countryside to meet up and travel thru Africa for a month. From November 4 until December 10th, the tentative plan was Dar Es Salaam to Luanda, Lilongwe, or Lusaka. Luanda was quickly dismissed because no traveler in their right mind feels like over-landing thru all of Angola, with the prices of things, remoteness of places and language as pretty big barriers. Lilongwe would have required us to overland thru northern Mozambique, which is somewhat unstable and has terrible infrastructure, so the obvious choice became Lusaka. Lusaka itself isn´t much of a destination city, but it´s a green and tidy, spacious city (especially for African standards), full of malls, worth a stop on the way to Livingstone, and so Livingstone became our final destination.

Lucy and I

Our decision meant we´d have about 2 weeks in Tanzania before heading to Malawi and Zambia for 10 days each. Two weeks in Tanzania barely lets you scratch the surface, and the actual overland part from Dar to Malawi was only a couple of days, since we made a lot of friends in Dar, zigzagged north and south along the coast and spent over a week island hopping in the Indian ocean. We were prepared for a lot of long, bumpy, bus rides and super-slow ferries, but some boat trips literally felt like overcrowded refugee boats with a 50% chance of making it with everyone alive. The bus trips always turned out okay, especially if you were lucky with your seat choice, but the number of car accidents, with cars, motorcycles and buses, that we saw on nearly a daily basis always made us count our lucky stars. A few breakdowns or flat tires on the way were then never anything to complain about, especially after we witnessed first-hand the fatalities some of those accidents caused.

Dhow boats, a daily sight

I arrived a weekend earlier than Lucy and had no idea what I´d do for the first few days. I found a last minute couchsurf host that lived in a half-finished house, so there was electricity but no water, and a toilet but no shower. One night later I was relieved to find out I actually had a friend from London who had recently moved to Dar, and staying in his guest room with air con, a private bathroom, and cleaning lady to make my bed felt like 5 star luxury. I was also lucky enough to coincide with the Bagamoyo Karibou Music Festival, and me and London guy roadtripped up there to boogie in the rain and buy lots
of mishkaki (meat on a stick), bbq´d plantains and chips maiai (French fries panfried into an omelette). I was also happy to coincide with avocado season, and buying perfectly ripened avocados the size of grapefruits for cents on the side of the road hasn´t been done since my 2010 trip to Colombia.

Kaole ruins

Bagamoyo was much more memorable for the Kaole Ruins, fish market, and the dozen or so ex-pats I met. I listened to their stories of where they were from and why they were in Tanzania, the benefits of having ‘blue’ and ‘green’ plates (UN and diplomatic) and also managed to meet up with two local friends I had met thru couchsurfer guy at a film
screening at Goether-Institute, a German initiative, in Dar.

Lucy and Olli at the entrance to the cave

Later, one of those local guys Olli invited us to visit his parents’ village in Kilwa, and we traveled there by public bus with a 25kg sack
full of shoes and clothes to give away. His cousin was randomly our bus driver and his toothless uncle hosted us in his home. We hiked to an incredible cave whose name I may never know, and literally crawled thru bat shit to get to some deep, dark, depths, only to find eels, frogs, prawns, and crickets living, totally devoid of light, in the underground streams and puddles.

Crawling out from the bat poop

We carried on to Kilwa Masoko and Kilwa Kisiwani, an island full of ruins similar to Kaole, and an historically important link between Great Zimbabwe, the slave trade, gold coins, the spice route, and the Middle East.

Olli at the Kilwa ruins

We returned to Dar, which seemed to be the very inconveniently located center of things, and spend a couple of days at Kipepeo Beach. We ate the best breakfast I´ve had in Africa at Salt in Dar Es Salaam, attended a birthday party at some Brazilian/Swiss ambassador´s house, had sundowners at Slipway, partied at Q Bar and East 24, drank some legitimate coffees at a few cafes, and swung in hammocks with locals at Cocoa beach. From Dar, it was time to go to Zanzibar, and it would become a very different, far-away experience from Dar. My first, or second rather, impressions of Tanzania were not what I expected, random and disconnected, but still fell together perfectly for another novel, African adventure.

South Africa in 2 Weeks

I’ve been a tour guide in Iceland for nearly 10 years, but I was still a little surprised when a tour company called Farvel asked me to be a tour guide in South Africa for a group of 20 Icelanders. But of course I said yes, with a big grin of confidence, and a few weeks later, I was sent off, all expenses paid (and a salary!) to Cape Town.

Welcome to Cape Town

I’ve been to South Africa 4 or 5 times before, but only as a broke student or cheap backpacker. Now our accommodation and meals were all pre-planned, at plush places like the Cape Town Hollow, Mama Africa, and vineyards in Stellenbosch, with a private truck, driver and local guide always taking us from A to Z. I was more like a tour leader, only making sure everything went according to plan, but I mostly felt guilty about being paid to be on this wonderful vacation.

The view from Table Mountain

In Cape Town, we visited the Waterfront and Table Mountain, took a day trip to Cape Point and Kirstenbosch gardens, and in the vine region we visited Stellenbosch and Franschoek for city tours and wine tasting. I always got a private room, with hot water, electricity, wifi, and even those little soaps and cosmetics I so love collecting and giving away to cute kids.

Riding past some llamas at Rozendal Guest farm, our home in Stellenbosch

After some time in the Cape, we flew to Durban, and the feeling of arriving within the tropics hit us immediately, with hot humidity and thunder showers. From there we had another private car, driver and local guide, and roadtripped from the beach to St. Lucia. We took a day drive to Hluluwe National park, which was nearly everyone else’s first safari. We spent one morning on the iSimangaliso Wetland lake sailing among hippos and crocs, and the birdwatchers couldn’t get enough of the bright yellow weavers, African Fish eagles and Kingfishers.

So many hippos at iSimangaliso

We carried on north thru Swaziland, which Icelanders actually need a visa to travel to (it was an expensive pain in the ass to get in Cape Town since we had to courier our passports with rush applications to their only embassy in Johannesburg), and only stopped for a day.

Our overland truck with Nomads

A lot changes when you pass the border – the road quality deteriorates but the safety increases – but for the most part, it fit right into the feeling of our overland journey. We stayed at some 5 star, former King’s residence, which wasn’t much to write home about, but a walking safari and village visit in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary were the highlight.

Learning how to grind flour on our Swazi village visit

Another long day of driving took us to Kruger, where we stayed just outside the park at Hulala Lodge. It’s a slice of heaven in the middle of nowhere, and high enough up in elevation to enjoy cool nights again. We entered Kruger for a walking safari and a couple of drive safari’s, and were usually split into 3 groups. One of them nearly got trampled by an elephant and another one walked right up to a her of wild buffalo during the walk, and during the game drives, one truck saw all the big 5 (the other two missed seeing a rhinoceros, but we had all already seen one in Hluluwe). We left Kruger with stops at Blyde River Canyon, visiting Bourke’s Luck Potholes and taking in the incredible views at the Three Rondavels and God’s Window.

One last “HUH!” at God’s Window

We ended our journey in Johannesburg, which most people thought would be in an anti-climax, but our accommodation there was again wonderfully cozy, and a SOWETO township day trip became much more meaningful after visitng the country and hearing of Mandela’s struggles to create the South Africa we got to see. Two weeks had passed an we had become one big family, and my role was confusingly just as much a mother as a daughter. We said goodbye at OR Tambo, as I set the group off on their flight back to Keflavik. An hour later I boarded a plane to Dar Es Salaam, and had the wonderful feeling that my journey in Africa was just beginning