Wednesday, 18 November 2009

In which we have a day of dhows

November 9th

Before the girls are up I go for a dawn swim. The water is decidedly cool, but the visibility is amazingly clear and for most of the time I’m the only person in the water. The tide is fully in – I’ve been woken up by the crash of waves on the beach – and at high tide it’s almost impossible to encounter a sea urchin even if you intended to, so I’m not worried.

This morning is bright and sunny. While we’re breakfasting there are white sails dotted all along the horizon like a row of jewels. Some are almost out of sight beyond Tumbatu Island, others are setting off with divers or snorkelers or going fishing.

Épi draw my attention to what looks like a piece of black masking tape on the top of my mosquito net. We look close and find that it’s a giant millipede, a good six inches long and about an inch in circumference. The thing isn’t venomous but we decide to put it out in the garden. As I write this I’m kicking myself that none of us thought to take a photo – it is easily the biggest millipede we’re ever seen.

We decide to have an active day today; it’s our last full day on the beach. We agree to go up to Nungwi at the northern tip of Zanzibar, about three miles up the road. It’s the most overdeveloped touristy spot in the whole of Zanzibar, but it’s in the guidebook and it’s the end of the road so we want to be able to say we’ve been there. Épi’s still having trouble with her foot, and it’s blisteringly hot, so we wonder about taking a private taxi. They want 10,000 for a ride that costs 200 in a daladala. No way!

In Kendwa village we see about hiring bikes, but the amount they want per day - $15 – is more than we’re paying for our accommodation and the women isn’t interested in trying to cut us a deal. So no way again!

So we plod up the long mile to the main road. As we walk we pass Muslim women from the village; they’re plaiting coconut leaf fibres into strips to make baskets or other goods while they’re walking. They’re so adept they can weave, walk, and talk to each other all at the same time. Everywhere there are children; here they are starting to get used to tourists and a few of them ask us for money. It’s more or less the only time we get pestered during our entire holiday. Just near the junction there’s an enormous baobab tree with candy stores in its shade. We wait there a few minutes for our bus, munching sugary peanut treats, and within ten minutes we’re in the middle of Nungwi.

Having got off the bus we make for the turtle sanctuary more to escape the hustlers than for any other reason. Nungwi is the same dusty, sandy, coral stone type of place as Bwejuu, but it very much divided into two parts. Along the beach are the lines of luxury apartments, walled off, security guarded and exclusive. The village proper is ramshackle but, as the “Rough Guide” accurately put it, seems to go on its own traditional way and manages to largely ignore the tourist development alongside it. Chickens scatter as we pass. There are no other animals visible, and no dovecots as at Bwejuu. There are just a few tourists in the streets, and the locals greet us politely as we saunter through their lives.

The turtles are right at the extreme tip of the island, and therefore at the extreme north of Zanzibar proper. Next to the sanctuary is the squat lighthouse, a series of cubes one on top of another, each slightly smaller than the one below, rather like a Chinese pagoda. The proper name for the headland is Ras Nungwi. There is also a lighthouse at the tip of Tumbatu Island which we can see from our beach at Kendwa, but I don’t think the light is working – every night I’ve looked to see it shining and every night I’ve been disappointed.

The turtles are in a small lagoon completely enclosed by walls of natural coral rock. Seawater seeps in through fissures in the coral and the water level rises and falls with the tides. But at least the water is circulating and therefore keeping clean. There are lots of turtles, all but one are green turtles and the biggest are truly enormous. We feed them with seaweed. We are allowed to handle baby turtles and even some adolescents; picking up even a medium turtle you realise their weight; the biggest ones would need two or three people to lift. The turtles have no fear of humans and come willingly to be fed. They heave themselves one on top of another to get at our hands extending seaweed to them; those at the bottom of the heap get submerged but don’t seem bothered. (In any case, how would we know if a turtle was expressing emotion?)

On a more macabre note there’s an entire whale skeleton and a pile of dolphin skulls. In 2006 some 450 dolphins washed up on the beaches around here one night and were dead by morning. The stench must have been unbearable.

In yet another part there are two big pythons found in the forests of central Zanzibar. I had no idea that the island contained any snakes at all; these things are pretty big and I wouldn’t like to meet one in the wild. Fortunately these two have just had their feed (of rats) and are sleepy and docile.

We collect Épi who has decided to sit out the turtles and rest her foot under a shady tree. She’s discovered a very young kitten, and all of us are being chased (?) slowly across the sand by furry yellow and black caterpillars. They have long bristles which sting if they touch you, so we have to keep checking how far they have advanced. (Honestly, I can’t believe I’m writing about being chased by caterpillars….).

Eventually after taking pictures of the sea and the enormous collection of boats anchored in the bay at Ras Nungwi, we set off round the shore. Nungwi is famous for dhow building and I want to see how its done and get some pictures. I’m not disappointed. There must be more than a dozen boats in all stages of construction from just keel, stem and sternpost, to the finishing touches. The boats are flush built, and caulked with cotton wool from the mainland. The shipwrights are incredibly skilful – they use no plans, use no rulers, and use no power tools. I watch one of them drilling holes with a bow saw. Others are fitting a small piece of wood to close a gap between two planks; the wood has been cut by eye and fits perfectly.

We talk to one of the shipwrights. He is a fourth generation builder. He tells us it takes a team of four men about a month and a half to build one of the smaller dhows. Some boats are made to order, others are speculative ventures. Fortunately at the moment there seems no shortage of demand for the boats and there must be at least a dozen teams of builders, some working, others resting under tarpaulins on piles of wood shavings.

The hulls are made of inch thick mahogany planks. On the beach there are frames where dozens of planks are seasoning before being used. Also further round on the beach are tangled piles of curved tree limbs. There are being kept to use for the ribs of boats; each tree branch will make one particular rib and its natural curvature will give the boat enormous strength. It is reassuring to see such genuine craftsmanship in action. One of my lasting memories is seeing the keel of one boat just being started – a single thick plank, marked out with chalk, and along each side of the keel a tapered slot being cut to accept the lowest of the hull planks. The slot was being cut with an adze, and yet the line the workman was making was so sharp and fine that you couldn’t have done any better with an electric router.

Further round the beach we find fisherman mending nets, and curious little huts, about twenty feet long but only four or five feet high, where nets and floats are being stored before use. Yet other people are repairing crab baskets shaped rather like cows’ feet.

At the edge of Nungwi village is a fish market recently rebuilt by the Japanese; the smell is pungent but there are no fish being sold when we descend on it and every slab is occupied by a Zanzibari relining in the shade. In fact everywhere we go there are people recumbent under trees, sleeping out the heat of the day.

There is no order to Nungwi village, and navigating your way round the houses, even with a map, is a hit and miss affair. We eventually come out into the village centre with a supermarket and a huge open area which in England would be a village green but at Nungwi is a sunbaked sandy sprawl. It is paralysingly hot outside and we’re wilting fast. We decide it would be a good idea to see if we can get a ride home in a boat.

Finding our way to the beach is no great problem, but there isn’t any sort of water bus. We start to walk along the beach (you can easily walk from Nungwi to Kendwa at low tide), but after a while we are warned by one of the locals that the tide is already too far in at the next headland. I’m sceptical at first, but after a few more yards we can see that he’s right. And where we’re walking we’re wading through heavy seaweed and there could easily be more sea urchins mixed up with the sand and weed.

One of the locals offers to take us in his boat, and we haggle until we have a fair price. I’m expecting a little motor boat, but to my joy we find we’re being taken home in a lovely dhow. And not only that, we have the entire boat to ourselves. There’s three crew, and three of us passengers. Best of all, they don’t use the engine but put the sail up straight away. The sail is old, patched to the “n”th degree, and tattered in places, but it works. I am able to watch as the sail is hoisted; I’ve never been in a boat with a lateen sail and I’m fascinated at how flexible and complicated the system is. It makes an English dinghy seem child’s play. Finally they offer me the tiller, and I’m able to sail us all the way home. Yay folks, I’m sailing a dhow through the Indian Ocean. How cool is that! Épi and Soraya look horrified at the thought of my steering, but Soraya goes up onto the upper deck and takes lots of pictures.

What a wonderful experience. The sea is such an intense blue it doesn’t look real (check out the pictures for today); we have breeze aplenty, and for the first time at Kendwa we’re well away from the crowds. Life is good. One of the classic excursions here in the north of Zanzibar is to do a dhow cruise at sunset. Well we don’t have the sunset but we have the dhow to ourselves and I’m able to experiment and see how close to the wind I can take her…..

Tina, my love, you’d do anything for this sort of experience. Like we said in our emails, you have just GOT to get yourself out to Zanzibar as soon as you can!

The boat is surprisingly heavy to steer, but when I manage to catch the wind perfectly we simply fly along. We cruise right past the posh resorts, right past our guest house and then cut back while we drop the sail. The dhow deposits us right on the beach opposite our favourite bar; we get envious looks from beach walkers as we scramble ashore trying to keep cameras from falling into the water. From the sea you get a completely different perspective of the built up part of Kendwa. The trip feels all too short but for me it was the crowning experience of the entire holiday. The sound of the wind ruffling the edges of the sail, the noised of the water as the boat cuts through it; the occasional creaks from the hull planking, but most of all the quiet and solitude of being alone out on the water – it’s a great feeling.

Back on the beach Épi and I go for another swim, keeping well clear of any bits which don’t have pure sand on the bottom. Meanwhile Rachael has texted to say that she and Andy are on their way north and will hook up with us for the evening. They don’t seem to arrive despite our waiting for them, and by early evening we are all starving so we decide to mooch up to the Kijiji café again. As we’re strolling through the sand Rachael and Andy spot us; they’ve been looking for us but not able to find us among the jumble of beach bars and development.

We eat together, then saunter back to Les T de P and drink beers on the beach while we talk and watch the lightning flickering over the African mainland.

Andy regales us with stories of his trip to Kampala at Easter. We met him on the Ssese Islands but never got to hear the full story of his escapades. His bus journey from Kigali to Uganda we certainly eventful. The big bus, slipping on wet roads, went off the road twice and the second time was left leaning at a 45 degree angle and unable to move with assistance. The woman sitting next to him had been repeatedly travel sick, vomiting into a plastic bag which she hung up next to the seat ready for further use. Andy has us in stitches describing being bounced off the road and trying to claw his way to safety with a bag of someone else’s vomit ricocheting off his head….. (not funny, you say – well, it’s the way he tells them…). Eventually the bus company had to hire local matatas to take Andy and the other passengers on to Kampala. Then he and Dan got robbed and mugged in Kampala. Next he describes the experience we’ve all had of being in a matata in Rwanda and wanting the window open to get fresh air and reduce the smell of unwashed bodies, while someone behind you tries to slam the window through your arm to close it. Andy describes keeping his arm through the window and the silly person behind continually chopping the glass into his arm until Andy loses his cool and turns round and bellows at the person to shut up. The entire complement of passengers goes quiet in nervous giggles at the sight of a muzungu losing his temper. But it worked; he had his open window and the satisfaction of letting off steam. We can’t be culturally super sensitive all the time!

Some Germans at the table next to us take their candle and try to have a tide fight. It’s a moonless night tonight and it feels very dark. For lighting we have just one candle in a bed of sand inside a water bottle with its top cut off, and as we’re sitting in the middle of the beach there’s no other light around us at all. There’s a big power cut in progress; the upmarket resorts have generators but Les T de P has to make do with candles. The night is inky black. It only takes a power cut to push even Kendwa back to rural Africa at its most uncompromising!

Eventually we realise we’re all weary and decide to call it a day. Rachael and Andy will have to negotiate a price for a taxi back to Nungwi where they’re staying; they’ll do well to get below 20,000 as opposed to our 200 in the daladala.

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