Tuesday, 17 November 2009

In which we have a lazy day by the beach, meet ghost crabs and plastic Masai

November 5th

My phone alarm goes off at 5.30 but it takes me a good five minutes to find it, hidden under some of Rachael’s things. The reason I have set it is that I want to get some pictures of sunrise over the ocean. Nature duly obliges; the tide is fully in with the water lapping underneath the piles holding up the nearby bar. The sun rises from the ocean and I manage to frame it in one of the ngalawa outrigger fishing canoes conveniently tied up near out hut. Soraya comes out, too, and between us we collect quite an impressive collection of moody pictures. We had anticipated a cloudless sky, but instead we get some rather ragged clouds which set off the sunrise even better.

A few people are already up and about and enjoying the dawn, but the impressive thing about the beach at Bwejuu is how empty it remains. For most of the time we have the entire beach to ourselves.

A few “plastic Masai” are wandering along the sand. They look completely out of place dressed in their robes – trainers, socks half way up their calves, shorts, and a plaid shawl which always contains a lot of red. Some have shaven heads, some have pony tails. Some wear designer sunglasses which looks odd against the ethnic robes. Some of them may be proper Masai from Kenya; others are more likely to be locals trying to imitate them. They are everywhere on Zanzibar. Some of them earn their living as guards, others by having tourists pay to take their pictures; others run craft stalls up in the north of the island.

Soraya and I go back to bed and laze for a while. Today is a rest day. Breakfast is eventually served inside our thatched hut on the beach, punctuated by the occasional thud of a falling coconut. All over the hut floor there are strange marks in the sand. At first I wonder if it is lizards, or snakes, or even scorpions. But the reality is much more mundane. They’re bigger versions of the tracks made by our ghost crabs from yesterday. The solid looking sandy beach is riddled with crab burrows; they come out to feed during the hours of darkness when they’re safer from the lines of birds which wade in the surf looking for what they can scavenge. There are at least two kinds of heron and various terns which congregate in big flocks and scatter at our approach as if someone has flung a handful of stones across the waves.

We laze in the shade for most of the day. The only problem at Bwejuu is that that the tide goes a long way out, too far to walk to the sea, and at the edge of the sand is a wide area of sticky mud. I try wading into it but in seconds I’m up to mid calf and I don’t fancy getting stuck in the mud as the tide’s coming in. The sand is littered with thousands of tiny pools. In every pool there are little cowrie shells about an inch and a half long. And in virtually every cowrie there’s a hermit crab. I pick up some of the shells and put them in my pocket to bring home as souvenirs; but it’s disconcerting to feel something wriggling and struggling in your pocket a few seconds later. The crabs are trying to escape! I set up crab races across the table outside our hut, but have to abandon since I can’t train the damned things to all race in the same direction!

The sea colours are amazing. Far out the water is green; closer to shore it ranges from deep blue to milky. The continual roar of surf out on the reef becomes restful; it drowns out occasional noises like conversation and birdsong and tends to make you sleepy. Far out on the horizon there’s a long string of fluffy white clouds looking as if someone has undone a packet of cotton wool and strung it across the sky. It never gets closer, never builds up into storm clouds, but it’s always there.

Along this beach there are remarkably few papasi or anyone else trying to sell us things, and by nine o’clock even the women desperate to get us to have henna all over our skin have given up and are dozing wherever they can find shade.

Rachael is in a bad way from sunburn; her back and legs are terribly red. She hasn’t been lying out in the sun at all, it is simply the effect of sunlight through the shallow reef water yesterday. She has to take to her bed to read, rehydrate and wait for time to start healing the burns.

By mid afternoon we’re getting itchy feet and set off to explore the village of Bwejuu. There isn’t much to see. As we walk to the village we pass a big building where one of the Stone Town secondary schools seems to be having a field course. They’ve just packed up for the afternoon and Épi, Soraya and I are chatted up by some of the girls. They’re dressed impeccably, swishing through the sand in their long skirts and headscarves, but they chatter and giggle just like their English equivalents.

There’s not much to see in the village. We find a shop to buy water and some sweets including a lovely “dulce de coco” (coconut, sugar and just enough fat to bind it all together. Very addictive and definitely fattening). In the village we see several of what we think are raised rabbit hutches, but they turn out to be dovecots. The doves (pigeons) are a reserve source of food if fishing is bad. Life here is hard, but at least everywhere seems to have electricity. At one end of the village there’s a deep well, but we’ve already discovered that the tap water here is decidedly brackish.

There’s a couple in the hut next to us who have hired bikes for the day. We chat to them and decide we’ll also hire bikes tomorrow and cycle to Chwaka lagoon at the tip of the Michamvi peninsula. The couple give us an idea of what we should expect to pay for the bikes (i.e. the starting price and what is really acceptable) and we find this sort of information a Godsend.

We eat in our breakfast hut, under the stars, with fish freshly caught during the day. (Soraya goes for octopus). The rice is cooked with coconut milk, and fish is simply delicious in coconut sauce with the subtlest of spices. Not hot chilli-style, but subtle and pungent and really, really enjoyable. And to follow we’re given more fresh fruit than we can cope with.

By the time we finish eating we can’t be bothered to go to the bar for a drink. We sit and chat about all the children’s books we’ve had or used. The sea breeze is now very strong, too powerful for mosquitoes. We sleep without nets and Rachael and I are surprised to find we have been bitten quite seriously by morning.

To have a beach this extensive and perfect with so few people is just amazing. It’s like being on our own personal desert island.

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