Tuesday, 17 November 2009

In which we try beach cycling and find the perfect lagoon

November 6th

Another perfect breakfast on the beach. I’ve been in for an early morning swim, but whereas the afternoon water is almost too warm to swim in, the dawn tide is decidedly cold. Soraya and I are both up to see the sunrise but don’t get as good pictures as yesterday’s. Rachael is still very poorly from the sunburn when she went snorkelling and decides to spend a second day resting, reading and taking life easy. The other three of us have negotiated a day rate for our cycles, and we’re ready for off.

The bikes appear to have plenty of gears, but in reality the chains haven’t been oiled in years, the gears seem to be jammed with rust or sand, and they amount to single gear machines just like the heavy Chinese jobs they use in Rwanda. Soraya hasn’t ridden a bike since she was about twelve, so today promises to be an interesting experience for her.

We’ve decided to go all the way up the Michamvi peninsula to Pingwe, and then turn left for a mile or so to Kae which is the end of the road. We set off on the first leg along our beach. The beach is used as a road, and from to time we have seen mopeds, bikes – everything except cars – trundling past our hut.

Progress is slow at first. You would think that the sand down by the water’s edge is too soft to ride on, and the sand at the top of the beach is lovely and firm. In reality it’s the other way round. We have to ride almost at the water’s edge, our tyres crunching over shell fragments and with the odd bits of seaweed wrapping themselves in the chain when the wind blows them up towards us. Every few yards we set off a group of terns feeding on the mudflats (the tide was high at about five this morning and is already well on its way out), and now and then a heron flaps clumsily into the air and settles a few yards away as if flying is too much of a chore in the heat.

It is already dangerously hot; I have slathered myself in sun cream but wrap my head, neck and shoulders in a travel towel so that I look like something out of the French Foreign Legion (on a bad day). Soraya and Épiphanie are getting seriously sunburnt, too. It is glorious to cycle along the beach; the sea breeze makes you forget just how hot it is; we have blue sea to one side, green coconut plantations to the other, and the white coral sand beach in front of us. There are so few people around that we feel as if we own the entire island. (Just look at today’s photos and you’ll see what we mean).

There is a continuous line of hotels and guest houses along the beach, but they are generally well camouflaged. They are invariably set behind the line of palm trees; they are just about all thatched with palms and they blend in well. The only strident note is a big commercial holiday complex which does exactly the opposite at the far end of the beach. It is prominent, not sympathetic to local materials, and above all else there is an executive series of chalets built on stilts at the far end of a long jetty stretching out into the sea. It looks out of place and faintly ridiculous, but undoubtedly it is the shape of things to come and I’m sure that in a few years the entire beach will be spoilt in the same way.

Out to sea the waves are roaring on the reef; at low tide there is just a thin white line to mark the place. Inside the reef the mudflats glisten ivory; there is a lot of seaweed and plant debris strewn all over the mud and sand, and little tidal pools of water shimmer and shiver in the breeze all around us. The sand just above the water line is a perfect surface for cycling – flat, hard, and more or less level. It’s bliss.

Bliss, that is, until we reach the jetty and have to come inland and find the tarmac road. Then, out of the breeze, the full heat really hits us. We are pushing our bikes up what should be a cliff but which has been reduced to a steep slope, one which can be negotiated by four wheel drive vehicles. The sweat is streaming off us. Half way up the slope there is the holiday complex’s bar. We speak with the manager (actually, we’re asking permission to cross his land to get to the main road but I think he’s so surprised to see muzungus cycling in the heat that he takes pity on us). We decide we need a rest; he opens up his bar; we buy icy cold drinks and chill for a few minutes until we feel braced enough to venture out into the sun again.

I’m cursing myself because in the haste of departure (!) I left the guide book in the hut. Never mind, there’s only one road in the entire peninsula and I’ve more or less memorised what it says about each restaurant to the lagoon.

We reach the tarmac road and find it almost entirely level and an easy surface to cycle on. There’s very little traffic – we can ride three abreast up the road for most of the way. On the inland side there’s thin soil and low, scrubby bushes which look as if nobody is even trying to use the land for agriculture. On the seaward side there’s a more or less continual line of development, sometimes tucked away behind white coral-stone walls, but always discreetly hidden from view of the road. This is excellent because it means that wherever there’s a gap in the vegetation or the walls you are looking straight out to sea. It’s lovely. Here and there some soulful looking cows browse in whatever shade they can find, and on the poorest land there are goats (but nothing like the density of goats that you find in Rwanda).

The kilometres fall away quickly and we’re at the corner of the main road before we realise it. We pause to catch our breath and drink our water, then push on for the last couple of kilometres to Kae and the end of the road. There’s a slight hill up, and a relatively (for Zanzibar) steep little incline down into Kae, which you approach by meandering through a coconut grove. There are the usual speed bumps, but we let ourselves go and bounce over the bumps, entering coconut grove and village at full tilt. At roughly this point we realise that not only do our bike gears not work, the brakes are barely effective as well. By sheer good luck we don’t encounter any children, goats, lorries, daladalas or anything else until we plough into a sandy stretch of track and we coast to a more sedate speed.

It occurs to me that if here in Zanzibar they seem able to tarmac every road so that no village lacks all weather access, and if they can bring electricity to every hamlet, why on earth can’t we get the same situation done faster in Rwanda?

We pass a primary school, the pupils still at work, and a little plot of land for sale (no sea views but its right against the main road). Kae is a tiny place; there is a line of three or four hotel complexes at the water’s edge but just about nothing else save for a single shop and a dozen or so houses. It really is the end of the road in every sense.

But Kae is where we reach Chwaka Bay, the beautiful big lagoon stretching far into the heart of Zanzibar. It is now almost completely low tide. The sea is a long way away, but there are pools of water, some quite deep, everywhere. We throw ourselves into whatever shade we can find and survey the scene.

Right in front of us the water, shallow and tidal, is marked out into plots with small wooden sticks two or three feet long. These mark seaweed farms. Lengths of rope are stretched between the sticks, and as the tidal currents ebb and flow every day seaweed gets itself wrapped round the string and poles. As we watch there are several women unwrapping the weed and putting it onto baskets. They will put it out to dry in the hot sun and when it is completely dry it will be bagged up and sold in the mainland. I’m not sure what it is used for – whether food, or animal feed, or even as fertiliser, but it is a recent idea specifically to give extra employment and a source of pocket money to the women here. We wander among some of the seaweed plots; there’s not a lot of weed left (we assume this part has already been harvested). At one point a huge sea slug has wrapped itself round the rope, cucumber green and all waving tentacles at its business end.

The lagoon is massive – 4-5 miles long and at least 3-4 across. The water is blue green. Enormous white sandbanks are strewn everywhere across the middle at low tide, with crescent shaped pools of pale blue shallow water between them. Here and there we find sea urchins lurking in the sand, some of them very big. These are beautiful creatures, a deep burgundy colour which glows just like good wine in the watery light filtering through the shallow pools.

We cycle on a few yards and hide our bikes under mangrove trees. Few people are willing to penetrate a mangrove thicket and we feel confident we can leave our bikes, clothes and money here without it being stolen. (Not that there are more than a dozen people in view across the whole expanse of the lagoon. But we don’t want to have to pay compensation for missing bikes….).

We change into our bathers and walk across the sand to the nearest deep-looking pool. Some of the sand, exposed to the sun for several hours, is almost too hot to walk on. We pick up a starfish and examine it; we do biology lessons on shells. We reach deeper water and swim to our hearts’ content. There is a group of Italians from one of the expensive resorts close to us, but they have finished in the water and we are the only bathers as far as the eye can see.

The tide has started to come in, and fast. We have left our towels and sandals on a sandbank which is now only half as big as when we arrived. In fact, we have to walk a circuitous route back to the bikes because in one place where we paddled through ankle deep water, the tide has come in so far that there’s a sizeable boat moored in the middle.

Changed and covered up against the sun we try to find somewhere to get a drink. The little bar serving the Italians isn’t interested, so we go back to where the road ends and find a shady bar with a panoramic view. Two Italian couples are tucking into endless plates of seafood; spare plates piled high with spent crab carapaces and claws surround them and still the cooks are bringing out more and more seafood. We, the poor relations, just have a cold coke. The barman can’t make us out. Where are we from?, why are we here? The question he really wants to ask is “Why are you two lovely girls with this old man?” so he has to go a convoluted way to get his answer. I suppose some people think I’m a sex tourist who has picked up the two young women, or at very least a “suga daddi”. We tell him the truth and you can see that he only half believes us. You don’t get many VSO volunteers in this remote place!

Next we pedal our bikes back to our hut. We can’t return via the beach because the tide’s too far in, and in any case it’s quicker by the main road. We return tired out, very overdone with the sun, but pleased with ourselves. We’ve done about 25k which might not seem much in England but in 90 degree heat and almost total humidity is some exercise. Soraya is aching all over; it’s probably the longest distance she’s cycled ever.

Rachael is nowhere to be found until we try the bar on stilts; there she is with her fag, her novel (second one; she’s finished the first) and a glass of wine. Go Rachael, you’re a cool lady!

Our reward for all our exercise is a swim in the hot seawater – the tide’s almost fully in at our hut. The mud on the sea bed turns into a silky smooth paste when the tide comes in; it’s almost like flour paste, but not unpleasant to walk on.

We eat well again – octopus in spices and coconut sauce; rice cooked in coconut milk and loads of fresh fruit. We amble down to the bar for a quick drink and have an early night.

Unfortunately during the night it becomes clear that my bed and Rachael’s have bedbugs in them (first time in all my stay in Africa that I’ve been affected). I live with it but Rachael’s so badly bitten that in the middle of the night she gets up, wakes up the guest house manager and makes him unlock another room for her to sleep in. It’s a pity; the bugs are the only jarring note in what has come to be an absolutely idyllic spot. Soraya and Épi are sharing a double bed and have no problems at all, so it’s just two of us who are unlucky.

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