Tuesday, 17 November 2009

In which we discover the wonders of coral reefs, cuddle tortoises and try daladalas

November 4th

Breakfast on the roof as usual. The sky is beginning to cloud over but even at seven in the morning you need to be wearing sunscreen. We pack up our kit, settle our hotel bill and arrange to leave our bags in a room at Flamingo. We’re getting real problems with money - all our notes are in 10,000 shilling bills whereas very few Zanzibaris seem to have enough change on them. Off we breeze through the Old Town towards the harbour. On the way we pass a secondary school; pupils are sitting chanting out loud. After my village primaries in the middle of the banana fields it feels funny to encounter a school surrounded by houses and with absolutely no playground of any sort. (We’ve met this on the two previous days – when its break time pupils slip out into the streets and sit in groups on the benches at the edges of the alleys). We notice many signs are in French – why? Zanzibar was never a French colony and isn’t French speaking in any part.

Lounging outside the Old Customs House is one of the boat touts we were pestered by yesterday, but we think his prices are likely to be more reasonable than the others and we spend ten minutes or so haggling with him. (I decide it’ll be more effective if I step back and let the girls do the negotiating). In the end we agree 10,000 shillings for a return trip to Changuu Island and hire of four sets of snorkelling gear. One of the tricks here is to assume an exchange rate of 1 dollar = 1000 shillings. That may be convenient to remember but the actual exchange rate is 1320 to the dollar, and we find we get much better deals if we pay in shillings. The Zanzibaris, on the other hand, all want us to pay in dollars. Everything takes time to negotiate; they’ll start bidding in dollars and at a ridiculously high rate. We’ve then got to make them convert into shillings and then beat them down to something we think is bearable.

None of these people seem to own the boats or the kit; they set themselves up as experts but as soon as you arrange anything with them they have to rush off and arrange to hire the boat and kit from somebody else. It’s all a bit nerve wracking until things finally start to happen.

Our boat is a long wooden hulled affair with a semicircular faded orange canvas awning to keep the sun off. There are many similar boars in the harbour at Stone Town and at any time of day you’ll see them motoring past.

We load up and set off for the island. The trip takes about twenty minutes. We can see the island from Stone Town harbour; it looks suitable tropical; with white sandy beaches, green trees in the interior and lovely blue sea all around it. We weave our way through the commercial boats anchored off the port and enjoy getting a different perspective of the built up area from out to sea. Our marker points are, as always, the towers of the House of Wonders, the catholic cathedral with its two spires and the slender minaret of the main mosque.

The water is beautifully clean and clear even close in to the harbour. We pass dozens of young crabs swimming energetically on the surface of the water. I have no idea why they are swimming when they could crawl along the sea bed, and why they should want to be on the surface where they must be vulnerable to birds. We scoop one or two out of the water to look at them. Their bodies are a couple of inches across; as soon as we put them back into the sea they flail their arms like a mechanical toy and scoot off towards Unguja Island. Who knows where they’re heading and why?

Nearer the island, as the water gets shallower, we start seeing starfish on the bottom. Beautiful olive green creatures, with orange or white lumps along the top. Again, we scoop one up as soon as we reach shallow water. I’m used to fossil starfish but this is the first time I’ve ever been able to really have a good look at a live specimen. The hundreds of tube feet along each arm are amazing machines and we watch them extend and retract. (An interest in biology is one of the professional threads all four of us have in common). As with the crabs, as soon as we release the starfish into the water it rights itself (it had landed wrong way up) and moves away from us with remarkable alacrity. I had always imagined starfish as sluggish creatures; this particular specimen is definitely a turbocharged model!

Also close in to Changuu island the sea is full of tiny fish, dull coloured but present in enormous numbers. The sandy bottom is littered with plant remains – dead leaves, bits of branches, coconut fragments. The sand itself is gorgeous; as soft as silk and the kind of white you only thought you’d see in tourist posters. As at Dar, the sand is studded with broken pieces of shells, mostly white scallops, and with small pieces of coral set loose from the surrounding reefs.

I’m expecting us to be dropped on the beach and to snorkel out towards the sea, but instead we drop anchor a hundred yards out into the water and we realise we’re going into deeper water over the side of the boat. Tugging on flippers we drop ourselves into the water and get adjusted to our equipment.

I have to come clean and say I’m a coward and a failure at snorkelling. I quickly get water into my snorkel tube and start coughing and choking, at which point I decide to dispense with the tube and mask and concentrate on swimming. The water is warm and even in this deeper section I can see the bottom. I also have to leave my glassed in the support boat, and without glasses my vision is very limited, especially under water. However, all is not lost. I’m happy swimming under water and popping up for breath whenever necessary, and I discover the extra push that my flippers gives me makes swimming ever so easy.

Even better, within a few metres the water gets dramatically shallow and I’m swimming over the most beautiful live coral reef. It really does look like a garden, as all the text books say. I swim forwards and backwards and dive down to get close looks at brain coral, fan coral and stag horn types in all colours from pink through white to emerald green, as well as every imaginable shade of beige. In places the water is so shallow that I run aground and have to carefully, carefully ease myself back out into deeper water without damaging the fragile corals.

The sea is never cold; occasionally there is a bubble of cold water which chills me but just as quickly there will be another little burst of warm sea to cheer me up. We can stay in the water for a long time without feeling cold or tired.

Some of the corals look so delicate that I wonder how they can survive in the rough and tumble of waves. Others are massive and look like ramparts of stone, a form of underwater castle. Épi yells that she’s seen an angel fish and decides to follow it as it lazily meanders around the reef looking for food. Rachael gets her head down and swims further and further away, every few feet discovering some even more beautiful section of the reef.

Sometimes the sunlight is refracted by the seawater to give thousands of rainbow hued haloes around the corals. The colours and textures are simply stunning. This is the first time I’ve ever swum next to live coral, and even with poor eyesight it’s a defining experience.

I’m not expecting the reef to be so uneven. At one point the water is so shallow there isn’t room to swim over the reef; then in a matter of inches you’re in deep water. The reef balloons outwards in places and is rarely flat or even for more than a few centimetres.

We swim, we rest in the boat, we jump back in the water and time after time we want to get back into the sea and have yet another look at the reef. Rachael is like a mermaid, somewhere far away in the distance visible only to the crewman in the boat. Soon we’re joined by other boats (we were the first of the day which is always nice), and lo and behold Jenny turns up in one of them. Out on the main reef fishermen are working their way slowly in other boats, standing up in their canoes and balancing nets in an impressive feat of co-ordination.

I lie on my back and survey the surroundings. The sky, the sea, the sand – it really could have come from one of the TV travel shows or wall posters advertising paradise. We’ve certainly come a long way from Rwanda and the grinding poverty of everyday African life. Curiously enough one thing that seems to be missing is seabirds. There are very few, especially when you consider the number of little crabs and tiny fish they could be feeding on. Presumably there are even better picking somewhere close by.

When Rachael eventually rejoins us we land on the island and immediately feel we’re walking into a furnace. In the thirty seconds it takes us to cross the beach and reach shade, I can feel my shoulders have been burnt. The sun really is that strong. We have to pay an entrance fee to land on Changuu (it’s privately owned), and are admitted to the Aldebaran tortoise sanctuary. The beasts are impressive. Second in size only to the Galapagos tortoises, these animals were hunted to the brink of extinction. Those we see here are the offspring of a pair given as presents to Zanzibar in the 1920s and added to at intervals ever since. Even on Changuu the creatures are not safe; turtle flesh is such a delicacy and there are so many hungry people around that even with the most high tech protection some of them disappear each year. But at least the numbers are stable. The tortoises have a high, domed shell with very distinctive hexagonal bosses whose edges form concentric patterns. They have sharp beaks but don’t usually attack people. They’re more interested in eating spinach and other grasses; we’re each given a handful of tortoise food and dutifully go and find a specimen who looks hungry. (How can you tell if a tortoise is hungry? They don’t exactly run up to you or sit up and beg!). There are natural lagoons of dubious looking water for the tortoises to keep themselves cool. The ground is littered with tortoise poo. Every few feet we find yet another photo opportunity and soon come to realise that even these lumbering creatures have personalities. This one looks spaced out; that one’s positively coquettish. The girls are allowed to hold a small tortoise; a mere teenager of fifteen years or so who hisses and displays all the reptilian “am I bovvered?” expression he can muster. We learn that if you stroke the backs of their necks the tortoises enjoy it and extend their heads as far as they will go.

Changuu island is flat. It is made up of pure coral but somehow there is enough soil and humus in cracks and fissures among the grey rock to support a dense cover of trees. The whole place is rarely more than about ten feet above high tide level; in stormy weather the air must be full of salt spray from the reef, so I marvel at the sheer quantity and variety of vegetation which is thriving here. There’s plenty of bird life in the trees and even some small antelope (so we’re told – we never see any of them). The island was used to site a prison but it was never used; instead it became a quarantine centre when severe yellow fever attacks devastated mainland Africa. Now the old prison building is part of a luxury hotel, with villas dotted around the coastline and blending into the woods.

We sail back to the mainland and take, predictably, several wrong turnings before finding our way back to our hotel. We end up in Creek Street, the main road running along the edge of Stone Town’s old part, and accidentally discover the place where we need to get transport out to the east of the island this afternoon.

Our “Rough Guide” says the last bus to Bwejuu leaves around two in the afternoon; by the time we read this it’s already after two. So we catapult ourselves back to the bus station and find a bus about to leave. (Our Rough Guide dates from 2006 and is wrong about the buses; they leave at regular intervals right up until dusk. But we didn’t know that at the time).

Buses on the island are called daladalas. They are Japanese built delivery vans converted so that they carry passengers. They are completely different from Rwanda’s matatas and much less comfortable. There is a “U” shaped hard wooden bench running along the sides and front of the luggage section, so that passengers face each other inwards into rows, with a few facing out towards the back of the bus (see photos). The sideways seats are the best because you catch the breeze as the bus is moving. The ceilings are usually covered with the kind of brightly covered adhesive fabric that kitchen tablecloths used to be made of, and there’s usually a grab rail. The ceilings are low, and the supporting ribs calculated to brain me every time we go over a road hump (i.e. about every mile).

The rascally conductor asks me for 5000 fare; I know this is miles too high so I laugh in his face and walk away. Within three paces the fare has come down to 2000, and we pay. (We later discover the correct fare is 1500 but the difference is less than 30p in English money; it’s the principle that matters). To the convoyeur that he successfully manages to fleece the tourists, and to us that we feel we’re beating him down to a reasonable level.

We’re armed with delicious sesame seed biscuits we’ve bought in town; while we’re eating these the daladala races back and forth through Stone Town picking up goods at various points and the odd extra passenger. Daladalas are used as delivery vehicles on Zanzibar much more so than in Rwanda and will pull into people’s front drives if it saves lugging heavy baggage a few yards. We pass the same roundabout at least three times; we know it’s the same roundabout because there’s a cow wandering around it looking out of place. This could be Bombay as much as Zanzibar. There’s no grass for it to eat on the roundabout, and traffic is surging in all directions. But nobody seems in the slightest bothered; nobody comes to claim the cow.

By the time we finally set off the roof is laden with five sacks of Vietnamese red rose rice, a massive sack of cassava flour, about six sacks of charcoal, a basket of chickens, a bicycle, several dozen planks of hardwood, many drums of cooking oil and a few hands of bananas.

We’re so tightly jammed into the passenger compartment that we cushion each other against the worst of the bumps. The convoyeur rides on the tailboard, but every time we pass a police checkpoint he has to squeeze inside and try to give the impression the bus isn’t overloaded. And we are most definitely overloaded. At one place the policeman looks dubious, whereupon one of the women passengers reaches into her bag, pulls out a couple of packets of biscuits and hands them to the policeman and his sidekick. Needless to say, we are allowed to pass without further ado. I hope the woman deducts the cost of the biscuits from the fare she pays the convoyeur.

Just about everyone on the bus is Muslim; all eye contact with us is avoided, especially by the women.

Once we leave the conservation part of Stone Town the buildings become the usual straggly mix of shops, houses, junkyards and factories all thrown among each other. It’s a relief to get properly out of the town and into the real countryside of Zanzibar. My golly, what a contrast. This is real rural poverty. The land is flat – in the 50km from Stone Town to Bwejuu we rarely rise or fall more than a couple of feet. Some difference from Rwanda – Kigali to Gitarama is also 50km but involves thousands of feet of climbing and descending before you arrive! The land is covered with low scrubby trees; they can’t be original forest but as with Changuu island the vegetation seems surprisingly luxuriant. At one point we go round the edge of one of the few pieces of natural woodland left on the island, and the variety and density of plants are amazing. There is almost no surface water; we rarely pass any stream.

The road twists and turns and we spend much time driving up little lanes to drop off people and goods before retracing out steps to the “main road” and going further. Our cargo of timber turns out to be for a building extension in a posh report. Our sacks of rice and oil and cassava are for a secondary school near the east coast.

The villages along the east coast are all built of coral stone. They are grey and dull looking; houses are thatched with coconut palm. The “soil” in these villages is almost pure sand. We can understand them as fishing places but surely they can’t be trying to grow food crops in pure sand?

We’ve decided we want to stay at “Robinson’s Place” because it has such a good write up in the “rough Guide”. We tell the convoyeur and he drops us at the end of a grey, stony lane disappearing through scrub in the general direction of the sea. We trudge wearily in the heat and dust until we come to both the sea, and a line of guest houses along the shore. We can hear the constant roar of surf on the reef far out to sea. “Robinson’s Place” is either full or doesn’t like the look of us, so we carry on and strike lucky at “Shells”, our third choice. We negotiate a room (they have only three beds in their biggest room but there’s space to fit in a fourth and that’s just what the owner does very quickly for us).

This place is special. We’re sleeping in a hut on the beach itself. The room has a fan, mosquito nets, and we have our private shower and washbasin (albeit without any kind of curtain separating them from the sleeping area. Discretion is required….). The eating place is a palm thatch hut even further out onto the beach; at high tide in the early morning the waves are lapping barely ten feet from our breakfast and barely twenty paces from our beds. And all this for 10,000 shillings a night plus breakfast (in English terms about £5 a night).

By now it’s too late to swim; we haven’t eaten properly since breakfast and we’re all starving. We eat nearby at the “Princess Diana” restaurant run by Rashid, a kindly Omani. The food costs each of us about the same as our lodgings for the night, but it’s proper food. Wonderful Omani spices. We sample Konyagi, the local gin (tastes exactly the same as Ugandan Waragi to me).

As we walk along the sand the few paces back to our hut, the full moon is rising above the Indian Ocean. Little things are scuttling along the beach; they are ghost crabs, almost transparent and they leave very characteristic markings as they scuttle sideways through the sand before disappearing into their burrows for safety.

There’s a stiff sea breeze coming from the ocean. We don’t need to use the fan because the air in the hut is fresh, and we’re not bothered by mosquitoes. Quite literally we’re lulled to sleep by the swash of waves on the beach and the distant rumble of surf on the reef. There’s no other noise at all. We really have found paradise.

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