Monthly Archive for November, 2008

Dan: Zanzibar Part 1

Four days ago we put on our backpacks and hit the road. After so many sad goodbyes in Kampala it was almost a relief to be travelling again. We flew out of Entebbe airport and two hours later touched down in Stone Town, sultry capital of the Zanzibar archipelago.

Zanzibar is the largest of a small island chain sweltering in the Indian Ocean, just fifty miles or so from the Tanzanian coast. As you step out of the plane, a salty blast of ocean air hits you square in the chest. “The heat is different in Zanzibar”, we’d been warned by friends back in Uganda, and they were right. Zanzibari heat is the sort that forbids exertion. In seconds it evaporates all but the strongest sightseeing impulse. It can ruin a clean shirt in ten sweaty minutes.

We were met at the airport by “Tembo” (Swahili for Elephant), a portly/jovial taxi driver who fitted his nickname perfectly. We’d booked ourselves into “Emerson Spice”, a new hotel still being constructed from the dilapidated interior of a nineteenth century merchant’s house in the heart of town. Not yet complete, and in fact not yet open to fully-paying guests, the hotel had been recommended to us by Mike, the son of Ian Clarke (Grania’s boss at IHK). He knew the owner, who’d offered to let us stay in the hotel’s only finished room for $15 a night.

We piled into Tembo‘s taxi and drove off through a crowd of excited airport touts. Fifteen minutes later we were illegally parked outside the entrance to a chaotic fish market and told that we’d need to walk the rest of the distance on foot.

(I will not describe the market itself, as there is nothing more irritating than bad travel writing describing foreign markets – “wonderful aroma of pungent spices”, “wonderful exotic fruit”, “wonderful assault on the senses” etc. However, saying that I did step on a stingray fully six feet across, which had been left in an aisle.)

Stone Town is the oldest part of Zanzibar Town. An atmospheric rabbit-warren of crumbling buildings and narrow alleyways, the entire area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.Many buildings familiar to the likes of Livingstone and Rimbaud are still standing. The whole place is thick with the atmosphere of a darker age, when slaves were sold by the thousand and unscrupulous merchants grew fat from the trade.

We’d parked, badly, on Creek Road, the dividing line separating “old” Stone Town from “new” Zanzibar Town. Shouldering our backpacks once more, and ignoring the angry looks of market sellers unhappy at our choice of parking spot, we followed Tembo down the shadowy street. Within meters we’d lost all idea of where we’d come from, and even less where we were going.

Seventeen twists and twelve turns later, we found ourselves in a tiny courtyard. A little girl in hijab stood next to a pile of oranges. Three men dozed in the shade. A stifling aroma of a dozen different smells hovered around us. Above us towered a beautifully-restored Zanzibari mansion, five stories high. From a balcony a tattered canvas sign proclaimed: “emerson spice”. We’d found our hotel.

Our suite was perhaps the nicest I’ve ever stayed in. An out-and-out Arabian Nights fantasy hidden away in the heart of the souk, Emerson Spice promises to be Stone Town’s most atmospheric hotel. Three wonderfully air-conditioned nights flew by in a flash of fresh fish suppers, Safari beer and forced marches on the Tourist Trail. The House of Wonders – Tick, Palace Museum – Tick, Old Fort – Tick, Monastery Ruins – Check.

And then it was time to leave. On Monday we were picked up by Mike, (who with his dad’s help is building his own hotel on Zanzibar) and driven to the east coast of the island. We’re currently staying with him in his house on Uroa beach, and tomorrow we are heading north to the famous super-fine white sand beaches of Pongwe.

It’s a hard life being a backpacker…