Zanzibar is heaven for those who prefer the timeless sights and sounds and smells of an older, simpler, rougher world, writes John Weekes.

Dust-coloured cats scuttle in the gutters, mad eyes glinting in the sun. The smell of fire and spice tempers the stench of open drains, rotten trash and centuries of sweat stuck on the walls of old Stone Town, Zanzibar.

Landing on East Africa's famous spice island with no plans, no place to stay, and no prior experience, it seemed wise to accost backpackers for advice on where to stay. A young Irishman called Allan suggested somewhere called St. Monica's. I'd never heard of it. But Allan seemed a seasoned traveller, so St. Monica's it would be.

A converted convent built on the ruins of an ancient slave market, St Monica's Hotel faces the edge of Stone Town, Zanzibar's oldest and most crowded quarter. Carved wooden doors guard the bedrooms of this budget hotel. For US$20 a night, you'll have your own room and breakfast. While you may expect value, such value comes with certain quirks.
Inside my room, a pair of blue jandals rested on the bedroom floor. "Someone else must be staying here," I told Allan.

Advertisement

"No, you wear them in the showers. On account of the filth."

Well, at least I'd have a room to myself.

Through the windows, a mosque's minaret was visible in the distance. For ages, Zanzibar's main island, Unguja, hosted a collision of cultures — Persian, Portuguese, Arab, Bantu, British.

Freddie Mercury was born here. You can visit his early haunts but, according to Allan, devoutly Muslim tour guides obscure the details of Mercury's life. "In this house, Freddie lived with his first wife", and such like.

The infinity pool at the Sea Cliff Resort & Spa, Zanzibar. Photo / Creative Commons License
The infinity pool at the Sea Cliff Resort & Spa, Zanzibar. Photo / Creative Commons License

Tourism and farming, including clove-harvesting, provide what little cash the island has.

But huge profits from the slave, spice and ivory trades once lured foreign powers, which jostled to rule Zanzibar.

Three centuries ago, Omani sultans from Arabia secured a stranglehold. They soon built the Old Fort, an imposing waterfront stone edifice now peppered with curio shops catering to tourists. The nearby House of Wonders is a ceremonial palace built in the 1880s. It holds a charming museum with displays including an Mtepe — an old Swahili ship made of wood and coconut fibres.

For now, the priority was sampling local cuisine, mostly a murky mix of odd-looking plants and animals street vendors cooked. It would be useful if someone could help decipher the food. Back at the hotel, a young Englishman called Sam watched the evening street life from the balcony.

Sam vaguely knew Irish Allan and was fluent in very limited pidgin Swahili, so became an unpaid expat tour guide for us.

At sundown, we walked round Stone Town. Sam somehow kept his bearings in the web of old alleys before showing us Forodhani Gardens.

An open-air barbecue market, Forodhani is where cosmopolitan Zanzibar comes alive. Grilled baby octopus and skewered meat sticks yell for tourist dollars but Forodhani is also popular with locals. As the sun heads off to the African mainland, poor Ungujans emerge for what is often their only real daily meal.

A chef started talking to us. His friend, a very stoned teenage hanger-on, offered to sell me marijuana, or "something special" as he called it. The chef asked Allan and Sam what their plans were.

"I want to go to Kendwa," Sam said.

Kendwa is a beach resort 60km north of Stone Town. We soon discovered The Chef was something of a polymath, being a tour guide and public transport booking agent by day.

He said his "cousin" would drive us to Kendwa by dala dala (local minibus) for 15,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $15). Deal.

The next day sorted, we ordered food. After a dinner of local naan bread and skewered meat, possibly goat, it was surely time for a beer. Not so fast. When Britain gained control of Zanzibar from the Omanis, most locals had already converted to Islam. So, on the island's streets, you'll more easily buy octopus than alcohol.

Luckily, Sam knew of a pub, around a few corners, off a big alley, on a small alley. Inside a beach-themed bar filled mostly with locals, we sat with feet in white sand, bottles of cheap East African lager in our hands. After watching some football on the pub's TV, riotously funny local soap operas were broadcast.

They probably didn't seem so funny to the locals.

Stone Town feels like a piece of living history. Zanzibar is heaven for those who prefer the timeless sights, sounds and smells of an older, simpler, rougher world. The old hunched men hauling carts down narrow alleys, the dhows gliding on the sea and the crumbling fortresses remain. Change is something for another place.

Another thing about Zanzibar — you can be sure the weather never changes. Bang on the equator, the thick steamy air chases you till it grows tired. Then it rests on your shoulders while you haul it round the old alleyway maze and head back to your hotel. Falling asleep is easy.

Local people on a typical narrow street in Stone Town, Zanzibar city. Photo / 123RF
Local people on a typical narrow street in Stone Town, Zanzibar city. Photo / 123RF

The next morning we waited for the Forodhani Renaissance Man beside a dusty gutter on the road next to St Monica's. He was only an hour late, punctual for Africa. His negotiating skills with his cousin the driver weren't so good.

Street theatre followed. One minute our ride was booked and we marched, luggage in hand, to the dala dala. The next minute a dispute over pricing erupted, voices rose and we marched back to sit beside the dusty street.

The currency here is so weak, "15,000" is referred to as just "15".

"He wants 15 each", The Chef said.

"No, you said 15 for all."

"Okay. He wants 10 each."

After more haggling, the dala dala suddenly sped off, our trio and The Chef left sitting in the dust.

Sitting around is a pleasant pastime in Zanzibar, as in all humid, tropical places where expending energy is irksome. But we eventually had to walk a few blocks to a big, bustling taxi rank known as Darajani. The Chef's services were no longer needed, though he insisted otherwise for quite some time.

At Darajani, our luggage landed on the dala dala roof while we climbed into the canopy.

Such canopies are often half-open, vinyl-lined devices designed to keep passengers' heads from splattering on the road. One imagines they may not always succeed in this role.

As we sped off, the canopy got crowded. The road got worse. Our bodies contorted into poses yoga teachers would be proud of. With every passing pothole we nearly hit the canopy roof.

After an hour on the road and a half-hour bush walk peppered with friendly greetings of "jambo" from locals, we reached Kendwa. Here, white beaches meet turquoise seas plied by small wooden fishing canoes.

Kendwa was a fine spot for swimming in the Indian Ocean, drinking beer in the shade and watching beachcombers and holidaymakers pass by. We even saw some Masai, on holiday from Western Tanzania, still dressed in their bright, flowing traditional robes.

At a fly-blown stall I bought something like fried omelette and the cook's children watched me eat. They didn't seem hungry, but gazed as if waiting for their guest to collapse and spasm.

Unnerved, I tried deflecting their attention, in various pidgins offering to buy a wild-looking chicken loitering near the stall. The children laughed before the eldest earnestly said he could sell it for 100,000 shillings (about $100). Sadly I lacked such capital, so returned empty-handed to Kendwa Beach.

It was soon time to return to Stone Town. Sun sets quickly in the tropics and the day's last dala dala was approaching.

Tourists watch the sunset on the beach at Stone Town. Photo / Getty Images
Tourists watch the sunset on the beach at Stone Town. Photo / Getty Images

With sunburnt arms, we waved goodbye to Kendwa and walked back to the main road. Another tasty mystery dinner at Forodhani Gardens beckoned.

Better still, our pal The Chef would be there. He would surely love to her about our day.

EVENTS

Zanzibar International Film Festival July 7-15.

Celebrating cinema from East Africa and Indian Ocean countries with screenings, performances, and musical masterclasses.

Sauti za Busara Early February.
A long weekend of music from around the world with a focus on great African tunes and artists.

CHECKLIST

GETTING THERE

Etihad

flies from Auckland to Dar es Salaam via its hub in Abu Dhabi.

Return Economy Class fares are on sale until March 6 (for departure until December 10) from $2225; Business Class $7285.

A one-way flight from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar with ZanAir costs $83. It was a beautiful flight, and took about 25 minutes. zanair.com There are also ferry services.

ACCOMMODATION
You can get a single room at St Monica's for $41.