Zanzibar: a door into another world

“Are you from Africa or America?” one hijab-clad young shop owner politely inquired as she placed the sarong I was buying on the counter.
“I am from South Africa,” I declared cheerfully.
“Okay, because if you are from America there is one price, US dollars, but if you are from Africa, there is another price in shillings,” she said.

Tanzania’s archipelago is ideal for tourists looking for more than Mauritius-lite. (Photo by Sumy Sadurni / AFP)

By Lyse Comins for Mail & Guardian, 8 Jan 2023

Waking up on the first glorious blue-sky day in balmy Zanzibar was like dying and rising in paradise.

A panoramic view of the warm Indian Ocean rushed into focus as we meandered out of the brand-new five-star Emerald Zanzibar Resort & Spa ensuite hotel rooms for the start of an idyllic week of adventure and relaxation.

Zanzibar, an archipelago off the coast of the Tanzanian mainland, is truly an African paradise, with miles of untouched beaches stretching as far as the eye can see, against a backdrop of the glistening emerald ocean.

Just a 3.5-hour charter flight from Johannesburg and an easy transfer from the new Abeid Amani Karume International Airport, previously known as Kisauni Airport and Zanzibar International, the new Italian-owned five-star deluxe all-inclusive resort opened in serene elegance with a white gala dinner on the beach in early December. 

The 250-bed hotel overlooking the picturesque Muyuni Beach in Matemwe, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, has been built in an ideal location, facing Mnemba Island and close to others where boats ferry tourists daily to snorkel and swim with dolphins in the translucent, warm waters.  

Zanzibar consists of many small islands and two large ones, Unguja (Zanzibar) where the capital, Zanzibar City in which the world heritage site Stone Town is located, and Pemba. 

Our tour group had been invited to the official launch of the hotel by Africastay, which is based in South Africa, and runs a direct charter flight to Zanzibar from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg several times a week.

We took a shuttle to explore Stone Town, famed for being the birthplace of rock band Queen’s Freddy Mercury, and notorious for its historical buildings dating back to the 19th-century Arab-run slave trade.

En route to Stone Town, the Dega Tours shuttle bus (which has top quality Wi-Fi, so you can send photos home) stopped for a tour of the government-owned Spice Garden that took us into the forest to explore the sights and aromas of the island’s spice trade — cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass, black pepper and nutmeg. Here, our guide explained how nutmeg is used as an aphrodisiac by local people and the importance of cloves as one of the biggest generators of the island’s export income from spices.

Zanzibar’s earliest trades were slaves and spices, the latter still forming an important sub-sector of the country’s agricultural sector that comprises 27% of GDP and contributes to tourism through spice tours.

Bottles of sweet-smelling perfumes and an array of spices from the garden were traded at the end of the tour.

“Butterfly”, a local celebrity in the Spice Garden, had earlier demonstrated his physical prowess as he scaled up the heights of a coconut tree, before guests were served sweet coconut water, “coca-cola” in a holed-out coconut with the most tender and juicy flesh several in our group said they had had ever tasted.

Next stop, Stone Town. And naturally we all wanted to head downtown to the former home of Freddy Mercury, to which our tour guide, Jay, nimbly navigated the narrow alleyways of the spotless old town.

Winding in the scorching heat, along litter-free streets, regularly interrupted by the polite, albeit rushing-at-us “beep-beep” of passing motorcycles, more often than not with at least one pillion rider, one could not help reflecting on the history of this little island town. Motorcycles are the most common mode of private transport on the island, and a few tourists could also be seen catching a ride.

Stone Town’s name originates from the 19th-century ornate stone houses Arab merchants built here with slaves when it served as a centre for the trade of some 600 000 slaves between 1830 and 1863, when the British and Omani sultans finally agreed to abolish slavery on the island. 

Still standing in the town is the Old Slave Trade Market, now a tourist attraction, that none in our group were keen to explore, given the despicable thought of this inhumane aspect of world history.

Rather, we enjoyed exploring the town, its shops and the famous Zanzibar doors, which have been copied globally and provide every amateur photographer with a reason to snap like a pro.

Interestingly, a local told me the brass studs on the giant Zanzibar doors originated in India, where they were used as a defence against war elephants that would bash down doors in Punjabi tribal wars in that country.

But the Arabs and traders of old, now long gone, have left behind only their rich architecture and Islamic heritage with mosques dotting the landscape.

Just one Catholic church can be found in the centre of town, outside which traders ply their wares — anything from sarongs and sandals to trinkets and tanzanite. But, be warned, here it is almost mandatory to haggle.

“Are you from Africa or America?” one hijab-clad young shop owner politely inquired as  she placed the sarong I was  buying on the counter.

“I am from South Africa,” I declared cheerfully. 

“Okay, because if you are from America there is one price, US dollars, but if you are from Africa, there is another price in shillings,” she said. 

I hastily pulled out 150 000 Tanzanian shillings to pay for the garment, which I later learned was still a relatively high price, but I still walked out a happy buyer.

It took the best part of the day, without stopping for lunch, to explore Stone Town and $50 was sufficient spending money.

Weary, we headed back to our hotel, where we were welcomed once again with the warm hospitality and importantly, ice-cold sundowners, as we watched the sun slip away, and the night life of the hotel awakened.

A delectable dinner served in the Aqua restaurant followed by dancing in the rooftop bar preceded the close of another glorious day in this African paradise. 

Facts and figures: Did you know?

* Stone Town was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2000 because of its globally significant heritage, culture and environment.

* The capital of Zanzibar is Zanzibar City, in which Stone Town is located.

* Stone Town has a colony of mainly ginger cats and research shows that that pre-Islamic Arabs at one stage apparently worshipped a Golden Cat.

* Situated near the Equator, Zanzibar has equal days and nights of 12 hours each.

* Farroukh Bulsara — Freddie Mercury — was born in Zanzibar in 1946.

A seven-night all-inclusive package at Emerald including, flights, transfers, accommodation and all meals and drinks and a free tour of Stone Town starts at R26 000 a person. Alternatively, seven-night packages at three star resorts including flights, transfers, breakfast and dinner start at R12 000 a person.

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