Under African Skies
Liz and I have just returned from our honeymoon. It has been somewhat delayed as we wanted to use the autumn half term’s break for a holiday that we would never forget – a real-once- in-a -lifetime adventure.
I am not going to give you an hour-by hour, day-by day account, you will be relieved to hear, but I would love to share some of our experiences and impressions of a most remarkable place: Pemba Island, Zanzibar.
Make an extra pot of coffee, or pour a large glass of wine: this is a long one!
Our destination was The Fundu Lagoon resort, Pemba Island, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Getting there was as much an adventure as the stay itself and the complete journey took more than twenty four hours.
It all started at Heathrow airport, where we boarded a Quatar Airways Boeing 777 bound for Doha in the Middle East. Flying has changed so much, even in the period that I have been travelling and the modern aircraft is so quiet and, comparatively spacious, considering how many people it is transporting.
We arrived at Doha and were disgorged into a modern, impressive, expensive terminal with a central atrium soaring to at least ten stories high. As in any big hub thousands of people were moving in all directions with great purpose and intent, and yet the sheer size of the terminal building seemed to swallow up that intensity, and there was a kind of serenity about the place. The selection of shops selling top-end brands said everything that we needed to know about the wealth in this part of the world.
We did not have long in Doha: just enough time to find our way to the connecting flight to Dar Es Salaam. We boarded another Quatar plane, this time an Airbus A320, which was a little less spacious and a little less luxurious and a little more crowded.
Another seven hours of books, films and airline food, brought us to the capital city of Tanzania. It is fascinating to see any city from the air, and Dar was laid out beneath us, a sprawling collection of houses, mainly with bright blue roofs. It was a vivid and remarkable view.
One on the ground we taxied past a modern looking terminal (unfortunately not yet fully constructed), to a small concrete building. It seemed fitting that there was no enclosed, air-conditioned jetway to take us into the airport, and we clambered down the steps onto the tarmac where the African heat hit us like a fist.
Whilst Doha airport is one for the future, Dar Es Salaam’s is a look back to the past. I felt as if I should be wearing a safari suit and a pith helmet, whilst Liz would have a broad brimmed hat with a veil to keep the pesky colonial insects away. We would look on as our travelling trunks were unloaded, and then proceed to a sultry cocktail bar where the British Governor would welcome us, a ceiling fan circulated languidly above us, moving the hot air to no effect.
Some of that scenario came true…..there were fans and the air was hot: very hot.
Of course with the world as it is currently security is the major concern and we all waited patiently in line while our bags were loaded into an x-ray machine. We stood behind an elderly, harmless-looking lady whose bag was far too heavy to lift up onto the conveyor belt. The agents assisted her and the bag was drawn inexorably forward. It so happened that Liz and I had a clear view of the screen and what we saw made us gasp: there, carefully packed among the lady’s toiletries and smalls, appeared to be two AK47 semi-automatic guns with their ammunition magazines attached and, apparently, a couple of grenades thrown in for good measure.
There was a brief (albeit worryingly routine) exchange in Swahili, and she was waved on her way, having had her bag returned to her with no further searches having been made.
Needless to say without an arsenal in either of our cases, we cleared security without any issue.
From the International Terminal building we had to take a short taxi ride to Terminal 1, where we would be billeted for seven hours until our next flight.
Seven hours: it is a long time to twiddle thumbs at the best of times, but Dar Es Salaam’s Terminal 1 was not a great place to sit. There were a few metal framed seats in rows, and it boasted one very small coffee shop, one very small gift shop and a sign pointing towards the exciting sounding ‘Departure Lounge’.
On the tarmac outside there were rows of parked light aircraft, and it looked for all the world as if it should be a flying school.
Various signs and posters declared that this was the gateway to adventures throughout Tanzania – to Kilimanjaro, to the great game reserves, to the Ngorongoro Crater.
We sat on uncomfortable seats and read. On the wall a television played without sound and there seemed to have been some sort of open air political event going on. Lots of people were making impassioned speeches involving lots of podium-thumping and finger-pointing.
After a couple of hours we decided to have a coffee and walked the twenty feet to the café. We had a coffee.
We looked in the gift shop. We bought some things. We sat down. We read.
After another hour or so Liz decided to explore the Departure Lounge. She came back after two minutes. She sat down. We read.
I decided to explore the Departure Lounge. It was a room with seats in it. I returned to my seat.
Another hour passed and we decided to have some lunch. The café prepared two rather small toasted sandwiches, which we took back to our seats.
Finally we decided that the time had come to check in with ZanAir, who would be transporting us onwards. The process was not quite as slick as checking in with a major airline – one very bored man sat in an office, surrounded by sundry bored colleagues. He wrote our boarding cards by hand, and put our name on a clipboard.
Our bags had been weighed on a massive set of scales, and stickers were placed on them declaring that they would be dropped off in Zanzibar. Fortunately Liz had been watching this process and was able to point out that we were going to Pemba Island, and would be grateful if the bags could end up there too!
An hour and a half to wait now. The anticipation was building. We read.
It appeared as if ZanAir only had one plane, whereas their great rivals Coastal Air seemed to have a huge fleet, and were announcing departures with great efficiency and regularity.
At two o’clock we rather hopefully stood by the door to the runway but nothing happened. Eventually we saw our bags being rolled out on a cart, but as there was no ZanAir plane in sight, it was abandoned on the tarmac.
Finally somebody found a plane and taxied it to where the bags had been left. We boarded the tiny Cessna and our captain flicked switches and checked his flaps and rudder, then turned to address all four of his passengers. His initial safety briefing was delivered via a toothpick, which poked out from his mouth. It was in Swahili and sounded terribly impressive and comprehensive. There then followed the English translation for us:
‘Welcome to our flight to Zanzibar. It will be twenty minutes, then will stop. If you want safety there is a letter for you to read in seat, thank you’
With that we were off. Flying in a light aircraft is always exciting and this trip was no exception. The Cessna skipped off the runway with great agility and took to the air like a playful lamb gambolling in a meadow of fresh grass. The views of the coast were spectacular and the seas were clear; every sand bank, coral reef and rocky outcrop being clearly visible.
After a short flight we landed at Zanzibar airport, where we were due to pick up some more passengers for the onward flight to Pemba.
We sat in the searing heat for about thirty minutes, until the newcomers boarded, and boarded and boarded. When they had all squeezed themselves in, our twelve-seater plane was carrying twelve adults, one child (sat on a lap), one baby (in arms) and a dog in a large cage.
The little Cessna was not quite so agile in its second take off and was less like a lamb than a rather ponderous bull. The air surrounding us was less like a fresh meadow and more like a tangle of brambles and weeds through which we battled our way forward.
When we landed at Pemba Island International Airport the plane flopped onto terra firma with a sense of huge relief: a sense of relief that we all shared.
Pemba airport was great! There was a concrete bench, beneath a peeling whitewashed wall: ‘Baggage Claim’ was painted on the wall and sure enough our cases were soon placed on the shelf.
And so the next part of our journey began, as we were met by two young men who would drive us across Pemba Island. We had been travelling for well over twenty four hours by this time and were so tired, but we were about to get a real treat.
Pemba Airport is to the east of the island, a little outside the main town of Chake Chake; from there we had to drive for about forty minutes south west to the coastal town of Mkoani.
The road wound its way through tiny villages and for the first time we began to get an idea of African life. There were houses constructed out of wood and clay. Men, women and children sat in the shade, watching the world go by. On either side of the road and enclosing the villages was dense jungle with soaring palm trees.
Our drivers told us that the main industry here is clove farming and outside almost every house fresh cloves were laid out on mats to dry, turning slowly into the black woody spices we are used to using at home.
In almost every village there was a carpentry workshop, covered only by a tarpaulin laid across rudimentary wooden supports. The facilities may have been basic but the end products were beautiful – there were wardrobes and chairs and bed frames with intricately carved headboards all looking as if they had come from a major production facility.
Many of the villages were decked out with bunting in either green and yellow, or red and blue. We asked our guides what was going on and they told us that there was a major election in Tanzania on Sunday and the whole country was energised by it. The governing party has been in power for fifty four years and now, at last, there was a creditable opposition challenge.
We drove on until we reached the dockside at Mkoani, where our bags were transferred to a RIB, and we set off across the ocean on the final leg of our journey. As we skimmed and skipped over the top of the waves it dawned on us that our transport had become smaller at every stage: from the 777 to the 320, then a Cessna, a people carrier and finally a small inflatable craft.
We both love the sea, and the brief journey to Fundu Lagoon was a perfect way to shrug off the slough of the long journey.
Soon we got our first glimpse of our home for the next week – long stretches of white sand, with thick jungle behind. From within the trees thatched roofs of the resort could be seen peeking out.
From the main buildings a long jetty stretched out to greet the boat. Ropes were flung out, our bags were handed up to two members of staff who had a small hand cart to transport them back along the pier, and we clambered up the ladder to be greeted by Hannes, the manager of the resort. He led us to a bar built into the jetty where iced cocktails and cold flannels were waiting for us, and from there to our room, where we were just in time to witness our first Tanzanian sunset.
The Fundu Lagoon Resort was quite simply idyllic. Spread along the beach and back into the jungle the eighteen cabins were of differing sizes, but they were all built on the same principle: sturdy wooden frames fashioned out of trees from the jungle, bound together with twine. A complicated thatch of dried palm leafs created the roofs.
Within the wooden frame a tent was suspended from the roof to the hardwood floor, making a fully sealable living space; the modern canvas being disguised with swathes of cloth, to give the impression of a Bedouin camp.
The bed faced towards the front of the cabin giving a perfect view of the Indian Ocean, framed by the lush foliage, and looked as if it had been made at one of the village workshops that we passed on our drive from Chake Chake .
Outside was a terrace with sofa, chairs and table and one of many little wooden water troughs, which were placed throughout the resort. Fundu sells itself on an idyll of ‘barefoot living’ and each building had one of these troughs to wash the sand from your feet before entering.
As the cabins were set high among the trees on stilts there was a wooden set of steps to take us down to an enclosed spot of beach, with two sun loungers.
Besides the cabins there was a main reception area leading to the main bar and restaurant building. And higher up the hillside, at the far end of the complex was a beautiful infinity pool, served by a further bar and restaurant. All were constructed in the same way, and open to the warm sun and soft breezes.
Between each of the areas there were pathways covered in soft, white sand which meandered through the thick vegetation. It was easy to forget that we were actually in a real jungle and not in some Disney set, carefully constructed in front of hardboard walls. The walkways were softly lit, so that you could find your way in the dark. Attached to various trees along the way were carved African masks, which reminded both of us of the film Live and Let Die (we fully expected the eyes to follow us as we walked by). Even the soundtrack was almost too good to be true, with crickets chirping, monkeys cackling and the occasional strange rustle of….something or other in the leaves.
We had been told to look out for monkeys, bush babies, millipedes, tree snakes and land crabs during our stay; there were also wild chickens scrabbling about among the dried leaves, a few very skinny cats (one of which had lost an eye to one of the chickens), and lots of tiny lizards clambering up the walls.
As night fell the air was filled with tiny bats flitting hither and thither.
The stars of the stay were the monkeys, who put on some great shows for us, both in the trees surrounding our cabin but also in and around the swimming pool bar where they gathered in large family groups: there were the youngsters playing and fighting, always on the move; there were mothers holding their babies beneath them as they skipped from bough to bough; and there were the older males watching wisely over it all (we knew that they were males thanks to some remarkable colouring – one of our fellow guests announced in a loud clear voice: ‘I am amazed by their blue testicles!’, which is not a phrase either of us had expected to hear on our holiday.)
Throughout our stay the bush babies proved elusive, even though everyone else had seen hundreds of them, to the point of boredom. We mentioned this to some of the staff who told us that ripe bananas would do the trick. On our final evening we took a few bananas to our cabin and left them on the balcony and sure enough we soon heard rustles and calls from among the trees; shortly after that two bush babies decided that gluttony overpowered modesty and sat guzzling as we watched. As the bush babies nibbled the bananas, so the mosquitoes nibbled us.
In the darkness the overhanging trees seemed to be filled with Christmas lights until we realised we were seeing hundreds of tiny glow worms.
The resort was so respectful to its surroundings and made as little impact on the environment as possible. It would have been easy to have built air-conditioned concrete villas with every mod con, but that is not what Fundu is about. As the week went on we felt more and more a part of the landscape, and became more and more relaxed: Hakuna Matata.
Our closest companion throughout the week was the ever constant, ever changing sea. At night we would hear the lapping of the high tide close to our cabin and it would lull us into sleep. In the morning the tide would be way out, leaving beautiful expanses of sand with captured pools of water reflecting the sunrise.
To our left a small collection of Mangrove trees stood on their exposed roots, breaking up the long perspective of the curving beach.
From early morning there would be an almost constant stream of people from the nearby villages making their way along the beach to search for shellfish before the tide came in again. During our stay the schools were closed because of the election, so there were lots of children playing and helping too.
The resort being very remote, the sea was our main source of entertainment and we loved every second on it or in it.
Early on in the trip we took a sunset cruise on board a traditional wooden Dow, crewed by the guys from the resort’s diving centre. This was sailing at its most basic: a single heavy canvas sail was hoisted and hauled by a rope run beneath a wooden beam attached to the hull – no winches to help, just sheer hard work.
When the sail was tied off, however, the boat made as much speed as any modern yacht. The technology may be different but the theory of moving a vessel through the water has not changed since man’s first forays onto the ocean. An America’s Cup racing yacht uses the same knowledge of wind, current and tide as our Dow did.
We had packed masks and snorkels expecting to find some wonderful swimming near to our cabin but in fact the nearest reef of interest involved booking a snorkelling excursion through the hotel’s diving centre, and taking a forty minute boat trip to Mesali Island.
Had Robinson Crusoe had rubber fins, mask and snorkel he would have been right at home on this island – it was a real deserted paradise. There were no inhabitants there, though a couple of rangers were charged with protecting the natural beauty.
The coral reef, just a little off shore, was quite astounding and although the fish were plentiful and in a vast array of colours, it was their habitat which captured our imagination: coral in every shape and hue, creating a towering city: the plainer suburbs closer to shore and the vast high-risers disappearing into the dark depths of the ocean.
We snorkelled on two occasions, and came back both times feeling as if we had been permitted a private glimpse into another world.
Fundu Lagoon Resort has very close connections with the surrounding villages, employing many locals, but it also works with the village elders to protect the surroundings and help to improve their infrastructure.
We had noticed that the hotel operated a guided walk into the village and quickly signed up for one, and what an extraordinary afternoon it was. Our guide was one of the bar staff, Ninja, and we walked with him along the beach before cutting off along a sandy path through the jungle.
Soon the trees gave way to open fields, carefully ploughed and laid out with crops, many of which supplied the hotel’s restaurants. At the top of a hill the first village appeared. The sandy path formed the main thoroughfare, but this was not a carefully planned community, for the mud houses sat wherever they happened to be built. Some were made from wood and clay, others had a slightly more modern breeze block or concrete construction. In the same way some had thatched roofs, whilst others used corrugated iron panels to keep the sun off. In front of a few huts fires burned incongruously, ready to prepare the evening meal.
We passed one larger structure with a loudspeaker attached to the roof, and Ninja told us that this was the village mosque (Tanzania being a predominantly Muslim country).
Even though the sun was on its way down it was still a very hot afternoon and all of the family members were outside their houses. The women were dressed in gloriously coloured traditional robes, whilst the men and the boys were all in more casual clothes – with Premier League football shirts featuring heavily.
As we walked on everyone watched curiously. Some waved, some of the children tried their knowledge of English (‘Bye Bye!’) and we replied with our one word of Swahili ‘Jambo!’ (‘Hello!’)
Some of the men looked on with a superior and haughty air, and some of the younger boys tried to copy them, but usually failed as they broke out into huge smiles as they ran alongside us.
A short walk brought us to another village and here we saw the school that had been funded by the owners of Fundu Lagoon Resort . In one of the classrooms a few boys were gathered wiping down the blackboard, even though there had been no formal school that day. One wore a Manchester City shirt, and I pointed to it and said: ‘you follow Man City?’ he replied by reciting the current line-up of the squad: an International language if ever there was one.
As we left the school Ninja pointed out a rusty old car wheel rim and a stick: ‘the school bell’.
We walked back to the first village again and made our way to the store (just another house but with a few items arranged on shelf near to the window opening). It had been suggested that we exchange a few dollars into the local currency in order to buy the children some sweets and as soon as they noticed us heading to the shop a crowd quickly formed baying ‘Pipi! Pipi!’ (we now had our second Swahili word – for candy).
In the same shop-window the village’s only television was balanced precariously and a crowd of men were watching a football match. At one point the children got so frantic that Liz moved backwards to give herself some more room and a howl of anger went up from the men – she was blocking their view of the match. A wave of apology: ‘sorry!’ and she quickly ducked out of their way. A laugh from the crowd and they got back to the game.
We distributed the sweets as best we could, but the children became almost unmanageable, so Ninja suggested that we left the remaining bags with the shopkeeper to be shared out at a less frenetic moment.
One of our party kept an extra bag of sweets in her handbag for the next village and we waved goodbye to our new friends.
As we left the village one child followed us shyly. He looked forlorn and miserable and rather left-out. He stood just a few paces behind us with large sorrowful eyes gazing up; we assumed that he had missed out in the scrum to get sweets. The extra bag was produced and opened and one sweet was handed to him – at which point the whole crowd from the village appeared around the corner and mobbed us once more: ‘Pipi! Pipi! Pipi!’. It was obviously a well-honed plan.
Finally we shook them off, and walked to the next village. It was quieter and smaller, clothes were hanging to dry. There was one standpipe with a tap, and buckets from all the houses were laid out ready to be filled.
Ninja took us up a track between two houses, opened a gate and we walked into the back of the hotel – and the first thing we saw was a huge water tower, supplying all of our rooms and the bars. That single standpipe was just a few yards on the other side of the fence and the huge gulf between the real Pemba life and our luxury holiday hit us hard.
Two things struck us about our time in the villages: firstly how very basic life was there. A roof, a fire and a meagre supply of water. We worry at home when our wifi signal plays up, or if Waitrose doesn’t have the grapes we like. If we are too cold we turn a thermostat on the wall to get the house toasty warm, until it is too ‘hot’ at which point we turn the switch down again.
On Pemba Island there is none of that. The community is firmly based in the small spaces between the mud houses, and that was our second point: however basic, however spartan this existence may seem to us, the community works – everyone is happy, everyone seems content, everyone knows their role in the village and responds to it.
That is not to say that it is perfect and we should leave well alone, but here is a way of living that has continued in the same way for thousands of years and I am sure that we could learn a great deal from it.
Stone Town and the Election
Our week drifted by and time, as we understand it at home, seemed to become irrelevant, to the extent that we had no idea what day of the week it was. We knew the sun set at 6.15 and that it would be dark shortly afterwards.
We dined on the beach, we dined on the jetty, we dined by the pool. We watched sunsets and chatted to other holidaymakers. We relaxed: oh, we relaxed.
But all too soon our day of departure approached, and it was with very heavy hearts that we boarded the RIB, waved good bye to Hannes, and set off back for Mkoani and our homeward journey. However there was a fascinating day ahead.
We had a long layover between flights, this time in Zanzibar, and rather than enduring the delights of a hot, airless airport again, we had booked a tour of Stone Town, the historic city of Zanzibar, to fill the three hour wait.
It would have been a fascinating tour anyway, but the day was that on which the election results were due to be announced, and by all accounts it was going to be a very close-run thing.
Our first stop was the Anglican Church which was the site of the slave market in the city. On the spot where the altar is situated a huge tree once grew and it was here that the slaves were chained ready for auction. They were publicly whipped to the point of collapse, thereby establishing their strength and affecting the price that could be charged for them.
For once it wasn’t the English who were responsible, as the slave trade was with the Arab nations. In fact it was Doctor Livingstone and Edward Steere who campaigned vigorously for abolition in Zanzibar. Steere became the third Bishop of Zanzibar and is buried behind the altar in the Church, a greatly revered figure.
The museum attached to the church is harrowing and desolate; the tiny subterranean cells where fifty slaves were chained together until auction day make you weep with shame. How is it that man can treat his fellow man in such a barbaric manner?
As we exited the church a truck full of heavily armed soldiers in riot gear pulled up. The election results were coming in and the opposition had shown well – it was thought that fighting may break out in Stone Town.
Our tour took us through a labyrinth of narrow streets, and we eventually came to a large square decorated and festooned in the red, white and blue colours of the opposition party. Everyone was gathered around a small radio listening to the coverage. I wanted to take a photograph, but the atmosphere was so tense I decided it was best not to.
Leaving the square we headed to a souvenir shop and as we entered, a huge cheer of celebration went up from behind us. A few minutes passed and then suddenly all of the lights went out and the ceiling fan stopped . Our guide and the shopkeeper looked resigned, but not surprised: the results were going against the government, so the electricity had been shut off to prevent word spreading throughout the city.
Our guide told us that the Stone Town was actually much quieter than usual, but the atmosphere in those tight back streets was electric.
We spent an hour or so walking through the old town and were taken to a rooftop bar to survey the views and then past Freddie Mercury’s birthplace. We ended up at the site of the shortest war in history, when the British declared war on Zanzibar. After a brief period of conflict Zanzibar surrendered: the war lasted for forty five minutes.
By now we were at the water’s edge and that marked the end of our trip. We climbed back into the car and were driven to the airport where we waited for our Quatar Airlines Airbus A320 to take us back to our own life.
We will probably never have the opportunity to spend a week like that again, but it touched us both profoundly.
As we had been driven back towards Chake Chake Airport and saw once more the small towns, the drying cloves and the woodwork shops spread out, we had said: ‘it is a different era, a different age’, but then realised that actually it is just a different place; and a most beautiful, gentle, vibrant, exciting and memorable place.
Thank you Pemba for welcoming us in for a brief time. It was a privilege.