Trying to complete our circumnavigation during this Covid Global Pandemic has given us several major issues to contend with that we hadn’t planned on. Weather systems determine when we can move from place to place, especially when making ocean passages, but now with travel restrictions and border closures that can change daily, planning our onward journey becomes even more complicated.
But we have made it to Zanzibar!
Images come to mind of exotic white sandy beaches, spices and sunsets, Sultans and slavery, and Sinbad the sailor, whose stories tell of Dhows loaded with trading goods from East Africa sailing across the Indian Ocean to trade for treasures with Far Fast Asia and India.
After a very rough 7 day passage from the Seychelles, we were happy to drop anchor at Nungwi, at the northern end of Unguja Island, the largest of the Zanzibar islands. There we met up with our friends on Javerne, who we had not seen for more than six months. We all went ashore together to visit the local town and buy some much needed fresh vegetables to replenish our supply from the passage and, most importantly, a Tanzanian sim card for our phones and internet.
Imagine our surprise when we were told that there was no Covid on Zanzibar, or in Tanzania!!!
Zanzibar is semi-autonomous, but a part of Tanzania. What has been interesting is that until very recently, Tanzania, and Zanzibar, have declared to be Covid free, so nobody wears masks, there is no obvious hand sanitising or social distancing. Hundreds of passengers disembarking from the daily ferry from mainland Tanzania crowd together in the streets. When Lane and I wear our masks, we are told quite firmly that is it unnecessary since there is no Covid on the island. Of course, there is no testing either! But during our check in process, we had to produce a recent negative PCR test.
We had anchored in front of a beautiful long white sandy beach, lined with holiday resorts, and judging by the coming and goings of tourist boats and Jet skis, they were open for business. But the tourist numbers are way down, so the souvenir vendors on the beaches and streets are finding it very difficult to make a living. Consequently, they hassle us whenever we set foot on land to buy their wares or their guide services for the day. We totally understand how very hard it is for them to earn money for their families but it doesn’t make it pleasant for us either.
After a couple of days of rest, we set sail, 25 miles upwind and against a strong current, for the capital, Stonetown, to officially check in to the country and visit this UNESCO Heritage site.
Our anchorage in Stonetown was quite exposed, which meant days of rocking and rolling with the heavy swell caused by the constant South easterly winds and fast ferries coming and going, leaving us in their wake. One night we even slept in our sea berths in the main salon with the lee cloths in place to keep us from being rolled out of bed.
But despite the rocky anchorage, Stonetown is a place not to be missed. All the history that I had read about had left its mark around every corner of this fascinating city.
Wandering through the labyrinth of narrow winding alleys, we are amazed at the beautiful old carved wooden doors, each one specific to the people who lived in the houses behind them. Apparently, the spikes on these doors were to keep the elephants from knocking into them.
Beautiful wooden Dhows navigate through the anchorage under full sail alone. It’s impressive to watch them sail so close to the boats and we can watch the large numbers of men on board, needed to handle the huge sails. They have no engines, no winches, just man power.
The fishing boats also carry about 20 crew, needed to pull in the large fishing nets by hand.
Stories date back centuries, telling of trading exotic merchandise all around the Indian Ocean and beyond, sailing these beautiful wooden Dhows, that are still being used today up and down the East African coast, loaded with tons of cargo.
Zanzibar was ruled by the Peoples Republic of Oman, but around 1840 the Sultanate moved to Zanzibar, which then became the centre of the East African Slave trade. Many treasures from East Africa, ivory, gold and spices would be loaded onto the sailing Dhows in Zanzibar, to be traded in far-away countries for silks and eastern treasures. Tens of thousands of slaves were brought in each year to help transport these goods and then they themselves were bought and sold at the slave market in the town square.
Zanzibar has been a British protectorate during this time. Around 1860 the Sultans were keen to put an end to the slave trade. In 1880, when slavery was finally abolished, this Anglican Cathedral which was commissioned by Bishop Edward Streere, was built right over the site of the thriving slave market. When Bishop Streere died in Stonetown in 1882, he was buried beneath this ornate altar.
The Zanzibar Revolution in 1964 saw the end of the rule of the Sultans and the treasures of the old Sultans Palace are now being moved to a new museum.
An old Arab fort built in the 17th century, and British canons guarding the harbour, an old Persian bathhouse, all tell their own stories of the past.
Freddie Mercury was born in Stonetown and spent his schooling years here. A small museum shows images of his years growing up, how he has always loved to perform and was already a gifted musician with his own band before he left Zanzibar to eventually become the legend we all got to know.
The huge market place was wonderful and thriving, but once again, no masks were worn.
Wherever we went in Zanzibar, we couldn’t help noticing how clean the streets were. No rubbish lying about at all. Street cleaners were out and about everywhere, but then, most astonishing of all, nobody uses plastic bags. Reusable cloth bags are offered if you did not bring your own bag, or they will wrap vegetables in bits of newspaper. A loaf of bread I bought at the market was put into a bit of newspaper, stapled at the edge to make a paper bag. What a great idea!
Changuu Island, 5nms off the coast of Stonetown is home to a giant tortoise sanctuary. Also on the Island is a building once built as a prison for troublesome slaves, but it has only ever been used as a quarantine hospital during the cholera and yellow fever pandemics.
Next stop, Pemba Island, also known as Green Island or Voodoo island.
We have now left Stonetown on Unguja Island, for Pemba Island, the next island in the Zanzibar chain. It is known as the Green Island for its fertile soil that is densely covered in jungle as well as clove, coconut, mango and other crops. Pemba produces 70% of all the world’s cloves. Everywhere, the wonderful smell of cloves fills the air as they are left drying in the sun along with rice and the days catch of fish.
Apart from a few resorts offering luxury accommodation, island tours and snorkelling, very few tourists visit Pemba Island and as in Unguja Island, there are no precautions taken for Covid here. The streets are clean, the people friendly and welcoming but we did not see a single souvenir shop.
From a remote anchorage half way up the island, we visited a village where white people never go as it is so far off the tourist track. We could not see any signs of a village from where we were anchored except for one cell phone tower and a few wooden dug-out canoes on a small beach. So, with our Swiss friends on Javerne, also anchored in the bay with us, we went exploring.
We discovered an amazing village, with houses built of mud and thatch and the people living as they have for many generations. The people were at first a little hesitant and didn’t know why we were there as they never have seen white people there before. Our friend Corine pulled out a bag of balloons and sweets for the children and soon all the children in the village were following us everywhere, trying out their limited English, with us responding with an even more limited Swahili. It was an incredible experience.
We will spend another week exploring the many bays up the coast of this beautiful island of Pemba. The whole area is fraught with coral reefs, which make for amazing snorkelling but quite hazardous navigating.
There are 3 main towns on Pemba Island where we can get a few provisions and do our official check out for our next stop, Kenya. That will be quite a contrast to these past few weeks in the remote Zanzibar Islands but I am really looking forward to some nice cafes and restaurants for a change.
We have arranged to haul out Mai Tai in a place called Kilifi, on the east coast of Kenya, 80 nm from Pemba Island. Once there we hope to leave Mai Tai on a mooring for a week or so to go explore some of the Kenyan game reserves.
So, there will be a few land adventures before we give Mai Tai a fresh bottom paint to make her ready to head up through the Red Sea in September and October.