Author: Karen Plamondon
Date of Trip: February 2011
Mafia Island, Tanzania
All my life, I’ve dreamed of going to Africa. I always thought this was influenced by watching too many episodes of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, but now I know what called me there. There’s just something about Africa that draws us, like moths to a flame. And once you succumb, it imprints on your soul, and you know that one day you will return.
In February 2011, we (my husband and I, his sister and brother-in-law) spent four incredible weeks in Tanzania, including a 10-day Northern Circuit safari and 6 days in Zanzibar (Matemwe and Stonetown). Trip reports on these destinations are pretty easy to come by, so I’ve focused solely on our final stop — Mafia Island.
Our entire trip, excluding international flights, was booked through Access2Tanzania (http://www.access2tanzania.com). A trip like this doesn’t come cheap, and the options can be overwhelming. My advice – do lots of destination research first to narrow down what appeals to you, then contact a few tour operators for quotes. Go with the one who “gets” you. By booking with a tour operator directly, you will get a private, customized safari for much less than a cookie-cutter group departure through a travel agency.
While researching destination options, we were drawn to Mafia Island right away; with only a handful of lodges, it offered what we hoped would be an authentic and idyllic experience. We were not disappointed. When choosing an island destination, our strategy is to find the most popular place, then go to the next island over. If you’re looking for nightlife, great shopping, and a lively pool scene, you won’t find any of it on Mafia Island.
Day 1: We began our journey to Mafia Island by way of Zanzibar, where our wake-up call at the Africa House Hotel consisted of a knock on the door and “Hello, good morning”. We were accompanied to the hotel lobby by a very slender and elderly porter who threw one of our suitcases over his shoulder, grabbed the other by the handle (no rolling wheels for him), then down the narrow, hot corridor, up a flight of stairs, through the bar, down another corridor, and down another flight of stairs to the lobby, all without any apparent exertion or effort. After breakfast, our driver Dullah took us to the airport and got our tickets and bags sorted. A change of planes in Dar es Salaam, and an hour and a half later we touched down on pristine Mafia Island. We were met at the airport by a driver who settled us into the Landrover amongst the eggs, water, produce and insect repellent for the 30 minute drive to Ras Mbisi Lodge (http://www.mafiaislandtz.com). We drove along a bumpy sand road through coconut groves and past tidy little homes on the roadside. Even though many are the same mud/stick and thatch/tin roof construction that we’ve seen throughout Tanzania, the ones here seem cleaner, and the countryside greener. We were greeted warmly by the staff at Ras Mbisi and were shown to our bandas, which are beautiful and open, not unlike the tented camps we stayed in on safari. After settling in, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch followed by a nap by the pool, then drinks and dinner, a Swahili buffet. So far Mafia is exactly what we thought it would be — beautiful, laid-back, charming. We do hope the very strong winds present for the last few days die down so we can enjoy some snorkeling.
Day 2: It was lovely sleeping to the sound of the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean. The owners, John and Michelle, have carved out a little piece of paradise here. After breakfast we set out on a beach walk to the south, gathering some beautiful shells and watching the locals wading out into the shallow waters collecting fish, mollusks and octopus, some of which will no doubt end up on our plate. We met with John and organized a couple of day trips — tomorrow we’re off to the north side of the island to see the lighthouse and have a picnic lunch, then to the marine park and Chole Island on the east side the next day. The food here is really delicious — lunch was amazing calamari and prawns accompanied by salads and rice preceded by a very yummy fresh salsa and bread. Dinner was pumpkin soup, roast duck with couscous, and creme caramel. Michelle mentioned that the supply boat was several days overdue because of a cyclone north of Zanzibar, and that they were running out of lots of things, but you’d never know it.
Day 3: After breakfast and a short beach walk we headed off with our driver and one of the waiters, Youssef as interpreter (although we thought the driver also spoke very good English). We headed north and encountered many friendly people — especially kids – who smiled and waved as we drove by. It was wonderful to see the tiny, neat little villages, the kids sitting outside at the mosque, boys together all in white; girls together all in yellow. When we stopped in Bweni to pick up the lighthouse keeper we tried to give some Canada pins to two little boys at the roadside but they were too shy to take them. We also saw some monkeys and a quite large brown snake — I almost got through the trip without seeing a snake! The guys climbed to the top of the lighthouse with Youssef; I went about a third of the way but the rickety stairs/ladder and handrails were just not encouraging me to overcome my vertigo. There is beautiful crashing surf here on the north tip of the island. We stopped for lunch at a gorgeous beach — the driver and Youssef made us a bench and table from dugout canoes. We watched the locals harvesting shells (like a small conch) worth about 50 shillings or 4 cents, octopus and a beautiful lobster. Youssef gave the man with the lobster our leftover bread in exchange for allowing us to take his picture. After lunch we went to Kanga Beach — on the way, we saw a corkscrew shaped coconut palm. The beach was great and we finally had our first swim in the Indian Ocean. The water was incredibly warm, and it was quite magical — we couldn’t see a soul anywhere, just the four of us in this beautiful little spot. We got back to Ras Mbisi around 3:30 and had wine on our veranda. Dinner was crab salad, king fish, and a pineapple crisp. While waiting for dinner we chatted with a nice young American couple who both work for the Clinton Foundation which provides assistance to governments and agencies to develop health care projects in Africa. It was interesting to hear their perspectives after having been in Tanzania for close to a year — suffice it to say their shiny idealism was a little tarnished. They went to see the whalesharks today, joined by a Swedish couple on their honeymoon, the only other guests here. Both women were seasick and didn’t go in the water; the guys did but it was extremely rough. The Swedish fellow compared snorkeling over top of a whaleshark to the opening scene from Star Wars where the enormous spaceship lumbers across the screen. It sounds amazing but not quite worth the effort unless the weather settles. And so ends another fabulous day on Mafia — I feel so privileged to have seen and experienced this beautiful place.
Day 4: Right after breakfast we joined the Swedish couple and headed out for our snorkel and Chole Island trip, with our trusty driver and Youssef. After paying our $20US pp marine park fee, we went the dive centre and joined an Italian couple for a 25 minute boat ride to the snorkel site. The water was a bit rough but the snorkeling was great — we saw lots of beautiful fish and corals. Apparently the Indian Ocean corals were nearly wiped out in 1997 – very high water temperatures as a result of El Nino. After returning to shore we had lunch, left our gear with the driver, and set off with Youssef for the short ferry ride (a small boat, really) to Chole Island. Youssef is from Chole, so it was great to have his first-hand knowledge. What an amazing place to grow up; there are no cars or even scooters — no cows or goats either — just people, bicycles, chickens, and the local flora and fauna. We visited the ruins, saw a colony of fruit bats (flying foxes), a metre-long monitor lizard, and walked the paths of the quaint village of about 850 people, stopping along the way to chat with various people (of course, everyone knew Youssef). We visited the hospital and made a donation, watched some boat builders, and met Youssef’s mother. We also saw an albino girl at the school yard — I’m sure she has a hard life ahead of her according to what I’ve seen and read. Just when you think you’ve seen tiny and remote, you discover there’s even tinier and remoter. On the ferry back to Mafia we were joined by several locals including a laundry basket brimming with small fish. This part of Mafia Island is much busier (busy being a relative term), as the marine park and most of the island’s lodges are in this area, and the nearby village of Kilindoni is almost bustling with activity. Back to the peace and tranquility of Ras Mbisi, we enjoyed more veranda wine, followed by dinner of spinach soup, pork, and chocolate cake. We were joined at our table by the Swedish couple as the six of us are now the only guests here. We really enjoyed chatting about winter sports and Canadian music. After two busy days we’re looking forward to a couple of lazy days and catching up on our reading.
Day 5: After breakfast we went for a beach walk and spent the rest of the morning reading. Lunch was kebabs, again delicious. The afternoon consisted of napping and more reading. We did see something different today — a row of about a dozen men walking in a straight line out to sea with an enormous net, parallel with the shore. They walked out quite far — more than a kilometer it appeared, still only up to their waist in water, and were joined by a boat which collected their bounty. The wind was much calmer today and the sea much smoother so maybe that’s why we hadn’t seen this before. Dinner was spanakopita, pasta with fish and a lime tart. We were again joined by the Swedish couple — tomorrow is their last day. A new couple has also arrived today; they are from Hawaii and booked last minute because the Egypt leg of their trip was canceled due to the civil unrest there. Before dinner, we asked John about property ownership here and he advised that all land is owned by the Tanzanian government and then leased for 99 years. He sub-leases this land from the coconut plantation. He also mentioned that the seaweed and sea grass present right now is only here for about 7 or 8 weeks each year — the rest of the time the beach is quite pristine (not that it’s awful or anything, there’s just lots of sea grass). The sand is very white and squeaky, like cornstarch. The humidity is also at it’s worst right now as the ‘long rains’ will be coming shortly — June through November the weather is best here.
Day 6: Another quiet and peaceful day at Ras Mbisi; a beach walk followed by a delicious lunch of fried fish and BBQ calamari. After lunch we bid farewell to our Swedish friends. An uneventful afternoon of reading and napping was followed by our final evening of sundowners on our veranda, where we toasted our good fortune and started plotting our next vacation. Before dinner, we asked John what they do with their dead here — we haven’t seen any cemeteries or burial plots on family property like in the Cook Islands. He wasn’t sure — I guess no one’s ever asked – but towards the end of dinner he reported back that the Muslim tradition here is for the men to take the body and bury it somewhere meaningful, usually under a tree. There are no headstones or grave markers. So now we know. Dinner was tomato soup, beef medallions and crepes with chocolate sauce and bananas; a wonderful ending to our last full day here. I’m going to miss the soft, warm tropical breeze, but I am looking forward to North American plumbing and drinking really cold (not cool) water.
Day 7: After breakfast and a beach walk, we packed our suitcases, put on real shoes and socks for the first time in weeks, and had our final lunch at Ras Mbisi, a Greek spread. Settled up the bar bill and bounced along the sand road back to the airport. We had a passenger riding in the back, the local tailor and the “only man on the island who can sew a straight line” according to Michelle. He makes all their bed linens and curtains. When we arrived at the airport they opened the little gift shop — the shop owner was joined by the security guy who would help display or explain things that we expressed an interest in; not something you’d see at LAX! We bought some beautiful wooden bowls. As we prepared to board our plane to Dar es Salaam, I recalled something John mentioned one night; that Mafia hadn’t changed in 50 years and probably wouldn’t change much in the next 50 — I certainly hope he’s right.
We departed Dar es Salaam shortly after midnight, ahead of schedule. Every single flight in Tanzania has left ahead of schedule, just one of the many wonders of this amazing country. The rest of our journey via Amsterdam was uneventful, and we arrived home to the stunning beauty of Vancouver; brilliant blue skies and snow covered mountains tinged pink by the setting sun. The -6c temperature was a bit of a shock, but I have with me a little piece of Africa to keep me warm, until we meet again.