The life of spice

Few names conjure up such romance and mystery as that of Zanzibar, off the east coast of Africa. But, as Richard Holledge discovered, much of the appeal lies in its picturesque shabbiness.
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The Independent Online
On the island of Chunguu, 20 minutes by motor boat from Zanzibar, three or four hours by dhow, a sign sweetly declaims the pleasures of the place, warns the visitor against destroying the coral reef and ends with this familiar admonition:

"Take only pictures,

Leave only footprints in the sand."

The message takes on a degree of urgency as Zanzibar transforms itself into yet another holiday spot blessed with the essentials for the Western traveller: a beach lined with palm trees, warm sea, hot sun.

On Chunguu the giant tortoises ignore the camera-clicking holiday-makers. Mostly Italian - Zanzibar is virtually an Italian colony - the tourists have been whisked from their beach hotel to pose with the one-metre-high creatures, admire the delicate white of the frangipani contrasting vividly with the red of the aptly named flamboyant tree, and sip a Serengeti lager. They won't be eating the rather dry fish and rice in the austere little bar, because lunch back at the hotel will be an altogether smarter affair.

Above all, they have come to sunbathe on the scrap of white beach, splash around a little, snorkel a bit and then move on. As their boat putters back to the mainland the tide sweeps in, the beach is covered, the footprints are washed away.

What is it about Zanzibar? What makes it seem so exotic to people who haven't been there, and hardly know where it is? Why does it seem so much more mysterious and beguiling than the Seychelles or Mauritius?

Well, it could be the name: all those sensual zzzzs, the fact that it used to be a centre for the spice trade, making it redolent of merchant adventurers, swaggering traders, Omani pirates.

The reality is more mundane but every bit as enticing. The heart of the capital is Stone Town. There are no souks selling gewgaws to eager tourists, no magnificent buildings - even their Catholic cathedral is a dour affair - and the Portuguese fort, built in 1700, is run-down and shabby.

But there is a warren of scruffy streets, and tall buildings with massive, ornate doors and plaster falling off walls, poky shops, and kiosks selling cigarettes, fizzy drinks, washing-up powder, tins of meat. There is a constant clatter of furniture being made and "genuine" African artefacts being conjured up. There's a fish market, and spectacular smells.

You will get lost in the maze of streets - even after a week of walking, and of avoiding the cyclists on their Chinese-issue bikes. And just as you reckon you know where you are, as you set off on an evening stroll, the lights go out. Apparently, a water shortage on the mainland, from where the power is pumped, means that electricity has to be rationed. So for two hours every evening, the sturdy beam of a hurricane lamp is all you have. Unless, of course, you are in one of the smarter hotels that have a generator.

Not that the small hotels are anything but charming. I stayed in the annexe to the quite-famous Emerson House Hotel. Like many of the other older hotels the rooms have high ceilings, wooden panelling and burnished stairways.

From the vantage point of its rooftop verandah I could gaze over tin roofs decorated in various shades of rust red, and across to the port on one side, the Indian Ocean on the other.

The verandah became my headquarters. In the morning, breakfast appeared by magic: my very own concierge ( I was the only person staying in the place) raced up the five flights to the balcony to lay out sweet cake, a triangle of puffy bread, jam, pineapple, melon and a little red skinned banana. In the evening I'd sit listening to the chorus of the muezzin, one after the other enticing the faithful to prayer. On one side, dhows nudged slowly along, their progress shaken by the wash from the the hydrofoil from mainland Dar es Salaam; on the other side, the red sun dipped into the sea. Then the warning sound of the generator, the lighting of the storm lamp and the already mysterious streets become suffused with only the ghostly grey light of the full moon.

And though the editor of the Lonely Planet suggests that the place be turned into a World Heritage site, presumably so that it can be pointed up and prettied up and made even more attractive to tourists, he misses the point. The appeal of the place is in its very scruffiness. There are a few smart hotels in Stone Town - the Aga Khan has just opened one - and there are beach resort hotels burgeoning along the east coast catering mainly to the package holiday friends from Italy, but the joy of the place is to be found in the cafes where tiger prawns, calamari and king fish are staples, and along the front beside the rather grandly named - and extremely down-at-heel - Floating Restaurant. Here a riot of stalls selling elongated carvings of African tribesmen, animals, drums, assegais - all those things you instantly regret buying the moment you get home - vie with burning braziers of fish and kebabs.

There is a constant gentle barrage of "jambo", "How are you", "What do you want?" There is nothing of the sense of threat which is chronicled in the Lonely Planet, about the danger of mugging.

What you have to remember is that this is the Third World - maybe even poorer than that - and the tourist is subjected to a steady, though invariably polite, barrage of requests for trade.

Everyone is trying to sell you a trip here, a cruise there. Hardly any of them have the wherewithal to take you on any of these outings. They are merely freelance entrepreneurs after a small backhander for effecting the introduction to the travel agent, who may indeed own a jeep or be able to get you on to a boat. The nearest you get to a mugging is over the change. You hand over 1,000 shillings for something that costs 900, and you know that, after a lengthy rummage through pockets, drawers, the till, and a check with friends, there will be a regretful shrug. No change. So that's another 10p lost.

You get a real sense of the place in Jaws Corner, a crossroads in the middle of Stone Town where politicians, real and armchair, sit for hours, chat, talk and pontificate. On the walls are slogans which signal their permanent opposition to many things, but above all union with the mainland: "Open your eyes and look within. Are you satisfied with the life you are living? NO."

For Nasser (whom I met on a beach on the west coast, bizarrely littered with the hulks of East German warships), most of the ills of the island were down to the depredations of the mainland. He railed at "f***ing politicians" and was desperate for independence (it was then that it dawned on me that Tanzania was an elision of Zanzibar and the former British colony Tanganyika). In fact, so zealous of their "independence" are the people of Zanzibar that you will need to show your passport and yellow fever certificate at the airport. You are even charged $4 to leave the island.

Fred, on the other hand, genial co-owner of Tropical Tours and Safaris, with his strikingly beautiful sister Freda, simply shrugged off the talk of independence.

"We voted against it. What difference can it make, anyway? Do we want our own army?"

Fred is typical of the entrepreneurs who realise that somewhere between the bland gorgeousness of a beach resort hotel and the faintly irritating chorus of "jambo, jambo", there is an ever-growing trade in tourism.

After the revolution of 1964, which saw the end of British rule, everyone was entitled to three acres of land. Fred has his bid in for his allocation; he plans to develop it into a house and then apply for a plot in the forest. Meanwhile he is organising spice tours - a quick whiz around the farms which produce the cloves on which so much of the economy is based - taking people to the south coast to swim with the dolphins (they move so fast to get out of the way, that if you blink you miss them, but the lunch is good), and generally seizing on any opportunity he can see to make a quick Tanzanian shilling.

Which is how I came to be in Paradise Beach Bungalows in Paje, a straggly little collection of thatched houses on the east coast. I could have taken a bus, a dala-dala, a vehicle with wooden fretwork sides. It would have cost next to nothing and taken three hours. Fred took half that time. And cost a lot, lot more.

The beach here virtually runs the length of the island. It is a beach out of your fantasies. Palm trees nod gently as the tide tears in and out, the women are up at dawn with the low tide as it breaks a quarter of a mile out, to plant seaweed. The mix of noise is enchanting: the roar of the waves, the clatter of the palms in the wind, the voices of the women chatting and giggling, their skirts hoicked above their knees. Fishermen walk along the beach with their catch in a carrier bags, pausing to beat an octopus into tasty submission. The inevitable cyclist uses the beach as the main road - it is certainly much flatter and smoother than the bumpy, sandy lane inland.

The bungalows are simple. The lighting comes from the now familiar storm lamp; the little restaurant serves tender octopus, big, tasty prawns. All washed down with a bottle of Sprite. Nothing happens. Yours for $16 a night.

It's Fred who fixes me up on a dhow cruise, a long, slow tack across to the islands off the town in a fabulously dilapidated boat, filled with irrelevant spars of wood, blessed with a spindly mast, a tattered sail and a steady leak. There's a crew of six who alternate between frantic activity to change the sail and catch the breeze and distinct torpor as we wander across the ocean. I'd still be there now if the skipper hadn't decided, as the moon came out over Zanzibar, to use the outboard motor and get us back to port. Just in time for the lights to go out.

ZOOMING TO ZANZIBAR

Getting there: Gulf Air flies from Heathrow to Zanzibar via Muscat or Abu Dhabi; in January, Flightbookers (0171-757 3000) is offering a fare of pounds 511 return. Or travel to Dar-Es-Salaam with Alliance Air (0181- 944 5012) from Heathrow (pounds 507) or British Airways (0345 222111) from Gatwick.

From Dar, most frequent flights are with Precision Air (about pounds 30 for the 20-minute hop). The trip is cheaper by sea, by motorised dhow (very slow), ferry or hydrofoil.

A third alternative is to find a cheap charter from Manchester or Gatwick to Mombasa, and connect there with a Kenya Airways flight (around pounds 80 return); this may involve buying a Kenyan visa for pounds 35.

Red tape: British passport holders require visas, which must be obtained in advance from the Tanzanian High Commission, 43 Hertford Street, London W1Y 8DB (0171-499 8951). Send an SAE for the application form, complete and return with pounds 38 and two photographs.

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