The Robinson Crusoe experience (with solar panels)

Fleeing the crowds, heat and fumes of Zanzibar city, Adrian Mourby and his wife find refuge on Chumbe, an eco-friendly coral island off the coast

Zanzibar is crowded and hot. Sailors used to claim they could smell the fabled Isle of Spices long before it appeared over the horizon but all I was getting was an unpleasant cocktail of frangipani, exhaust fumes and dead fish. The marketplace looked like an abattoir and the drains were on strike. So was my American wife Kate, who was steadfastly keeping to our hotel, lapping up the air conditioning and agreeing whole-heartedly with the opinion of David Livingstone, who dubbed this island "Stinkibar".

Zanzibar is crowded and hot. Sailors used to claim they could smell the fabled Isle of Spices long before it appeared over the horizon but all I was getting was an unpleasant cocktail of frangipani, exhaust fumes and dead fish. The marketplace looked like an abattoir and the drains were on strike. So was my American wife Kate, who was steadfastly keeping to our hotel, lapping up the air conditioning and agreeing whole-heartedly with the opinion of David Livingstone, who dubbed this island "Stinkibar".

And the worst of it was we were not due to leave for another two days. Fortunately, an old toothless Portuguese in the hotel bar thought he had the answer. "Chumbe," he said. "It's only eight miles off the coast. You British built a lighthouse there. It's a small island, uninhabited and has 90 per cent of all the coral reef in East Africa."

"Yes!" said Kate in exaggerated delight. "I so need a coral island."

As a child my wife had been obsessed with Robinson Crusoe. This sounded much more like the kind of Indian Ocean experience she was looking for. As for me, I was happy enough to leave the humid alleyways of Zanzibar city and play at castaways. The old man said it would take less than half an hour by boat. All we had to do was get a taxi down to the mangrove swamp at Mbweni Ruins.

Mbweni turned out to be the ruins of a school for freed slave girls, another thing we British built in the 19th century. In the 1970s it was the No.1 place for European raves in Africa. Now it's all fenced off, but there's a small damp hotel nearby from which you can take a boat out to Chumbe and here we found Karen, our coral island ranger.

Unfortunately, Karen had misread the tide table so we ended up slopping out to the boat through mangrove swamps, ankle deep in lukewarm water and narrowly avoiding stepping on bright red starfish and some vicious-looking sea urchins. My wife described them as "pompoms with attitude". The boat was long, old and low, with a canvas awning to keep the sun off.

As we puttered west Karen pointed out broad-sailed dhows, circling Chumbe. These were Zanzibari fishermen. They are allowed to fish freely off the west side of the island, but can't come closer than 400 metres on the east. As we drew closer to Chumbe we could see why. The island's fragile corals are vulnerably visible in this shallow sea, only a metre or so below the surface.

The island itself is long and thin and dense with its own unique foliage. It looked for all the world like a coral birthday cake topped with a stubby white lighthouse candle.

We stepped off into warm water and squelched our way up the beach. Ahead lay the ruins of what turned out to be a one-man mosque which was built for the lighthouse-keeper, and a large open-sided and palm-thatched building that used to be his house but was now the hotel-cum-visitor centre.

Karen promised us an underwater safari after lunch, but first she had to deliver supplies to the hotel. Chumbe, whose area totals only one square kilometre, is wholly dependent on the mainland for everything from food and water to writing paper and torch batteries. While Francis, the manager, took stock we took lunch on a makeshift table facing the ocean. Our furniture looked as if it had been salvaged from a shipwreck and augmented with bits of designer driftwood. Chumbe, I soon realised, is seriously green.

We ate grilled kingfish, salad and vegetables but left the big bowl of chips, which I fear had been ferried over specially for us. Afterwards, Francis brought us slices of mango and paw-paw for dessert. He then escorted us to our "bungalow". Even though we were only there for the day, the fare over included lunch and use of our very own thatched hideaway along the shore. Here we could rest, change and shower off the seawater.

The bungalow lay down a sandy path that was criss-crossed by hermit crabs scurrying sideways into their burrows as if rush hour had suddenly descended. My wife loved the bungalows. They were two storeys high, with huge curving roofs - like those at the Sydney Opera House - to catch rainwater.

Chumbe has no well or spring, so its reliance on rainwater for washing and bathing is total. Bottled water is provided for drinking and cooking but the "grey" water from each sink and shower gets filtered and used to water the plant beds in front of the bungalows. According to Francis, new plants have been specially introduced that have an ability to absorb the phosphates and nitrates in the used water. The beds are encased in clay, ensuring that no used water runs into the natural environment. It was all very well thought out and made Robinson Crusoe look like a complete amateur.

Solar panelling provided each bungalow with its light and water heating, but Kate wanted to know where the air conditioning was. "From the sea!" Francis laughed, and indeed we could now see that our bungalow was completely open on the ground floor with dense foliage affording what privacy we felt we needed. We changed happily for our swim but when it came time to use the "compost" lavatory Kate was less than happy. She still remembered the long-drop privies that haunted her through many years of American summer camps. The sign said three scoops of earth on top were every bit as effective as a flush. "Huh," said Kate, peering down in disgust. "Well they're not as bad as those fly-ridden thunderboxes."

Our snorkel safari was good, with lionfish rather than lions, and schools of chocolate-dipped chromis instead of the ubiquitous herds of wildebeest that we'd seen on the mainland. I was saddened to see how much coral had been broken off in recent storms. It did look as if someone had been down there with a baseball bat.

As we surfaced and made for the beachside communal showers we saw a party of Zanzibari schoolgirls emerging from the forest in their pleated skirts and starched white shirts. They'd been over for a day to learn about the environment. In fact, the $70 (£36) each that we'd paid subsidises such trips from the mainland.

Francis greeted us cheerfully and asked if we'd enjoyed our swim. He even said we could stay the night if we wished as the bungalow was ours till tomorrow. We both wished we could have stayed. It would have been very romantic to sleep under the stars and listen to the sea breaking quietly on he beach. Instead, I contented myself with a brief swing in a hammock until it was time to go back. My wife, being far more energetic, went to explore the island with one of the rangers.

Chumbe is covered with dense coral rag forest and has its own indigenous fauna: a species of tiny and very edible deer that got marooned here when sea levels rose and which is now all but extinct on the mainland; and the huge coconut crab which has had the great misfortune to be credited with aphrodisiac qualities and is now understandably shy of humans. Kate found neither but did get the chance to climb the lighthouse and watch fishing dhows in the distance heading back to Zanzibar.

We left with some sadness, having really under-stayed our welcome. "That was everything I could have asked for from a desert island," said Kate wistfully. "Except for proper plumbing."

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The writer travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004; www.rainbowtours.co.uk), which offers a seven-day holiday in Zanzibar from £1,045 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return flights from London Heathrow to Zanzibar via Dar es Salaam, private transfers, three nights' accommodation at Breezes Beach Club on a half-board basis, two nights at Chumbe Island Lodge on full-board basis, and one night's b&b accommodation at Tembo House in Stone Town.

Further information

Go to www.chumbeisland.com.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition
    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born