Welcome to the Venice of Africa

Zanzibar's rich mix of exotic aromas led Dr Livingstone to call it Stinkibar. Yet visitors have always been entranced. By Justina Hart

Zanzibar is one of those magical, mysterious African names, on a par with Timbuktu, that conjures up images of sultans, harems and expensive spices. It is also the only place in East Africa where the "king of fruits", the durian, grows. The flesh is delicious, but the green, spiky fruit has a potent odour that has been described variously as sweet or sooty and has even been compared to rancid cheese or sewage. Although the island is now as famous for Freddie Mercury (aka Farouk Bulsara) as for its exotic produce, Zanzibar has, like the durian fruit, always inspired contradictory reactions.

The explorer David Livingstone, docking in Stone Town's port in 1866 when it was the most important trading centre on the coast, condemned the main town as "gross and crass" and coined the nickname Stinkibar. Yet explorers and visitors in equal measure have been entranced by the scent of sandalwood and udi (incense smoke), by the decaying houses with their beautifully carved doors left slightly ajar, that seem both to invite and forbid foreigners from exploring the shadowy courtyards within.

The secret to exploring the "Venice of Africa" - so-called because seasonal downpours turn the town into a labyrinth of silted streams - is to ditch both watch and guidebook and get gleefully lost on purpose in the often unnamed streets. In fine weather the experience is akin to rambling through a series of alfresco living-rooms. Beautiful women float past in green, pink and orange veils revealing a glimpse of hennaed hands or feet. Teenagers cycle after you, keen to practise their English. Greetings echo along the lanes as you dip into fusty curio shops that sell anything from silver jewellery to fragments of stone fretwork, and bazaars you may never find again. Without warning you turn another corner and emerge blinking in the sunlight, face to face with the Indian Ocean. In the Jamituri Gardens near the port, where Zanzibaris congregate in the evenings to eat and socialise, the smell of putrefying rubbish mingles with aromas from street vendors cooking clove fish cakes, miniature spicy kebabs and shreds of pickled octopus, and serving passion fruit juice flavoured with tamarind or sugar-cane juice mixed with lemon and ginger. Young men push the end of a long sugar-cane stick into a mangle while others rotate the handle, the thirst-quenching liquid pouring into an ice-laden bucket into which you dig your glass. Small boys hurl themselves into the dhow-dotted ocean as the setting sun bathes everyone in its warm glow.

This is a place that demands and inspires respect. Zanzibaris are proud and independent, and view their island as a separate state within Tanzania. A resident told me that tourism had only truly taken off after the first multi-party elections in 1995, and that foreigners offend the mainly Muslim population by wearing swimming costumes in town or by "making loving on the beach". At the airport leaflets are handed out telling you not to buy corals or products made from endangered sea turtles and not to photograph anyone without their permission. Brutalist western hotels are beginning to spring up in the new part of the town, but are less intrusive than the reconstruction projects. You get the impression that by the time the last building has been salvaged, the first will be threatening to collapse again.

Arab, Persian, Indian, African, Portuguese and even British cultures are as intertwined here as the carvings on the house doors: the more elaborate an owner's portal, the greater was his social standing. Zanzibar's trading history dates back to the second century BC when Chinese silk and porcelain reached the island via the Silk Route from China to India. The tale of Sinbad the Sailor was probably inspired by accounts of Arab sailors voyaging to East Africa and Asia. During the eighth and ninth centuries, immigrant Arab and Persian sailors traded African gold, ivory, rhino horn, leopard skins, tortoise shell and ambergris with their original homelands. After Portuguese occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the rule of the Omani and Zanzibari sultans, thousands of African slaves were transported via Zanzibar to plantations in Oman and the East Indies. While the name Zanzibar comes from the Persian meaning "land of the black people", the Swahili name - Unguja - translates as "bowl of fruits". Zanzibar and her sister island Pemba are the most fertile of any lying off the East African coast. During the latter half of the 19th century the islands produced over 90 per cent of the world's supply of cloves, the dried, unopened buds of the clove tree. The most widely accepted story is that clove seedlings were brought from Mauritius by a Zanzibari Arab who had been banished for murder by the sultan, but whose good deed earned his pardon. With abundant slave labour the royal plantations prospered until a freak hurricane destroyed virtually all the clove trees in 1872. Since the majority of present-day trees date from the replanting in 1873 - the same year as the closure of the slave market - output is now lower and of an inferior quality.

A spice tour is an educational and gluttonous experience. For just a few dollars you can spend a hot but fructuous morning rattling in a truck- cum-minibus visiting plantations, gardens and Persian baths with a herbal guru. Mitu, sun-wrinkled and charismatic, is the most renowned of herbal guides and has been leading tours for 37 years. His approach to teaching is sensory: he picks fruit, seed pods and leaves and invites you to smell, taste and pull apart the samples while he provides a fascinating running commentary about growth patterns, harvesting and medicinal uses. He even swears he can cure hepatitis or yellow fever in a couple of weeks using sugar-cane juice and coconuts.

Mitu tells us that drinking an infusion of 40 crushed cloves boiled in water cures diarrhoea. The oil is good for massage and toothache, he adds. Next we inspect a pineapple tree, a perennial herb. The juice aids digestion, is a cure for stomach ache and is used to promote the healing of wounds. Mitu points out a banana "tree". Although the plants grow up to 20ft tall, the trunks are false since bananas are in fact herbs. We are standing beneath a sandpaper tree: everyone is given a leaf, and Mitu instructs us to trundle off to the nearest building to attack the wooden door. It works a treat. Just like commercial sandpaper, one side is rough and the other smoother. Cayenne pepper, we learn, comes from the elongated, bright red chillies that hang from a leafy plant. Apparently it is used in the making of tear gas. Thoroughly impressionable, we can't tell whether Mitu is teasing us with the Zanzibari equivalent of spaghetti tree jokes.

The latter part of the tour is spent wandering in single file through Mitu's specially created tutorial garden. New sensory experiences rain down thick and fast. Jackfruit, huge and oddly shaped, hang from trees like swarms of bees. They are highly aromatic and taste like a cross between pineapple and banana. Mitu describes mangosteen as "the best fruit in the world". Each fruit has marks on its underside showing how many seeds are inside. Five seeds makes for the tastiest, snow-white flesh. We learn about rambutans, sapodilla plums and papaya, but we do not catch sight of the infamous durian. The tour ends with a feast of spiced rice and spiced vegetable stew followed by watermelon, starfruit, spiced sweets and spiced tea.

Sated with delicious spices, all visitors seem to head for Zanzibar's paradisiacal east coast at Paje or to Nungwi on the north coast. Paje is a fishing village where at low tide women and children collect shellfish and seaweed from the shallows. Seaweed, exported as a thickening agent for food, is a growth industry. At high tide fishermen cross the reef in dugouts made of baobab wood with outriggers. Every morning after sunrise the clouds disperse and the day settles into its perfection. The pale turquoise sea darkens into a purplish blue over the coral reefs. The sand underfoot is soft and creamy as silk. Majestic palms sway in the winds, their fronds long and elegant as green gloved fingers. Days drift by watching life move at a pace as slow as the ancient, giant tortoises on Prison Island, a stone's throw from Stone Town, where recalcitrant slaves were once detained.

FACT FILE

Seasons

Aim to go during the dry seasons from December to February or June to October. In the wet seasons the hotels are empty, and the downpours are still interspersed with brilliant sunshine. At Christmas and Easter the island is a popular short-break destination for expats from Dar es Salaam and Nairobi.

Getting there

There are no direct flights to Zanzibar from Europe. Your best option is to fly to Nairobi and go by Kenya Airways (pounds 167 return) or Air Tanzania to the island. Gulf Air (changing planes in Abu Dhabi or Muscat) and Oman Air (changing in Muscat) fly from Europe. Prices start from pounds 401 during the low season (March to mid-July) and pounds 531 in the high season (mid-July to mid-September and December). If you want the scenic route, you could take the wonderful Nairobi-Mombasa train and fly from Mombasa (pounds 76 return with Kenya Airways). Another option is to take a ferry from Dar es Salaam ($25 one way), although this choice was regretted by most people I met. A useful starting point is the Africa Travel Centre: 0171 387 1211.

Visas

A three-month visa costs pounds 38.

Money

Foreigners need US dollars for big bills - flights, accommodation, tours - but everything else is in Tanzanian shillings. If you're on a shoestring, you can get away with paying in shillings for hostels. There are very few hotels that accept credit cards, and don't expect to get cash advances on your Visa - it's virtually impossible.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
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
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
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
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
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    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?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    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
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    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