Swahili shores
Pemba, Pangani, Saadani, Mafia and Zanzibar – they are not just exotic names that dance off the tongue, they are among the many treasures you'll find along the Tanzanian coast. Follow Mary Fitzpatrick as she explores the shores of this dynamic region.

 


The East African coast is timeless. You can see it in the gnarled bark of baobabs, feel it in the Indian Ocean sunrise, and absorb it when watching the centuries-old rhythms of local life. The dhows that slip silently across the horizon at dawn, their patched broadcloth sails filled by the wind, haven’t changed from the ones that passed by a century or three ago.

In this feature article we set out to explore Tanzania’s 1000km section of coast. On the mainland, long stretches of sand are interspersed with mangrove forests, ruin-studded inlets, sleepy villages and a string of old Swahili trading ports. Offshore, the islands beckon with an ambience all their own, with glinting white beaches, soft sand, upmarket resorts and a lively fusion of traditional and modern. Both the mainland coast and the islands offer historical buildings aplenty, a wealth of birds and marine life, colourful corals and turquoise-hued vistas. Exploring the area is a delight on its own, or in combination with the country’s famous safari circuits.

 

The Islands

Nowhere along the coast do the traditional and modern blend with such vitality as on Zanzibar Island (Unguja). This is the most well-known and by far the most visited of Tanzania's islands, the focal point of the clove and slave trades of old and the pulse point of modern-day Swahili culture.

 

At Zanzibar’s heart is the old Stone Town, a fascinating blend of times and cultures. Its waterfront is lined with elegant Omani-era buildings, while its skyline mixes minarets and church steeples with pitched corrugated iron roofs and a handful of new high-rises. Motorbikes careen loudly through narrow, cobbled lanes, past Arabic-style houses with brass-studded wooden doors. Visitors in beach garb wander past kanzu-clad men and bui-bui veiled women. The contrasts between traditional and modern, Western and Oriental, are everywhere, but somehow the island seems to fuse everything into a uniquely Zanzibari mix.


A fine place to start your Zanzibar wanderings is at the Beit al-Ajaib (House of Wonders) on the Stone Town waterfront. Once the ceremonial palace of the Omani sultans, it is now the Zanzibar National Museum of History and Culture. Just a short walk away, if you manage not to get lost in the maze of winding lanes, are the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, both dating to the late 19th century, when the archipelago’s once-flourishing slave trade was in its waning days. The Anglican cathedral stands on the site of the old slave market, with some nearby holding cells a sobering reminder of the not-so-distant past. By exploring Stone Town’s streets, visiting nearby palace ruins and touring the spice plantations that were once the backbone of the local economy, you will bring Zanzibar’s long history alive.


For a glimpse into modern-day Zanzibari culture, there’s no better time to visit the island than July when the Festival of the Dhow Countries takes over. This two-week extravaganza includes the Zanzibar International Film Festival (www.ziff.or.tz), as well as music and dance performances, and art and craft displays. The extensive programme draws artists and performers from throughout the region. Stone Town is jam-packed at this time, and an outreach programme brings the festival to outlying villages as well. After all this activity, you’ll cherish time relaxing on the beaches for which Zanzibar is famed. With the seemingly uncontrolled spate of hotel building in the north and east, quiet spots are hard to come by these days, but the beaches remain stunning, picture-perfect patches of paradise.


Away from Stone Town, traditional life still follows the rhythms of the tides and the winds of the monsoon, seemingly oblivious to (but soon to be  overwhelmed by) the mushrooming chain of resorts that line much of the island’s northern and eastern edges. A handful of densely populated towns, small farm plots and areas of scrub dot the interior, while a string of stellar beaches and somnolent fishing villages fringe the coast. If you meander around the latter, you’ll find strings of fish drying in the sun, fishermen repairing their nets in the shade and cows and chickens wandering across sandy lanes. Wade out into the surreal shallows at low tide and you’ll often discover women picking their way through their seaweed harvests.


One fishing village that is an enduring favourite of mine is Jambiani in the southeast, with its sun-baked collection of coral-rag houses overlooking a long stretch of white sand. It’s easy to get stuck here for days, gazing out at the sea with its ethereal aqua hues and line of anchored ngalawa (outrigger canoes). Another highlight is Matemwe, known for its powdery white sand and its inviting collection of smaller hotels.


If the crowds on Zanzibar Island get to be too much, there are several nearby islands and islets to explore. Tiny Mnemba, a 500m-wide patch of dazzlingly white sand that is just offshore from Matemwe, is renowned for its fine snorkelling and diving, its dolphins, green turtles and seasonal populations of humpback whales. It is also known for Mnemba Island Lodge, Zanzibar’s most exclusive address. While anyone can snorkel offshore, entry onto the island is reserved for guests of the lodge.


On the other side of Zanzibar, about 10km southwest of Stone Town, is the larger island of Chumbe. Unlike Mnemba, Chumbe is not known for its beaches (although they are there). Rather, the highlights here are Chumbe’s spectacular coral gardens, as well as the dolphins, turtles and 400 species of fish that frequent its surrounding waters.


The island was Tanzania’s first marine sanctuary, and is now run as Chumbe Island Coral Park (www.chumbeisland.com), a highly acclaimed centre for ecotourism known especially for its environmental education work with local school children.


Leaving Zanzibar behind, we turn our sights northwards. Lying just across a choppy 50km-wide channel is the hilly and lushly vegetated Pemba, the Zanzibar Archipelago’s ‘other island’. This is the al Khuthera of old, the ‘Green Island’ that once provided the archipelago’s economic foundation with its extensive clove plantations and agricultural base.


Yet it is almost totally overlooked today.


Pemba’s interior is a verdant patchwork of tidy farm plots and stands of banana, while much of the island’s coast is lined with mangroves and tidal creeks. Although it goes without Zanzibar’s stellar beaches, there are a few beautiful coves and some idyllic islets. Offshore, the steeply dropping walls of the Pemba Channel offer challenging scuba sites for skilled divers. The island is small, and a north-south traverse by foot takes less than two hours. However, anything off the main road feels kilometres away in space and time from everywhere. Highlights for me include the quiet waterways of the far south, the lovely islet of Misali, the medieval ruins near Tumbe and the dense rainforest at Ngezi.


Culturally, Pemba remains shrouded in mystery – it is overwhelmingly Muslim and Swahili in character, but possesses strong voodoo and animist traditions as well.


Our final island stop is the Mafia Archipelago. If Zanzibar Island is a glimpse into the Swahili coast’s promising future, Mafia is a delightful step back into its more traditional past. On the main island of Mafia, sandy lanes wind through coconut plantations, and donkey-drawn carts and bajaji (tuk-tuks) are the main forms of transport. There is no equivalent of Zanzibar’s Stone Town here; lively Kilondoni, the main town, is a complete backwater by comparison. A handful of upmarket lodges and a few enterprising backpacker bases are the island’s only accommodation, and life moves at a charmingly snail-like pace.


Mafia’s entire southeastern corner has been gazetted as a marine park, and offers fine diving and snorkelling, with lovely corals and a good variety of fish. The arrival of whale sharks to Mafia’s waters is a highlight for many visitors between November and February.


An easy sail away from Mafia Island are several smaller islands with ruins testifying to the archipelago’s Shirazi-era heyday and its later role as a trading centre during the time of the Omani sultanate.

 

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The Coast

Our first stop on the mainland is Pangani, a sleepy town with an atmospheric waterfront lined with Omani-era buildings and cut by narrow alleys hiding carved wooden doors. 

 

In its 19th-century heyday Pangani was a terminus of the caravan route from Lake Tanganyika, which meant it was a major export point for slaves and ivory, and one of the largest ports between Bagamoyo and Mombasa.

These days, life in town has a decidedly slower pace, and centres on the comings and goings of a small workhorse of a ferry that chugs back and forth across the meandering Pangani River with its cargo of people, produce and vehicles. Port workers loll by the dock, ladies sit in the shade of the early 19th-century German boma selling fresh bread and maandazi, and kofia-clad men peddle by on heavy, single-speed bicycles. Shop fronts along the main street, with their tidy stacks of brightly-coloured plastic wares and dusty shelves of tinned goods, stand in hopeful anticipation of customers.

After spending a morning taking it all in, we embarked to explore the nearby coastline. To the north, a wonderful beach, dotted by a handful of low-key beach getaways, runs lazily for kilometres. Most of the lodgings are owned by long-time residents of the area who decided to stay after first stumbling upon the Pangani seafront’s timeless beauty years ago.

Tanga, a major port city, is just an hour’s drive further up the coast, and convenient for supplies. Wireless internet has also made inroads to the area. Otherwise, it is easy to ensconce yourself at one of the beach hideaways for weeks, oblivious to the outside world, and with nothing more stressful to disturb your reverie than an occasional scuttling crab.

South of Pangani a rutted all-weather road leads from the far bank of the Pangani River through coastal forest for about 15km to the Ushongo area. Here a scruffy village gives way to a marvellous and largely overlooked palm-fringed beach. Apart from several modest beach haunts, a lovely boutique hotel and a smattering of private homes, there is no development. As with the beaches just north of Pangani, it would be easy to get stuck here for weeks, seduced by the sand, the sea and the whispering of the palms. On clear, moonless nights, the Southern Cross and other constellations fill the sky above, and the lights of northern Zanzibar Island, just across the channel, twinkle in the distance.

From Ushongo the road continues southwards until reaching Saadani National Park, an enchanting spot with a beachfront even wider and more deserted than that further north. Wildlife watching in Saadani cannot compare with that in Tanzania’s main parks, but it must be said that animal populations have undergone a major revival over the past decade and a half, moving from a heavily poached and skittish handful to sizeable numbers of elephant, giraffe, buffalo, hartebeest and more. Hippos are almost guaranteed in the Wami River, which fringes the park to the south, and birding – both on the seafront and along the river – is invariably rewarding. The beach and the relaxed bush ambience are the main attractions here. For sleeping, there are two wonderful beachfront lodges and, inland, the highly-praised luxury eco-camp Saadani Safari Lodge (www.saadanilodge.com).

There is no bridge or ferry across the Wami River, and most transport southwards goes inland, via the main highway. However, it’s more fun to arrange a boat transfer with one of the Saadani lodges to a waiting vehicle, and continue along the coast via the historical treasure trove of Bagamoyo to the modern-day metropolis of Dar es Salaam.

In Bagamoyo, which served as the capital of German East Africa from 1887 to 1891, don’t miss a stroll through Mji Mkongwe, the old town centre, with its crumbling German-era colonial buildings, lively fishing port and quiet streets with carved wooden doorways.

The next stop, about 300km south of Dar es Salaam, past the massive and trackless Rufiji River delta, is Kilwa Masoko. This soporific hamlet is seemingly stuck in a permanent stupor. Nothing moves fast here, apart from pick-up trucks careering along the town’s only paved street and South African charter fishing boats speeding offshore. A spectacular open-ocean beach at Masoko Pwani, 5km north of town, looks to be completely forgotten by visitors and locals alike. Yet, somehow, this inertia and time warp are a fitting backdrop, for it seems only a short step further back in time to the glory days of Kilwa Kisiwani, just offshore. Between the 13th and 15th centuries this small island stood at the centre of a vast trading network linking the old Shona kingdoms and the gold fields of Zimbabwe with Persia, India and China. Its influence extended north past the Zanzibar Archipelago and south as far as Sofala on the central Mozambican coast.

We caught one of the dhows that sail regularly across the narrow channel separating Kilwa Masoko and Kilwa Kisiwani, landing on the beach just below a massive 19th-century Arabic-style fort and near a group of young men eager to serve as guides. A short walk up from the beach, and we stepped into the handsomely restored 15th century Great Mosque, with its graceful vaulting and still intact columns. Crisscrossing from one ruin to the next, we hopped across the centuries, finishing at the 12th-century Husuni Kubwa complex. Taken together, the Kilwa ruins are among the most significant groups of Swahili buildings on the East African coast, and exploring them easily takes the full morning.

From Kilwa the coast continues southwards past the salt-producing centre of Lindi, once part of the Sultan of Zanzibar’s domain, and a terminus of the slave caravan route from Lake Nyasa. Further south, and our last stop before the Mozambique border, is Mikindani, another old Swahili trading town and regional headquarters of the German colonial government.

 

 

Plan your trip

Getting there There are no direct flights from the UK or USA to Tanzania’s coast, but it is easily accessed via the international airports at Arusha and Dar es Salaam, which are serviced by Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com), Ethiopian Airlines (www.flyethiopian.com), British Airways (www.ba.com) and KLM (www.klm.com). Internal flights to make the final leap to the coast are provided by Coastal Aviation (www.coastal.cc) and ZanAir (www.zanair.com).
When to visit June through October, during the long dry season, is a great time to visit the Tanzanian coast. The short dry season (January and February) is another pleasant period to visit.
Visas Most visitors require a visa to visit Tanzania. These are available upon arrival at airports and land borders. A three-month tourist visa costs US$50.
Books Lonely Planet’s Tanzania (5th ed, 2012) by Mary Fitzpatrick and Bradt’s Tanzania with Zanzibar, Pemba & Mafia by Philip Briggs (6th ed, 2009) are both great accompaniments for trips to Tanzania’s coast.
Find out more
Zanzibar International Film Festival (www.ziff.or.tz)
Mnemba Island Lodge (www.mnemba-island.com)
Chumbe Island Coral Park (www.chumbeisland.com)
Saadani Safari Lodge (www.saadanilodge.com)
Tanzania Tourist Board (www.tanzaniatouristboard.com)
Author tip Bring sturdy-soled shore shoes for beach walking and for wading in the shallows at low tide (sharp shells and sea urchin spines can give painful jabs). Look out for  vitambua (rice cakes), urojo (spicy soup), grilled pweza (octopus) and other coastal delicacies. And don’t cut your travel time too short. Once here, you won’t want to leave.


 

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