Island hopping

31 May, 2015

13 flights, 11 nights, 9 lodges, 8 speedboats, 4 islands, 3 row boats, 2 sailing dhows and 1 motorbike.

2 intrepid travellers bouncing through the East African skies to get the lowdown on what the islands off Tanzania could propose to those looking for relaxation, restoration, tropical culture and seaside playgrounds for big and small.

The first whistle-stop beach flop was the dreamy Ras Kutani, a spectacular beach lodge just 25 kilometres from Dar es Salaam. A flight cancellation meant that our timing dovetailed with the legendary traffic and ferry queues. Undaunted adventurers that we were, we stood Titanic-style on the prow of the ferry breathing in the soupy East African air in the happy knowledge of how refreshing that first Gin and Tonic was going to be. Ras Kutani delivered in scoopfuls of spoiling. A breeze-blown suite dressed in stress hushing hues, lobster dressed in lime for dinner and a dressed-down code for barefooted guests. All gazing upon one of the most fabulously unspoilt beaches in the world. Less than 15 hours later, it was time to step aboard the rowboat for the first leg of our transfer to the airstrip. A tranquil glide across the lagoon led to a waiting landrover. I suspect Ras Kutani have crafted these lodge exits to buffer their guests against too much shock in having to leave such a paradise. Our 4seater aircraft was waiting along with our petite German pilot who enthused about her vocation, her love of flying and her favourite part being take-offs and landings. All of which were beautifully executed in the shortest flight of the expedition – just 10 minutes.

To get to an idyllic uninhabited island should involve some effort. In the case of Fanjove Private Island, it is a well-crafted journey that complements if not enhances the experience. We hopped into Dar es Salaam airport for a brief few minutes before dipping and swaying through the pre-rainy season sky to Mafia Island and then to Songo Songo. The mild turbulence meant for some committed cumulonimbus dodging, some whale shark spotting low flying and a tearful vomit from a young fellow passenger. In the camaraderie that is a 16seater aircraft, wet wipes were exchanged along with words of comfort. The most surprising yet of transfers awaited. A trailer attached to a motorbike chauffeured by a silent beanie wearing driver. Four of us were seated on cushioned benches under a canopy and I had a feeling that I was in a bizarre East African take of Oklahoma’s “The Surrey with a Fringe on Top”. Lastly a low slung wooden row boat would take 4 trips to ferry us out to the Fanjove speed boat waiting with the promise of rare and remarkable island isolation.

Fanjove did not disappoint and is an extravaganza of the extraordinary. An abundant birdlife above, an aquarium of sea-life below with polka-dotted butterflies in the palm forests in-between. Our sandals were dispensed with before we even alighted upon the beach and barefoot we would remain. 40 hours later, shoelessness had become a way of life to the extent that I simply left mine behind when we departed.

The spirit and hospitality of East Africa means that you may find your pilot hand delivering your forgotten flip flops to your next destination. As Coastal Aviation does the island hop daily, it took just one text to get my beach sandals couriered by the pilot himself the very next day.

Mafia Island and the perfection that is the Pole Pole Resort was the next speed date. It took less than five minutes to know that this was a first date with a long and happy future. From the beaming Hassan waiting at the airstrip, to the warm welcome at reception, to our breathtakingly beautiful dhow sail and our Swahili-styled bungalows, we were hooked. We met a Belgian so tall and regal, I was almost curtsied. His promise of safe and easy snorkelling with whale sharks in clear, calm and warm October seas rendered fevered note-taking for passionate recommendation and an addition to the personal wish-list.

The at once glamorous and exotic island of Zanzibar lay ahead. From a lavish hotel previously owned by Bennie from Abba to low key Scandi luxury to a restored palace in Stone Town to full moon party heaven to backpackers havens and to expansive oceanfront resorts, we visited them all in a day of 10 or more (luckily non-alcoholic) welcome drinks. This was hot and thirsty work and sunset saw us chin deep in the drink, alcoholic drinks in hand. Zanzibar’s coastline is marked by a tidal theatre that unveils a startling play of light and colour. A matchless backdrop to a dream vacation and the island’s early commercialisation means that there are perfect holiday options for all. Stone Town and Zanzibar’s fascinating history is the cultural cardamon sprinkled on top of this spice island experience. The Palace Museum in Stone Town is an iconic building that illustrates the island’s cultural and architectural history. Built in 1883 by the second sultan of Zanzibar, it is an opulent, Omani-style Arab mansion that allows a glimpse into a forgotten era. Built around the same time, The House of Wonders with its mangrove ceilings, elaborate carvings and cast iron columns presents a unique example of European style teamed with Zanzibari tradition. At it’s début it was most modern structure in all of East Africa being the first to have electricity and the very first building with an elevator. The old Anglican Church is another must-see for its unusual barrel vaulted roof and it’s rarity in an Islamic island. The altar is symbolically placed where the whipping post once was for the island’s biggest slave market. And to add to the mythical status, the cross is made from the wood of the mpundu tree under which David Livingstone’s heart was buried in 1873 when he died of dysentery and malaria in Zambia. Modern day Zanzibar is a compelling mix of culture, history, modernity, antiquity and a smattering of sophistication. All of which are encircled by it’s magnificent shoreline.

Twin 115hp Mariner engines jettisoned our speedboat toward Fundu Lagoon on Pemba Island where we were to be Bond, Crusoe and Cousteau all in one day. We arrived at speed just like James, lost our shoes in Crusoe-esque style and picked out sets of fins and masks for our Cousteau expedition to neighbouring Masali island. Barefoot once again, our arrival was met with a firmly delivered instruction “the rules are, there are no rules”. Deep in this forest of vervet monkeys and vibrant birdlife alongside a swimming pool patch of ocean, lay our 54 square metres of log cabin luxe. Complimentary beach robes and grass hats, tea and coffee makers, a bar fridge, a walkie-talkie to hail the bar, bespoke cosmetics distilled from the local vegetation, it seemed every imaginable comfort was on offer. Sublime sunset dhow sailing left us heady with happiness or was it the Bond-style tots of gin. Either way we awoke refreshed and unprepared for the eye-candy that awaited on snorkelling the perimeter of Masali island. The afternoon delivered more surprises. A 90 minute foot massage so celestial that a tear leaked out of my left eye. Our day of departure opened with dolphins. Tiny huggable spinner dolphins leaping and twisting into the air. Playing in paradise.

11 days of tropical island beauty was not food for the soul, it was a Sunday roast for the soul.

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