- Karibu Zanzibar
- Stone Town & Around
- Touring Zanzibar
- Pemba Island
- Zanzibar Festivals
- The Other Islands
Just the name, Zanzibar, evokes dreams of romance and mystery and the reality will not disappoint.
Zanzibar – the name includes the main island, Unguja, and its sister island, Pemba – has for centuries attracted seafarers and adventurers from around the world.
Now it welcomes a new generation of explorers – those who have come to marvel at the rich heritage, reflected in the architecture and the culture of the people. Visit Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town – another of Tanzania’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites. Relax on the dazzling white, palm-fringed beaches, where the azure waters of the Indian Ocean beckon swimmers, divers, fishermen and water-sports enthusiasts alike. Breathe in the fragrant scents of cloves, vanilla, cardamom and nutmeg, and discover why Zanzibar is called “The Spice Islands.”
Explore the forests, with their rare flora and fauna. Or visit some of the many ancient, archaeological sites. Spend a few days here before or after a safari on the Tanzanian mainland or, better still, allocate a week or two and immerse yourself in the magic that is Zanzibar.
A Mix of Cultures
Zanzibar’s colourful history is an epic saga of travellers and traders, raiders and colonisers. To its shores came Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Chinese, Malays, Persians, Portuguese, Arabs, Dutch and the British, each leaving behind a legacy of their stay. From the island the great European explorers – Burton, Speke, Livingstone, and Stanley set off for their voyages of discovery into the vast, uncharted wilderness of the great African hinterland.
Bantu tribes from the mainland were the first inhabitants of the island, but by 700 AD the Indian Ocean trade winds had brought Persians and Arabs to its shores. From the beginning of the 16th century, for 200 years, Portuguese raiders dominated this part of the East African coast. Then, in 1652, Zanzibar was invaded by Arabs from Oman, signalling the end of Portuguese domination.
Sultan Sayyid Said moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1840 to exploit the flourishing slave trade and the island grew in power, wealth and population. David Livingstone strongly protested against this inhumane activity creating a ground-swell of opposition in Britain. Under pressure the Sultan outlawed the export of slaves in 1873. Zanzibar then became a British protectorate in 1890 and in 1913 total power was transferred to the British.
Independence was achieved, in December 1963, under Sultan Jamshid bin Abdulla but the sultanate was toppled in favour of a People’s Republic a month later. On April 26, 1964 the republic joined Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania.
It may not have a particularly romantic name, but Stone Town, is the capital and cultural heart of Zanzibar, little changed in the last 200 years. A labyrinth of winding alleys, bustling bazaars, mosques and grand houses whose extravagance is reflected in their brass-studded, carved, wooden doors.
The National Museum is a good starting point for finding out more of the history and culture of Zanzibar. It opened in 1925 and contains relics from the time of the Sultans and the early explorers, as well as traditional carvings and exhibits of local wildlife, including a good collection of birds and reptiles.
Another “must” is the House of Wonders, with its pillars, fretted balconies and intricately carved doors. It was built by Sultan Barghash in 1883 and was occupied by the British in 1911 when the Sultan moved to the much less pretentious palace, now called the People’s Palace, on the other side of the street.
Next to the House of Wonders is the Old Fort, built on the site of a Portuguese church when the Arabs took over the island, and now the venue for many of Zanzibar’s numerous theatrical and musical events. Perhaps the most impressive, ornate building is the Old Dispensary which has recently undergone excellent restoration work. The High Court and Africa House, a former English Gentleman’s Club and now a boutique hotel offering, supposedly, the best view of the sunset, are also worth a visit as is Livingstone House, where the Scottish explorer lived for three months in 1866 gathering supplies for his last expedition.
At the centre of Stone Town are the Persian-styled Hamamni Baths, built at the command of Sultan Barghash at the end of the 19th century while nearby is the Cathedral Church of Christ, completed in 1879 on the site of an open slave market. Echoes of Zanzibar’s more sinister past are also to be found in Tippu Tip House, built for the notorious slave and ivory trader Hamad bin Muhammad el-Marjab, and a former slave pit in nearby Kelele Square.
North of Stone Town are the former palaces of Maruhubi and Mtoni. The ruins of Maruhubi offer a tantalising glimpse of the former grandeur of this palace, built by Sultan Barghash in 1880 to house his harem, but burned down in 1889. The palace of Mtoni suffered a similar fate. Dating back to the early part of the 19th century, it once housed 1,000 people.
Inland from here are the Kidichi and Kizimbani Persian Baths, built in 1850 for the Persian wife of Sultan Said, and Dunga Ruins, a palace built between 1846 and 1856. Further north are the Coral Cave and Mangapwani Slave Chambers, used to conceal slaves at night, and Tumbatu Island with its numerous Shirazi Ruins.
South of Stone Town are the remains of the Mbweni Palace and Chukwani Palace while, to the east, are the Bikhole and Unguja Ukuu Ruins.The latter is the site of the island’s oldest known settlement dating back to the 8th century. Still further south is the former walled city of Kizimkazi, where the ruins of Shirazi Mosque, part of which dates back over 900 years, are found. A coral stone inscription provides evidence of its age, making this one of the earliest Islamic buildings in this part of East Africa.
Tours of Zanzibar are a rewarding experience. Visitors will travel past fragrant plantations of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices on their way to numerous places of historical interest; to the unique flora and fauna of Jozani Forest; to picturesque fishing villages; and to one of many white sandy beaches.
Cruise around the islands on a traditional Arab dhow while enjoying a seafood lunch of grilled fish and lobster with an exotic fruit juice, ice- cold soda, chilled beer or glass of wine. All followed by coffee and liqueurs as the sun sets.
Watching or, particularly, swimming with dolphins, in their natural habitat can be both exciting and educational. However, care must be taken to avoid disturbing the animals as this could have a negative effect on their daily life. Dolphins are marine mammals that spend their entire lives in the water. Like other mammals, they are warm blooded and breathe air. Most commonly seen around Zanzibar are the bottlenose and humpback varieties although spinner dolphins are also seen north of the island.
Brilliant white beaches provide the perfect place to take a break from busy sightseeing. The beaches are a paradise but there are also numerous picturesque fishing villages where the people live a simple way of life, unchanged through the years. So, as well as all forms of water-sports, there is also ample opportunity for fishing or just watching the activities of the local fisherman. Nungwi, at the northernmost tip of the island, offers possibly the best swimming on the island. There is also a turtle aquarium there and a boatyard where fisherman’s dhows are still built in the old traditional way.
Thirty-five kilometres south-east of Stone Town is the Jozani Forest Chwaka Bay Reserve, an area of 50 sq km, whose thick forests, with trees over 100 years old, are the last remaining sanctuary of the Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey. Other residents include Sykes blue monkey, bushbaby, bush pig, chameleon, civet, genet, mongoose and tree hyrax. There are also two species of very small antelope – Ader’s duiker, one of the two rarest antelope in the world, and the even smaller suni. Both are extremely shy and unlikely to be seen. The forest is also home to over 40 different bird species as well as over 50 species of butterfly.
South of the park an elevated boardwalk runs through the mangroves providing easy sightings of hundreds of tropical fish.
During this tour you will see seaweed harvested and learn to make natural beauty products from raw seaweed.
Zanzibar is a shopper’s paradise. Stone Town’s narrow winding streets are crammed with stores selling antiques, art, books, clothes, coffee, gemstones, jewellery, paintings, perfumes, printed fabrics, silver, tea and, of course, spices.
An organised spice tour is probably the best way of seeing the island. While taking tourists on a walking tour, local guides will pluck bunches of leaves from various bushes and ask visitors to guess what they are. Most will be found in the average kitchen spice rack – black pepper, chillies, cinnamon, cloves, coconut, garlic, ginger, lemon grass, nutmeg, saffron, turmeric and vanilla.
Fifty kilometres north of Zanzibar main island and directly opposite the mainland port of Tanga, is the highly fertile Pemba Island which, although smaller than Zanzibar, is hillier and greener and grows three times as many cloves. Pemba has its own distinct character with more historical monuments, particularly ruined mosques and tombs, than on the main island; some excellent beaches; and spectacular diving and fishing.
In the centre of the island is Chaka Chaka, the capital and main town, where there are remains of a 200 year old Arab fort. Some 14 km to the west, at Ras Mkumbuu, are the ruins of a 14th century mosque and some elaborate ‘pillar’ or ‘chimney’ tombs used to mark the burial place of prominent Muslims. While 10 km to the south the Pujini Ruins feature a fort built around the 15th century and known locally as Mkame Ndume.
Other interesting sites may be seen near Kangagani, Mkamandume, Chakalakati and Mtangani Island, on the east coast, and near Wete to the north. Also in the far north of the island is the Ngezi Forest Reserve, a protected area containing rare trees – some not found anywhere else in the world. These include the Pemba Palm known locally as the Mapapindi Palm. The wildlife features the indigenous Pemba Flying Fox – really a large bat – blue duiker, civet, vervet monkey, marsh mongoose and tree hyrax. Bird species include flycatchers, hornbills, kingfishers, turacos, starlings and several varieties of owl. Four species – the Pemba scops owl, white-eye, green pigeon and violet-breasted sunbird – are endemic to Pemba.
The much smaller Ras Kiuyu Forest Reserve, joined to the north east tip of mainland by just a narrow strip of land, is home to a much less impressive range of flora and fauna. Pemba offers some of the best diving in the world although, because of the strong currents, some are best suited to more experienced divers. Misali Island, to the west of Chake Chake, is now a Marine Conservation area, rich in biodiversity, and with more than 40 different species of coral, 350 varieties of fish, and five types of turtle. It is therefore a perfect place for both snorkelling and diving.
There are also some idyllic beaches where swimming is possible at both high and low tide. Popular dive sites are Emerald Reef and Wreck Dive, off Panza Island in the south, and Fundu Reef, Kokota Reef, Njao Gap, and Uvinje Gap in the north-west.
Other good beaches can be found at Fundu, Varani, Vumawimbi and on the lesser islands of Funzi, Kiweni, Panza and Uvinje. Green and hawksbill turtles nest on the western side of the island. Pemba also offers some of the best game fishing in the world with barracuda, billfish, blue marlin, dorado, kingfish, sailfish, tuna, wahoo, and hammerhead and tiger sharks all found in the waters around the island and, especially, in the Pemba Channel that runs between the main Unguja island and Pemba
The islands of Unguju and Pemba have a wealth of traditions many of which are recognised in numerous annual festivals and celebrations.
EID EL FITR
This is the three-day festival that follows the end of Ramadan, when eating, drinking and smoking is prohibited during daylight hours. The date is dependent on the Islamic calendar but in 2017 festivities will begin during the last week of June.
This four-day festival, which marks the arrival of the Shiraz New Year and takes place in July 2017. Although celebrated in many parts of Zanzibar, it is in Makunduchi that the ancient rites are most enthusiastically followed. It involves huge bonfires; mocks fights between the men; and much playful banter between the sexes.
An annual boat race, held every August, featuring the double-outrigger canoes of the local people.
SAUTI ZA BUSARA
This is East Africa’s premier music festival and highlights the best music from the Swahili-speaking world. Featuring hip hop, R&B, rap and reggae along with the more traditional ngoma, taarab and religious music. Taarab is a form of local music that is a mixture of sounds and styles from India, Arabia and Africa. Ngoma is a traditional African dance with fast, rhythmic drumming. More than 400 musicians normally participate. The three- day event is held each February.
Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF)
is the highlight of Zanzibar’s artistic and cultural calendar. A two-week event, held every July, it features films from Africa and beyond. ZIFF also incorporates the annual Festival of the Dhow Countries which highlights the arts and cultures of East Africa, the Gulf States, Iran, India, Pakistan and the Indian Ocean islands. The main venue is the open-air theatre at the Old Fort but events also take place at various other venues across the island and on Pemba. The festival will be held from the
08 – 16 July 2017. The theme of the 2017 Festival will be “Finding Joy”.
JAHAZI JAZZ & LITERARY FESTIVAL
Open air Jazz Concerts at the Old Fort, poetry readings, story telling, Cultural walks and the very best after parties in Stone Town. Usually held in early September.
STONE TOWN FOOD FESTIVAL OCTOBER
This Festival showcases Stone Towns unique culture and rich Culinary heritage with hotels and eateries across the city taking part.
Unguja and Pemba islands are surrounded by more than 20 smaller islands. Most are uninhabited and are located to the west of the main island.
<h2> Chapwani, or Grave Island </h2>
is the closest island to Stone Town. It is home to a number of Christian graves belonging to British sailors killed fighting against the Arab slave ships or in the First World War. There is a small beach and a patch of indigenous forest which is home to blue duikers, enormous coconut crabs and a colony of fruit bats.
<h2>Changuu, or Prison Island </h2>
is the most popular island excursion from Stone Town. It is only a short 10-minute boat ride and the snorkelling is excellent. There was a prison built on the island but it was never used for its intended purpose and is now a hotel. One of the island’s main attractions is the giant tortoises.
<h2> Bawe Island </h2>
which lies south of Prison Island, has some of the best snorkelling spots in the archipelago. About a 30- minute boat ride and slightly more expensive than the boat to Prison Island, this island is much less visited.
<h2> Chumbe Island </h2>
is a rare example of a still pristine coral island. A UN Protected Area, it carries the accolade of “one of the most spectacular coral gardens anywhere in the world”. Tanzania’s first marine park, and the first privately managed marine park in the world, Chumbe offers visitors the opportunity to snorkel through the shallow-water Reef Sanctuary; scuba dive the nearby reefs; explore the Forest Reserve with its nature trails and abundance of local birds and flora; or visit the historical monuments. These include a hundred-year-old lighthouse and the only ancient mosque in East Africa with Indian architecture.
Off the north-east coast of Zanzibar’s main island, Mnemba Island basks in its own tranquil lagoon. Boasting, splendid beaches and spectacular coral reefs, alive with fish, it is renowned as the ultimate in ‘barefoot luxury’.
<h2> Tumbatu </h2>
the largest of Zanzibar’s offshore islands, is located to the southwest of Nungwi and is inhabited by the Watumbatu people who speak their own unique dialect of Swahili.
<h2> Uzi Island </h2>
In the south-west are Uzi Island, which is only connected to Unguja by a causeway, and the Menai Bay Conservation Area which includes the islands of Kwale, Miwi, Nianembe, Pungume and Vundwe. The latter is a sea- turtle breeding area, also famous for its humpback and bottlenose dolphins, and is a WWF Protected Area.