After hiking and going on safari, we were ready for some beach time – and what better place than Zanzibar? We knew we wanted to do some diving, but first wanted to spend a few nights in Stone Town.
Stone Town has a rich history, not all of it positive. It is one of East Africa’s top trading centres and the place where Africa, India and Arabia meet. The small and winding streets are lined with old buildings and Arabic-style houses. There is lots to explore and one can easily spend an entire day getting lost in its history.
We arrived at Zanzibar airport and were met by our driver, holding a sign for ‘JAMS BROOKS’. After a good laugh and a quick snap, we were on our short journey to Jafferji House and Spa.
Quick aside, you can pre-arrange and pre-pay for taxi transfers using Zanzibar Taxi. I’m unsure how rates compare to just finding a driver on the street, I’m sure it is more expensive, but it’s also incredibly convenient*.
*Note that I wrote this before our van broke down and it took us 3 hours for a one hour journey (mentioned later in the post). So expensive doesn’t always mean reliable 😉 But when you’re in Africa, you just think ‘Hakuna Matata’.
After over 2 weeks spent between tents and mediocre rooms at The Parkview Inn, we were really looking forward to our stay! The hotel has been transformed from an old house, and has 10 rooms/suites – each with a different story. There is a Mercury Suite (an homage to Freddie Mercury who was born in Zanzibar), a Sultan Suite, and an Out of Africa Suite. We were given the key to a Kama Sutra Suite which was very nice! The artwork around our room isn’t exactly blog-approps so instead I’ll show a picture of the bedroom which gives you a feel for the décor.
Overall, the Jafferji House & Spa was great – they have a free breakfast with both hot and cold items, free Wi-Fi (which is spotty, but we’ve come to expect that) and a beautiful rooftop terrace restaurant which was very reasonably priced!
Once we were settled in, we decided to head out for a quick bite of dinner. We had a 5 minute walk to the water and Forodhani Gardens, where in the evening local vendors set up food stalls. There was quite a bit of variety from BBQ skewers, to Zanzibar Pizza, to Chicken Shawarma. Though it all looked very tempting, we weren’t quite ready to eat yet so continued walking along the water and then back in through the town. Eventually we came across Lukmaan Restaurant, which James had read about. It looked busy – both with locals and tourists, and we decided to give it a shot. We were approached by a waiter who seated us on the rooftop terrace and handed us a menu. You can either order from the menu, or just walk around the cafeteria-style counter to see if anything catches your eye. We had seen some chicken shawarma downstairs and opted for one of those, a chicken chapatti roll and 2 juices – watermelon-lime and avocado-date. The meal was good and came to just 20,000 TZS, or $11.50 AUD, including a tip. We were stuffed, and made our way back to Jafferji House for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, we woke to the sound of chants from a nearby Mosque – at 5am! While we easily drifted back to sleep for another 2 hours this was a recurrence so if you’re a light sleeper probably best to wear earplugs. Stone Town is largely Muslim, which means there are few places to buy alcohol and it’s best to cover up when walking around out of respect. If I ever had bare shoulders, I would always have a scarf covering myself up (apart from the occasional photo op, where I would toss my scarf to the side for 30 seconds).
When we were fed and dressed, we decided to go a bit of a walking tour, beginning with The House is of Wonders.
House of Wonders & The Old Fort
This was, at one time, surely one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Zanzibar, with its marbled floors and never-before-seen running water and electricity. The building itself is still impressive, though it is in a state of disrepair. You can enter the museum inside (the National Museum of History and Culture) for 10,000 TZS but there’s not much to see. It makes for some good photo opportunities, however!
The Old Fort is right beside is free to walk around. It houses an open-air theatre which is used for film festivals.
Anglican Church & Slave Monument
If there’s one thing you see/do in Stone Town it should be this. The 11,000 TZS price was well worth the tour and the free guide they give you (who we tipped 10,000 TZS) was excellent.
Stone Town was one of the largest exporters during the slave trade in the mid-19th century, and the museum is the site of the original holding cells where slaves were kept for 2-3 days prior to the market (where now stands an Anglican Church). Slaves brought to Zanzibar would come from a vast region; extending from the south of Lake Malawi, west of Lake Tanganyika and north of Lake Victoria. Many slaves would be sold along the way, others would die and those who fell ill or weak were chained to trees and left behind. During transportation, slaves would be shackled together; men with chains around their ankles, necks and wrists and women with chains around their necks. Those who survived the journey were brought to holding cells beside the slave market, where small rooms would house 75 women and children or 50 men.
On Market Day, slaves would be brought to the stage where buyers would poke and prod them to access their worth. Some would be whipped to demonstrate their strength. Where the whipping tree was now stands the alter in the Anglican Church, surrounded by red to demonstrate the blood shed by the slaves sold there.
The museum (and guides) do an incredible job walking you through this dark period in history, how slavery was abolished (though that did not mean the black market was), and what happened to those slaves who were sent free. I believe the museum does a good job educating visitors about what was undoubtedly one of the worst crimes against humanity and is well worth a visit.
This is the main market in Stone Town and is teeming with locals buying fish, produce, furniture or other goods. We wandered around, intrigued, and made one delicious (and perhaps slightly unconventional) purchase – peanut butter that was just 100% peanuts. It’s so hard to find unsweetened, unprocessed peanut butter while travelling!
The last stop on our walking tour was the Old Dispensary, another old and impressive building with mint-green latticework. We walked in to the main courtyard which houses a restaurant. We had read somewhere that you can have a drink on the rooftop and in the heat, we were keen to have a cold beer! After walking to the top and not seeing much, apart from a table and a few chairs, we walked back down to the restaurant and ordered 2 beers to take upstairs. It was a nice view of the waterfront and main port, with a welcome breeze.
We left The Dispensary to make our way back toward the hotel, and decided to go to Luukmann for a late lunch. This time our ordering was not as successful – we ordered a fish curry which neither of us loved – but the avocado & date smoothies made up for it!
Around sunset, James took his drone out for a flight around the waterfront and got some incredible footage of the rooftops, waterfront and sunset.
The next day we had a lazy morning and didn’t head out until around 11:30. We decided to head over to Prison Island (Changuu), a short boat ride away. In Stone Town, there are many guides (both official and unofficial) willing to take you anywhere you want to go. We had seen a tour to Prison Island advertised for $14USD and decided to try our luck by walking straight to the boats and getting a better deal. It didn’t take long; the first person we spoke to offered to take us for $15pp and quickly dropped his price to $10. We offered 40,000 TZS (which is about $9 USD) and he took it no problem. He even offered to go and get us 2 large bottles of water to take to the island for 1,000 per bottle since they are much more expensive on the island.
Within a half hour, we were on the other side, and made our way onto the beach. The island got its name when a prison was built to detain rebellious slaves and was later used as a quarantine station for those inflicted with Yellow Fever. It also has a small population of giant tortoises who were brought to the island from Aldabra in the Seychelles around the turn of the 20th century.
We walked up to the hotel restaurant and turned toward the Tortoise Sanctuary. The cost is 17,000 TZS for two and you are also given branches with leaves to feed the tortoises. Ironically, the first sign you see when you enter states ‘Warning! Do not feed the tortoise’.
We walked around for about 20 minutes, marveling at these massive creatures; their ages were written on their shells and some of them were over 100 years old! They were pretty neat, but something about seeing animals in captivity makes me a little sad.
After seeing the Tortoises, we headed over to the Prison Building to have a quick look around and change into our bathers. We hung out on the beach for a while and James went snorkeling and tried out the underwater housing for our camera!
After arriving back on the mainland and getting some avocado smoothies for lunch, we spent the latter part of the afternoon browsing the shops and looking for a cheetah postcard for my oldest niece – go figure she picked the one safari animal that they don’t make postcards of! 😉 We eventually found one and headed back to relax before dinner.
We had dinner that night on the rooftop of our hotel; it was a gorgeous view and the food was good (and reasonably priced for the location!). We split a beef curry which was 18,000 TSZ and a bottle of wine for 45,000 TSZ (which seems crazy expensive, and it is compared to beer, but we hadn’t had a glass of wine in many weeks and decided to indulge).
We left Stone Town the next morning, heading for the beach and Matemwe. But not without a little adventure! 10kms from out hotel, our taxi broke down (not the first breakdown we’ve had since we started travelling, and surely not the last!). Our driver (Abdul) informed us that he had put water in the engine that morning (is that a thing?) and forgot to close it, and the water had evaporated. We happily gave him all of the drinking water we had, and watched steam rise as he poured it in. Soon, another truck had pulled over to offer assistance and went to refill our water bottles twice for Abdul to pour in. Still nothing. I’m no mechanic – I don’t even own a car – but is that something that people do? Perhaps it was in place of oil? Who knows? What was amazing was how many cars stopped along the way to see if Abdul needed any help; the support and sense of community is pretty special.
30 minutes later, a mechanic was dropped off and started fiddling with the wiring on the car. Eventually, pieces of the engine were being removed. James and I found it all very entertaining! But another half hour later we were seriously regretting giving up our water. At this point, we’d been on the side of the road for nearly an hour and a half. Eventually a dala dala (basically a van bus) pulled up and Abdul, defeated, told us to get in there. We were finally on the road – yay! No, wait, we were reversing. After another 15 minutes we were on the road, with our van being towed behind. We made it to Vila Kiva 3 hours after leaving Stone Town! But, what are you going to do. Hakuna Matata, right?