Unguja is a pretty big island, and there are plenty of things to see and do other than just Stone Town and the beautiful beaches. This post offers up just a few of those other options... the ones that peaked the interest of my friends and I and were within easy striking distance of Jambiani, our base on the island.
First thing's first: getting around. Like I said, Unguja is a big island; it takes a few hours to drive the longer distances between destinations. Instead of trying to do this yourself, I really recommend just hopping on a bus or getting a taxi. The roads are kind of crazy, so it's probably best to leave the driving to the experienced locals. We ended up with an amazingly friendly and talkative taxi driver from Stone Town to Jambiani; his name was Muhammed. We traded cell phone numbers and ended up having him come get us again for the ride back at the end of our time there. Muhammed taught us many things about life on Unguja, and the time spent with him was a bright highlight of our time in Zanzibar. One of the most powerful things I experienced in the car with him were the blatant displays and examples of local corruption, which is pandemic issue in almost the entirety of the developing and most impoverished parts of the world. Other than the routine police "checkpoints" - which were a regular occurrence on our car rides and always went with some quick, friendly back and forth discussion between the officer and the driver and ending with a not-so-discrete one-way exchange of money from the driver to the officer - the worst example of corruption I saw involved a local tourism ministry official at the major intersection in the town of Paje on the street pulling over cars/buses with licenses to carry tourists and openly taking bribes from them. This woman was despicable; she was an elected official in a post meant to make the relationship between local people and foreign tourists as positively symbiotic as possible, yet here she was in the middle of the street hassling those locals (the drivers and locals on the buses) and tourists, wasting their time, and stealing their money. Despicable. Muhammed taught us that the license plates for vehicles licensed to carry tourists were different color than those for local civilian/commercial vehicles, and those colored tags were exactly what police and corrupt local officials look for at their makeshift and impromptu roadside "checkpoints". Of course, the additional costs levied for this corruption have become a normal expectation for the drivers, and the cost is of course passed on to the customer, both locals and tourists alike. Police and government officials make a lot of money doing this... upwards of US$1000 per day in a place where most people get by on less than 1/100th of that daily amount. Despicable. Corruption should not and can not be tolerated; those guilty of it, should be harshly imprisoned with long sentences and NEVER allowed to practice in politics again. Problem is, who can imprison these people when the police and executive officials themselves are the ones committing the offense?
OK, well that was a dark start to a bright post, and I promise, from here on out, the post is mostly very positive and light-hearted! First stop, the Jozani Forest. This beautiful forest, protected as a National Park, lies at the very heart of Unguja. The park protects a natural landscape that is an example of what much of the island was like before humans came and completely altered the landscape. It is also a place where you can experience close up encounters with some of Zanzibar's flora and fauna, including the red colobus monkey, which is only found on Unguja. The next several pictures feature these interesting monkeys.
Primates are so intriguing in their similarities to humans. Watching them is like looking into some time-warping and feature-distorting mirror of our own species.
The red colobus monkeys are called that because of the swaths of red fur on their backs.
According to the ranger, the local population in the park is healthy. It is hard to put into perspective that there are only a few natural habitats for these monkeys on a single island in the world. Compare that to humanity, at 7 billion individuals strong and continually spreading like a bacteria over the surface of the planet.
We should be doing everything we can to protect more and more natural places like this. They are priceless on a planet in which natural places that are mostly unspoiled by humans are diminishing so very quickly.
Moving on to another natural habitat that Unguja boasts: shallow seas that are teaming with life.
For this part of the adventure, we set out before sunrise to a local fishing community and port. There, as the sun was rising to reveal this spectacularly dappled cloudy sky over water with a mercurial sheen, we grabbed some snorkel gear, hopped into a fiberglass motorboat, and set off to encounter another species of mammal...
So this "swimming with dolphins" experience was priceless. I love these animals; they are actually one of my two favorite species of animal in the world (along with wolves/dogs). So having this opportunity to be surrounded by so many of them in the water and hear them whistling and chirping was incredibly powerful and positive for me. Now, does that mean that I condone exactly how this "experience" worked? Probably not... this adventure consisted of our boat, and about 6 or 7 others playing leap frog with the pod of dolphins, with us jumping out of the boat each time we got ahead of the pod. The dolphins would gracefully swim around and below us awkward humans and continue on their way. This happens each morning, since the dolphins swim near the surface over a sea mount here on their return from their daily fishing trips. What bothered me were questions like these: did our presence in the water stress/disturb the dolphins in any way? Did chasing the pod in boats stress/disturb them in any way? Do any tourists on experiences like this ever do anything stupid that ends up hurting these beautiful animals?
The dolphins didn't seem to mind us at all. In fact, many of the individuals swam very close, seemed interested in what we were and what we were doing, and - one of the most amazing things ever - actually routinely made and held eye contact with us through our goggle lenses. However, I'm no dolphin-whisperer. Were we just mildly interesting to the pod or were we annoying them or were we outright stressing them out? I don't know... I really hope they don't mind us and know we aren't there to hurt them, even better would be if they got any kind of enjoyment out of the experience, but who knows.
These are big animals. Being in the water with them made one really, really appreciate that fact. As I'm sure most people are already well aware of, they are also incredibly agile in the water. We are graceless and slow and awkward creatures in the water, completely out of our natural environment.
Next stop: The Rock.
A few villages north of Jambiani, the coast is still dramatically affected by extreme tides, and someone decided to capitalize on this by building a fine dining restaurant on top of a rocky outcrop sticking up out of the tidal basin.
Yep, this place is a restaurant. Even better, it is a really, really good restaurant! When the tide is out, as shown here, customers can just walk up to the place, but when the tide is in, the restaurant sits on its little island and customers must be ferried to it on a small dinghy.
The seafood platter at The Rock. It was delicious, with giant prawns, squid, fish, and small rock lobsters.
At the beach bar nearby, we had a nice chat with this Maasai, who works as a security guard for some of the local businesses and was enjoying a refreshing drink on his afternoon off. It was through this guy, plus a couple other patrons that we ended up chatting with, that we learned about some of the more distinguishing Maasai identification features, including facial scarring and tooth gaps (intentional from tooth removal).
Back in Jambiani for our last excursion... a dhow trip and snorkeling on some of Zanzibar's world class reefs.
With the tide in, the dhows are lofted by the water and freed from their land-bound imprisonment when the tide is out.
These sailing vessels employ a beautifully effective simplicity in design. First, the deep dugout canoe in the center provides high walls and a natural ballast for stability. The addition of outriggers on either side further enhance stability and allow the sailors to navigate such small dhows in quite rough seas. The single mast is simple, just a small but strong stick lashed to the bow end. Add to this a very simple wooden rudder. The critical elements of the main spar - a bamboo log - and mast - burlap or canvas sheets - complete the principle design. Watching these vessels being sailed while sitting on board was incredible; I have a profound respect for these sailors, most of whom will take these out miles and miles from shore on their fishing trips.
As any good sailor is, both of our crew members were intimately familiar with their vessel and rope-and knot-work. Seeing them hoist and set the sails and then pull them down again in so many clean and controlled motions was just amazing. Then there was that water we were sailing through... crystal clear and just about the perfect temperature. The wind was persistent too, making sailing a breeze (pun intended) for the experienced.
Our first mate riding out on one of the spars.
In the water, the reef life lived up to its excellent reputation.
These star fish were huge by the way... upwards of two feet across. There were plenty of beautiful fish too, but they were too fast to capture well with my camera. We also saw a sea crate (sea snake), which are some of the most venomous creatures on the planet. Fortunately, they are also quite docile, so we were able to swim behind it and watch from a relatively close yet safe distance as the creature gracefully swam through the crystal turquoise water.
So anyway, there is a lot to do and see in Zanzibar. It is a pristine place, perfect for an escape from what most of us call reality.