Sultans, Spices and Slaves: There Really is a Place Called Zanzibar

Over the past several days I slowly descended from the 1500 m elevation I had been at for the past few weeks to sea level. As the elevation declined, though, the heat and humidity increased. At the coast it became sweltering. I camped out one night in a field of tall grass, hot and sweaty, amidst mosquitoes, flies, spiders, and all manner of crawling insects. Fortunately I had patched all the holes in my tent so I managed to keep most of them out.

One of the most enduring images I have of Africa is the following photo. Long after I get home when I think of Africa what will come to mind is colorfully dressed women walking down the road with bundles on their heads:


Some other pix on the way to Dar es Salaam:

I spent one night in this small town. This guy cooked my dinner–grilled chicken. Not bad. There was no electricity, little gas lamps provided light.


The scruffy little town at dusk.


I spent a couple days loafing on the beach by the town of Bagamoyo, which used to be the old political and commercial center of Tanzania, during the days of the Sultans–in the 1800s. The Germans moved the capital to Dar es Salaam around 1900.

I stayed in a nice beach hut called a banda. Just a mattress but with nice views of the sea and cool sea breezes.


The view from my banda.


Palm tree at night.


Then I fought my way into Dar es Salaam amid belching trucks, careening buses, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, and various cars, all speeding recklessly. In short, a typical African city.

“Dar”, as it is known, contains a fascinating blend of cultures. It is here that the Swahili language, a mix of African dialects and Arabic, originated.

I did not much like Dar, though. It’s funny, in my mind I pictured Dar as this exotic place, one that I had to visit. But as I talked to people about it, they said I could give it a miss, no problem. They were right. Even simple things were difficult to get done. Shops close for no reason, hours are erratic, traffic is awful, and people were constantly calling me to buy stuff, “hey my friend, you need a belt?”

So I only stayed a couple days in Dar and did not take many photos.

Here is one photo from my hotel room.


Near one of the markets people were selling rice and grains in these stalls.


Then I took a ferry to the Island of Zanzibar, 70 km to the northwest.

Here is a view of the Dar port as we jetted away.


Zanzibar is a fascinating place! People have been visiting the island (actually an archipelago) for over 2000 years.¬† From around the 8th century Persian traders began to make their way to East Africa, where they established settlements in what is now Zanzibar (Zinj el-Barr, in Arabic, ‘Land of the Blacks’.)

Between the 12th and 15th centuries, Zanzibar came into its own, as trade links with Arabia and the Persian Gulf blossomed. Zanzibar became a   powerful city-state, supplying slaves, gold, ivory and wood to places as distant as India, and importing spices, glassware and textiles. With the trade from the East also came Islam and the Arabic architecture that still characterizes Zanzibar today.

After skirmishes with the Portuguese first and later the British, the Omani Arabs took control of Zanzibar in the 19th century and trade again flourished, centering on slaves, ivory and cloves. Zanzibar was so important that in the 1840s the Sultan of Oman even relocated his court there from the Persian Gulf.

Eventually, though, with increasing European interest in the area and the end of the slave trade, Omani rule over Zanzibar began to weaken, and they finally agreed to become a British protectorate, and became part of Tanzania after independence. Interestingly, though, you still must fill out immigration forms and get your passport stamped upon arrival.

The main town on Zanzibar is Stone Town, where I am currently writing this. I have yet to head north to the beaches. You will have to wait until the next post.

Meanwhile, Stone Town is a photographer’s paradise. The blend of African, Arabic and Indian cultures¬† makes it a fascinating place to just wander around and take photos. The impossibly narrow streets are great for this as they are too small for vehicles. Even motor scooters have to negotiate them carefully. Here is a sample of the pix I took.

Donkey carts can still get through the narrow passages.


Woman resting by laundry.


Islam is still the majority religion, so most women still cover up, although they don’t seem as shy as the Muslim women elsewhere.


Kids playing soccer in the street.


I visited the fish market one day. Loads of fresh fish, prawns, squid, and octopus. If I lived there I would be eating fresh seafood every day.


One guy was even selling shark meat and sting ray.


In the old days the door of your house indicated your prosperity, so many people built lavish, ornate doors. My sister Katrina would love it, but I am not that big on doors. This one, though, caught my attention.


Muslim man reading in a quiet passageway.


One of the old Sultans. Being a Sultan must have been a good life.


Muslim girl in small street.


Some kids I chatted with. Many speak a little English.


More cute kids.


Riding (or walking) through the narrow streets.


Zanzibar is a popular tourist area so there are plenty of nice, but expensive restaurants. I treated myself one day. Here is a view from the restaurant balcony.


One of Stone Town’s most famous local boys was Freddy Mercury, the late singer of the band Queen during the ’70s and ’80s. Here is a little plaque commemorating his birth site. Who knew?


Also, today happens to be my 49th birthday so I went out last night and celebrated a bit with some locals I met. One of them took this shot of me. Not bad for an old fart.


The End is Near

Finally, after examining my finances and state of mind I have decided I must end my trip in South Africa. My plan is to ride west through Tanzania, pass through Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and finish up in Johannesburg some time in September. It will be good to get home.