Travelogue: Zanzibar

26 April – 1 May 2018
A lot of planning had gone into our long weekend flit to the little island in the Indian Ocean. Since the purpose of the trip was to participate in our besties’ knot-tying, there were also all the pre-event events to plan and enjoy alongside the usual travel logistics. Having met some new faces along the way who would be along on our island adventure, the prospects looked promising for an unforgettable experience.
In the same adventurous spirit, we cast aside our usually unwavering support for our beloved Emirates in favour of the far quicker Kenya Airlines routing. This however meant that we were due to depart ORT at 1am on Thursday morning (gulp), which we rationalised as quite efficient since it would give us enough time to do leisurely prep after work, drop off the dogs and get to the airport for 10pm.
The thought process was solid (and the airport wait very civilised in the lounge with free wi-fi to stream telly on the tablet), but Kenya Airlines threw us a curveball, keeping us waiting queued at the gate for 45 minutes. Hardly what you need at that hour! Boarding well after 1, we were shattered and had no trouble drifting off to one of the handful of average movie titles on the entertainment system.
The upside was that our transfer time in Nairobi was cut to almost nothing and we literally only had time to walk through the terminal from our arrival gate to the boarding gate for the Zanzibar hop, stopping only to pick up an extortionately-priced chewy sandwich to bridge us from last night’s dinner at home to lunchtime when we arrived at our resort.
The short 1h20 flight was in partnership with Precision Air, on a small plane with less than 100 seats. Having also been slightly delayed, the pilot apologised for the inconvenience and made it up to us by circling close to Mount Kilimanjaro giving us up-close views of the rugged mountainside and reach-out-and-touch-it-close views of the snowy peak. Now that we’ve seen it, we can happily add summiting Kili onto the bucket list… And strike it off.
Having consulted quite a few weather apps – sort of like continuing to shake a Magic 8 Ball until you get the answer you want – I’d had concerns that we were in for a wet weekend. To our delight, we landed in a sunny Zanzibar – and Christian started sweating almost as soon as the plane door opened on the 30 degree humidity.
I broke into a bit of a cold sweat myself when a very serious lady stopped me as we were entering the airport terminal, demanding my Yellow Fever Certificate, which of course I didn’t have, on me or otherwise. I had instant mental pictures of being detained in this hotbox of a departure hall and sent on the return journey home. All overreaction of course, but a tired mind is a overly fertile imagination ground! Christian – always the sensible one – provided passports and details that we’d come from South Africa and only ever-so-briefly flitted through Nairobi. All was well and we were waved through to Passport Control.
Our driver (arranged through the resort) was ready and waiting for us, as promised, so we gave him our Jiffy baggage (our suitcase had been shrunk wrapped to within an inch of its life at ORT, as a mandatory service by the airline) and jumped into the back of our car, a quarter century (or more) old Camry with 286 thousand K’s on the clock and a furry dashboard to boot!
Our driver was congenial enough and pointed out a few things along the way through Stone Town and on the surprisingly well maintained dual carriageway beyond, admirably patching together his limited English for a comprehensible story, but not stretching quite far enough to be able to effectively field questions, which made for a stilted one-way conversation.
He did share with us that there had been immense flooding a few weeks prior, which gave me hope that somehow I’d caught weather forecast flashbacks or lazy climatologists had been assuming the status quo. The blue-sky clear day gave no indication that it planned to burst banks this weekend. Fingers crossed.
We passed through 4 seemingly pointless roadblocks en route to the resort. Each time our driver was beckoned to pull over, which he dutifully did, and had an obligatory rapid-fire exchange (that made us feel like we were in trouble) before we were sent on our way. Maybe it was the fashion police querying the furry dashboard!
An hour and a bit of journey time later and we arrived at Michamvi Sunset Bay Resort and were greeted at the open-air reception by Shirley, who gave a quick run through of the order of things and showed us to our room.
We had a lovely spacious ground floor suite facing the volleyball court and the sea beyond. Our block of four had Michele and Ian above us, Milly adjacent to them and Anna and Marina due to be our neighbours the next day. Very cosy set-up.
We had no trouble finding our friends, with their conversation and Mich’s laugh carrying from the bar, where they had already settled for the afternoon.
With planes having already flown overhead (we know because we were in one of them), there was no hesitation ordering the first beer for the day, which doubled as a cultural experience since it was a local Kilimanjaro lager. Ice cold and very refreshing.
Less refreshing and more bracing was the first shooter of the day which followed soon after, prompting us to order lunch with haste, to get a good lining of the communal stomach to aid stamina for what promised to be a vigorous welcome party.
The food at the resort was wonderful and a fresh and flavourful fish wrap and a light and creamy chicken coconut curry made up for the spartan (and awful) food on our journey.
A handful of people had already arrived, and we met everyone as they wandered into our afternoon, positioned almost cinema-style in a row of deckchairs in the bar facing the ocean, using the lovely seascape as our panoramic TV and whiling away the time as day became sunset became evening.
Conveniently, dinner was a set menu to be served around the swimming pool. Our selections had to be logged by 4pm to aid kitchen logistics – and a blessing that our group wasn’t faced with complicated ordering procedure by the time dinner rolled around.
The food was again fantastic and our Kingfish main course so outstanding that we contemplated a weekend of pescatarianism to take full advantage.
Retiring to the bar again after our meal just revived the party rather than retiring it and the drinks flowed and friendships formed.
After a very necessary very long sleep, we surfaced just after 9 to catch the tail end of the breakfast service. Served on a thatched deck on the beach, we soaked up the night before with hearty omelettes, cold meats and cheese, fruit, juice, the works! … And then went back to our room to have a lie down while everything digested.
The resort was quiet with the majority of our posse having gone on an organised tour of the island. We’d decided in advance not to go, rationalising that a day of leisure was a rarer pleasure than any excursion could be.
We took a lovely long stroll the length of the beach off to the right to see what was around the corner of our cove. But it remains a mystery as cove corners are never a simple ‘approach and peek around’ situation and we gave up before we’d rounded the long bend that the ‘corner’ actually was.
It was lightly tinkling with rain by the time we got back, which was the perfect excuse to shower and lounge and only properly present ourselves to the day at around midday.
Shortly thereafter Anna and Marina arrived and we found Milly, who had also not gone on the tour. We chatted and caught up on who had been doing what since we last saw each other and then the four of us checked out some of the free snorkeling gear to take an explore in our waters.
Turns out that the equipment was completely unnecessary since a) the water is crystal clear so you can see the seabed from above the water and b) there was nothing to see in the water except the seabed. Still, it was nice to have a bit of a paddle about – and have a story to tell about an otherwise eventless day!
Achievement behind us, we retreated to the sea-facing loungers and read and relaxed and allowed the day to pass around us.
At around sunset, Anna reignited our ambition by suggesting a game of beach volleyball. What began as a relatively level playing field of Christian versus the two of us girls took a turn for the worse for us when Ed teamed up to balance the numbers. We had a short but sweaty burst of activity before retiring to the pool.
By then the other guests who were staying at neighbouring resorts had started to arrive for the official Welcome Dinner, so we changed into our ‘dress’ shorts and flops and met at the bar to greet the newcomers and compare notes.
Dinner was served none too soon and we were ushered to the Sea Breeze deck (where breakfast had been served) and seated at 2 long tables from where we could help ourselves from the buffet and grill. A feast that made for a good lining of the stomach for what turned into a rather long night, propping up the Sunset bar and attempting to dry the island of Kilimanjaro lager, which we’d been told was subject to a shortage in supply. I’m sure they could hear us from the mainland, laughing and singing well into the early hours.
Our late and festive night made getting up early that much more difficult, with the itinerary requiring a 7.30 departure for the girls to get going for the bachelorette, which was a swimming-with-dolphins and pamper combo. The boys were heading off on a booze cruise excursion, only due to leave at 11.
We jumped into our transport, picked up the other ladies from their respective resorts and crossed the island to catch a boat that would take us to where the scout boats had told us where the dolphins were.
We found a school of 7 and plopped into the water. Floating on the surface face-down allowed for a wonderous experience, with the dolphins writhing and playing below us, often no more than arm’s length away! They seemed completely casual about our presence in their world and carried on about their business, mostly gliding along at a pace we could follow but easily making space with a few graceful kicks of their tail.
Each time they’d throw us off, we’d get back into the boat, find them again and then drop back into the water to watch some more. It was a fantastic experience. Truly once in a lifetime.
Returning to the resort, our breakfast deck became home base to the pamper party, with private rooms allocated for massages and mani/pedi sessions and henna tattooing in the communal area. Very social and a wonderful opportunity to get to know each other – and see the boys sail past and up the coast towards Upendo where we’d be meeting them at sunset.
Our journey to Upendo was less glam, thanks to the state that the rains had left on the (I suspect already bumpy) dirt roads between the two resorts.
It was a very cool spot for sundowners. A chic lounge bar right on the beach (obviously) with a menu of some impressive seafood – and curries, which we couldn’t resist.
Everyone was bushed from the long day on top of the long previous night, so it was a relatively restrained session, topped by some very civilised tea and coffee nightcaps on Anna and Marina’s patio on our return to Michamvi.
Being wedding-eve, intentionally no plans had been made for The Day of Rest, except dinner. Our friend Sarah arrived from England so Mich and Ian took her on a roadtrip to the other resorts to catch up with the long-lost friends she’s not seen in the 3 years since she emigrated. This left the rest of us to laze on loungers, nap, read, watch the sea and – for the more ambitious among us – walk on the beach or wallow in the water.
At 5.30 we met in the Reception to catch our taxi to The Rock restaurant, a single small building covering the entire surface of a little island just off the beach in front of Upendo, where we’d been the night before. And when I say “just off the coast of”, I really mean it.
With the tide in, we used a dhow to get from the shore to the steps up to the restaurant. But with the dhow lengthwise between the two points, we boarded at the back were pushed a couple of metres at most and then alighted from the front of the boat.
Apparently the boat ride is more a precaution than a necessity because of the spiky sea urchins that can really ruin your dinner plans if you step on one!
We again enjoyed our food immensely, ordering Tambi which was described at the Zanzibari take on pasta (thin angelhair strands with fish and coconut cream sauce). And we couldn’t resist ordering Kingfish again, as our newest-found favourite.
Aside from the food, a visit to The Rock is a must for anyone in the area thanks to its spectacular sunsets views from the terrace that infinities the ocean into the disappearing sun, transitioning the yellows and reds into blues and purples that make every photo a winner!
With our new arrival and new friends now old pals, we undid all the good our restful day had done us and had a solid innings in the bar on our return to Michamvi.
Sleeping in as late as possible – surfacing at 9.25 to catch breakfast before it started closing down at 9.30 – we were at least a little rested in anticipation of The Big Day.
The girls were required in Michele’s room at midday to start with the primping and preening, while (as is probably quite customary) the boys had much looser and more leisurely arrangements, really only needing to swap casual shorts and t-shirts for smart shorts and shirt since it was a barefoot event a few steps from our quarters.
Unfortunately it pelted with rain all morning and while it did ease up a bit over the course of the afternoon, it was too risky to bank on doing the wedding ceremony on the sand as had been intended, so the decision was made to move the set-up indoors. The hand-plaited palm arch and all the chairs were moved to the bar deck, which seemed sort of fitting with the amount of time we’d spent there over the preceding few days.
Our planning worked out perfectly though and our bride’s party of 3 was all glamourous and ready to go just after 4.
Our song started and we wound our way (barefoot) along the paths from the room into the bar, down the aisle and to the front where the groom and groomsmen were waiting and our friend Cheese was ready and raring to officiate the ceremony.
It was a short and sweet service, rounded off by the happy couple reading a promise to each other that they’d crafted in lieu of vows and then we moved to the beach (a few steps away) to take the bridal party pics. Even though it was drizzling lightly on and off, nothing could dampen spirits – or the view as a backdrop for some fantastic pics for that matter.
The resort team had done a magnificent job of transforming the Seabreeze deck into a romantic reception, with the tables in a big L around that mirrored a matching L buffet and grill station on the other side. They had framed the room with candles in paper bags which gave the room a soft and warm glow, setting the mood just right.
The formalities were minimal with basic housekeeping, me reading messages and well wishes from those who had been unable to join us, a short speech from Ian and a quick and light toast from Christian.
The food was again spectacular and we were spoilt with lobster, prawns, kingfish and tender beef skewers, partnered with starches and an array of exotic salads and sauces. We ate ourselves silly, which fuelled a very long and exuberant party well into the night.
Fortunately there was little to do since we’d compensated for our early start (well, relatively early, needing to be up at 7 to leave before 8 to get to the airport) by packing the day before.
Our taxi was mercifully early avoiding the potential for any stress clock-watching while obsessing over the potential for missing our flight. He did stop twice on our journey though; once to fill up with petrol (you’d think he’d have done that in preparation since this was a pre-booked transfer) and the other a quick nip to a shop (a side-of-the-road tuckshop window style spaza) for who knows what. And of course we were stopped by police twice.
Nonetheless, everything was Hakuna Matata when we arrived at the airport in time for our check in and we were grateful to only have 20 minutes wait for our flight to start the journey home.
It’d been a wonderful trip, but a restful day of snoozing on the plane would not go amiss!
PS: the only downside to the trip was that there was not a whiff of a Guinness so we were unable to add a new country to the Index.