Not a dinner party goes by without someone asking me, “Out of all of the places you’ve been around the world, what’s your all-time favorite destination?” For me, the answer is simple. Tanzania. Home to the Serengeti, Mt. Kilimanjaro, rich Maasai traditions, welcoming people and Lucy (a historic female hominid that gives root to our human ancestry), this Eastern African country has a lot to offer the curious tourist.
There is tons to see and do but, as far as I’m concerned, no trip to Tanzania is complete without visiting the island paradise of Zanzibar. Once the hub of the African slave trade, Zanzibar now draws sun-seekers and young partiers looking to laze along its many beaches. It’s a fascinating combination of Arabic culture and local African life, set against hypnotic blue waters and crumbling buildings that scream character.
My experience began in Stone Town, an antiquated capital city of colorful markets, gold-trimmed mosques and delicious beachside seafood shacks. Having survived a mélange of cramped and sweaty forms of public transportation (including a fifty-hour train ride from Zambia), I had finally made it 36 km off the coast of Tanzania to the famed archipelago of Zanzibar.
I checked into Kendwa Rocks, a budget guesthouse along the northeast coast, slipped into my bikini and headed straight for the beach. Needless to say, I was desperate for some quality piña colada time.
Sitting there near the shore, the scene was a real-life cheesy postcard: a lone emerald palm tree, white sands and glimmering turquoise waters. Wooden dhows sailed the horizon like fairy tale pirate ships in search of gold and riches. Local women wrapped in bright orange fabrics offered henna tattoos, hair braiding and massage services for the price of a Starbucks latte. Maasai men in plaid tribal sarongs hawked beaded necklaces and canvas paintings. A trio of kids offered fresh mangoes to relaxed tourists, cocooned in hammocks.
With its chill beach life, natural beauty and distinct African culture, Kendwa is paradise. I sighed happily and spread-out on the beach like a tanning starfish, surrendering to the “hakuna matata” vibe (Swahili for ‘no worries’) that dominates the island.
A few hours of forgotten sunscreen and I was cooked. Moving my Rudolf-red legs from the tropical heat into the shade, I spotted a local fisherman holding a slimy, speared octopus. Curious about the art of spear fishing (and on the hunt for an activity that didn’t induce melanoma), I approached him and, with the help of a Swahili interpreter, organized a private fishing tour for the following morning…
… Eight am. Mask, snorkel and flippers in hand, I met up with Mosi, a local subsistence fisherman. “Jambo,” he greeted, tossing me the handmade spear-gun we’d be using to trap dinner. This makeshift rifle carved of wood came complete with a thick elastic band, a trigger mechanism and sharp metal spear.
With rudimentary equipment and little instruction, I couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous as we swam away from shore, deep into the Indian Ocean.
Near clumps of coral, my underwater guide took a deep breath, dove beneath the water and scanned the rocky crevices for sea life. With skill, he stalked the little fish, anticipating their movements and waiting patiently for that perfect moment, before launching his spear. Though he missed a few times, Mosi was nearly a perfect shot.
He threaded his newly caught angelfish and squid along a fine wire and dragged the injured catch behind him.
Drifting further and further from the safety of shore, it suddenly dawned on me. Swimming alongside bleeding, injured fish probably isn’t the greatest of ideas. I’ve seen the acclaimed documentary Shark Water. I know that sharks are merely misunderstood creatures victimized by bad PR and “sorry I mistook you for a seal” incidents, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was just a wee bit vulnerable. So, I kept an eye open for Tiger Sharks and any other creatures that might mistakenly eat me.
Wielding my spear gun like a Soviet spy out of a James Bond flick, I dove, aimed and shot an arrow towards a skittish spotted fish. Having completely missed him, I re-surfaced dejectedly gasping for air, gulping mouthfuls of salt water.
A few fishless hours later, I swam back to shore and collapsed on the beach. Spear fishing sure was harder than it looked. I thanked Mosi, hung up my flippers and finally ordered a well-earned piña colada.
Quick Travel Tips:
Kendwa Beach, on the northeastern side of Zanzibar, is the perfect choice for young backpackers. Its beaches are far better than those found along Nungwi, a popular but rather tacky tourist spot 3 km north.
Kendwa Rocks offers basic but clean accommodations (around $70 night for a private, full-size bungalow) in thatched huts or beach bandas. As the name suggests, this place is rocks, especially during their monthly full-moon parties. Scuba Shack can provide more information on spear fishing and snorkel rentals. For bookings visit
Finally, check out Kayak for Zanzibar hotel options: http://www.kayak.com/Zanzibar-Hotels.1557.hotel.ksp
What’s your all-time favorite travel destination? Leave me a comment below!