“”there are certain places, surrounded by a halo of romance, to which the inevitable disillusionment which you must experience on seeing them gives a singular spice”. (Somerset Maugham)

The village of Kipumwe wasn’t marked on my map, but I was assured there were dhows sailing to Zanzibar from there. The plan had been to reach neighbouring Pemba first, but unless I was going pay a lot and charter a boat alone, this option wasn’t available.

Following the recent sinking of the overloaded MV Spice Islander, in which some 240 people died in the Zanzibar channel, I really ought to have been more careful in choosing what vessel I took to transport me over the sea.

A bearded man in a skull cap greeted me with a grin when I rolled into this small coastal village at the end of a dirt track. Unatakwenda Zanzibar, he asked as I looked out at a flotilla of large dhows moored some 50 metres offshore. It seems I had come to the right place.

Zanzibar arrival

I met the Captain shortly afterwards. He led me through a dark mud-brick house away from a huddle of women and children. I assumed with all their baggage that they were passengers too. The Captain spoke no English and neither did his ticket collecting mate, who wanted 30,000 shillings ($20) for my fare. I would have paid it if I knew this was the going rate. It wasn’t. I’d already seen 10,000 shillings being exchanged and 3000 shillings returned with a ticket. I naturally wanted the same. The Captain laughed and pointed at my bike. I said I’d pay 10,000 then.

I never got my ticket. It soon grew dark and I waited beneath a row of tall rustling palm trees on a concrete veranda. Sitting, standing and lying alongside me were dozens of other people. I wondered how many dhows were going to sail that night.

“Just one”, said Zulu, a Kenyan who was travelling to Zanzibar to see relatives affected by the recent sinking. He was the only English speaker there. I thought the Captain had said we would leave at 1am and that the journey would take 4 hours. Zulu corrected me and said that it would be 4am that we left. As for how long it would take, he used that wonderfully frustrating answer I usually get when asking about distance in Africa (in this case applied to time) – “not long.”

It was impossible to count how many people were on that dhow. I stood on the moonlit shore and watched as they rushed into a small rowing boat making numerous trips out to where it was moored. I guessed it was no longer than 45ft long. From what I could make out it looked ancient, which at least said that it had been on the seas for some time and hadn’t sunk.

Without the bike it would have been far easier to travel, but with the help of Zulu and those seeing an opportunity for some loose change I was able to transport my companion from shore to rowing boat to the bow of the dhow, lying it flat with me somehow wedged between back wheel and a wooden beam and my head under the boom. For a moment I contemplated asking the Captain if he had life jackets on board, but I already knew the answer.

It was only when the seas started to calm and I could see a growing light on the eastern horizon that my nerves started to ease. I assumed that once we were clear of the shore the small outboard engine would be cut and that distinctive triangular white sail hoisted, but we were heading on a south eastwards bearing – straight into the wind. I also assumed that the 4am departure was made because the winds at this time were at their lightest, which was probably true.

As the sun rose out of the ocean I turned to try and count how many passengers were squeezed into the dhow. It was still impossible – 60-70 maybe, and then there were all the infants clutching onto a chest. There was little conversation amongst that scrum. Some chose to sleep in whatever position they had managed to find themselves when boarding the boat in the darkness, and others looked out vacantly in the direction of Zanzibar. I wanted to take a photo of them all huddled together, but taking pictures of people enduring some hard-ship is always a bit insensitive. Had they been able to afford it most would have happily preferred to travel by high-speed catamaran to the island.

After about 4 hours of motoring Zulu pointed out a low whitish ridge on the horizon. My nerves eased further. This was Tumbato island, which lies off the north western coast of Zanzibar. The seas, which had fortunately been calm, became even calmer as we slowly approached land, and the dark blueness of the deep channel lightened to a dazzling shade of turquoise. I almost wanted to jump in and swim ashore.

Arriving in Zanzibar

I first came to Zanzibar 11 years ago on a much larger, but no less reassuring boat, from Dar es Salaam. Then, like most people who come by boat to the island, I had arrived in Stone Town. As with many tourist destinations in poor places there was an eager crowd of young touts and hangers-on waiting to whisk me away to the best/cheapest Guest House. I used to hate this aspect of travel. I rarely witness it now.

My over-loaded dhow arrived safely in the quiet fishing village of Mkokotoni, some 20km south of the northern tip of Zanzibar. There was not a mzungu in sight, and the young immigration official naturally seemed surprised I had arrived on the island in such manner. “I think you like the adventure”. I told him I was happy the seas were calm. I too was equally surprised that my passport was getting an entry stamp. Zanzibar belongs to Tanzania, but is a semi-autonomous state.

Mkokotoni at low tide

Small islands are always a pleasure to cycle on. The sea is never far from sight and traffic is usually light. Well this is the case on Zanzibar, where the roads are also well-paved.

From Mkokotoni I headed to Nungwi, the northern most point of the island. This is an interesting destination. On one side of the village here there are veiled women walking between narrow sandy streets and local fishermen mending nets, while a short walk along the beach brings you to a stretch of sand and rocky outcrops where sun-worshipping Italians mingle with Italian-speaking Maasai tribesmen. I don’t remember this from Zanzibar before. Half the children here, and in other parts of the island where large resorts fly the green, red and white flag, one gets greeted with a ciao. There are several direct weekly flights I think between Italy and Zanzibar.

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With all the Mzungu money coming to Zanzibar finding a cheap hotels is not easy. Guest Houses offer basic rooms for around $20 and beach-front restaurants advertise catch of the day at around half that price. For those in Africa for a few weeks, finishing their Safari and/or Kilimanjaro ascent, such prices are a continuation of what they will have spent on the mainland. Zanzibar in actual fact might seem cheap if you’ve done a safari in the Serengeti. For the long-termers like me it’s an expensive destination, unless you’re willing to side-line the sunset views and al-fresco on-the-beach dining. There is usually someone around with a spare room you can rent for less, and then there’s camping, which is supposedly illegal on Zanzibar.

Nungwi beach

Beached dhow

Morning catch: Tuna

Sunset at Nungwi

From Nungwi I headed south along the east coast. Here the tide retreats a long way from the blinding white sand, and the south east monsoon winds carry the roar of the surf, visible some kilometres away as it breaks on the reef. It provides a perfect opportunity for beach cycling, which is what many of the locals do.

Morning swim stop

Seaweed drying

In the somnolent village of Bwejuu I pitched the tent for a few nights before continuing south past Paje and Jambiani. I stayed in one of these villages before, but can’t remember which one. I saw many foreigners but spoke to very few. It might be a measure of how long I’ve been on the road that I often don’t have the energy to strike up a conversation from scratch, which often brings with it all the questions associated with why I would want to and how could I cycle from England to Tanzania.

East coast Zanzibar

East Coast Zanzibar

Beach cycling at low tide

Pause on Paje beach

Jambiani, Zanzibar

At the southern end of the island the locals thought I’d come to see the dolphins and whales that can supposedly be viewed off the coast. The sunset camping and beach swimming were enough, before I turned north to Stone Town, which is where I am now.

Sunset Kizimkazi

Beach camp Zanzibar

With it’s warren of narrow labyrinthine alleyways Zanzibar’s old Stone town is really the heart and soul of the island. Here is the history, the architecture and the atmosphere that evokes all that is exotic about this location. I wheeled my bike inside, asked a random shop-keeper where I could find a room and was soon shown a place that with a bit of bargaining matched what I wanted to pay. I’m here until Saturday, when I hope to continue by boat to Pemba.

Zanzibar island