INDEPENDENT I’m not what you’d call an adrenalin junky, macho thrills’n’spills aren’t my thing. But when the ratchet shrieked and yards of fishing line zipped out across the waves I was beside myself with excitement. Adrenalin rush? I was faint with it… time to eat my words…
To my mind Zanzibar is an improbably sibilant, onomatopoeic place – it really is as it sounds; exotic, hot, lazily sweet. But there was no lolling in hammocks with gin slings for me on my recent trip. I’d gone to find action and show there’s more to these enigmatic islands than the smoochy cooing of honeymooners or idle flip-floppery of beach bums. And where better to find adventure than on the Indian Ocean wave?
Skipper Abi and Modondo his mate welcomed me aboard the Timimi, a stocky white fishing boat bristling with rods. Within moments of leaving shore there were twitches and nibbles on fishing lines that Modondo continually tweaked like a plate spinner – but no bites. Abi speculated about dorado as we chased seagulls to Leven Banks, an area of ocean famed for good fishing halfway between Zanzibar and her sister island Pemba.
I’ve always mentally connected deep sea game fishing with bravura levels of testosterone; Hemmingway’s ghost and all that. But my naive fantasy was short-lived, instead of bacon doorsteps and a pint of whiskey I got a hardboiled egg and a bottle of Sprite for breakfast. It didn’t detract from the mounting anticipation though.
Expectation was everything for a novice like me; what might we catch? I spent hours wondering just that and began to understand the capricious nature of this sport. Then my adrenalin level spiked, I’d got a bite. Under Abi’s expert supervision I reeled in a splashing 14 kilo wahoo, iridescent black-blue and stripy. Wahoo? Yahoo! My exhilaration was quite overwhelming.
One particularly happy diner sat in the urbane Ras Nungwi Beach hotel that night; chef had cooked my delicious fish for me.
Ras Nungwi Beach hotel has probably the best location in the whole area, sat adjacent to wild bush and an improbably long white gash of sand. On a moonlit beach walk the silvery silence was broken by strange nocturnal noises from late to-bed birds and early to-rise insects; the fireflies dazzled.
Next morning I was up early for a day’s snorkelling on nearby Mnemba atoll; if you don’t dive then this is the next best thing – the sea-life is extraordinary. Sea snakes and stonefish, moray eels, multi-coloured shoals and outlandish corals were mesmerising – and for good measure, a pod of dolphins buzzed the boat on our way back home. For those keen on more thrills parasailing and jet-ski safaris are also easily arranged.
But adventure in Zanzibar isn’t exclusively aquatic. You should get lost for a couple of days – in the capital’s labyrinthine alleys. Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a meandering sweating maze riddled with smells, tastes, shadows and whispers that seduce every sense.
Respite from Stone Town’s clamour is found in Emerson Skeens’ eponymous new hotel, Emerson Spice. Its stylish suites are bedecked with Zanzibari beds, scumbled azure walls, serpentine baths and huge satin drapes the colour of dried blood. An intoxicating mixture of Omani merchant house, grand opera and Babylonian garden; what’s not to love?
Just across the water from Stone Town is Chumbe Island. This small dot in the ocean was for years a strictly out-of-bounds military base – the upshot being a virtually pristine marine environment that’s now protected as a conservation area. Accommodation is simple; not much more than glorified bandas or thatched huts. But it’s gorgeous.
Most of the island is covered in dense tropical thicket and dominated by a Victorian lighthouse. It’s still working – and possible to climb, drink in hand for a spectacular sun-downer. There’s an added bonus at the top – after 131 steps the breeze momentarily blows the intense fug of heat away.
On terra firma are some of the forest’s rarer inhabitants, endangered coconut crabs. I was shown a tiddler – the size of a blue armour-plated football, equipped with claws that can easily remove a finger. One of their number is reputed to be a monstrous 70 cm long.
But I was keen to get wet again. Kitted out in a snorkel and fins I joined head ranger Omari for a sea safari in the most exquisite Technicolor coral gardens you could hope to see – and creatures most of us dream about viewing in the wild.
In the neon and chrome yellow corals I encountered a hawksbill turtle; he eyed me disdainfully before flapping languidly off. Blue spotted rays scarpered as I approached and huge schools of tiny fish, the aquatic equivalent of an inner city comprehensive, danced around me. It’s like swimming in a private aquarium.
Chumbe is delightful. Something’s seriously right when your only real gripe is that the doves sound repetitive.
Misali Island, off the coast of Pemba, is another marine reserve with fine coral gardens that are snorkeler friendly. I’m usually happy looking down from the surface as I’ve found diving problematic; equalising difficult (clearing air from ears and sinuses) and the idea of breathing underwater frankly scary. But Filbert, Fundu Lagoon’s resident dive master, had other ideas.
After patient cajoling, talking me through every last technical detail and an awful lot of encouragement he persuaded me to don the pervy black rubber gear and get underwater. What a revelation; I saw kaleidoscopic marine life from a wonderful new perspective and my adrenalin surge peaked at a new high.
I’m a hesitant man converted. Who wouldn’t want to swim into shoals of fish that behaved like glittering starlings, or ponder on purple fish waving flamenco fins? The experience was stupendous. I returned to Fundu Lagoon with quite the most stupid grin on my face – and the resolve to enter the brine again next day.
Afro-rustic, sexy and coolly laid-back Fundu, the concept of fashion designer Ellis Flyte, ticks all the sybaritic boxes. Sinking into a hypnotic daze and spending a lot of time doing nothing would be all too easy; I needed more action.
A spice tour might not sound exciting; and no, adrenalin didn’t pump, but the taste-buds drooled and eyes feasted. The slow drive through Pemba is a neat way of seeing something of the islanders’ day-to-day lives and visiting a small spice plantation is a must for any foodie like me. Nibbling raw peppercorns is a taste sensation, as was chewing cardamoms, turmeric, lemon grass and cinnamon. My luggage smelled divine back in Blighty as I unpacked vanilla pods and cloves bought direct from the local farmer.
On my last day there was still opportunity to take a dhow cruise, water-ski or wake and knee-board, but Rusty, Fundu’s man with the rods, easily persuaded me to join him on an early morning fishing trip.
I wasn’t sure if the untrammelled excitement of my earlier outing could be beaten, I needn’t have worried. A blinding white boat, its pumped-up engines gurgling on steroids, was the business. And no sooner had we put out six lines with squid-like lures than the first fish came arcing out of the water in what appeared to be slow-motion. A dazzling streak of silver and Wedgewood blue pounced, and my excitement levels burst again. It was a dorado. In little under an hour we’d bagged another four; the last, a large bull dorado, put up an exhausting half-hour fight that left me gasping. I guess you could say I am well and truly hooked.