Travelled January 2020
Most visitors choose Zanzibar as a relaxing way to unwind in a tropical setting after the thrill of the open dirt track on a mainland safari. You might think that after ten days of chasing lions and bush sunsets, the adventure part of a Tanzanian trip would come to an abrupt halt after that final safari tent check out but oh no. If you’re going to Zanzibar you’re probably going by plane. Tiny plane. And those tiny planes are the main characters in the safari finale you now find yourself in.
Now, of course, flying safaris are very much a thing and therefore many people will be very at home with this mode of transport. I was not one of those people. In fact, the tiny planes were what almost put me off the whole trip in the first place. However, needs for island retreats must and therefore it was all aboard and up into the air. Safe to say that Seronera airstrip feels a long way from Heathrow.
I was truly delighted to soon learn that tiny planes actually act like buses and we made a joyful two whole stops to pick up more passengers before we’d even reached Arusha to transfer to our Zanzibar flight. That’s four whole take-offs and landings in a day. What a treat. Not as much of a treat as flying through what I can only describe as an all-consuming, never-ending cloud, after which our pilot cooly turned to face us, aviators firmly affixed and gave us a casual thumbs up to assert his happiness at a cloud-navigation job well done. I can only imagine that I gave him a smile of terror in return.
During one of the aforementioned stops for passengers, we had one of the better runway delays of my life. Cheetahs. Just a cheetah family hanging out on the runway reminding us exactly who’s really in charge here. Once they had been ushered away, out came the wildebeest. I for one was very thankful for our animal friends providing some much-needed distraction.
For all the fear that went with tiny planes, it seems only right to give credit where credit is due and the final leg that took us to Zanzibar was probably one of the smoothest flying experiences I’ve ever had. The views are incredible and the first glimpse of those deep green waters is all you need to forget the deep green feelings of the last few hours.
Our new home for the next 5 days was the Matemwe Retreat. A secluded private villa with uninterrupted Indian Ocean views, plenty of palm trees and a butler. We were warmly welcomed and swiftly swapped safari boots for sandals.
We took not one second of this idyllic set-up for granted and had the most incredible time doing very, very little. The retreat is part of the wider beach-side Matemwe resort so if we chose to drag ourselves out of our private pool (we didn’t) we had access to bigger pools as well as all the restaurant facilities and bars. The best bar had a bush baby feeding station which of course we were regulars at and had absolutely no chill whatsoever over. Actual bush babies! I delighted in the wildlife we saw, especially when I learned that many of the “Little Five” were Zanzibar residents. Seeing an Elephant Shrew brought me as much joy as seeing a Lion.
Pleasingly for us, a chef was also part of the luxury isolation we had signed up for so all our meals were decided with us and then delivered when we requested. It is safe to say I think about this service and miss it quite often.
Many avocados were eaten that week. We could have requested pretty much anything within reason to eat but were often happy to be guided by what was recommended. We both found it wildly uncomfortable to have to phone the butler to request anything but one day the need for some savoury snacks got too much so we did our best to communicate our desire for “crisps” which came out as “dippable potatoes” and lo and behold, 20 minutes later the freshest and best crisps I’ve ever had were delivered and promptly consumed in the ocean-facing bath, perfectly accompanied by free-flowing South African wine.
Matemwe beach is sandy, the ocean blue and home to not just cows and a fish market but also many sea urchins who hinder any attempts to run nonchalantly into the crashing of the waves. We did a guided walk complete with urchin-proof (allegedly) shoes and honestly, there’s nothing like dodging those spikes for two hours in tidal waters to give you a great core workout.
We also ventured out on a snorkelling trip, again picturing some tranquil time to gaze at tropical fish, maybe see a dolphin or two and calmly take in all these creatures from the sea rather than the land. How wrong we were. The first day we tried to go we couldn’t because of the weather. The second time everyone seemed more optimistic so we went out on a traditional boat, which to describe as rickety is being polite, straight into crashing waves that we thought might calm down but did not. The only difference is once we had come to a suitable snorkel zone, we were to face the waves from ocean level and enjoy them as they went crashing over our heads, rather than over the sides of the boat which we could just about see drifting away.
Maybe I have been lucky in the past with my limited foray into snorkelling. Maybe there is in fact a market for white water snorkelling. I am not the ideal clientele. We tried to embrace nature in all forms but didn’t last long and made our very dishevelled way back to the boat to very swiftly get back to the shore and consume a bottle of gin.
After five days of peace and a final night beach BBQ, we reluctantly left our Matemwe retreat and all the wonderful staff who work there behind. We had one night in Stone Town at The Serena Zanzibar prior to flying home. The hotel is right on the lively beach which is, conveniently, the perfect place to take in the sunset.
Stone Town is the ideal city to get lost in. Dense with bazaars, cafes, curio shops, so many cats and an incredible array of architecture beyond some of the crumbling facades that varies from traditional to Ottoman. You’re guaranteed to stumble across a new scene around every corner.
Don’t pass up a photo opportunity with one of the many impressive doors. Or a rooftop coffee and lunch at Zanzibar Coffee House. We also loved the coffee, cake and crafts on offer at Cafe Africa and stocked up on spices from 1001 Organic. The curio shops are full of treasures (I found a light switch that’s now proudly working in our spare room) and there are deals to be done if you have the heart the haggle with some of the sellers. I came home with plenty of woven items including a fruit bowl, placemats and bag which are all still going strong and continue to remind me of those happy Tanzanian times.
All good journeys eventually have to end but I really wish they didn’t have to begin their conclusion at Zanzibar airport which can only be described as the worst place in the world. It’s lucky that many travellers will have spent days relaxing before stepping foot inside; I think whoever is running the operation is relying on everyone to be in a state of composure in order to cope with the chaos inside. Take your own snacks and stay alert. Flight information or any form of facility is not high on anyone’s priority list. 2022 note: looks like there’s a new part to the airport so current passengers may well have more luck than we did.
Zanzibar is an ocean paradise with rustic charm. It’s not perfectly manicured, but that’s the part of the appeal. A taste of island life that we feel so lucky to have been able to briefly experience.