1 April 2009 by Duncan Mills
A Touch of Spice
There’s something delightfully evocative about the word Zanzibar. The name rolls pleasingly off the tongue – the lazy sound of two Zs, a zip and a skip in the middle, followed by a satisfying ‘bah!’ at the end. It’s almost onomatopoeic. This sultry and spicy island in the Indian Ocean is part of Tanzania – whose name derives from Tanganyika and Zanzibar, when the two former British colonies united in 1964. And yet its cultural influences are far broader. The drive up to the Ras Nungwi Beach Hotel, at the northernmost tip of the island, takes about an hour from the island’s capital, Stone Town. On the way, we drove by roadside villages and stalls with signs written on their walls in a mixture of Swahili, Arabic and English. Groups of children, some in Islamic headdresses, passed on their way home from school. Elsewhere I noticed chickens pecking for scraps among plots of banana trees, and old men in Zanzibari caps chatting and playing draughts at the end of a hard day.
The hotel’s own literature, which lists ‘billowing mosquito nets’ in its guest rooms and other rather overly descriptive features, overplays what is actually a relatively modest but nonetheless very charming resort. Accommodation is in a main block of rooms set back from the beach, or in the far more appealing thatched bungalows down towards the water’s edge, set amidst pretty gardens and each with a small terrace and a couple of comfortable chairs. The rooms are simple enough, clean, and with double beds, overhead fans and air conditioning, together with tidy en-suite bathrooms.
The resort has a lovely organic feel, built almost entirely with local materials, and with lots of secluded lounging areas inside and out. Even when the restaurant reveals a full house of guests at breakfast and in the evening, during the day you can sometimes wonder where everyone else is, with the beach or pool virtually to yourself.
During long, lazy, sunny days a hint of a breeze rolls in off the ocean, getting stronger as the day wears on. Craggy rocks and patches of bright green seaweed reveal themselves among the shallow pools and sandbanks as the tide ebbs and flows. A few fishing boats wait for the returning tide, when they will gently rise on the surface once more. When the high tide arrives they bob again, as the moon rises in the sky and shimmers silver on the water.
The gentle crash of the waves far out on the reef and the rustle of wind in the palm trees is about as noisy as it gets at this hotel, save for the occasional Karibu sana (‘You’re very welcome’) or Jambo (‘Hello’) from the friendly waiters down at the beach bar or from the ever-smiling Ismael, who will help arrange your charpoy (the traditional bamboo lounger) down on the sand. He’ll also bring over a refreshing drink as you sway gently in a hammock, overlooking a sea the colour of Bombay Sapphire, where lateen-sailed dhows glide gently by.
These distinctive east African fi shing vessels are built and harboured at the village of Nungwi, just around the headland from the hotel. You can reach at low tide with a short walk along the beach, passing the old lighthouse that marks the northernmost tip of the island. Local boat-builders can be seen building and mending their dhows, lighting fi res beneath their hulls to seal against leaks, patching up the sails and checking their nets, while the local children splash around in the rock pools nearby or dig for shells in the sand.
Wander further on still and the development of the area is much more noticeable, with a batch of new hotels catering to more of a backpacker crowd. I passed a few Maasai selling sunglasses on the beach, and others who’d set up stalls selling paintings and souvenirs. Yet the pace of it all is gentle enough and pretty low-key. For now, at least, tourism goes hand in hand with the local community’s more traditional ways, a happy co-existence with each other and the ocean.
The water along the northern coast is wonderfully warm and clear, and there’s a padi diving centre at the hotel, offering scuba tuition and daily trips to nearby reefs and atolls. I must admit, the snorkelling trip I took to the Mmemba Atoll National Park seemed a little overpriced for the few orange clownfi sh and a couple of sea snakes that I saw. But go deeper in the water and the diving is said to be among the best in east Africa.
The hotel’s widely praised restaurant is another major plus, with evening meals announced by the playing of handdrums in the lofty open-air dining area. Locally caught seafood features heavily on the menu, with tasty wahoo fi sh, king prawns grilled on skewers, squid and octopus among the best. And it really can’t get much fresher: much of the seafood is bought directly off the beach from local reef fi shermen who – armed with spears, masks, small fl oats and sharp knives – have spent the day out in the shallows gathering squid, octopus and whatever else they can catch. You can see them cleaning and gutting the fi sh down on the sand, before selling it on to the beach bar staff who, in turn, take up it to the kitchens to be cooked for guests. Coconut and aromatic spices figure in many dishes. All washed down with excellent South African wine and accompanied by the melodies of local bands – including the Stone Town police band – who provide the entertainment during dinner, playing a mixture of African favourites and international numbers, their music resonating under the makuti-thatched ceilings and drifting out to sea.