SUN, SEA & scuBA: A week in Paradise

Bright sunshine, crystal clear waters and scuba diving: My last week in Tanzania saw me travel to the exotic island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean, providing a rich cultural and wildlife spectacle. The perfect end to my travels in Tanzania.

Stone Town

Arriving in Zanzibar, I spent the first couple of days based in Stone town. This old, colonial town is the capital of Zanzibar and was full of cultural and architectural delights. Immediately after arriving at the ferry port, it was clear to see how island life differed from the mainland, being more laid back than the hustle and bustle of Dar es Salaam. The importance of fish to the island was evident too, with hundreds of small fishing dhows lining the shore. Walking through the city, the influence of Europe, Arabia and East Africa were clear to see in the architecture, with narrow streets and classical doors fronting the stone-walled buildings. A long history of slave trading in Zanzibar had brought these cultures together, creating a unique fusion that is present-day Zanzibari culture. Fortunately, slavery has now been abolished, although historic sites such as the slave market were a reminder of how different life would have been just a few centuries ago. A key reason for slavery on Zanzibar was to provide labour for the spice farms on the island, and even today without slaves working these fields, spices remain a key component of local life. Sold at the big Darajani market alongside fruits, they provided a spectacle of colours and smells that overloaded the senses. The fish market in Darajani provided another source of odour, with strong-smelling fish being sold by auction, as local fishermen cashed in on their day’s catch.

From Stone town, I took the opportunity to visit a spice farm as part of a spice tour to see firsthand how they are grown. Unlike much of the mainland, Zanzibar is green and lush thanks to high levels of rainfall, facilitating the growth of these spices. During the tour, we were given the opportunity to taste some of the spices, overloading the tastebuds with their strong taste. Exploring Stone town and this spice tour provided a great insight into the culture of this vibrant island and the different way of life here.

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Leaving the skyscrapers of Dar es Salaam behind, my trip to Zanzibar started with a ferry journey across the Zanzibar channel. Photo copyright: David Bartholomew

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Jozani Forest

Before the emergence of spice farms on Zanzibar, the island was covered in lush tropical forests. Much has now been destroyed, but Jozani-Chakwa Bay Conservation Area provides a refuge for the remaining forest and its inhabitants, so I took a visit to see what wildlife would have dominated the landscape before human settlement. Jozani hosts three key forest habitats: mangroves, swamp forest and coral forest. Walking palms, extensive ferns and plentiful orchids were just some of the botanic delights of these forests. Inhabiting them were countless birds, including brightly coloured tinkerbirds, small sunbirds and the endemic Pemba green pigeon. It was not just birds living in these forests though. As I walked, I encountered two species of snake – the spectacled green snake and a green mamba – both hidden amongst the leaves with superb camouflage. There were also lots of lizards scurrying around in the undergrowth, alongside elephant-shrews and squirrels that could be heard moving in the bushes of the coral forest. I also witnessed countless different invertebrates, key species in the functioning of these ecosystems. Giant millipedes, large tarantulas and vast colonies of safari ants were all creatures I had to look out for on the forest floor, but perhaps the most intriguing invertebrates of all were a colony of wasps that nested under the soil in the coral forest. These wasps each created a hole in the earth, allowing them to burrow down to the centre of the colony. Clearly important, the holes were fiercely protected with small stones acting as a barrier to the centre of the wasps’ residence.

Despite all of these wildlife pleasures, my favourite animal I encountered was that that draws so many tourists to these forests: the endemic Zanzibar red colobus monkey. This species of monkey is unique to Zanzibar, and as a result of great habitat destruction on the island, is facing extinction. The Jozani forest provides a haven for these loveable monkeys, and it was a delight to witness them in their natural habitat. Such a charismatic species provides a great hope for the longterm protection of these forests in the face of increasing pressures from the island’s growing tourism industry. Taking a little used trail through the forest, I was fortunate enough to encounter a troop that remains wary of humans and had not been habituated. Instead of approaching us, this group has kept their wild instincts and ran away on hearing me. Somehow, getting a glimpse of these monkeys hiding inside the tree canopy felt more special than witnessing a group of habituated individuals up close. I did however give the habituated monkeys a visit too to watch how they acted around us. This troop contrasted starkly to the first group as they were bold and brave, approaching tourists in the hope of receiving food in return. Living alongside humans, these intelligent monkeys had successfully adapted to a new lifestyle: Two different ways of flourishing.

My visit to the Jozani forest concluded with a walk through the mangroves. Further away from the coast than I had ever been inside a mangrove forest before, I got to appreciate just how dense these forests can become. Watching the egrets fish amongst the prop roots was a great end to a day in these beautiful forests.

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This broad-billed roller was one of many birds that could be seen in the Jozani forests. Photo copyright: David Bartholomew

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One of the unexpected highlights of the forests were a colony of wasps that used small stones to close holes to their nest. Photo copyright: David Bartholomew

Matemwe

After exploring Stone Town and the forests of Jozani, I travelled to Matemwe on the north-east coast of the island. A small, quiet village, Matemwe felt like true paradise. Beautiful white coral sand beaches, crystal-clear ocean waters and palm trees: it was the perfect way to relax for a few days.

My quest to see wildlife didn’t end here though. Located near the Mnemba atoll, Matemwe provided the perfect location for a couple of days of scuba diving. Just a short boat ride from Matemwe, Mnemba island is surrounded by a coral atoll, home to diverse reefs with a vast number of fish species. Diving amongst these corals was superb and it was fantastic to see many different colourful creatures up close whilst weightless in the water. Lionfish, stonefish, frogfish, clownfish, triggerfish, trumpetfish, lizardfish and parrotfish were just a few of the countless fish species I saw whilst swimming between the corals. Hiding down at 22m below the surface was also a green turtle resting under a giant overhanging coral. Turtles are not the only megafauna that lives on these reefs either – Mnemba is also home to a pod of bottlenose dolphins. Whilst waiting between dives on the second day, the resident pod decided to make an appearance so we jumped in to snorkel alongside them. However, their adaptations to life in the sea were clear to see as they quickly swam away from us. A fleeting glimpse underwater, but special nonetheless.

Sadly, the underwater world here was not as pristine as it once would have been. The impact of climate change was clear to see as several corals showed obvious signs of bleaching. Fishing, a key source of income to so many locals on Zanzibar, is also affecting the reefs as many of the large fishes were scarce, whilst anchors had also caused some damage. However, despite these impacts, parts of the atoll have been protected and are free from fishing, supporting some areas of high biodiversity and providing a great location for some beautiful diving.

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Mnemba atoll provided the location for some stunning diving. Photo copyright: David Bartholomew
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Snorkelling with these bottlenose dolphins was an unexpected, but fantastic experience. Photo copyright: David Bartholomew

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Menai Bay

Before leaving Zanzibar, I took a trip to Menai Bay on my last full day in Tanzania. Located in the south-west of the island, Menai bay is renowned for its populations of dolphins, so I was hopeful to see them again. Apparently, 85% of visits get sightings of these stunning animals.

We set off across the bay early in the morning at low tide. No dolphins were visible but lots of seabirds were flying around, including lesser crested and caspian terns, common black-headed, Heuglin’s and sooty gulls, and brown noddys. The odd masked booby also made an appearance. Watching these birds fishing in the water surrounding the boat was very enjoyable indeed. After crossing the bay, we took a stop on a sandbank, a small island made up of fine white coral sand exposed at low tide, but submerged at high tide. Here, the fantastic birding continued as large groups of lesser crested terns were joined by Saunder’s terns nesting on the sand.

From here, we went snorkelling on the nearby reef. It was nice to swim with many of the colourful fishes from the Indian Ocean one more time. Lots of pretty damselfish, sergeant majors, butterflyfish, wrasses and unicorn fish were swimming on the reefs, but my favourites were the little clownfish hiding in the sea anemones. Some evidence of an unhealthy reef were unfortunately present again as many starfish, sea urchins and jellyfish were present – a clear sign of a disturbed reef. We then took a visit to another of the nearby islands, taking a visit to the mangroves that were growing over the bare rocks made from ancient corals. The adaptability of nature is truly amazing!

After some fine seafood for lunch and a swim in the sea, we headed back across the bay. Once again the seabirds made an appearance and we got to witness how dramatic an effect the tides had on the sandbank, shrinking it to a tenth of its original size. Sadly, the dolphins didn’t make an appearance. Alas, it was not meant to be. I had been fortunate to see them earlier in my trip after all. The bay provided however a beautiful end to a wildlife spectacular on Zanzibar.

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Menai Bay was a hotspot for seabirds, including these Lesser Crested Terns and Saunder’s Terns. Photo copyright: David Bartholomew
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The mangroves showed how adaptable they can be in this bay by growing on bare coral rock. Photo copyright: David Bartholomew
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Hundreds of beautiful small islands dotted Menai Bay. They provided a beautiful backdrop for my last full day in Tanzania. Photo copyright: David Bartholomew

And so my time in Tanzania had come to an end. It had been an unforgettable experience, witnessing so much of Africa’s amazing wildlife. The birding had been particularly special, with 218 different species seen in Tanzania, taking my East African total to 368 species! Meeting so many incredible, resourceful and resilient people had been life changing too. Life here contrasts drastically from home, but the spirit of the local people remains unbridled. Spending three months under challenging conditions has taught me so much and I feel very fortunate to have had this experience. In the end, I was sad to leave this special country!

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