Washed up on Zanzibar

On the coast of the legendary spice island, Craig Tansley settles at a beach village with old-fashioned charm.

'You should tell them about what's happening in Tanzania; it's corruption, mon," says our Rasta guide, Jaydee Stone, as he hands yet another policeman - the third in 20 minutes - a fistful of shillings.

We drive through more roadblocks. I stiffen in my seat each time another official puts his chubby fingers through our window. We drive past concrete resorts where sunburnt Europeans holiday in five-star luxury, leaving the secure pool area only to buy cheap Chinese junk from mainland Tanzanians dressed in the robes of Kenya's Masai tribe, worn to please the tourists.

We leave this resort town of Kiwengwa - and the police - and continue north-east until the bitumen stops. Goats and donkeys amble in front of us; families in traditional villages spread out seaweed to dry in the stifling midday sun. Then the road ends abruptly, and when Stone stops the car we smell salt and kelp on a stiff sea breeze.

"You are safe now," Stone says, melodrama oozing from him like sweat. "This is Africa but it is also not Africa, you know what I'm saying? There's no beach boys, no heroin, no guns, no robbery. This is Africa like my grandpapa knew it, like my man Bob Marley says, 'Every little thing is gonna be all right'. You're in Matemwe now."

Matemwe is a village on the north-eastern coast of the island of Zanzibar, a 20-minute flight from the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam.

Explorer David Livingstone used Zanzibar as a base to begin his historic expeditions into Africa. He called Zanzibar "the finest place I have known in all of Africa". Its capital, Stone Town, is a beguiling mix of African, British, Indian and historical Omani influences.

But Zanzibar is not without the problems that plague mainland Africa. Residents live largely in third-world conditions and the Tanzanian island has been plagued by five decades of violence since independence was declared from the Sultan of Oman in 1964.

Tourism is relatively new here; although the name Zanzibar evokes visions of exotic escape, tourism began in earnest on Zanzibar only two decades ago. But it's sure made its mark.


Aggressive touts congregate at most hot spots, peddling everything from spice tours to fake Rolex watches to ganja. Petty crime is rife and violent robbery is a threat in districts where heroin has created a legion of addicts.

The road ends at Matemwe. The coastline north of here is impassable; tall coral seaside cliffs rise into uninhabitable grassland and thick forest. Far from the ravages of heroin addiction, touts and corrupt officials, Matemwe is an underrated holiday destination.

There's not much at Matemwe to suggest there's a tourist industry at all, just a handful of low-key bungalows and two or three resorts that mostly blend into the landscape. Outside this handful of resorts, the tourism industry is run by men with handwritten signs such as: "Snorkelling tirips (sic) to Mnemba Islaned (sic), see little fishs (sic), my is neme (sic) is Kockhaali, hello". Prices are always negotiable and experiences are thrillingly rustic, if at times a little risky.

One afternoon, as we motor out through a break in the reef towards the island of Mnemba, I notice the crew casually bailing water from the hull of our ngalwa, a traditional outrigger. The water levels rise until we're barely afloat. Noting my concern, the guide laughs: "Don't worry, all these boats have holes, keeping them afloat is just one part of sailing them."

There are no other tourists on board and the skipper lets me take the helm most afternoons I sail with him. When we reach Mnemba, the water is the colour of rare stones. "Fiji" is how my excitable guide, Muhammed Mawanza, describes it, though he has never left Zanzibar.

Just metres behind the resorts and bungalows, traditional mudbrick villages lie among stunted 600-year-old baobab trees. Chickens, goats and cows wander the narrow dirt roads. Women draw water from ancient wells with babies at their breasts. They leave the infants with barely older siblings to pick seaweed each day at low tide from the lagoon; the dried kelp is exported to China.

Their incessant chatter is the only noise I hear all day as they trudge back and forth in cumbersome but colourful Islamic gowns weighed down by sea water. Their men have gone fishing; in traditional ngalwas they sail on each high tide, returning with boats full of fish. Each afternoon they sell their catch at a fish market on the beach - the liveliest place in town.

Truth be told, the lagoon here at Matemwe is full of sea urchins and smelly seaweed; at low tide - especially when the moon is full - it's often tepid. At Kendwa and Nungwi, 30 minutes' drive north-west of Matemwe, the ocean is the blue that can only be conjured on travel brochures, but it's full of tourists.

The allure of Matemwe is that its attractions are not so obvious. But walk past the urchins and swim beyond the reef and the ocean is the same colour as it is at Kendwa and, at low tide, secret beaches reveal themselves a hundred metres out to sea, ideal for sunbaking and shallow dips before they disappear on the tide.

The beach beside the lagoon is Matemwe's real drawcard. Its sand is the finest and whitest in all of Zanzibar and it's so wide it doubles as a public road. The traffic of donkeys, cows, goats, local people and cheeky children is a spectacle.

At dawn, the faithful use the beach as a prayer mat with their heads bowed down to face the rising sun. In the evenings, under a buckshot sky of beaming planets and auroras of tiny stars and a huge, orange moon, it's a safe passage back from beachside bars to lodgings.

Best of all, the beach at Matemwe is a place to meet locals. Every evening there's a boisterous game of football with children and some days I'm invited to play. Children are never far away but, unlike the children I meet in Stone Town and Kendwa, they never demand money or gifts.

One morning I meet Abdul wandering on the beach. He's 14 and he walks two hours to get here each Saturday morning to practise English with any tourist who'll talk to him - it's the only day he has off from working his father's farm. Abdul's dream is to become a travel agent.

The next Saturday I take the latest John Grisham novel from my resort's library and wait for Abdul; he is overjoyed when I give him the book.

One morning I ride a bicycle to Kiwengwa, six kilometres south. It's what Matemwe might become one day. "Beach boys" patrol the sands outside the Italian resorts, offering drugs and cheap trinkets. My tyre is punctured on the back road behind the five-star resorts so I ask a security guard if I can come in to have it repaired. He calls the front office and a manager tells him I can enter if I pay $US35 ($32) for lunch (an average meal in Zanzibar costs about $US7). I'm so saddened by what I see - children in nearby villages run to me screaming "ciao, ciao" and demanding money - that I make a hasty retreat to Matemwe. On occasion I catch dalla-dallas to Stone Town or Kendwa, but I find the urge to return to Matemwe overpowering.

I spend my days poking around the lagoon or snorkelling at Mnemba Island and taking my time at restaurants where enormous and cheap meals of fresh seafood come with cold Kilimanjaro beer. I talk with locals for hours every day. They ask me about the world - most have never been beyond Zanzibar.

On the morning of my departure, I meet an Australian expat who has been in Matemwe for 15 years and says he won't ever leave. "People still live as they have for hundreds of years," he says. "There's something about seeing people live their lives to the tide, the sun and the moon rather than their BlackBerrys and their iPhones."

Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Qatar Airways and Harvey World Travel.


Getting there

Qatar Airways flies to Dar es Salaam from Melbourne for about $2470 low-season return, including tax. You fly to Doha (14hr), then Dar (6hr); Sydney passengers pay about the same and fly a partner airline to Asia, then on with Qatar Airways. Precision Air flies from Dar to Zanzibar for about $74 one way. Australians require a visa ($US50 ($46)) for a stay of up to 30 days.

Staying there

Beachside bungalows at Matemwe Beach Village cost from $250 a night; see matemwebeach.net.

Sele's Bungalows has the best bar-restaurant in Matemwe and rooms from $80 a night; see selesbungalows.com.

Touring there

Harvey World Travel arranges tours to Matemwe. Phone 1300 855 492, or see harveyworld.com.au.