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Falling in love with the slow cycles of Zanzibar

Andrew Thompson

You don't have to go on a luxury package tour to enjoy what this tropical Tanzanian island has to offer

Zanzibar, well known for its feet-up package resorts, long white beaches and spectacular marine life, offers far more than the 10-night-per-personsharing deals that dominate tourism brochures, particularly when you tackle it without a plan and from the seat of a bicycle.

LoverGirl and Refinement are fairly unlikely names for bicycles. But, surprisingly, they were a particularly good fit for two that Babu, the shifty Stone Town tour operator, wheeled out before us.

Far from the multispeed, shock-absorbing mountain bikes he had promised us earlier, these hefty, classic bicycles were things of mass-production beauty, brimming with practicality and fully deserving of their elaborate titles.

I hopped on to LoverGirl and took her for a quick test ride down the busy beachfront road. Her matt-black steel tubes dipped and flowed effortlessly between her curved handlebars and oversized spring-supported foam seat; a shrill bell resting just before my left thumb harmonised with the screech of the brakes, and looked strangely appropriate alongside a grey plastic carrying basket below. A sturdy luggage rack above the back tyre would be just big enough to carry my daypack, and the kickstand below the perfect pedestal from which to show off her ironic beauty. I was sold.

Most importantly, though, the single gear allocated to us by the Chinese bicycle factory was just right—loose enough, it turned out, to get us over most inland hills, stiff enough to coast comfortably along the sandy beaches and coastal flats. These were bicycles to behold and, after bonding with LoverGirl all the way to the southern tip of Zanzibar, over nine days and 100km, I simply didn’t want to give her back.

The night before we had emptied our large backpacks on the floor of the humble Princess Salme Inn, a stone’s throw away from the busy port, and repacked everything into small daypacks. Only the most essential items survived: underpants, shorts, tees, a few toiletries and cameras; the rest was stashed far under the inn bed, to be collected on our return.

Dirty cheap

After much haggling with Babu over the daily rental rate of the bicycles, we eventually settled on 8?000 shillings, about $5, a day, and I was glad to leave the beautiful bustling alleyways of Stone Town. We headed straight to a row of cars on the beach- front, half-heartedly bartered with a self-proclaimed taxi driver and for 35?000 shillings asked him to take us and our newly acquired bicycles as far north as possible.

As far north as possible turns out to be Nungwi, which, if you read between the lines of your travel guide, is not much more than a ­rundown hedonistic haunt. Drug- peddling beach boys outnumbered us at the local bar, and our two-bed bungalow was the epitome of dirt cheap—a place to rest your head after a day of sun and booze, and nothing much more.

Despite this, we felt obliged to contribute towards Nungwi’s slow deterioration, and even though we were still a few weeks away from the start of Zanzibar’s peak season, six mzungus (white people), a few dozen Tusker beers, and a dozen interested locals and beach boys managed to push through to a 4am beach party with little effort. December must be pandemonium.

The next morning, over pale omelettes, stale bread and fly-speckled strawberry jam we hedged our bets on cleaner beaches and better accommodation elsewhere on the island and moved on, despite our growing hangovers. Where to, though, we were not exactly sure.

If you peer at Zanzibar from above, as we did frequently on the poorly scaled promotional map we had pocketed in Stone Town, you would be forgiven for thinking it to be a fairly large land mass. Look at it next to her sister Tanzania, and mother Africa, and you will realise how small she really is. The reality is that the island is just 108km north to south, and less than a third of that wide.

Zoom in on Google Maps, and you will see that it is generally flat and equipped, by and large, with well-maintained tarred roads. An ­accomplished cyclist could ride north to south in an hour or two. We, on the other hand, being far from accomplished and in no rush, had allocated nine full days.

Taking it easy

Every village we cycled through greeted us with typical East African warmth, and it was not long before we had learnt a handful of Kiswahili phrases to throw around in response. Kiswahili, the dominant dialect on the island—popularised and bastardised by Disney throughout the Lion King ­—is a magnificent flowing, singing language.

Punchy vowel-ending words like mambo, poa, rafiki and asante roll off even the most tone-deaf tourists’ tongues with ease. But if there is one Kiswahili phrase you should take to heart, as a stressed and hurried mzungu, it is pole pole.

Directly translated, it means ‘slowly slowly”; in application, it really means ‘Take it easy, friend, you’re on a tropical island.”

It was advice we took to heart as we wound our way inland from the northwestern shores towards the east coast over the next two days and, with distances so short, there hardly seemed any point in rushing.

The tropical vegetation, interrupted by stark baobabs and the occasional subsistence banana plantation, thickened as the road rose and fell gently through small inland villages. Excited greetings rang out from crisply dressed schoolchildren, their mothers watching silently from the shadows of their roadside homesteads.

The wholesome scent of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon drifted up from drying mats ­alongside and sometimes in the road, and, right before us, the Spice Island came to life.

A few nights into the trip we had been offered two suites in a swanky four-star resort, the result of airplane small talk. Travelling with light wallets, it was an offer hard to refuse, despite it going against our ­resort-free intentions.

Stagnant surrounds
Yet despite the efficient air ­conditioning, an unnecessarily large two-shower, one-tub bathroom, a large four-poster bed, free shampoo, a deep-blue swimming pool, an open bar and free meals, I was strangely happy to move on early the next morning. Resort life might be bearable if you are a honeymooner looking life down the barrel, or a husband and wife looking to lose the kids in the games room while you cavort in the Indian Ocean, but greeting the same fellow South Africans at the lukewarm breakfast buffet each morning for 10 consecutive days can, I imagine, get fairly stagnant.

As we checked out the next ­morning I tried to ascertain the best way to get to our next stop, a small place called Pingwe. One of two ­villages located on the Michamvi Peninsula, Pingwe sticks out ­alongside the east coast like the baby finger on your right hand. And so to take the main roads, as recommended, would mean cutting inland and adding a few dozen kilometres to our ride and putting paid to our beach-riding dreams.

I thanked the staff at reception, and we quietly wheeled the bikes out of the air-conditioned haven in the opposite direction—away from the entrance gates leading to the main road, and over the short pathway to the beach.

The viscid sand beneath our over-inflated tyres was just firm enough to withstand the weighty bicycles, making going tough but not impossible as we zigzagged in and out of the shallows down the postcard-perfect east coast. Large palm trees ripe with coconuts loomed large yet peaceful to our right; to our left, multiple shades of turquoise stretched out as far as the distant coral reef; and before us the small slither of the peninsula—our target—grew slowly bigger.

When the beach turned to sharp shards of rock we retreated to the main road and, when we ran out of that, we rolled into the fishing village of Chwaka. The wisest and oldest man at the fish market knew just how to help and 20 minutes later we were bobbing across Chwaka Bay on a wooden dhow with an outboard motor on the back. The bikes slotted in perfectly on either side, and 30 minutes later we had successfully circumvented half a day’s inland detour.

The beach cycling over the next few days only got better. Somewhere just outside the village of Paje we cycled past two Dutch girls we had met briefly in Stone Town, and ran into again in Nungwi, and so stopped for a cold Coke and pizza—the unofficial dish of the island, thanks to its surplus of Italian expatriates. We continued onwards but eventually grew tired of cycling and, on the recommendation of two young German ladies catching rays on the beach, pulled into Teddy’s Place, a small unpretentious backpackers guesthouse just outside town.

Letting loose
While Paje teeters dangerously on the edge of Nungwi-ism, it is still clinging valiantly to its island charm, at least in the off season. It comes alive on the weekends when tourists, locals and staff from the various backpackers and tour companies converge on one of three bars looking to shake a leg on the beach-sand dance floors.

It is on these dance floors that cultures blend and inhibitions are lost. At some stage during a night at the popular Jambos Beach Bar, a lanky Masai male adorned in a traditional red cloth put down his cigarette and beer, attempted to do the limbo under his long fighting stick, consistently collapsing in a drunken heap before he even reached the pole.

The next night, our barman from the backpackers drank heavily alongside us, fez still firmly affixed to his small round head. And throughout both nights, young European girls would disappear into the darkness of the beach, freshly wooed by smooth-­talking Zanzibari men.

During the days we sailed out in a patchwork dhow to the coral reef, where we snorkelled above the bustl­ing tropical aquatic world until our legs tired and our lungs burned. We lazed on the beach and in the various hammocks located throughout Teddy’s, and spoke in broken English about nothing in particular with the myriad international students, volunteers and travellers passing through the small beach town. And without even realising it, in just a few days, pole pole had become a way of life.

Eventually, though, we strapped our backpacks on to the rear-wheel luggage racks for the last time, bade farewell to our Paje friends, and began the final push to Zanzibar’s deep south. We got lost, for the first time that trip, but after cycling through a ghost resort long since abandoned, and carrying our bikes up an eroded hillside, we emerged just outside Kizimkazi, located alongside perhaps the most picturesque waters we had seen so far, best known for their dolphins.

So it made sense that the next morning—the sunrise sky still a mixture of salmon pink and fiery orange—I found myself sitting aboard a boat speeding out to sea. We had swum out into the ocean to meet an energetic pod of dolphins, but when we tired, summoned a boat to take us closer to the action.

Jumping in

‘Here, take these,” a young Canadian, the only paying customer on the boat, shouted over the hum of the motor, handing me a mask and snorkel. ‘Get ready to jump in ... Go, now!”

I clumsily flopped over the edge of the gliding boat, hitting the water with an ungainly splash, and immediately came eye to eye with one of half a dozen bottlenose dolphins, an arm’s length away. They swirled and chattered excitedly around me, eyeballing this strange new intruder, before straightening out, nonchalantly flicking their flukes, and disappearing into the dark-blue waters ahead.

We swam with and alongside them for half an hour that morning, taking it in turns with the single mask and snorkel to drop in quietly among them.

As new pods appeared, others dived so deep they vanished from sight. Mothers cradled babies and circled down to safety, while others cunningly snuck up behind us, blasting water from their blowholes to gain attention. They seemed to relish our attention as much as we did theirs, until eventually Kizimkazi’s resort tourists had finished their breakfast buffets and hopped aboard their boats, turning the waters into a dolphin feeding frenzy.

Later that morning we took a ­gentle cycle into the village. We propped the bikes on their stands at the roadside and waited for a dala dala, flatbed trucks converted into taxis, which would fast-track us back to Stone Town. For just a handful of shillings our bicycles were hoisted on to the roof and we took our places beneath them among smiling locals and buckets overflowing with fresh fish.

Through the open sides of the truck I watched the many faces of Zanzibar pass me by, from blue oceans speckled with wooden dhows to dense deep-green tropical forests, right through to dusty main roads and, eventually, the beautifully chaotic outer limits of Stone Town.

We returned LoverGirl and Refinement to Babu’s office after reflective sundowners on the balcony of Africa House, among dozens of camera-wielding tourists scrambling to capture the perfect Zanzibar sunset on their cameras and phones.

Ironically, we managed to bump into the two Dutch girls again, for the fourth time, and over Serengeti, Tusker and Safari beers we shared tales and bragged about our respective highlights until the sun disappeared, and the daily Zanzibar load-shedding cast a strange sense of calm and tranquility over the city.

The next day in the sticky Stone Town departures hall I bumped into an old schoolfriend and his pretty young wife. They were fresh and tanned from a romantic seven-day honeymoon and, as we compared notes about our respective trips, I looked hard for a glint of jealousy in his eye, as he no doubt did in mine. But as I looked around at my fellow passengers lining up to enter the red shuttle back to reality, I noticed that ­everyone was beaming ear-to-ear smiles, regardless of whether they had spent a week sipping cocktails at the resort swimming pool or sitting on the back of an old Chinese bicycle called LoverGirl. And that, really, was all that mattered.

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