VEILED SE­CRETS

Michael Stothard wan­ders the cob­bled streets of Zanz­ibar’s Stone Town

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - One Travel Perfect Day -

SLAV­ERY and sul­tans shadow the East African is­lands of Zanz­ibar in the In­dian Ocean off the coast of Tan­za­nia, north of Dar es Salaam. Slav­ery is the key his­tor­i­cal is­sue, but with domes and minarets pierc­ing the sky­line, it is the stone legacy of the sul­tans that en­tices vis­i­tors. Stone Town, the old part of Zanz­ibar City, on the west­ern coast of the main is­land, is the place to dis­cover it all.

Mer­chant ships from Per­sia, Ara­bia and In­dia have traded with Zanz­ibar for 2000 years, leav­ing a po­tent blend of East­ern and African cul­ture. The is­lands were long owned by the sul­tans of Oman, who took over from the Por­tuguese in 1698. By 1840, Zanz­ibar was so im­por­tant for Omani trade with East Africa that its cap­i­tal, Stone Town, be­came the sul­tans’ head­quar­ters.

Like many places in Africa, Zanz­ibar has rein­vented it­self as a tourist des­ti­na­tion. Since 1964, when the last sul­tan was over­thrown, Zanz­ibar has been a sep­a­rate state within main­land Tan­za­nia. It is made up of two large is­lands: Un­guja (Zanz­ibar Is­land) and Pemba, plus sev­eral islets. Its cap­i­tal and only large set­tle­ment is Zanz­ibar City, which em­braces New City and Stone Town. I spend time in the pun­gent, nar­row streets of Stone Town, the eco­nomic and cul­tural hub of old Zanz­ibar and now a World Her­itage site.

Out­side Stone Town are clove and co­conut plan­ta­tions, long, per­fect beaches and coral reefs, rare, long-tailed red colobus mon­keys and, on the small is­land of Nungwi, gi­ant sea tur­tles, all in a hu­mid trop­i­cal cli­mate. But in Stone Town I walk be­side carved Arab door­ways and slave cells, feel the cob­bled streets be­neath my feet, look up at cool ve­ran­das and ex­pe­ri­ence the po­tent sense of 2000 years of con­nec­tions be­tween Africa and the East.

Best mon­u­ment to the slave trade: Af­ter the abo­li­tion of the Zanz­ibar trade in 1873, the Angli­cans built a cathe­dral on Stone Town’s Creek Road, where the old slave mar­ket used to be. The place where the al­tar now stands was once the whip­ping post where slaves were tested for tough­ness: if they wept, their price went down. The mar­ble around the al­tar is blood red. Be­neath the mar­ket are their cramped cells.

Best door: The or­nate, stud­ded doors of Stone Town have a clear Per­sian in­flu­ence but a dis­tinct style. The maze of al­ley­ways is dot­ted with th­ese im­mense, elab­o­rately carved doors. It was a cus­tom in Zanz­ibar for a builder first to or­der his door­frame and then build the house around it. In 1857, ad­ven­turer Richard Bur­ton com­mented: ‘‘ The higher the ten­e­ment, the big­ger the gate­way, the heav­ier the pad­lock and the huger the iron studs that nail the door of heavy tim­ber, the greater the owner’s dig­nity.’’ The most in­ter­est­ing door, be­hind the House of Peace Me­mo­rial Mu­seum, dates back more than 300 years, which makes it re­put­edly the old­est in Zanz­ibar.

Best so­cial quirk: Zanz­ibar is pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim be­cause of the in­flu­ence of the Omani sul­tans. The women are sup­posed to cover them­selves mod­estly but the gai­ety of Zanz­ibaris is ev­i­dent in the fun the women have with their cot­ton wraps, worn over their heads and as skirts. The girls wear a brightly pat­terned scarf, called a kanga. A Zanz­ibari girl might wear a kanga with a mes­sage on it di­rected at some­one in her so­cial group; one I spot says, ‘‘ Don’t com­pete with me, you can never beat me.’’ An­other girl, re­al­is­ing the mes­sage is di­rected at her, might go home and change into a kanga that says, ‘‘ A con­fi­dent per­son re­quires no rea­son to prac­tise envy.’’

Best-named at­trac­tion: Built in 1883, the House of Won­ders was orig­i­nally a royal palace. There is a 3.3m door gilded with texts from the Ko­ran, and 12 other mag­nif­i­cently carved doors, re­minders of the vast and showy wealth of the sul­tans. In one room I see tra­di­tional, or­nate ebony furniture and, on the other side, Euro­pean couches in flowery, 1960s kitsch, the in­flu­ence of the other wives, per­haps.

The cli­max of Sul­tan Barghash’s flam­boy­ant build­ing spree, it has tiers of bal­conies, a clock tower, and a grand po­si­tion on the wa­ter­front be­hind the Forod­hani Gar­dens be­tween the Palace Mu­seum and the Omani Fort. It houses the dreary-sound­ing but quirky Zanz­ibar Na­tional Mu­seum of His­tory and Cul­ture.

Best re­sort: The white sand, azure sea and small pine for­est on Mnemba Is­land, just off the north­east coast of Zanz­ibar, lead me to sus­pect Ur­sula An­dress will pop out of the ocean at any minute. The en­tire is­land is a re­sort, and with only 10 evenly spaced vil­las, it feels as if I own a se­cret par­adise. Apart from the waiter who brings me a drink to ac­com­pany the breath­tak­ing sun­set, the only dis­tur­bance is from the lit­tle Suni an­telopes that oc­ca­sion­ally scam­per around my villa. www.mnemba.com.

Best guided tour: If you have ever won­dered how nut­meg, ginger, ta­marind, guava, caram­bola, men­thol or cloves are grown, a spice tour is for you; such guided tours pro­vide lo­cal knowl­edge you might oth­er­wise miss. High­lights are the lip­stick tree, with pods that pro­duce a vi­brant red dye, and soap­berry trees, with ber­ries that lather like soap when you rub them. Tours from 9am to 2pm in­clude a lunch fea­tur­ing spices en­coun­tered on the tour. Eco & Cul­ture Tours, with an of­fice on Hu­rumzi Street, of­fers a gen­uine medicine man as a guide. More: www.eco­cul­ture-zanz­ibar.org.

Best drink: Taken in the shade while es­cap­ing the trop­i­cal mid­day sun, dawa is mostly vodka and ice but tastes of lime and honey. Dawa means medicine or magic po­tion in Swahili, for rea­sons which can rapidly be­come clear. The top floor of ETC Plaza, at the cor­ner of ap­pro­pri­ately named Sui­cide Al­ley and Shangani Street, is a good place to try dawa and the bar comes with ocean views; like Zanz­ibar, this drink is never bland.

Best hang­over cure: Ev­ery­where I go, peo­ple stand bare­foot be­side the orange dirt roads, sell­ing sug­ar­cane. I use a knife to slice the raw cane and lick the inside. Taken with a glass of wa­ter, it re­freshes for the rest of the day. I also rec­om­mend corn sold on the streets: it tastes dry and like tof­fee.

Best mode of trans­port: A dalla-dalla, or a Zanz­ibari bus, is a beaten-up Toy­ota pickup truck with a wooden roof and wrought­iron sides; th­ese should carry 20 pas­sen­gers but of­ten 40 pile in, the ex­tras hang­ing pre­car­i­ously off the sides. A dalla is five Tan­za­nian shillings, which is what the jour­ney orig­i­nally cost. They are still very cheap, about 300 shillings (26c) a mile. The No. 2 dalla-dalla trav­els 20km north of Zanz­ibar town to the Man­gap­wani slave cave where, af­ter the trade was abol­ished, slaves who were about to be sold were kept hid­den in hol­lowed-out coral cel­lars.

Best street food: East Africa’s best street mar­ket is held ev­ery night by the wa­ter­front at Forod­hani Gar­dens in Stone Town. In the twi­light, grilled fish and meat on skew­ers and oc­to­pus look and smell en­tic­ing. The crowds can be a lit­tle pushy, but it is a great place to wan­der even if you don’t buy. I have al­ready eaten, but it is still hard to re­sist the food, fresh and siz­zling in the dark.

Best shop­ping: Fine Zanz­ibari wooden chests are not quite as good as a door but are still ham­mered and stud­ded, and have se­cret com­part­ments. Some of the finest ex­am­ples are in the Abeid Cu­rio Shop op­po­site the cathe­dral. But how to get one back home? Spears and knives pose a sim­i­lar prob­lem. For those with less am­bi­tious tastes, wa­ter­colours of the Stone Town doors are in­tense and en­chant­ing. I buy one for about $15 in an art stu­dio in the Omani Fort. The ab­stract carv­ings of the Makonde tribe are also eerie and pow­er­ful, with col­umns of in­ter­wo­ven hu­man fig­ures.

Bustling Mchangani Street in Stone Town con­sists of stalls crammed with kan­gas of ev­ery colour and grade of mag­nif­i­cence. Cathe­dral Street has some of the op­u­lent furniture hastily left by rich Arabs af­ter the 1964 revo­lu­tion. I also visit Zanz­ibar Cu­rio Shop in Changa Bazaar for a taste of pre-1964 wealth. And I re­turn to the night mar­ket in the Forod­hani Gar­dens for cheap Ma­sai jew­ellery and carv­ings.

Best story: Princess Salme, daugh­ter of the sul­tan of Oman, was born here in 1844 and shocked her fam­ily by con­vert­ing to Chris­tian­ity af­ter fall­ing preg­nant and elop­ing with a young Ger­man mer­chant. When she died in 1924 she still had the dress she eloped in and a bag of sand from a Zanz­ibar beach. Her book Mem­oirs of an Ara­bian Princess from Zanz­ibar (by Emily Ruete, born Sayyida Salme) makes good pre-visit read­ing.

Best sundowners: Africa House Ho­tel on the coast in Stone Town was the English club from 1888 on­wards and still has a colo­nial ex­pat feel to it. It is a per­fect place to end a walk around Stone Town: you can watch the sun sink into the In­dian Ocean, with a dawa in hand.

Best end to the evening: Tower Top Restau­rant at Emer­son & Green Ho­tel, 236 Hu­rumzi St, Stone Town, a five-minute walk from Africa House, is world class. Atop a ho­tel, in a tower straight out of Ara­bian Nights , the restau­rant seats about 20, most loung­ing on Ara­bian-style cush­ions and eat­ing off low ta­bles. The fixed-price menu in­cludes dishes such as bat­tered pep­per shark and cur­ried fish­cakes with chut­ney and yo­ghurt. En­joy­ing a five-course meal, I look over Stone Town with all its faiths and facets, at an Angli­can church, a minaret and a Mus­lim tem­ple. There is a warm breeze from the In­dian Ocean. Chil­dren scram­ble to col­lect kan­gas put out to dry on hot tin roofs. A vi­o­lin­ist in a white robe plays eerily beau­ti­ful mu­sic, as if try­ing to raise a magic car­pet, while his robe moves in the breeze. www.emer­son-green.com.

Best last word: Lo­cals greet tourists with jambo and en­thu­si­as­tic tourists say jambo back, think­ing they are say­ing hello in Swahili. But lo­cals in­stead say mambo vipi, Swahili slang for ‘‘ stay cool’’. Use it to say hello and good­bye and im­press the lo­cals.

www.zanz­ibar­tourism.com

Trad­ing post: One of Stone Town’s spiked doors, top left; cy­cling through town, above left; dhows at an­chor, main pic­ture

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