Des­ti­na­tion re­lax­ation

Tanzania’s re­mote and lovely is­lands

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - KATE ESHELBY

Pocket-sized black shapes shuf­fle across the beach be­fore van­ish­ing into clear wa­ter. Then a man wear­ing bright white gloves re­leases an­other flow as he digs deeper into the sand. We count 100 as they pour out of their nest, in­stinct shep­herd­ing them to­wards the sea.

It is day two of our stay in an off-grid ecolodge, Chole Mjini, on the man­grove-ringed is­land of Chole, and we’ve taken a boat to watch the tur­tles hatch­ing on the neigh­bour­ing is­land of Juani. Whereas most vis­i­tors to Tanzania head north for Zanz­ibar, my fam­ily has come to the un­spoilt Mafia ar­chi­pel­ago, a hand­ful of small trop­i­cal In­dian Ocean is­lands south of Dar es Salaam.

Chole, only 1km long, is in the heart of Mafia Is­land Marine Park, one of the world’s largest such na­ture re­serves. We have flown in by Cessna 206 to Mafia, the ar­chi­pel­ago’s big­gest is­land. Dhows with sails curved up like rose thorns drift by in the turquoise wa­ters be­low. We pass over sandy islets, some of which are home to sea­sonal fish­ing camps.

Upon ar­rival at Mafia the barom­e­ter (if one were to ex­ist for mea­sur­ing a re­lax­ation scale) in­stantly drops to zero. Af­ter driv­ing to Mafia’s Utende Beach, we jump in a boat for the five-minute ride to Chole Is­land.

A broad av­enue lined with frangi­pani trees, drip­ping in white flow­ers, greets us. This was an old trad­ing street in the hey­day of dhows bring­ing slaves, beads and spices across the In­dian Ocean. The lodge is hid­den among stone ru­ins and jun­gle.

Up at the open-sided thatched din­ing area Anne de Vil­liers, the owner, hands us freshly cracked co­conuts. She and her South African hus­band, Jean, have led an un­usual life, liv­ing and work­ing in a string of places from West Berlin to the US, Togo and the Solomon Is­lands. Although Bri­tish by na­tion­al­ity, Anne was born in Kenya and has lived on Chole for more than 20 years.

“We came to get a boat built in 1992 and stayed,” she ex­plains. “The is­land just chose us.” They still have this orig­i­nal dhow, named Mama Chole. Chole is known for its boat builders, who sit un­der baobab trees, fur­ther around the is­land, ham­mer­ing away on the rib cage of a dhow us­ing tra­di­tional tools such as the adze and bow­string drill.

As well as tree houses em­brac­ing an­cient baob­abs, the lodge has one ground house, where we stay. It’s open­sided with huge Zanz­ibari four-poster beds fac­ing the ocean. Tak­ing a shower here takes time, but we’re in no rush; we heat the wa­ter by ig­nit­ing co­conut rope at the base of a tall, thin metal chim­ney. At night the flame from our roof­less bath­room flick­ers up into a star-stud­ded sky.

We dine with fel­low guests on a long ta­ble in the ruin of a ja­maat, an old meet­ing-house filled with lanterns. Tan­gled roots of a fig tree reach out, cre­at­ing one of the walls. The lodge’s rai­son d’etre is that $10 of each bill (per night) goes to sup­port the Chole Mi­jini Trust Fund, its em­pha­sis on the is­landers’ ed­u­ca­tion and health.

Next morn­ing we walk to pay a visit, pluck­ing or­anges from trees along the way. Tra­di­tional and colour­ful, the vil­lage has houses made from fos­silised coral rocks.

We pass the hos­pi­tal built by the trust; a mo­tor­bike am­bu­lance stands out­side (there are no cars on this is­land). “Af­ter con­struct­ing the hos­pi­tal we couldn’t find a doc­tor,” Jean says, “so Anne’s cousin came, fresh out of the Aus­tralian spe­cial forces, with his new wife, Jackie.” She wrote about her experiences in her book Where Spir­its Fly. “She’s still trau­ma­tised,” he laughs, although his hu­mour prob­a­bly con­ceals much truth.

Chole’s his­tory is che­quered for such a tiny place, and dur­ing its hey­day all five of the ar­chi­pel­ago’s is­lands were ad­min­is­tered from here. In 1898 the Ger­mans came (Tanzania was a Ger­man colony, be­fore the Bri­tish took over); the is­land still has rem­nants from this time.

Our days on the is­land fol­low the tides. We sail to a curl of sand­bar for evening drinks. We snorkel amid moor­ish idols, scis­sor­tail sergeants and star-eye par­rot­fish as they dart be­tween quiv­er­ing soft coral.

Anne and Jean, keen divers, also run an eco-re­spon­si­ble com­pany, Kitu Ki­blu, which takes guests to swim with

Chole Mjini eco-lodge, top; old fort on the beach at Fan­jove, above left; tra­di­tional boat build­ing on Chole, above right

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