Tanzania’s remote and lovely islands
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