Seeking the spirit of Zanzibar

June 5, 2018

In Stone Town, Zanzibar’s capital on main island Unguja, shetani — or spirits — are everywhere: in every nook, cranny, alleyway and banyan treetop. From my table at. From my perch at The Rooftop Restaurant, my hopes of spotting shetani for myself are high; new friends I’ve made travelling this cluster of some 40 isles have spoken quite lovingly about their homeland guardians. Yet somewhere between my second and third dawa — the citrus-and-honey-flavoured elixir that means “magic potion” in Swahili, which can be mixed with vodka — I find that I've stopped looking. Dawa is some seriously potent (and tasty) stuff!

Whether you’re hunting for shetani or not, Stone Town is a place where losing oneself is mandatory. Its roads are narrow as hiking trails, snaking their way past mosques and stone houses with heavy wooden doors featuring huge brass works citing the Quran. Every single street seems to go nowhere and everywhere at once, and then somehow all end at Darajani Bazaar, Forodhani Gardens and the House of Wonders on the Old Town’s seafront.

Every nook and cranny also bears witness to Zanzibar’s storied past. The islands have been inhabited for some 20,000 years, and from 1499 up until the mid 1960s they were colonized — by the Portuguese, Omani and Brits, to name a few. Since 1964 Zanzibar has been a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, with deeply rooted local mythology and customs that mix African and Arabic influences. It's a truly unique atmosphere, heavy with age and wisdom. I’m quite literally walking the same streets as poet Arthur Rimbaud, explorer David Livingstone, and Scheherazade.

I feel their presence visiting traditional spice plantations. I imagine them steering clear of ox-drawn carriages, bikes laden with fresh fish and sugar cane juice vendors. I think of them when I’m listening to music at Livingstone Beach Restaurant. I visualize Mahatma Gandhi and Freddie Mercury standing next to me when I check out their old stomping ground, Tembo House, and I follow in their footsteps when I head southeast.

Here awaits Bwejuu, a beach that’s been named one of the world’s most beautiful countless times. It’s a bit busy but still serene. It’s funny how simply relaxing makes you so hungry, and when the sun starts to drop I walk over to The Rock, a traditional house literally resting on a rock out in the ocean that I reach by foot during the tide's ebb. It’s used as a restaurant, and I’m served pilau rice with the catch of the day cooked in a ginger and cinnamon sauce. As the hours pass the tide returns, and I have to take a boat back.

A boat is also what brings me to my journey’s last stop, Kendwa in the north. All around me I spot dhows, which are traditional sailing vessels. Some are on their way to fishing grounds; others are bringing snorkellers and divers to the magical coral reefs of Mnemba. This is the Zanzibar of our dreams; a tropical El Dorado of outstanding beauty. I don’t spot a single other person when I’m heading over to the spa at local hotel Kilindi for an “African Potato Body Wrap.” The perpetual rustle of palm leaves and the ocean clasping the shore, again and again, complements the treatment. It sounds like whispers. Might it be the shetani watching over me?

Getting there

Want to see Tanzania and Zanzibar for yourself? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Tanzania here.

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