Travelogue: The Boat To Zanzibar

The Dar Es Salaam Ferry Station

Lady Of Zanzibar

The Boat

By Wale Okediran

At exactly 9.35 on a sunny Tanzanian morning, the lovely lady with the elegant topside, firm beautiful waist and an adorable deck, blew her horn and eased off the Dar es Salaam Ferry Station. Leaving a foamy billowing of sea water in her wake, the ‘Lady of Zanzibar’, the brightly painted 554 passenger ferry slowly increased her speed and slid into the warm embrace of the Indian Ocean.

Wale Okediran

From my vantage point on the top deck, I could see the receding skyline of Dar Es Salaam far in the distance, sprayed in the early morning sunshine like a totem of a golden land. Before long, all that was left of the ‘City of Peace’ were silhouettes and shadows of important landmarks such as the Coco Beach, Golden Tulip Hotel, Giraffe Hotel among others.

The ‘Lady of Zanzibar’ (Kilimanjaro V) built for Azam Marine- Kilimanjaro Ferries of Tanzania by Richardson Devine Inc at Prince of Wales Bay, Australia is said to have a maximum speed of 30 knots. To the question of why ships/boats and countries (and sometimes cars and other vessels and vehicles) are often referred to with the feminine pronoun, is the prosaic explanation that the gender of the Latin word for “ship” — Navis — is feminine. But people generally agree on the more romantic notion of the ‘ship as a she’ phenomenon: that it stems from the tradition of boat-owners, typically and historically male, naming their vessels after significant women in their lives — wives, sweethearts, mothers. On the other hand, a popular if not male chauvinistic explanation states that; “A ship is called a she because there is always a great deal of bustle around her; there is usually a gang of men about; she has a waist and stays; it takes a lot of paint to keep her good-looking; it is not the initial expense that breaks you, it is the upkeep; she can be all decked out; it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly; and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable. She shows her topsides, hides her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.”

Zanzibar; Old Castle

Earlier that morning, I had left my northern Tanzanian base of Bagamoyo for the Nigerian Embassy in Dar Es Salaam where the embassy driver, Idi was waiting to take me to the Ferry Station in the downtown section of the city. Eager to make my visit to Tanzania as comfortable as possible, the ever helpful Nigerian Ambassador, H.E. Salisu Umaru, had suggested that I travel to Zanzibar by air. ‘’It is just a 15 minute trip and it is safer and less stressful than a boat trip’’ he said.

However for me, adventure comes before comfort, so I opted for the two- hour boat trip instead. That was when I was laden with some instructions for my ‘safety’. Apart from the need to purchase the 35USD ticket a day ahead of my departure date, I was also asked to come with my International Passport and Yellow Fever vaccination card for the purposes of immigration formalities. In addition, I was advised to avoid the top deck of the boat because of the seasickness caused by the huge waves which could make the ferry to rock vigorously.

As ‘The Lady of Zanzibar’ continued on her journey, I observed that the top deck economy section where I was seated was full of Tanzanians while the VIP and Business Class sections were made up of foreigners. It was also very obvious that the economy cabin had been overbooked with many passengers having to seat on the floor and in the aisles with their wares scattered everywhere. And when I recalled that previous boat mishaps in Tanzania had been caused by overcrowding, my heart missed some beats. According to a local publication; ‘’The MV Faith, which began its final journey at the port of Dar es Salaam, sank in May 2009 shortly before docking at the port of Malindi. Six of the 25 people aboard lost their lives. In addition, the MV Skagit, which also began its final journey at the port of Dar es Salaam, capsized in rough seas near Chumbe island on 18 July 2012. The ferry had 447 passengers, with 81 dead, 212 missing and presumed drowned, and 154 rescued’’ The reports of the enquiries into these two accidents blamed overcrowding as the cause of the disasters.

Fortunately, ‘The Lady Of Zanzibar’ did not appear to be in any form of danger despite being overcrowded as she continued to glide smoothly on the Indian Ocean which is said to be the warmest ocean in the world. Far into the horizon was a lovely and calm turquoise blue ocean while overhead, a column of dainty white sea birds with golden beaks flew gracefully. Moments later, we chanced upon columns of fishermen who gaily waved to us from their small and fragile looking boats. We also passed some tiny strips of Islands hemmed in by an amphitheatre of cliffs lapped by water so clear you would think you were cruising on a river. As the journey progressed, some craggy mountains and sheltered bays with seductive looking white beaches emerged one after the other from the midday mist.

No doubt, the gentle swaying motion of the boat coupled with the fresh oceanic air and surrounding serenity was very sedative for before long, almost half of the passengers in the top deck were asleep. I could see the Tanzanian women on the floor and the aisles in their colourful ‘kangas’ (wrappers) fast asleep in the midst of their wares. Even for me, despite my resolve to stay alert to witness the beautiful environment around me, I soon found myself fighting sleep as I yawned endlessly.

Zanzibar’s Old Dispensary

For a while, the horizon emptied out with nothing in sight for miles. We were like this until about 11.20am, when suddenly, a thread of distant land materialized out of the mist as Zanzibar came into view. Close up, I was dumbstruck by the beautiful panorama of Zanzibar’s main city, Stone Town that soon came into full view with buildings which I later identified as the Sultan’s Palace, House of Wonders, the Forodhani Gardens and St Joseph’s Cathedral all tumbling down to a calm bay dotted with an array of shipping vessels and gaily coloured little boats.

We finally docked at 11.35am, exactly two hours after leaving the port at Dar Es Salaam and were welcomed with a huge sign of KARIBU ZANZIBAR (Welcome to Zanzibar). Next to this sign was another one with immigration instructions from The Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar. And as I disembarked by the gangway, I noticed the clear, turquoise-blue water of that part of the Indian Ocean lapping the shoreline. This was in sharp contrast to the muddy waters of the same ocean at the beaches in Bagamoyo and Dar Es Salaam. Gaily displayed on the water front were a colourful array of small boats with fanciful names such as FACEBOOK, DRAGON, TAMBO, EQUATOR, BLUE WHALE and LADIES FREE among others. The boats, I was told were to convey tourists on sightseeing to different parts of the Island.As a foreigner, I had to join an hour long queue for Immigration. And when I informed the Immigration Official that I would only be in Zanzibar for just a few hours, the corpulent and friendly fellow advised that I should stay longer in order to enjoy the warm hospitality of his people.

Zanzibar; Old Clock Tower

Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania in East Africa. It is composed of the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 80 kilometres (28 miles) off the coast of the mainland, and consists of many small islands and two large ones: Unguja (the main island, referred to informally as Zanzibar) and Pemba Island. The capital is Zanzibar City, located on the island of Unguja. Its historic centre is Stone Town, which is a World Heritage Site. The name Zanzibar is derived from the Persian zang-bâr signifying “black coast”.Known for it’s white sand beaches, incredible scuba diving, labyrinth like spice markets, and fascinating history, Zanzibar, has a population of 1,303,569 (2012 Census)

The region’s main industries are spices, raffia, and tourism. In particular, the islands produce cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper. For this reason, the Zanzibar Archipelago, together with Tanzania’s Mafia Island, are sometimes called the “Spice Islands” (a term also associated with the Maluku Islands of Indonesia). In 1973, Zanzibar introduced the first colour television in sub-Saharan Africa. Because of longstanding opposition to television by President Julius Nyerere, the first television service on mainland Tanzania was not introduced until 1994

On 26 April 1964, Tanganyika united with Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. The country was renamed the United Republic of Tanzania on 29 October of that year. The name Tanzania is a blend of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Despite this, Zanzibar still remains a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania with its own government, known as the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar and its own House Of Representatives.

Outside the ferry terminal, I was met by a barrage of porters, taxi drivers and tourist guides who were eager to offer their services. However following instructions from a Tanzanian friend, I waded through the crowd and turned right on the road outside the terminal. A few minutes later, I was in the heart of Stone Town, the country’s main city. And as the midday afternoon sun filtered through the ancient buildings and minarets of the main mosque and the nearby Anglican cathedral, I explored some of the Island’s famous sites. Meandering through the narrow streets in the hot humid weather, I visited the National Museum, the Tower Harbour, the old Castle as well as a monument to the slaves of Zanzibar. The Zanzibar’s slave market I was told was finally closed down in 1873. I was equally fascinated by the Old Dispensary, a beautiful 4- storey colonial building which had now been turned into a Hotel/Gallery where a young artist had displayed his wares of artefacts and paintings.

Passengers On The Boat

I was a bit disappointed though at the decrepit state of Stone Town with some of the historically important buildings falling apart while others appeared seedy and unkempt. Things were so bad that at one point during my tour, I became terrified as I made my way through some narrow alleys ominously sandwiched by some precariously tilting and crumbling buildings which were propped up in places by steel stilts. ‘These are ancient monuments that must be preserved for posterity’ was the response from a Tanzanian friend when I suggested that the buildings should be demolished as they constitute danger to tourists.

Things brightened up later when I ventured into the shops where an array of spices, exquisitely woven fabrics, mementoes, perfumes and oils were on display. Thus, I was able to purchase some wonderful works of arts and souvenirs. Since Zanzibar is said to be an autonomous region, I was surprised to see that the Tanzanian currency was also the official currency on the Island. And even though the customs and immigration officials were provided by the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar, I was equally confounded when I saw that the policemen and soldiers wore uniforms of the Tanzanian Police and Army respectively.

Confused at the form of relationship between Tanzania and Zanzibar, I sought clarity from Moussa, my Tanzanian friend. According to Moussa, the collaboration between the two countries is like a Union with Zanzibar considered as a semi- autonomous region of Tanzania. With this, citizens of both regions do not need visas to travel into each region. In addition, even though Zanzibar has her own President, Vice President and Legislature, the region also produces the Vice President of Tanzania while the mainland of Tanzania produces the President. In addition, while Tanzania and Zanzibar have the same security forces and currency, Zanzibar still retains the right to raise some taxes especially VAT, Import duties and make some local laws for the smooth running of the region. The autonomous status of Zanzibar is viewed as comparable to Hong Kong as suggested by some scholars, and being recognized as the “African Hong Kong’’

It was late afternoon before I was able to tear myself away from the fascination of Stone Town to catch the boat for the return trip to Dar Es Salaam. Unlike our morning trip, passengers on the return trip were very few and everybody was seated with some empty seats remaining. At exactly 3.30pm ‘The Lady of Zanzibar’ blew her horn and headed back to Dar in almost the same way it had arrived Zanzibar a few hours earlier. Having been fore warned about the likelihood of stormy weather on the afternoon trip, I heeded the advice of avoiding the upper deck and so moved to the mid cabin. And just as I was thinking that we would escape the turbulence, mid-way into our journey, heavy waves hit the boat and the massive marine beauty became a mere toy in the hands of nature as she listed and bobbled heavily on the ocean water.

And while some passengers found the listing and bobbling delightful through their ‘whao- whao’ sounds each time the boat rocked, others became apprehensive. Very soon, a sizeable number of the passengers became sea sick and requested for vomit bags which were quickly passed around. Fortunately, the rough weather soon passed and we progressed in good weather for the remaining part of our destination. Just before our arrival in Dar Es Salaam, I went to the upper deck to watch the approaching skyline of the ‘City of Peace’ which emerged in the approaching twilight, a magical city of beautiful people.