Most travellers visit the paradise island of Zanzibar for the world famous sandy beaches and opulent 5 star hotels. However, you can’t touch down at Zanzibar airport and bypass the legendary city of Stone Town. So we postponed our new jobs as professional tanners to get acquainted with the city’s narrow and winding streets.
We explored the tiny back alleys, moving from one to another, and potentially back to the same one and then another, until we reached one that we’d definitely seen before. We tried to head back but then ending up somewhere else entirely, then backtracked again. We explored the city like it should be explored:
We got completely lost.
It was early evening when we touched down at Zanzibar airport, giving us 18 hours to explore this captivating city brimming with history, culture and energy.
The antiquity of Zanzibar is a colourful tapestry of African, Arab, Persian, Indian and European cultures intertwined. The vibrant textures and ornate architecture greet you at every turn, and you could spend hours taking the hustle and bustle of the local markets.
However the diverse history of Stone Town is far from idyllic and is scarred with the dark past of being one of the largest and last open slave ports in the Indian Ocean, which was dominated by Arab slave traders. The slave market in Zanzibar was finally closed in 1873 after Sultan Barghash was forced by the British to sign an edict declaring the slave trade illegal.
After been picked up from the Airport by our car rental company, Kibabu cars, we were led through the streets, past a sleepy donkey, lots of cats and small street stalls to our hotel; The Swahili House. Originally built in the 19th century as an Indian merchant house, it became a sultan family home. Since then it has been restored to its’ original state, with traditional Swahili influences. It was the perfect base for our exploration.
Eager to sample some authentic food and to see the views, we headed up to the rooftop. A few small, spicy local dishes and a classic cocktails later, we tore ourselves away from our spectacular birds eye view of the twinkling city all around us and decided to jump right in.
Tim was in charge of the map, confidently leading the way through the maze of increasingly narrowing streets and elaborate doorways. Our aim was to make our way to Forodhani Gardens and the Old Fort to sample some of the famous street food at the night markets. Unfortunately Charmingly he decided not to consult the map after the first couple of turns and we ended up wandering through the Darajani Market, getting harassed by men telling us it wasn’t safe to be walking alone that way as tourists and that we were going the wrong way. Brilliant. But we persevered and walked on. They stopped following after a couple of minutes.
A passing student who was happy to help, took a while deciding on the simplest route from where we were to the waterfront, and directed us along. Finding ourselves on the map again we realised that he had sent us right around the outskirts of the city to avoid getting lost in the maze. We would have felt insulted if we hadn’t literally just got lost in the maze. Since we were hungry we decided to take his easy route to get to the food fast, so continued along Benjamin Mkapa (Creek) Road before turning towards the water. Passing the Old Dispensary at night was a little eerie, but it was such a beautiful building, even in the half light of the street lamps.
The darkness of the road gave way to the bright white, bustling action of the Forodhani Gardens, with stalls upon stalls laden with raw and cooked meat, fish and vegetables. The chefs stood behind their tables, calling out to passers-by about how good their food was or what great deals they had in play.
It was quite an assault on the senses – in a good way – so we ambled around the kiosks taking it all in, before trying to pick the least dodgy looking kebabs on offer. We sat and ate our food haul on the harbour wall with great views across the markets and out to sea.
Since we were no longer hungry or thirsty and in no rush to get back, we meandered along the cobblestones, through the streets twisting this way and that. Stopping to pet some of the beautiful cats we met along the way. The streets were otherwise quiet now, and very dark. There was something therapeutic about exploring this hive of activity whilst most people were tucked away in their houses. Passing hidden dens, mosques, grand palaces and impressive hotels we finally found ourselves close to our hotel …but we couldn’t quite find it! Eventually we asked a local who happened to be walking past for directions.
He escorted us to the street our hotel was on for a small donation. Walking the last few meters, not recognising a thing, he suddenly sprinted after us and pointed in the opposite direction, towards our hotel.
It seems that in Stone Town, you can get lost even if you are already there.
Last modified: 27th February 2017