Last week I shared our experience of traveling to Zanzibar with FastJet and Coastal Aviation. Today I’m picking up from where we “landed” so to speak – the Zanzibar airport where our Stone Town tour begins!
After negotiating with a taxi driver to take us into the heart of Stone Town along with a fellow traveler we met on our flight for a reasonable rate of $10 US we headed off to find the offices of the company who had been due to collect us at 4pm that afternoon for a direct transfer to our hotel. We needed to let them know that we weren’t going to be there!
As we thought it through we also realised it would make a lot more sense to do a tour of Stone Town immediately instead of coming back from our hotel on the opposite side of the island on another day. Doing things this way round would save us money (less transfers) and time (less time away from our hotel and the all important relaxing by the pool). We are all about saving time and money!
Our taxi dropped us off right outside the offices of Fishermans Tours & Transfers and we headed inside to announce our arrival and change of plans hoping that it would be possible to someone to take us on a tour of Stone Town at such short notice… after a cold drink and a few mins of enjoying the air-con, we were pleased to discover that arrangements could be made for us and our we were introduced to our guide, Chum, who was to become a huge highlight of our trip!
The accommodating staff at Fishermans Tours & Tranfers allowed us to leave our heavy backpacks in their offices and we quickly grabbed the essentials – sunblock, hats, some money and my camera!
And off we headed into the streets for a tour of Stone Town…
Stone Town Tour
Not knowing what to expect on our Stone Town Tour, my guard was up due to the fact that we were walking the streets of an unknown African town and all around me was an environment that I was completely unaccustomed to! As a South African woman I’ve learnt to be aware of my surroundings subconsciously…. and walking around in an unknown part of a South African city is unheard of. But after a few minutes I started to relax and enjoy the experience. I felt myself putting my trust in my guide, Chum, and following his confident lead knowing he would not be leading me into danger!
And as time went on I discovered that Stone Town is in fact a remarkably safe place! The Zanzibari people are, for the most part, really friendly, even the traders or hawkers offering to sell you something in the more touristy streets will ask once and then leave you alone if you decline – a vast difference from the daily “assaults” in SA!
As we had been traveling since 4pm the previous day, with barely a packet of crisps to tide us over at the Dar airport, our first priority for the morning was to get some breakfast! After weaving our way through the back streets and alleys on our Stone Town tour, we came out to find the coastline right in front of us!
Chum knew just the place to take us for some sustenance – 34 degrees, a spot managed by a South African – but unfortunately it was closed and so we headed on to another hotel located in the area informally known as Embassy Square. This beautiful lush square is lined by all the top international hotel chains and the most upmarket area of Stone Town. We headed in to a typical Stone Town building converted into a lovely hotel to get some food. $20 US per person for breakfast is not what we usually pay but we realised we were too hungry to find another spot so sat down for an enjoyable breather!
Once we had “refueled”, Chum found a little bench under a tree in this green oasis and gave us the basics of the history of Zanzibar. So much has happened on this tiny little island. I had a vague idea but really did not know the full picture at all and it was fascinating!
Zanzibar’s strategic and accessible location along the East African coast turned it into cosmopolitan centre where Arab, Indians, Europeans and African traditions and cultures all got merged together over the years. The first settlement in Stone Town was the Portuguese fort. Its foundation was laid down in the early 18th century, but probably not finalized until late 1780, by the Omani rulers. Stone Town became a flourishing centre of trade in the 19th century – both spices and slaves! With it’s rich history and unique architecture it’s no surprise that in 2000, Zanzibar’s Stone Town was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List due to its globally important heritage.
After our history lesson on our Stone Town tour it was time to explore! I’d read and heard so much about this unique town that I couldn’t wait to discover it’s delights…
First up was a house that once belonged to Tippu Tip, a plantation owner and notorius slave trader! (pictured above) Chum was a very knowledgeable guide and along the way he gave us so much information about the various buildings we passed, about the history of the people and daily life in Stone Town. We found it all fascinating!
Stone Town is the largest town in Zanzibar and is located in the middle of the west coast of Unguja, the real name of the main island, on the site of a very old fishing village. The town get’s it’s name from the coral stone buildings that were built largely during the 19th century, There are over 16,000 people living in the town today, and over 1,700 buildings.
The town is a maze of beautiful, dilapidated buildings and houses that line the sides of the narrow alleyways. The architecture is mostly Arabic, with thick, tall walls and simple, square facades. Decoration of their living spaces was very important and usually done by Indian craftsmen in the form of wooden balconies and carved doors and stairways. Many of the buildings have a central courtyard going up through all the floors, giving light and air to the home. As they are often built closely together the Arab families connected neighboring buildings via walkways, like bridges, on the first floors. This made it possible for the female members of families to go and visit relatives and friends without having to enter the streets. Another reason why the buildings are packed to tightly together is that by just leaving room for narrow streets in between the tall houses, enough shadow was created for those walking in the streets during the day and the wind from the sea was allowed to blow though the alleys and give some comfort during hot days!
We managed to get a sneak inside a few of the buildings that have been converted into hotels thanks to a tropical downpour which meant we had to find refuge from the rain fast! The downpour was unbelievable. It arrived so fast and was so heavy that the alleys and streets became rivers in minutes and to avoid getting soaked to the skin and sliding around the streets we took refuge in a lovely old building with a traditional courtyard and amazing architecture!
The carved wooden doors of Stone Town are world famous and it was amazing to find out more about the significance behind the symbols. Some of the doors have brass studs which originate in India, where they were used to protect buildings against elephants! The oldest, simplest and most traditional doors have horizontal lintels, as seen in Oman and Arabia; later doors have rounded tops and this style shows Indian design influence. Various motifs in the carving symbolised the industry that the owner was involved in eg. fish for a fisherman, dates for a farmer, spices or flowers for spice farmers, chains for slave traders! etc They were certainly very beautiful and so intricate.
A walking tour of Stone Town is the perfect way to see real life unfolding around you especially since the streets are too narrow for cars. The most dangerous aspect of walking on foot is to ensure you don’t step in front of a motorcycle or bicycle whizzing past!
As we wandered the streets not knowing where we were headed or which direction to take we we very grateful for Chum. This is the type of place that is impossible to navigate on your own, even with a map!
I loved touring the town on foot. It was such a special insight into the daily lives of the locals. Life is very much lived on the street – school kids race each other to school, traders carry their goods on their bicycles to the market, street vendors sell their wares or food next to the tradesmen carving the famous wooden doors. Experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of a place are how memories are made and a walking tour is undoubtedly the best way to soak in all of these!
We heard the kids reciting their school work as we passed a school, shoes littering the steps outside, watched a group of men enjoy their game of chess under a huge tree in the heat of the day and veiled woman shyly sneak past us, avoiding our eyes, on their way to market. I LOVED it. Soaking up the culture was so interesting. As someone who’s travels outside of SA had been to Europe, Namibia and Mauritius on honeymoon this was an awakening to the amazing cultural experiences that travel can expose you to. Obviously I knew this before, but there’s a difference between knowing how enriching travel can be for your life and actually experiencing it! The fact that it was a unique, African experience like nothing else was probably the highlight of the trip!
The biggest challenge for me on this trip was to ensure I didn’t upset anyone by pointing my camera in their direction. Photography is a huge passion of mine and as you can see from the sheer number of photos in this post, Stone Town, is rich in picture perfect scenes. Unfortunately the people are shy and not too keen on cameras. I’m not sure if this is due to their religious beliefs or if they have just had enough exploitation from tourists in the past but I was warned by Chum to be discreet and avoid taking pictures unless I’d asked permission…. and I too get a bit shy about asking for this which meant I had to be strategic with my pics! Hence the reason why there is plenty of the architecture and town itself but less of the people!
After a few hours walking the town in the incredibly humid climate (even more so after the rain!) I was probably the MOST SMELLY PERSON ever and the last place I would have been usually looking like this was a church but that was next on our tour! I made a mental note to stay well clear of anyone!!
The Anglican Church in Stone Town is located on the site of the old Slave Market – an attempt by the British to abolish the slave trade at the time. The altar stands on the location of the whipping post! The Cathedral was built in 1873 by Edward Steere, the Third Bishop of Zanzibar. The Cathedral took exactly 10 years to build and its barrel vault roof was Steere’s own invention and the population of Zanzibar were convinced that it would never hold, it still stands today. Inside there is a cross made from the tree beneath which David Livingstone’s heart was buried, at Chitambo where he died, after his body was carried to Zanzibar to be returned to England! (It took something like 3 months!!) One our visit the cathedral was being renovated – and the outside scaffolding was certainly a sight!
As mentioned the site of the church is right where the notorious Stone Town Slave Market was situated and outside the church is a monument to the slaves who were brought here from all over East Africa before being sold. Below the one of the neighbouring buildings are in fact 2 slaves chambers that can be visited in order to see the horrific conditions in which they were kept for weeks! Although it was a really hard thing to see, we went down to the chambers to get a better idea of the history of the island…
Then it was time for a short break to let all the sights we’d seen sink in before we headed off to the next stage of our tour….
Come back next week when I share some more about our trip to Zanzibar….. A visit to the markets of Stone Town!
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Images: Kathryn Rossiter