Spices and Slavery - Exploring Zanzibar

Sarah Freeman on 15 October 2018
Zanzibar or "Spice Island” is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania and located 25kms off the mainland in the Indian Ocean. The area is made up of the main island “Unguja” or Zanzibar, Pemba Island and lots of smaller islands.

I was staying at the Zanzibar Serena Hotel, located in Stone Town about 15 minutes from the airport. The hotel has been lovingly transformed from an old colonial building and it’s got one of the best swimming pools in the town.

For day one I booked a walking tour to understand a little more about the history of this World Heritage Site. First stop was Freddie Mercury’s place of birth and where he lived until age 7, unfortunately you can’t go inside but it was cool to see where this amazing musician got his start in life. Next up was the Old Fort (Arab Fort), it's mainly ruins with a couple of turrets but worth a quick visit as it’s also the site of the Zanzibar Film Festival. Close by is Forodhani Gardens, the site of the original port and behind is the House of Wonder, once owned by the Sultan and used for ceremonial duties while next door is the Sultan’s Palace, you can go inside and take a short, guided tour.

Moving along the seafront you’ll pass the Customs House, used to collect customs duties from merchants and then the Old Dispensary which are now government offices. Across town the Central Market, trades all manner of products from spices and cloth to fruit and vegetables. The most interesting area were the meat and fish sections – while the stench of live butchering was not for those with weak stomachs, it was interesting to see the auctions taking place.

The Slave Market and Cathedral are main tourist sites. The museum explains about the slave trade and its impact on the local people and culture of the island. Originally developed by the British, they later pushed for abolishment with Dr Livingstone being one of the key advocates. Outside in the grounds is a thought-provoking statue of oversized slaves in chains, you can also go down into the cellar and see the holding pens where slaves would have been held prior to sale. The Cathedral is built on the site of the market square where the tree stood which the slaves were tied to. The tour ended at Tipu Tip’s house, the famous Arab trader who built up a large empire in Eastern Congo on the back of slave trading. To lighten up my mood after all the deep and dark history, I took a stroll down Kenyatta Road and Gizenga Street to purchase some lovely handcrafted souvenirs.

Zanzibar has such rich history that it seemed a shame to just lie on one of its stunning silver sand beaches for the duration of my holiday so I hired a local driver to explore the island's West coast. Our first stop was the Mtoni Palace Ruins located just north of Stone Town. The name which means “place by the river” is the oldest palace in Zanzibar and was built between 1828 and 1834 for Sultan Said. The palace is in ruins after a fire in 1914, but large walled areas still remain and a guide showed me photos and floor plans as to what the palace would have been like in its heyday. Up to 1,000 people would have been linked to the palace and the Sultan used the property to entertain VIPs. At the back of the palace is a large enclosed grassed area where the Sultan’s daughters would have taken pony rides and where peacocks and flamingos roamed. Circling this area were the Sultan’s bathhouse, aqueduct and outside lavatories. Close by are the Kibweni Palace Ruins, the building looked lovely but unfortunately, it’s now Presidential Offices so you’re not allowed to visit.

Carrying on up the west coast you pass through Bububu, a fairly lively town, whose name is derived from the noise of the railway locomotives that ran between 1904 and 1929 covering the edge of the clove plantation to Stone Town. 20 minutes further up the coast close to Mangwapani (Arab Beach) is Coral Cave. After the British made slave trading illegal in 1845 with a treaty with Sultan Barghash, several slave traders were determined to keep their livelihood going in secret. The cave is a very deep, natural underground chamber, the entrance has been widened now for tourists to enter and handrail added to the steep stone carved steps. We took torches down as it was absolute pitch black at the bottom, my guide took me down through the slippery coral rock to the tunnel that led underground to the sea, so that the slaves could be secreted away without being seen. A few minutes away are the Slave Chambers, a man-made concrete prison where illegal slaves were held in same-sex pens with only small skylights to let in some light. You can still see the holes on the wall where their chains were attached. Both these places were chilling but fascinating to visit.

We continued north passing Mikokotoni, a bustling fishing village with a market was in full swing selling fruit and vegetables. Our final stop was the idyllic Kendwa Beach which stretches for miles, offers pure golden sand and is extremely clean. There are your usual hawkers selling all manner of goods and the beach is lined by high-quality hotel complexes. Kendwa has become known as the place to come for the monthly Full Moon Parties. Just a word of warning, the beach is not accessible at high tide so make sure you get back to your location as otherwise you’ll be stuck trying to navigate the back roads or paying out $20 for a boat trip back.

On my final day I visited Cheetah’s Rock located near to Kama Village. This once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experience was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done! Cheetah’s Rock is a rescue and conservation centre, in addition to meeting rescued wild animals, you also get in-depth information on their welfare, wildlife conservation and get an insight into the work the team are doing around the world helping to protect and conserve endangered species. What’s different about this centre is that you actually get up close and personal with the animals. Imagine hand feeding a 290lb male lion and hyena, sitting in a white lion’s enclosure as Savannah a 90lb lioness prowls around brushing your legs or sat in the enclosure with Maktoum and Sharqi, two Cheetah brothers as they showcase their hunting skills. None of the animals have been drugged, declawed or defanged – they have had hours of time spent with the team learning that with 100% positive reinforcement man and animal can get close without either party being stressed or come to harm.