Zanzibar Town to Nungwe; Police checkpoints; Rain and hustlers; Snorkelling; In which I receive the worst sunburn of my life

We set out from Zanzibar Town in the early morning on a minibus taxi arranged by Hamim. We wre driving to the northern tip of Zanzibar Island to a tiny town or village called Nungwe. It was drizzling when we left. Rain in the tropics is like rain anywhere. It’s warmer, but somehow more offensive for being even the slightest bit chilly. The drive took just over an hour with a few stops - once to pick up a woman at the side of the road (no money changed hands, but she and the driver barely spoke, so I’m not sure of the arrangement) and once to pick up some chickens. It took the driver many minutes to get them loaded since his attempts to stuff them into a bag were continually frustrated by them escaping instantly from a hole in the other end. I’m not sure how he figured it out in the end. He may have given up and let them run around in the trunk. We stopped for police checkpoints a couple of times, and once the driver had to present a piece of paper on official letterhead, which I’d seen him and Hamim fill out, and which turned out to be a permit for the trip. Stopping at an armed police checkpoint to present internal travel papers made my blood run cold a little bit, I’ll be honest. The trip cost us 10,000TSH each - about CAD$10. It would have been much cheaper to take one of the little dala-dala buses or trucks that run continually, but besides bing stiflingly crowded it probably would have taken all day.

Nungwe was, to be honest, a shithole. I try to keep a positive attitude about every place we visit, for the sake of my own happiness if nothing else, but there was no way around the fact that Nungwe sucked. It was a filthy little place - the dirt road leading in nearly killed the taxi and was covered with rotting fish besides. I hope it was fish, anyway. We weren’t staying in the village proper but rather in a “tourist village” to the south - a cluster of ten or fifteen beach-bungalow hotels, a couple of dusty shops and a few overpriced restaurants. Ten steps off the beach and you were on the potholed dirty access road, and two steps onto the beach and you were literally swarmed by hustlers. They weren’t particularly smooth but they certainly made up that lack through persistence. Neither of us were left alone for more than five or ten minutes at a stretch. The constant pestering about drugs, crappy souvenirs or snorkelling trips got so old that eventually we all formed an inward-facing circle out of sheer self-defense and just simply ignored anyone outside it.

The first day was a literal washout - torrential rains all day long. We hid out in our “bungalow” room - a little ensuite with linoleum floors, bugs everywhere, holes in the mosquito net and intermittent water supply (and all this for only $40 a night!) We ventured out only a few times during the day - once for an overpriced chicken sandwich, once to use the internet at Nungwe’s only and achingly slow and useless cybercafe, and once at ten in the evening for dinner. Jamie had decided to stick it out for the originally-planned stay of two days along with us, but the three Danes (Ida, Nicolai and Louise) were so disgusted with the place that they’d decided to go back to Zanzibar Town the next morning.

The rain, happily, cleared up overnight and the weather was beautiful. I can’t say it really improved Nungwe very much - it was still Nungwe, just not Nungwe in the rain. We had an appintment to go snorkelling that morning. We hadn’t succumbed to he hustlers, but had been won over by the one guy who hadn’t approached us. We’d checked out his equipment and it was good, and he was nice and hadn’t tried to sell us a line of bullshit. The bidding war commenced early - the guy had offered us a discount ($18 each instead of $20) if we could come up with six people, and we had - one of the other tour groups had said they’d come along - but they backed out at the last minute because some guy they’d met in the bar had asked $15. Sheryl managed to get our guy to match the price, so they defected back to us and we were off. I felt guilty about driving such a hard bargain until I saw that, in addition to our 14, there were at least another 15 on the boat who’d paid the full price - and there were another two boats as well, so the guy’s profit margins weren’t in any danger.

For our $15 each we got transport to the coral reefs at Nemba Island, snorkelling gear, and lunch. The boats were Zanzibar’s iconic dhows - sleek, low and pointed with a stern deckhouse and a sharply raked triangular sail. We didn’t get the sail, sad to say - it was firmly (and possibly permanently) lashed down. They used an ancient dying Evinrude outboard motor instead. The trip out to the island took about an hour or an hour and a half. We sat on the roof of the deckhouse and sunned ourselves, making sure to pack on the 50SPF sunscreen often.The reefs were incredible - very much worth the trouble and expense of coming to Nungwe, I think. I’ve never seen so many colours or so many fish. The corals were incredible too - a thousand different hues and shapes. We had an hour and a half of snorkelling before we had to go in for lunch, and it passed in a flash. Lunch was good, contrary to expectations - a fish barbecue. By the end of it we both realized that even with all the sunscreen we were badly sunburned. We hid from the the sun as much as we could on the trip back to Nungwe, but it was too late. By the time we reached the hotel I knew I had the worst sunburn of my life. No joke - we were purple. Our skins were radiating anvintense unnatural feverish heat everywhere we were burnt - which was everywhere that wasn’t covered by our swimsuits. Back and front, the tops of our heads and the tops of my feet. The only spot that escaped, miraculously, was our faces. Showering the salt waster off was agony - our skins were so sensitive that the shower could only be too hot or too cold. We lay on the beds trying somehow not to let any part of our bodies come into contact with the sheets, looking forward to the night ahead with nothing but dread. Dragging our clothes on and going for dinner was a little slice of hell. Sheryl, Jamie and I - all three of us burnt, sat on chairs in the yard of the hotel dodging praying mantises and trying to numb ourselves with cheap rum, but it didn’t work at all. None of us slept at all that night - every position we tried was too painful to fall asleep.

In the morning the hideous fuschia colour had faded to a bright angy red. Wearing clothes was still horribly painful but we had a taxi coming for us at noon and we were determined to make the most of the visit, so we dressed and dragged ourselves down to the beach. The tide had gone out quite far, and so we were able to walk a couple of kilometers up to the lighthouse. Our walk took us past the fishing fleet, which was either putting out or coming back. It was a striking sight, all the dhows black silhouettes against the bright water on the way out, and all brightly sunlit against the dark water on the way back. An hour’s walk was truly all we could handle, though - even the weak sunlight of 6am felt like fire on our inflamed skin. We went back to the hotel to battle the flies for our breakfast, and then lay down for a little while. Too long, as it turned out - the maid was waiting to clean our room and someone else was waiting to check into it. We showered and dressed in a hurry (not quite enough of a hurry to prevent my being walked in on by the room’s next tenant, though) and moved our junk to a room they’d said we could use until our taxi was ready to leave.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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