No prisoners and plenty of tortoises

Trip Start Apr 18, 2011
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Trip End Apr 08, 2012


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Flag of Tanzania  , Zanzibar Archipelago,
Monday, May 30, 2011

I headed down to to the waterfront this morning to be taken over to Prison Island. I felt less sea sick than the journey on the ferry, which was quite impressive seeing as I was rocking about on a tiny wooden boat named Jambo (what else?) while the skipper took breaks from controlling the motor to empty the pools of water collecting around my feet back into the sea. However, the modest transport seemed quite luxurious compared to the man I spied trying to keep on top of the waves via no more than a barely-there boat that he stood on, paddling with a plank of wood against the waves just behind Jambo.

Both Jambo, and the man with his plank of wood/ore made it to anchor near the island in one piece however.

I was travelling with two American tourists who weren't fussed to see the island; instead wanting to spend their morning snorkelling around the island. I am determined that my six months in Australia will be spent getting over my complete lack of confidence in the water (I'm fine swimming as long as I know my feet can touch the ground) so I merely dipped myself in and out of the sea again, realising that where we had dropped anchor was still too deep - and the coral would have made it impossible for me to rest my feet at the bottom anyway. When we did moor up on land, I left the two Americans to laze on the beach while I headed off to explore the island and find the tortoises.

Which wasn't hard, considering the island is only a kilometre long, and the tortoises are pretty huge.

Prison Island was never actually used as a prison base, even though it was intended as one, and the building was completed. However, a severe cholera outbreak in Egypt alerted the risk of islanders becoming infected - especially as Zanzibar was once part of the major trade routes. So it was decided that the island would house those infected, to prevent an outbreak on the mainland.

Today the island houses little more than beautiful white beaches that look out over crystal clear turquoise water that houses an assortment of corals, a few luxury cottages, a restaurant and library, and a colony of 106 giant tortoises.

The island itself bears little in terms of historical evidence, except for the coral walls of the old 'prison' building, a 19th century unidentified ruin and a few ornate wooden doorways. Instead you're invited to read the snippets of information dotted around the island which tells of the architects involved in the original building, the dates in which the island encountered changes, and the restoration project to date. Still, it makes for a pleasant and peaceful stroll around, with glimpses of the bright blue sea through gaps in the surrounding island walls as you amble along the pathways past forest and the sound of birds.

The tortoises seek comfort off the walkways and under the generous shades of the trees, along with a few peacocks. The tortoises today are the descendants of four giant tortoises that were gifted from Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles, presented to the British Regent in 1919. They're impressive looking creatures and with some over 125 years old, you wonder just how many visitors to the island they've put up with feeding them spinach and stroking the tops of their warm, cracked skin heads.

Back on the sand I had just enough time to dip myself into the sea for a swim (staying in shallow areas, obviously) before our boat driver reappeared from his rest and we made the trip back across the water, this time with fewer attempts at emptying the water in the boat as we travelled.

This afternoon was spent attempting to find a one way flight to Cape Town that doesn't cost the same as a return flight to London Heathrow: I'm understanding more why the few locals I've spoken to around South and East Africa have never been to other parts of Africa - it's shockingly expensive, and alternative options of getting around safely are limited still. I found a travel agent who is hopefully getting back to me tomorrow with a cost - although I'm not holding my breath that it will be prompt as his computer system wasn't loading and he uttered 'insh'allah' - a term that I hoped I had left behind hearing in the UAE. God willing indeed.

I ended the day with sugar cane juice - a local drink - and an Indian dish cooked up on the waterfront in Forodhani Gardens, an open-air street market that comes to life as the sun goes down over the sea. The sugar cane juice was great fun to watch being prepared - rather noisely by pressing the sugar cane through a hand-operated iron press. Ginger and lime is added along the way, squeezed in-between the cane as it's wrung through the press a few more times and the result is refreshing and tasty. It's all brilliantly cheap too; my meal and drink cost no more than 5,000 Tanzanian shillings. I think I'll return tomorrow for the 'Zanzibar pizza', which I've read is actually more of a chapati, and resmembles something like a spring roll. I'm always sold on trying new food.
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