Discovering Tanzania’s great blue yonder on an island called Mafia (it’s perfectly friendly)

Published in The Daily Mail (February 2nd, 2013)

A scrap of raffia roof is propped up by spindly sticks to offer shade from the blazing sun, and a coconut wood plank is plonked on a couple of stones. This is how airports should be.

As we wait in Pangani for the Cessna to swoop down on the landing strip carved in the midst of vast fields of sisal, my wife and I sit on the rickety bench happily contemplating the gorgeous Tanzanian coastal scenery and chatting to our driver. 

He bombards us with questions. First about football, of course. Then are the streets in London all paved? he asks. And do many black people live there?

It is a salutary reminder of the vast distance we have to cover on our way home — not just in geographical terms. The chat encapsulates the charm of this unsullied corner of East Africa.

Most tourists heading to Tanzania go to either the safari parks or the spice island of Zanzibar. We want to get off those beaten tracks, so opt first for sinister-sounding Mafia Island, a slash of greenery 13 miles or so off the mainland.

The name comes from the ancient Arab word for archipelago. But the only godfathers on this sleepy little island, with its peachy beaches fringed by mangroves, are likely to be friendly fishermen and boat-builders.

We stay at a laid-back eco-lodge called Pole Pole, a clutch of palm-thatched huts on stilts in a coconut grove. The name means Slowly, Slowly in Swahili — and the resort lives up to its name.

There is delightfully little to do, apart from doze away the days watching the odd dhow drift slowly by and the beach disappear as the tide comes in.

Wandering down the beach, I find a gang of men loading big plastic drums onto heavily-laden wooden boats. They are collecting water, they tell me, coming over every day from a neighbouring island that is home to 800 people, but has no natural water.

The biggest burst of activity is at sundown when squadrons of fruit bats fly over from a neighbouring island in search of papaya for dinner.

There is something almost comical in their haphazard flight patterns. It makes the perfect backdrop for a pre-dinner cocktail. The real action, however, is found beneath the waves. The waters around the southern half of Mafia Island are a protected park, home to an incredibly-rich array of marine life.

The diving is superb and well-organised. There is the usual pleasure of dropping down into a dazzling underwater world, with 48 species of coral and 460 species of fish swarming the reefs.

It is good to be greeted by some huge grouper, despite their mournful expressions. These fish struggle to grow large close to shores since they are both friendly and tasty, which proves a fatal combination. Many other fish are of similar hefty proportions.

And what makes it even more memorable is setting out in an elegant wooden dhow. Between dips into the deep blue, we dine on grilled tuna and chapattis followed by chopped coconut, while fish eagles soar above us.

Later, we sail back slowly as the sun sets over the island, an image of tropical perfection. On our final morning, we climb onto a 4×4 and bounce along sandy tracks through cashew and baobab trees to the other side of the island.

We are heading off in search of the world’s biggest fish. Back on the water, our party scan the seascape for dorsal fins slicing through the waves. Spotting one, six of us plunge overboard with whoops of delight.

When the first whale shark loom through the plankton-rich water beside me, it is pure magic. First, the huge gaping mouth, then the giant speckled body stretching some 30 ft, then with a  contemptuous flick of a powerful tail it disappears back into the gloom.

Afterwards several more close encounters of this kind, we head still in our swimming costumes
to the small airport, where our bags have been delivered, and wait to be whisked off the seductive
little island.

Somehow the epic stretch of sand along the Pangani coast on the mainland, close to the Kenyan
border and five hours drive north of the capital Dar es Salaam, feels even more serene.

Once again it is a small adventure to get there, far from the crowds and on a series of short plane hops, but The Tides, a small hotel run by a Scottish couple on Pangani beach, turn out to be simple, stylish and wonderfully relaxing.

In the evening we walk to the beach, past villagers gouging out a boat from a mango tree, to watch dozens of baby green turtles clamber from their sandy nest and scurry down to the sea.

In a rare burst of activity, we head into Pangani town. Once this was a major trading port for ivory and slaves, although since then it has slipped into obscurity. There are forests above it on one side, while
crumbling colonial-era buildings line the banks on the other.

In pride of place is a two-storey residence built for a wealthy Arab trader 200 years ago with, according to local legend, several slaves buried alive in the foundations.

We drink a Coke in the market, sitting on green plastic chairs and watch the occasional shopper disturb the traders’ lively conversations, then head back on the ferry over the river with a gaggle of schoolchildren.

Then sadly all too soon, it is time to head to that hectic airport in the sisal fields to catch our flights back to reality.

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