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Zanzibar—For ‘Robinson Crusoes’ Only

By Carol McDaid, Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), 10 November 2000

Johannesburg - On Zanzibar, the local TV station has been known to set up a camera on a street corner and leave it there for hours, broadcasting live: fragments of conversation; the odd car; women walking past in full purdah. A sort of low- budget Muslim Big Brother.

Rewind the tape a few centuries and the people passing by would have been Portuguese, Arab and English merchants fighting over this lush trading post in the Indian Ocean.

Unjuga (Zanzibar's Swahili name) had sugar and spice and, not so nice, a roaring slave trade. Up to 30 000 Africans were sold here every year for most of the 19th century.

Today, there's an Internet café in Stonetown, but it's tucked away in a maze of streets where Indian balconies, colonial verandahs and the deserted palaces of Omani sultans quietly crumble into the sea. The voices of children singing the Koran really do ambush you in sidestreets.

Zanzibar's slave market has disappeared under an Anglican cathedral. The hotel where I'm staying is built alongside the ruins of a missionary school for freed slave girls (a cousin of William Thackeray was headmistress).

Now a woman from Oxfordshire gives great aromatherapy massages there. Tourism is still at the polite stage. There is, as yet, no Freddie Mercury heritage trail (the singer was born here), no festival of Babar (the elephant was born here, too). Developers are only just beginning to flout the law that says you can't build higher than the surrounding palm trees.

Go now, while the beaches are postcard-perfect: white sand, green sea, the triangular sail of a lone dhow.

You can buy moonstones on Mastercard; you should book for dinner at Emerson's and Green, a hotel run by three gay Americans. Or simply barter for bangles on the seafront with Masai craftsmen, then turn up at Two Tables on the off-chance. There are only two tables, crammed on to a balcony; no menu - you eat what's put in front of you. After settling up, the owner may switch on a ghetto blaster and his teenage daughters may appear at the door in headdresses and livid lipstick, and dance round the living room to taarab music looking daggers.

Everybody I know who's been to Zanzibar has been on a spice tour, but don't let that put you off. It's the best way to get up into the island's jungle interior, along empty avenues of skyscraping coconut trees, past boys on bicycles too big for them, to a sunny plantation where you can stick your nose into handfuls of vanilla, cardamom, cinnamon and lemon grass that Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef) could only dream of.

Finally, if you do go to Zanzibar, leave! There's a tiny strip of land about 13km away on the horizon and it's even better.

Chumbe Island (pronounced Choom-bay), all 1km by 300m of it, sounds a bit worthy: it's a nature reserve that beat 115 projects from 42 countries last year to win British Airways' Global Tourism for Tomorrow award. But the fun starts the minute the boat picks you up from Zanzibar after breakfast, pitches and churns through crystal water towards Chumbe's dense treeline and white lighthouse, and (oh goody) drops you off in the shallows to wade ashore holding your possessions aloft as if arriving for a Robinson Crusoe convention.

That night we all drink champagne and Tangawizi (kicking local ginger beer) in the dramatic vaulted remains of the lighthouse keeper's house: candles guttering, sea crashing all around, food delicious (plantain, fish, curries, real coconut rice).

Chumbe Coral Park was founded by Sibylle Riedmiller, a German environmentalist in her 70s who visited the uninhabited island in 1991 and was overwhelmed by its pristine coral-rag forest and shallow-water reef - protected, oddly enough, by lying close to the Dar es Salaam shipping route, which has been off-limits to fishermen since colonial times. Six years and hundreds of thousands of her own money later, Riedmiller finally persuaded the Tanzanian government, which owns Chumbe, to turn it into an eco-resort for the free education of local children. Many can't swim. In Swahili, there is no word for coral.

The project is proudly self-reliant thanks to tourism. Only 14 overnight guests are allowed on the island at a time and they must have "zero impact" on the fragile ecosystem. Ideally there would be no visitors, but every drop of income from the honeymooners and stressed executives who stay here is invested in conservation and education. If all goes to plan, the running of Chumbe will one day be a purely Zanzibari affair.

Life quickly telescopes into little things: the fresh pincer tracks of coconut crabs in the morning; the hide-and-seek exertions of a hermit crab intent on commuting across the sand. At low tide, Chumbe acquires an aircraft- carrier overhang you can walk under looking for starfish. It takes about 40 minutes to circle the island. Climb the 131 steps of the lighthouse, built by the British in 1904, and you get the full 24ha extent of a place so thick with vegetation no one has seen its rare deer population in years.

Chumbe's project manager, Eleanor Carter, an ecologist, heard about her dream job while working as a pianist at a bar in Stonetown. She trains local fishermen as park rangers who patrol the island to prevent illegal fishing, record scientific observations and help sad specimens like me who have never knowingly snorkelled to put on flippers and get vertigo over shoals of barracuda, gainly turtles and little fish of the Everton mint family.

You know that Chumbe is a labour of love the moment you clap eyes on your state-of-the-art eco-bungalow, or banda, where Gothic thatch meets salvage chic. There are seven of them, each with a hammock made from washed-up driftnet and shipwrecked-crockery mosaics. Solar panels heat the rainwater collected by the roof; there's a compost toilet.

For air-conditioning, the banda has no front wall; it's just you and the Indian Ocean. When the wind picks up, the whole structure shakes and chirrups and takes on a life of its own. Lower the drawbridge shutter of your sleeping deck at night and you can watch the lights of fishing boats, 10 or 11 of them, lined up out to sea like an invading army in the pitch black. If nature were not so loud you would sleep like a log.