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Between a rock and the deep blue sea

The azure waters of Zanzibar will have you fall in love with nature all over again, provided you don’t get speared in the foot by a sea urchin. Zanzibar, a large island off the coast of Tanzania, derives its name from the term Zinj el-Bar, which was coined by Arab traders around the third century.

india Updated: Nov 23, 2011 18:34 IST
Nikhil Hemrajani
Nikhil Hemrajani
Hindustan Times

I can count the number of times I’ve awoken at dawn, without any assistance, on the fingers of one hand. In most cases, it wasn’t pleasant. But this time, from my beach-facing bedroom on Michamwi Beach, Zanzibar, has all the remarkable qualities I could ask for.

Zanzibar, a large island off the coast of Tanzania, derives its name from the term Zinj el-Bar, which was coined by Arab traders around the third century. It means Land Of The Blacks.

It’s 6 am and my Greek-styled Spartan white room is flooded with the first light of dawn. Drawing away the mosquito nets that enshroud the bed, I walk onto the porch of our boutique villa. There, in the middle of the beach, amidst the incoming tide, is a monstrous limestone rock. It looks so alien in its environment, almost as if someone planted it there. But that’s not all.

Some enterprising soul has built a restaurant atop it. There’s even trees growing on this thing; you can see their roots reaching out, eager to meet the crabs, barnacles and corals below.

You can walk over to the rock during low tide or have the restaurant’s boatman take you there during high tide. Right now, at 6:15 am, as the boat gently bobs up and down in the glassy water, the sky’s a dull grey-blue with a smattering of clouds.

I pull out my camera hurriedly to capture the moment when the sun breaches the surface of the Indian Ocean — like a deoxygenated diver steadily making his ascent. I want to get closer to the action, but the tide is high and walking into the water isn’t a wise choice.

Michamwi isn’t your typical tropical island beach. The seabed, even in ankle-deep water, is awash with dead coral. A wrong footing could end up giving you a nasty cut. And may God help you if you accidentally step on a trepid sea urchin. As a local beach boy puts it, “You step on one and you won’t be able to stand up again.”

Spherical and spiny, sea urchins are the porcupines of coral-land. These creatures, from the same family as sea cucumbers and starfish, help maintain the coral reefs’ delicate eco-system. But they’re not nice at all when concealed in seaweed or hidden in cracks between rocks. The black sea urchins that populate the beaches around Zanzibar have spines that can reach up to a foot in length. Even the native Zanzibari people, who cultivate seaweed (that gets exported to China) in the shallow water, wade out wearing thick-soled shoes.

The angular rays of the sun now begin to hit the beach’s pristine white sand and highlight something peculiar. Michamwi’s ‘sand’ isn’t actually sand — it’s more like minute bits of shells mixed with the occasional grain of sand. This is in stark contrast to, say, the sand on Matemwe Beach that’s further up north, which is so consistent that you’ll have a hard time differentiating it from corn flour.

As my camera zooms in on the horizon, there’s a splash in the distance. It’s a school of dolphins, and one jumps out of the water, disappearing just as quickly.

A concierge from the villa walks up, saying “mambo”, which is Swahili for “How’re things?” If everything’s cool, you reply, “Poa”. He asks if I’d like my glass of bungo juice right now.

Bungo, a fruit native to Tanzania, tastes like a mix of mango, pineapple and orange. It’s an excellent refresher, especially after cycling on the beach under the midday sun. Passion fruit with avocado is a good choice too, but bungo gets first priority, if only for its novelty.

It’s 6:30 am as I crawl back into my bed. There’s a lot in store: the rest of the trip includes completing a scuba-diving course; taking a trip with Captain Kikoko into a bog to see wader birds like flamingos; visiting the ancient but still habited Stone Town; and taking a relaxing swim in the much safer, turquoise waters of Paje Beach.

But right now, it’s time for another nap.

First Published: Nov 12, 2011 13:44 IST