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Out of Africa

With its breathtaking ocean views and colourful street life, the dangerous and the enticing meet at Stone Town text and photos by Natasha Hemrajani

travel Updated: Apr 02, 2012 17:31 IST

It's 3 am in Stone Town, Zanzibar. I'm standing with the remnants of yesterday's litter rustling softly at my feet in the narrow confines of a deserted alley, still knuckling jetlagged sleep from my eyes in an attempt to reconcile two weeks' worth of dreams of an idyll in a coral island with the surreal situation currently underway.

An extremely drunken man is threatening to fling my luggage out of my rented second-storeyed window. The window floats above me, serene, a dark eye closed while I stand in a tiny pool of light from a solitary streetlamp on a sleeping street, a stranger in a city full of strangers. This is Africa, the Dark Continent, where dangerous and enticing meet as lovers and no place embodies this more than Stone Town, with its narrow lanes full of shuttered houses and barred wooden doors, every home a well-kept secret.

One of these strangers is a good neighbour; he offers his home up as my refuge for the night till the drunken man has passed out long enough for dawn to steal in along with me, stealing in on tiptoe to rescue my bags and escape into a new day. Every day on this little island is an adventure and it's time to pause, erase, and restart my adventures in Zanzibar.

Museum of stuffed things

Between the white walls of tightly clustered Stone Town houses the ocean winks at me, a deep calm blue that glitters in a million sparkles as the morning sun breaks out over the water. A cup of strong black Zanzibari coffee sweetened with honey washes out the last of last night's crazy events and gears me up for all the craziness to come. An expat settler on the island assures me that this little spice island I'm on has more crazy in it than any other place she's known.

My afternoon visit to the city museum - or what I will forever remember as The Museum of Stuffed Things - confirms this. Glass cages display a disturbing collection of badly preserved animals, with the stuffed remains of a poor Zanzibari leopard (species presumed extinct) taking centrestage, its features distorted by a smirk in an exceedingly odd job of taxidermy. Irretrievably precious first edition hardback books lie piled about in tattered stacks, a dusty cupboard reveals a six-foot long alligator leaking stuffing, jammed up against shelves full of discarded creatures in formaldehyde solutions and boxes full of unsorted bird skins. 'This is Africa' I'm told. The indisputable phrase describing the untameable nature of the beast that is the dark continent, an explanation for why everything is the way it is.

Outside, dusk sets on the ocean in a sunset full of fiery pinks and reds. On the waterfront, a little girl I'm trying to take a picture of gazes dreamily out at the dhows coming in with the day's catch. Under her hejab, her eyes are outlined in bright pink and silver eyeliner, her lips painted a shiny pink. Centuries of Arab rule may have resulted in 95 per cent of the local population converting to Islam but the African women I see shrouded in the concealing yards of the burkha are a riot of eye-popping colour with brightly coloured hejabs and bold Afrikaan prints.

Spice on the waterfront

It's Friday evening and Stone Town's waterfront has become an impromptu fashion parade with Zanzibari women dressed up in their most striking burkas like so many exotic birds, stepping out with their families and friends to sample the open feast of food stalls set up at the Forodhani Gardens. My freshly grilled platter is full of lobster, king crab, jumbo prawns, red snapper, barracuda, squid and octopus. The spices are perfect, the meat grilled to perfection. The familiarity of Indian spices is a comfort, a lot of traditional Zanzibari food has Indian roots: the Swahili 'pilaf' is our pulao, and the 'kachumbar' is the same vinegar-soaked onion and tomato salad of India.

The rest of my nights in the old city are much calmer than my first. This UNESCO world heritage site, Stone Town, is magical and beautiful by twilight with its mixed architectural styles that draw from Arab, Persian, Moorish, Indian, and European elements. I walk into a night full of long shadows and rough textures, moody architecture and breath-taking ocean views, and a colourful street life. There are people everywhere, African mingling with European, Arab, Indian, beachboys in dreadlocked rasta braids, sunburnt tourists coming in from the day's diving excursions, shy young women in colourful burkhas. The streets are full of open-air bistros and rooftop bars, tiny touristy shops selling Masai weaves, woodcarvings and paintings, clay zebras and hemp baobab trees. The haunting call to prayer of the muezzin lingers in my ears along with the persistent whine of a scourge of mosquitoes, my faithful companions of the night. The mosquitoes of Africa seem to be from a special warrior clan, monstrously large, with spears for proboscis and a never-say-die attitude to numerous brands of insect repellent. Night closes around me with the soft folds of a mosquito net, and the excitement of a road trip to come, a drive down through the coastal roads of Zanzibar with nothing but beach stops and ocean views to distract me.

And what an ocean view it is. Beachside Zanzibar is everything I've dreamt of and more: an unbelievably beautiful little coral island with beaches full of sand so blindingly white and fine that at high noon it looks as if I'm wading through snow. The Indian ocean on this side of the world is a startling mix of neon greens and aqua blues, the moody sea sometimes a radiant turquoise green, sometimes the deep blue of a chlorinated pool, and sometimes just an aqua that glows like its full of electricity. I stare mesmerised by the changing colours of a living sea, the waving fronds of seaweed underneath the tide an excellent hiding place for sea urchins and starfish and hermit crabs. The spiny sea urchins can leave a painfully lasting impression if stepped on by bare feet; a local doctor tells me of a tourist who once came to him with a bottomful of urchin spines; an excellent reason why the native seaweed farmers wear slippers whenever they wade out into the ocean to collect the day's harvest of kelp.

Underwater kaleidoscope

The ocean seeps into my wetsuit, a hundred ice cubes on warm skin as I dive off the One Ocean snorkelling boat into the pure blue waters of Mnemba Atoll. Under my snorkel mask the water is clear as air, a thousand different varieties of coral shimmer and sway beneath rippling rays of sunlight, schools of rainbow fish merging and breaking apart like a kaleidoscope underwater and every now and then the striped yellows and blues of another diver's flippers swish away from me like some exotic sea creature. Time ceases to exist here watching a whole new world drift by under the sea, every living thing a part of this beautiful water dance that I am a silent audience to with the help of a little rubber pipe full of air. Above, the sun shines down from a blue, blue sky. Drying off I get to explore the mysterious perfection of a sandbank - these are tiny islands of pure coral sand that emerge from the belly of the ocean when the tide falls and disappear underwater when the tide's up, a floating paradise indeed. They are the perfect place for a romantic getaway so long as your actual getaway from the sandbank is anchored at a handy spot for when the tide plays truant with your sense of timing.

A night walk along Matemwe beach is a perfect end to a long day, the rhythmic crash of the surf rolling in and out under a sky full of pinprick stars, and virgin sands unmolested by sodium vapour lamps and beach umbrellas, pristine in the moonlight. It's advisable to walk with company however, and free of valuables, as Zanzibar wrestles with a growing crime rate and unsuspecting tourists are an easy mark for a nighttime hold-up robbery. A young American

First Published: Apr 02, 2012 17:31 IST