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Zanzibar – Not Quite the Beach

A visit to the island of Zanzibar, which should be idyllic, right?

Sitting in the beach hut at our hostel on the Zanzibar coast, we can see two desert islands shimmering on the horizon. On one of our last afternoons of our Christmas trip a group of us decide to take a boat trip out to the nearest one, Bawe. We can snorkel there, apparently, and there’s a cafe for food and beer. All we have to do is go down the port in the island’s capital, Stone Town, early in the morning and sort out a boat. Simple – we’ll be there by twelve.

I’ve just had my hair braided and hands and feet hennaed in preparation for the Iddi-al-Fitr celebration and fancy myself as another Bo Derek wading statuesquely along the perfect white beach in ‘10’. We duly arrive at the little jetty and watch boatloads of tourists depart in smart, efficient vessels for Changu, the larger of the two islands just past the mouth of the port. We smirk pityingly – Bawe is off the beaten track, deserted (apart from the cafe, that is), wild and a much more original choice of destination as one would expect from far out, hardcore travellers like ourselves.

We wait expectantly for the boat we have arranged, chatting and laughing in our streetwise, no-flies-on-us way. Finally we hear an asthmatic wheeze, and the oldest boat in the world, powered by the oldest outboard engine in the world, staggers around the head of the jetty. The skipper is red-eyed, catatonic, and wearing nothing except for a pair of worn, yellowing World Cup 1990 y-fronts. We wait while he half-heartedly attempts to bail out the two feet of water currently sloshing around in the bottom of his boat with what appears to be the lid of a mineral water bottle.

We set sail, and spend an hour and a half convinced that death is imminent as our dubious craft jumps and lurches in the rough sea, the port of Stone Town dwindling away and the island not appearing to come any closer as we rear up and slam down over the waves just like a speedboat (except in slow motion).

We finally make it to the island and stagger up the half-ruined steps and causeway to find the remains of what once might have been a cafe, now derelict and deserted. Queasiness turns to shock as a large topless Italian lady in a g-string appears out of the palm trees and wobbles towards us, shouting insanely about water and salt being hotter than water on its own. We beat a hasty retreat towards the beach, but not before she has turned her back to us and bent right over, feet away from the crew of the boat and their assorted hangers-on. Stunned silence prevails.

As we are recovering our composure, sixty more large Italians arrive, leaping and splashing through the water. This is not the deserted film set from The Beach I had imagined. We flee to a shade-free but secluded cove and I go in for a swim, fondly imagining I look entirely Bo Derek-esque, striding out of the water and flicking my braids. Unfortunately, the bottom is covered in stones and I stand on a particularly sharp and pointy one while coming up the beach, staggering inelegantly about, swearing and forgetting to hold my stomach in. I’m sure Bo never had these problems to contend with. She probably had a whole team of people running in front of her just out of shot and sweeping the beach for hazards.

We are now ravenously hungry, and smell things grilling. Going to investigate, we discover the large Italians have now all stripped down to microthongs (Gucci, no doubt) and are guzzling vast quantities of lobster, crab, pasta salad and Safari lager under the shade of the trees. We gaze on with the look of hunting lionesses and plan our tactics from the shelter of the ruined cafe. First plan of attack – deception. We select the two most dark-skinned of our party and try simply strolling nonchalantly up to the barbeque, hoping to be handed a loaded plate. “Can I help you?” enquires a tall golden beauty in a Prada bikini who we now realise is some sort of tour leader. Our carefully chosen imposters back off, still trying to look Latin.

Plan B – bribery. We wait until Linda Evangelista has wandered off and then sidle up to the barbeque cooks, bung them a few used notes and retire in triumph with assorted crustacea to our outhouse. Replete, we catch a couple of hours sunbathing and playing Which Italian Would You Drown First, then climb aboard our dubious vessel for the long, slow and nauseous journey back to the harbour.

The cigarette butt, still glowing, arcs through the dim air of twilight and falls, with unerring accuracy, straight into the mouth of the plastic petrol container. I have a brief glimpse of the boatman’s vacant, red-rimmed eyes and unconcerned expression before I close my eyes and wait for the explosion. After a few seconds I open them and realise incredulously that I am still alive. The reason for this seeming miracle quickly becomes apparent – the cigarette had landed just as the outboard engine sputtered and died, and the last drop of fuel on board evaporated.

So we’re not dead, just becalmed about a kilometre away from the port of Stone Town, bobbing up and down queasily on less than gentle waves and gazing longingly at the electrically illuminated minarets and the glow of fires from the seafood stalls in the gardens down by the quay. Glancing down at the bottom of our vessel one can’t help noticing slightly more water than before sloshing around down there. As one of my flip-flops begins to float gently away I have, quite literally, a sinking feeling. If today is going to be a real-life movie, it appears more likely to be Titanic than The Beach…

Gemma Pitcher