A couple of years ago, I went to Mafia Island, off the coast of Tanzania. I spent a few months on the island – my first introduction to learning Swahili – and while there I stumbled upon a little gem on one of the small islands close by. Since then I have been thinking of going back there as a guest and I finally got the opportunity to go,, not only to stay on the beautiful island but also to swim with Whale Sharks which has been high on my bucket list.
One arrives to the small islands via a short flight from Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar to Mafia Island – about 160kms South of Zanzibar and lying within one of the biggest Marine Parks in East Africa.
On Mafia, I stayed at Kitu Kiblu for 2 nights to swim with the Whale Sharks. Kitu Kiblu offers encounters with whale sharks while doing research, and therefore also takes interns which is a great experience in itself for anyone interested in Marine Conservation.
I had planned for 2 nights prior and post to stay here, which would give me two opportunities to view and swim with these gentle giants. The rooms are rustic tents with communal facilities.
On the day we were going out, we went through some instruction, some rules, background and interesting information before getting gear and then heading out on the traditional Dhows.
We were out for about an hour before there was a sighting – we all got ready while our boatman got us into a good spot, then all shouts of ‘Go now, Go now’ and we’re all overboard and in the water.
I was at first concerned that I would be right on top of them, however the researchers assured me that they seem closer than they actually are.
As it turned out, I had viewings on both opportunities, however the 2nd was really good and I was able to swim, what felt like, right above one with clear vision for a good distance. I don’t have very good quality photos however the experience will stay with me for a long time – well until I get myself back there again!
Whale Sharks – The season for these gentle giants to aggregate here is longer than anywhere else on the East African Coast. They occur here year round, and when the conditions are right they feed on the surface in the shallow waters on the western side of the island. The better seasons are October through March.
Whale sharks are fascinating – some live more than 100 years, reaching lengths of 20m and weighing in at 15 tones, yet they are totally harmless, feeding on enormous quantities of plankton that they hoover up as they swim.
From Mafia island I was going on to the island of Baobabs. You take a 5 -10 minute boat transfer to the little island of Chole. Be ready – on both sides, with shorts – or Kikoy which I had and is easy to lift – and waterproof shoes, as you may end up wading in deep water. Flip Flops or Sandals don’t work as well as they kind of get sucked in and makes it difficult to walk.
The landing area has a small house which is the “Reception/bar/gift shop” and beyond that you find some old buildings which look like they have been recovered from the jungle. As you walk along you get to a narrower sandy path, more overgrown ruins, with gentle archways that betray their Islamic origin, dating back to the time when the city of Chole was a powerful trading centre between the Sultanates of Kilwa and Zanzibar.
Eventually the winding path leads you to an elegant entrance in the ruins, draped by the roots of giant fig trees, unmarked in any other way than the trail of sandy footprints that lead up to the threshold.
A few steps further and here starts the secret world of magnificent baobab trees castaway dreams.. Hidden amongst the ruins and sheltered from the sea by a stand of sturdy mangroves, this place is a paradise of dappled sunlight and birdsong.
Welcome to Chole Mjini.
The owners – Jean and Anne- fell in love with the island when they had decided to have a traditional Dhow built for them by the boat fundis (swahili for expert) on the island. While they had no intention of staying, the property and idea came to them while they were working with the people on the island. They had started helping the school and clinics while waiting for their boat and after did not want to leave the people they had built a connection with.
This is a real castaway story that I just love. The lodge was never meant to be a high end luxury getaway but rather a comfortable, feet in the sand, homely environment you might expect to find if you were stranded – one feels a little like a cross between Indiana Jones and Robinson Crusoe.
It is a place full of character and perhaps not for everyone, which only makes it more special – ideal for the young or adventurous traveller. Importantly for me, it is also sustainable, eco friendly and continues to support the local community
The Tree Rooms
There are just 7 treehouses, carefully designed to ensure privacy and give that solitary feel. The room is completely open, giving you the feeling of being immersed in nature. The king size bed takes pride of place in the middle of the room. Each room is thatched, placed up in Baobab trees and reached by sandy paths that lead through the natural vegetation.
All have sea views, some are close enough to be lulled asleep by the sound of the tide trickling through the mangrove roots. Most have a second level for children.
My room was Treehouse Nne – Swahili for 4 – one of the most popular, and for good reason. It has an upstairs ‘Tea house’ design – essentially an elevated room that is open to the breezes, allowing a 360 degree view, and as one can imagine, the sunsets are spectacular from here.
My favourite part of staying up here was listening to the waves at night and in the morning the squeaking of the ropes sending my breakfast coffee up on a little pulley system so I could remain upstairs and enjoy the early morning views of fishermen heading out for the day.
Meals are all catered for and evening dinners are around a long table with Jean joining to share some stories about life on the island.
Much of the area of Chole Island consists of rural shambas and the wonderful villagers retain a gentle and dignified air inherited from their distinguished past.
The activities are tide dependent and planned for each guest daily – they range from snorkelling – in the sea and in the jellyfish lake, Scuba diving, boat trips on the traditional wooden dhows, full day sandbank picnic, village visits – including on one day I was lucky to see turtles hatching, Supping and Paddle boarding as well as the added bonus of going out with the research boats to swim with Whale Sharks.
If you are looking for a peaceful, castaway experience, then this is the ideal environment. All the people were super friendly, the food throughout was excellent – at Kitu Kiblu it is traditional meals which I enjoyed – beautiful views, crystal clear water, fantastic experiences on and off the water.