As with Malawi, Zanzibar had to meet our very high expectations created by subjective traveler writers’ experiences, other people’s Zanzibar Facebook pictures (which we know are mostly BS yet we all buy into the happy snaps) and the Resort photos taken by very skilled, sly photographers. Considering our track record with islands I was a bit wary – which way was it going to go? Pig Island Dhow trip bad or Bazaruto amazing? Stonetown was already extraordinary so if the beaches of Zanzibar lived up to our unrealistic expectations then this island stop-over was going to be the top contender for the most unforgettable destination of this trip thus far. It might even replace Tofo as my awesomeness-measuring stick.
Our first glimpse of Zanzibar beaches was an utter disappointment. See the problem was we arrived at Paje – located on the eastern side of Zanzibar (something we never really thought would play a significant role in beach selection criteria but is apparently crucial in Zanzibar) during low tide. Never in my life has “timing is crucial” been better illustrated. The ocean retracts for nearly a kilometer and if I did not vaguely remember reading something about this somewhere I would’ve been googling about where the next major Tsunami struck.
What greeted us after a 2 hour drive through the magical Jozani forest, our eyes peeled to spot the endemic red colobus monkey, was a slimy, mushy beach (for lack of a better word) dotted with unsightly patches of seaweed seemingly planted there for who knows what reason other than to destroy my idea of a pretty, albeit superficial, turquoise ocean.
Our disappointment in not seeing the monkey was overshadowed by this less than impressive, substandard beach that immediately spurred us on to grab the Bradt and Lonely Planet guides to look for alternative, prettier but heaven forbid not touristy spots where we could spend the next 3 days. Do not worry, the hypocrisy is not lost on me.
We checked into our lodgings that was pleasant enough despite a sticky paste covering the bedding – created by the combination of dust from an overall lack of cleaning and sea air. With a mere three steps you were deposited directly on the mushy beach – albeit a kilometer away from the actual water. With no food with us to feed ourselves we went to look at what Paje had to offer. The drive in showed us that the meagre street food selection was best avoided which left us with the number of resort restaurants to select from. Popping into each one to look at the menu (not the offering so much but more the prices) we selected contender number 3: Mango Beach Lodge.
It is a beautiful place with 4 semi-self catering units available. With Matt’s mom joining us the next day our current accommodation was not going to cut it – our laid back Matt turned into perfectionist personified when it came to matters relating to his mom and everything had to be just perfect. His nervousness was infectious and soon even Clayton and I were making sure everything would be just right for Lesley’s arrival. Marcia went into negotiator mode, working relentlessly on the owner and managed to get the family unit for $15pppn. With our bellies full we arranged for an early check-in the next morning and went for a walk on the beach.
We walked further than intended and on our way back the tides have turned. Out of nowhere Zanzibar showed us its other side, the side you expect to see, want to see. With the semi overcast weather the ocean was transformed into a kaleidoscope of different blues consisting out of strips of aquamarine, turquoise, sapphire, arctic and sky blue. It exudes peaceful positive energy that you cannot help to soak up. With the water back we could go for a swim and the bath-water hot waters Marcia and I have been promised by guide books since Mozambique finally made its appearance in full. The water was surprisingly hot – too hot for its purpose to cool you down but perfect to relax our tired muscles.
I do not believe in the “first impressions lasts” nonsense – mostly because I usually make a very bad first impression on people so I am an advocate for second chances. Paje just proved my point – it showed us the less attractive side first – a gamble that paid off. It grows on you. Once you start to watch the local ladies going about their day, tending to their farms from early morning to late afternoon, picking up the pieces that washed up on the beach, cultivating their crops during the low tide and gather strings floating in the water during high tide. With their colourful outfits they look so peaceful and you can easily spend hours watching them, taking the raw product to its eventual export all the way to China.
The beauty of the place was not in its turquoise waters, it was in the mushy beach.