East African Dreams
Our Kenyan visas were expiring and we needed to move on. From our last stop and clearance out in Shimoni, we headed off on our shortest country-to-country passage ever. 50 miles! And what a sweet little journey it was, which took us to a whole new set of adventures.
With a snorkel on a pristine coral smothered reef just over the border we headed to Tanga, Tanzania. The unofficial yacht base in Tanzania and one of the most protected harbours on the East African coast.
Tanga is a sleepy little town, not much goes on there.
We were warmly welcomed at the Tanga Yacht Club, a small set up on the inner harbor, with a sandy beach for the kids to play on and a small yacht club serving the coldest and cheapest beer we have ever come across along with great big portions of delicious local food. East Africa was getting better and better for us!
Tanga is one of the oldest seaports in East Africa, it dates back to the 6th century and it is still the second largest port in Tanzania. It was first established by the Portuguese, who controlled the area from 1500 to 1700 when fighting started over it between them and the Omani Empire. The Sultanate of Oman liked a lot African ports and the rule was fierce once taken over by them.
The Germans then took over a significant area of the coastline in the 19th century, and in 1891 it became German East Africa.
It was an important trading port for ivory, and sadly slaves, back in the cities earlier days. It is still an important route for trading and commercial operations nowadays, with it connecting inland Tanzania to the coast with the railway system that was initially started by the Germans.
Clearance and immigration took several days and included a visit to the beach for a conversation with a Health Official, no word on Covid was mentioned in the country that was ignoring the plague faced by the rest of the world.
Requests for ‘extra fees’ were tried on us by an overzealous harbour official who came to the boat repeatedly. We politely declined his request after we pointed out that the document that showed the fees was printed in 2015, not last week as he had stated.
While in Tanga we did many day trips out to the reef areas close by. There were many and they were exquisite!
Healthy coral, colourful reefs structures, and many small fish. The bigger ones we less obvious but the smaller critters and nudibranchs more than made up for it.
Emelia delighted in each and every small find on our dives and we spent hours snorkeling with the other two little fish that live on the boat with us. We were absolutely loving the warm and clear waters of the northern part of the country.
Apparently, the fishing in Tanzania used to be world-class, both game fishing and just general bottom fishing, but as with the rest of the world, overpopulation and overfishing have made their mark here too. We find it so sad seeing this pattern happening as we travel the globe. However we did manage to snag a few beauties around the less populated areas of the coastline, including this tasty treat on the trip from Kenya to Tanzania.
Once the formalities were FINALLY cleared we headed down to Dar es Salaam. It was almost Christmas, and with no other children in Tanga, we were on the hunt for some buddies for our kids – along with some Christmas presents for the family!
We anchored off the famous Dar Yacht Club and were welcomed as Temporary members.
The place is a gem. Situated along the waterfront, with the premises boasting an open air quarterdeck (adults only which was our savior!) 3 different restaurants across the levels, sailing club, repair facilities, cheap and cold beer, great food and most of all, the exceptional people that we got to meet.
The sailing and ex-pat community here are absolutely incredible and we were made welcome and became part of the furniture very quickly, making new life-long friends while there.
We could not have landed ourselves in a more welcoming and fun environment for this lonely Christmas we were shaping up to having, Covid having ruined all plans of seeing any family.
Dar was a shock to the system. It was the busiest and most bustling place we had been to in almost a year.
After departing Thailand, we had stopped in Sri Lanka, which was busy yes, but still small in the way of shopping malls and supermarket options. Then there had been nothing of the sort while crossing the Indian Ocean. Maldives, nope – we weren’t even allowed to step on land, Chagos – zero of anything aside from sharks, coconuts and fish. Seychelles – lovely but lacking shopping options and what was there was shockingly overpriced, and Kenya had also been few and far between for malls and shopping and when you did find them, they were kind of, I don’t know how to say, odd. Not altogether bad odd, but just very different from what we had known for shopping.
Dar had all we needed, even if some of it ended up being cheap Chinese knocks offs that were returned after Christmas, some of the kid’s games ended up proving unusable for the purposes you bought them for!!
We spent the next few weeks at the Yacht Club, getting our dose of city life and spending time with new friends, especially our new South African buddies James and Julie and their young daughter.
These two made Dar for us. They brought us into their circle of friends there and helped us feel a sense of belonging and friendship again, that we had missed dearly while being so isolated for so long.
They reminded us of good friends at home and many days and evenings were spent with them, between the yacht club and their home.
Other club members also made a considerable impact on our happiness and treated us like long standing members, the hospitality and ease of being there almost had us moving in and never leaving, but there was more of this gorgeous country to explore.
Zanzibar was a short half-day sail from Dar, and so off we set to explore the historical island.
We put the boat into the marina in Stonetown and set off each morning to explore the city.
Dressed in long skirts and sleeves to avoid any offense to the local Muslim population we explored the ancient stone streets, dodging the influx of scantily clad Russians who had invaded the island.
Tanzania and Turkey were the only places that they could travel due to Covid, and travel they had, en mass to Zanzibar.
I guess all tourism is good during times like we are experiencing at the moment but there are some tourists that should stay at home until they can learn that travel involves some level of respect to the communities and customs of the place you are visiting.
We witnessed some shocking behaviors and felt very conflicted seeing the state of dress and attitudes that were displayed while there, toward the locals. Maybe it was unwitting the offense that we saw in their faces, but then maybe some research is needed before you travel so you don’t wear out your welcome too quickly.
Zanzibar was an eye opener for us, and especially the kids with its dark and bitter history of the slave trade. We had touched on it in Lamu, in Kenya but I don’t think the kids really got it.
Zanzibar is an autonomous part of Tanzania and has had a chequered past.
An island that has been settled since the Stone Age, it was used as a trading post from the 9th century, it was a strategic place in the Indian Ocean for trade in ivory, slaves, gold and ambergris between the Persian, Indian, Arab and later on the Portuguese and later German nations.
Vasco de Gamma arrived in the late 1400s and this was the beginning of the Portuguese rule, which lasted for almost 2 centuries.
Then from the 1400s to the late 1800s the Omani Empire fought for control and made it theirs until the British took over later in the 1800s.
In Stonetown we visited the museums and the Slavers ‘pens’ for want of a better word and were changed irrevocably.
The shocking conditions people were kept and the treatment and the way they were acquired in the first place, stung deeply for all of us, it was a lesson in what humanity can become when it lets itself get carried away, thinking one such person or people are better or worth more than others.
There was a somber afternoon after our visit to the slave caves, realising the extent of the disgusting cruelty shown to the local population which is a horrific part of our of human history.
The British were instrumental in abolishing the East African Slave Trade in the late 1800s, the British eventually told the Sultan of Zanzibar that a total blockade of trade would occur unless they dissolved the slave trade. Reluctantly the Sultan signed the agreement and all slave markets were closed, slave trading in the territories was made illegal and liberated slaves had protection to live freely.
From Stonetown we escaped to the north of the island and explored some of the beaches and smaller islands around it.
We laughed at charter boats packed with so many people they looked if they were going to sink! Their trampolines packed with drunken tourists raving their way up and down the coast on their booze cruises.
We wandered the powdery white sand beaches and collected shells, swam in the crystal clear waters and shooed people off the back of our boat who decided we were a pontoon for them to swim to. They would climb onto the back of the boat for a rest when they realized it was a longer swim than they had anticipated. People not realizing this was our home and we didn’t really enjoy having them hanging off the back of our boat!
We spent a week anchored off Mnemba Island, on the East coast of Zanzibar. Diving daily, exploring the underwater world and finding the best sites before the influx of tour operators arrived with their divers and snorkelers, chasing any and every type of marine life they could see.
Then come evening enjoying the peace and serenity of being our own island of cruising happiness again.
James and Julie came to visit, staying on the mainland of Zanzibar and us collecting them to come diving and spending time on the boat with us. Many beers were consumed, much biltong eaten, and dives completed!
The island of Tumbatu was also a good spot for our diving, with many beautiful sites to check out. More hours were spent in and under the water than above and I am surprised we did not start growing gills, it would have made diving quicker and easier if we had!
We then headed back to the West side of Zanzibar island and found isolated reef areas to anchor nearby and spent day after day submerged in the ocean, every evening the noise of the dive compressor filling the air with its lawnmower sounds while we dropped into beds early, exhausted from another day’s activities.
From Zanzibar, we headed North again to Pemba Island, where the water was clean and clear, and the tourists were no longer.
Pemba Island is part of the Zanzibar Archipelago and is a lush, green looking island. It is well known for its history in clove growing and also the fishing, which has decreased sadly now, but was once world class.We had the place to ourselves, and one other boat that we had met with 3 children on it.
We dived and fished; we walked beaches and enjoyed the company of the family from Mauritius who were just starting their sailing journey, on the boat they had bought here in Tanzania. We had bays and beaches to ourselves and pretty reefs and shallow sandbanks to explore.
Pemba was remote and gorgeous, with many bays to shelter in and a special island with an established marine park for us to dive in.
The Captain and I did a crazy fast and incredible drift dive with a South African couple off another boat we had met. Watching the world fly by at 4 knots of drift was amazing and exhilarating.
Not all the diving was incredible, sadly. There was much evidence of huge areas of dynamite fishing, coral rubble littering the banks of the reef, where it should have been alive and thriving. It was sad to see and a brutal reminder of the effect humanity has on this planet.
From Pemba we had another stop back up in Tanga, while we waited for cruising friends to bring us a new part from Cape Town where they had gone for Christmas and a visa run.
We spent the days lazily. Some boat jobs, some walking, some beers at the yacht club, some day trips out to snorkel and swim on the reefs.
We met Arthur, the Commodore, along with the other members of Tanga Yacht Club and their lovely children, who helped break up the monotony of day-to-day life while we waited for our boat parts.
We took a trip to the Usambara Mountains one week for a change of scene. A 4 hour drive transported us to another world, a world that strangely looked very like New Zealand in its scenery.
We hiked and searched for chameleons, for Libby especially.
Seeing as we would not be able to go to Madagascar as it was still closed (and they now had the plague, you know, the actual, old school type plague!), this was the next best thing for the chameleon-loving daughter we have.
We stayed in a lovely little hotel up in the mountains and were spoilt with endless pancakes for breakfasts and amazing hiking to outstanding viewpoints during the days.
We would flop into bed, tired and happy from a day of exploring the vast forests.
It was a wonderful change in both scenery and activities for all of us, the blues of the ocean exchanged for the greens of the mountains and the cool fresh air a welcome break from the endless heat and humidity!
Everyone became expert chameleon spotters on our many hikes, aside from poor mum, who only managed to find one dead one. The laughing stock of the family when I spotted it and with great excitement declared I was not the only one not to find one finally, only to discover the poor creature had been hit by a motorbike and was dead.
With our parts were arriving soon so we headed back to meet the friends who were bringing them.
Remember when we were in Kilifi and we kissed that bridge with the top of our mast…well, we were still paying the price for that, our wind instruments at the top of the mast were not working. And with the decision made that we would head to South Africa, late in the season, we decided that for one of the most potentially difficult passages in the world, we needed to know the wind speeds and directions more than just poking our head out the helm station to see what was going on.
Unfortunately, on the fitting of the new instrument that we had waited for, and paid a lot for – being a boat part and all, it still didn’t work.
6 trips up and down the mast later for the Captain, trying to fit the old, the new, the old and new cobbled together, the glued, the soldered, we decided that we were having to do the next passage old school and without it.
I tied strips of an old sheet to each side of the outer shrouds and that was going to be our new wind instruments.
And with that decision made, we started our trek South again, with stops in Zanzibar and then Dar to say goodbye and repair the main traveller car that we blew on the leg from Zanzibar to Dar. Cruising remotely like this with only basic yacht facilities available was becoming challenging.
We could not get the new part, so James, along with his friend Eric, who is a boat maestro, helped to get it sorted. Initially a beautiful dyneema attachment which was shredded the first time we raised the sail, then a rugged looking wire attachment that worked, it wasn’t pretty but it did the job.
We were eternally grateful for Eric’s help, as it would have been a long and expensive trip without a mainsail to fly.
3 more stops to go in Tanzania. Piet, Howie and Mario, on Piet’s boat, joined us. Who were also heading the same way. Piet got on a plane in Dar but we sailed south with his boat and his 2 crew.
Stop 1 was Latham Island. A flat coral island about 300m long and 300m wide, in the middle of the deep Indian Ocean, and a day sail from Dar.
We arrived with the weather one can only dream of.
We had flat seas and clear water to indulge in, and after speaking to some friends from Dar Yacht Club, who had also sailed out for the weekend, we had lucked out and got the weather of the year, as apparently, it is few and far between that you find it as calm and welcoming. It is usually incredibly rolly and uncomfortable.
A popular spearfishing and game fishing island, we were excited to be here, both for the fishing and to see the numerous nesting birds on the island. It is an important location for the masked booby, brown noddy and several tern species, along with several species of turtles.
The Captain dragged us around the island several times fishing in the big boat, and it paid off, with him landing the biggest Mahi-Mahi (dorado) either of us has ever seen. It was an absolute monster, and yes we did keep it because we love Mahi, along with the fact they are one of the fastest growing fish in the sea and have no way to be commercially fished, so we know as far as sustainability goes, they are a good choice.
Our freezer was filled and we spent the next couple of days playing in the crystal clear water and walking the islands surrounds watching the vast amount of nesting birds on the island.
It was truly a spectacular stop.
Stop 2 was Mafia Island. Known for its diving and whale sharks. Yes please!!
While on the way to ‘Whale Shark Mission’ we found the most perfect island we had seen in a long time. Small enough to be our own paradise, not another soul around, a shallow and protected anchorage, white sandy beaches, wood for beach fires and fresh oysters lining the rocks that we gorged ourselves on.
It was a true paradise and we spent 2 nights delighting in it, this was cruising.
‘Whale Shark Mission’ was successful, with the Captain spotting the large dorsal fins relatively soon after we entered their usual area. Gliding elegantly through the water we drifted around while these majestic giants fed on the surface right by us. We were yet again enthralled by their sheer size and exceptional grace and beauty. They truly are magnificent creatures.
We tried to jump in and swim with them, but the water was full of a murky type of plankton, obviously why they are there, so we were satisfied with enjoying them from the surface with well positioned drifts in the boat made by the Captain.
So incredibly lucky, our little family!
From there it was a cracking sail down to Mtwara, where we would wait for our weather window to head South.
We had 2 more pit stops at gorgeous islands and lamented the fact that we had left ourselves too little time for this part of the country.
Final stop was Mtwara. Where we were debating going, due to the unrest over the border in Mozambique. There was intense fighting going on over gas that had been found and extremist groups had been executing people. Not a great thought, being all on our own on a boat near that kind of thing.
Between our buddy boat and us, we made the choice and decided we would anchor near the Navy base, and in fact, it turned out to be perfectly fine, with incredibly helpful and friendly local people, who even contacted the immigration officer on a Saturday through a network of phone calls from the locals we had met by the beach, for us to be able to clear out when the weather window appeared.
The kindness of these people, who live in a country with what most of us would consider next to nothing in possessions or support from a government never fails to surprise and delight me.
How many of our countries would show such a welcome and help to some foreigners? Not many I would assume.
So with clearance done, the fridges stocked with fresh food, passage meals made and frozen and jerry cans filled, we embarked on the next passage, what is considered one of the most challenging, the Mozambique channel, not for sissys.
A 10 or so day trip to Richards Bay in South Africa. A trip that would take us almost out of the mighty Indian Ocean that had been so kind and welcoming to us.
The ocean I had feared so much yet had filled us with exceptional experiences and fantastic, life changing adventures.
I was sad to leave East Africa, in fact, we all were. Our time here, our unexpected and unplanned. 6 months in this paradise we never thought we would go to, our phones filled with new friends numbers and our hearts and minds filled with the joy, warmth and experiences of Africa, forever bedded into our souls.