A tour of North Eastern Unguja, including the Dunga Palace, Chwaka and the hotels and guesthouses of the coastal strip.
Buses : Number 4 Darajani to Mchangani Number 6 Darajani to Chwaka
Take the East road out of town, in the direction of Chwaka.
About 14km from town, on a left-hand bend, is a signpost for the Dunga Ruins, just off the road to the right.
The Palace at Dunga was the seat of the traditional ruler of Zanzibar, the Mwinyi Mkuu (literally ‘Great Chieftain’).
It is thought that even as far back as the first Shirazi landings on Zanzibar during the 7th century, there was already a tribal chieftain installed on Unguja. During these early centuries, the family of the Mwinyi Mkuu intermarried with the Shirazi settlers (claimed to be of royal Persian lineage) and took on the Islamic faith. When the Portuguese arrived in 1499, it was with the Mwinyi Mkuu that they made their negotiations and it was he who they ultimately subjugated by force. From this time forward the Mwinyi Mkuu dynasty lost much of its power. But whilst rank and power may have been conceded to the Portuguese, the Arabs and later the British, for centuries it was the Mwinyi Mkuu who the people of Zanzibar continued to regard as their leader.
The Palace at Dunga was built around 1850 by the ruling Mwinyi Mkuu, Muhammad bin Ahmed bin Hassan el Alawi. Previous royal seats had been at Kizimkazi, Unguja Ukuu and Stone Town, but this new location was chosen by the preceding King Sultan bin Hassan after the Omani Sultan located his permanent residence in Stone Town. The new palace was to exceed anything previously built. With two storeys, it had massive three feet walls supporting a flat roof garden, from which there were extensive views of the island. The building surrounded a central courtyard and the windows were filled with stained glass ‘of all colours’. The palace was guarded by fifty armed retainers.
Legend has it that during the palace construction slaves were killed in order that their blood could be mixed with the mortar to bring strength and good fortune to the house. During the 1920s a nearby well was found to be ‘half full of human bones’. It is also said that whenever the Mwinyi Mkuu left the building, all the clove and coconut pickers had to rapidly descend their trees and prostrate themselves in fear of their life, in case they should look down upon their chief.
King Muhammad died in 1865 and was succeeded by his son Ahmed, who died without an heir in 1873, ending forever the line of the Mwinyi Mkuu.
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The house was demolished in 1910, leaving only the lower walls standing. These were reconstructed to first-floor level in 1994. The stained glass windows are now in the National Museum. The overgrown garden has many mature fruit trees, including mangosteen, lychee and almond India and commands a fine view of the island.
In the last century, Chwaka was a slaving port, exporting across the Indian Ocean to Arabia, Seychelles and beyond. Later its clean air and lack of mosquitoes led it to become a favourite resting place for colonial administrators and Arab dignitaries alike.
Today the town is a quiet fishing village overlooking a broad bay of shallow water and mangrove swamps. Its history is evident from a line of fine but decayed villas, standing above the shoreline on the coral ridge. It is also possible to find fragments of Chinese pottery and other tell-tale signs in the shallow waters of the bay at low tide. There is a lively open-air fish market, with a high proportion of tropical or paradise species to be found. There is little accommodation at Chwaka and most visitors head north along the coast for hotels. It is possible to catch a ferry across Chwaka Bay to head further down the East Coast to Bwejuu and Jambiani.
Heading up the coast, a tar road goes as far as Pongwe and then turns into a rough track for some distance before reaching tar again. This road passes by a number of not so nice out-of-town resort hotels, most notably at Uroa and Pwani Mchangani.
The coast road continues all the way up to Matemwe, but this last stretch is pretty rough. It is probably easier to take the inland route back to the North road and then back out to Matemwe. This inland route passes through some wide, flat agricultural land more reminiscent of the mainland. This is some of the most fertile lands on the island and is a centre for rice, sugar and cassava production. Also common in this area are the impressive Borassus palms, with their massive, top-heavy trunks.
The new route from the North road out to the coast at Matemwe passes through an area of coral rag country, with a fine selection of magnificently grotesque baobab trees. The road intercepts the coast track at a tee junction and heads off along the coast in both directions through the palm strip.
To the North the track leads to some tasteful bungalow accommodation.
About 1km off the coast of Matemwe lies the small island of Mnemba. About 500m in diameter, the island is surrounded by a circular coral reef, renowned for its diving and game fishing. It privately leased and to visit it is necessary to stay in the exclusive lodge.