Mafia is the southernmost of the three large islands off the coast of Tanzania. It is around 20km long by 8km wide.
Unlike the other two islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, which along with a number of smaller islands form the semi-autonomous state of Zanzibar, Mafia is politically an integral part of mainland Tanzania. This is of particular note for visitors during times of political instability in Zanzibar, which does not generally have any impact here.
Mafia is a real sleepy backwater … unspoiled, uncommercial and apparently timeless, where local people go about their traditional ways of life barely touched by the outside world.
The island itself is much more like the mainland in character than the other islands, with central areas being covered with bush and light woodland, as well as coconut and cashew plantations. The coast is generally lined with palm trees, but there are not the sweeping sandy beaches that are to be found on Zanzibar. Here the shoreline is generally narrow and mangrove forests are widespread.
Mafia Island is a really sleepy backwater, a slice of the old Swahili Coast, where local people go about their traditional way of life relatively undisturbed by the outside world.
It is also the location for the largest marine park in East Africa, which contains not only some of the finest unbleached coral in the Indian Ocean but which also claims to have whale sharks in residence year-round … something which brings divers in from around the world.
Mafia Island is ideal for active people … divers, sailors and walkers … looking for something really different and unusual.
Most of our more outdoorsy guests stay at the amazing Chole Mjini Lodge, sometimes in combination with the simpler and more beachy Lua Cheia.
Guests in search of a higher level of conventional comforts might consider either or both of Kinasi Lodge and Ras Mbisi Lodge.
Lower cost options in the Chole Bay area are Shamba Kilole Lodge and Mafia Island Lodge.
Mafia is not primarily a beach location, therefore. This island is for people who want to see how Zanzibar was thirty or even a hundred years ago. It is for people who want to explore, meet people, go walking and sailing and to really immerse themselves in real Swahili culture.
Mafia is also a prime dive location, with the Chole Bay Marine National Park as the main focus.
Kilondoni is the main town and a refreshingly simple place. As you can see from this photo of the main square, there is no tar on the roads in Mafia, just rough sandy tracks along which to bump in a selection of pre-independence vintage Landrovers. The only road is flanked on either side for a kilometre or so by these classic Swahili buildings and in the centre of town, there is a small market.
The atmosphere is incredibly relaxed. Mafians are very friendly people … distant and respectful to strangers, saving their smiles for once a dialogue is started.
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In terms of development, Mafia must be thirty years behind Zanzibar. With only five places to stay on the island (two of which are practically empty all year round), visitor numbers remain refreshingly low. As a result, Mafia still feels like part of the old Swahili Coast.
In Kilondoni there is plenty of evidence in the architecture and in the faces of the old Swahili connection. These carved doors, which are so synonymous with Stone Town in Zanzibar, can be found throughout the ports of the Indian Ocean, from Mozambique to Goa. Even though Mafia feels so wonderfully isolated now, it is clear that it was once very well connected.
Dig a little deeper and one can find evidence that Mafia once played a pivotal role in the workings of the old Swahili coast. On the tiny island of Chole Mjini, just offshore in Chole Bay, the forest is strewn with creeper-clad ruins … in true Raiders of the Lost Ark style. Here on this tiny island once stood a settlement of the same name, which was one of the most important towns controlling trade from the silver mines of Eastern Zimbabwe, via the old ports of Kilwa and Michangani. This silver was for centuries the highest quality in the known world and was used for smelting the finest swords throughout the Indian and Ottoman empires … a fact which made Mafia a very important place indeed.
This great trade across the Indian Ocean was carried out by huge dhows, which sailed the monsoon winds across the open seas. Whilst dhows remain to this day commonplace all along the East Coast of Africa, these huge ocean-going jahasi are increasingly rare. Here on the beach at Kilondoni, there are usually three or four of these great giants, which are still in service providing an essential means of trade with the mainland. This working beach-front at Kilondoni is one of the highlights of a visit to Mafia.
Mafia is famed for its incredibly rich marine environment and in Chole Bay, it can boast the largest marine reserve in East Africa.
This area is especially rich in small fish species and has some of the finest unbleached coral in the Indian Ocean.
The Mafia Island archipelago is formed of a number of very large islands and small uninhabited coral atolls. Due to its position alongside the barrier, the island is the meeting place of large oceanic fish and the vast variety of fish common to the Indian Ocean coral reefs. There are over 400 species of fish in the park. The Park is a paradise for both expert scuba divers as well as those wishing to snorkel or sail in the native local boats from island to island
The Mafia archipelago forms part of the coral reef protecting the coast of Tanzania. It is situated about 130 km south of Dar-es-Salaam and about 25 km from the mainland, looking towards the huge Rufiji river delta which shaped the island and influenced its ecosystem by supplying nutritional substances at the base of a complex food-chain.
On land, the rich variety of vegetation is dominated by large palm groves. In some areas, you will find baobab trees dotting the typical African savannah. The mangroves play an extremely important role by preventing coastal erosion. There are also fruit trees in many areas, mainly mango and cashew trees.
The archipelago’s wildlife is extremely varied: monkeys, small antelopes, wild pigs, lemurs, as well as a small colony of dwarf hippopotamuses. There are countless types of birds undergoing significant seasonal variations according to the passing migrants. Falcons and fish eagles build their nests on both the small and larger islands.
The island of Mafia lies off the mouth of the Rufiji River in Southern Tanzania. It is the largest of a small archipelago of islands and atolls and is truly a paradise in the Indian Ocean. Mafia is sometimes referred to as one of the best and most beautiful Indian Ocean tropical resort. It is very famous for beach leisure, deep-sea fishing, scuba diving and Yacht safaris. The coast is generally lined with palm trees, the shoreline is narrow, the sea is extraordinarily clear with a variety of corals which allows an abundance of fish such as barracuda, scorpionfish, tuna, mullet and marlin.
Unlike the other two islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, which along with a number of smaller islands form the semi-autonomous state of Zanzibar, Mafia is politically an integral part of mainland Tanzania. Getting to Mafia used to be a difficult exercise, but not any longer as there are quite a number of scheduled flights flying into and out of Mafia every day. Coastal Aviation, Zan Air, Tropical Air and Kinasi’s private aeroplanes which do not operate on a scheduled basis can fly at any time except after 1830 and before 0630 hrs as charter flights.
To protect an internationally significant ecosystem, the Mafia Island Marine Park (the first in Tanzania) (map) was opened in July 1995. The project is backed by the WWF which contributes human and financial resources for its development and maintenance. The Mafia Island Tours is equipped with a variety of excursions and diving centre awarding international PADI and NAUI diving certificates.