A tour of the Northern part of Unguja island, which can be undertaken over one or more days. Highlights include a spice farm, slave caves, beaches, Portuguese ruins and various Sultans’ Palaces.
Buses : Number 1 Darajani to Nungwi via Mahonda, Kinyasini & Chaani or via Mkokotoni
From the Port entrance, follow Malawi Road (opposite) to the East and continue straight on to join the North road.
The stretch of coastline immediately to the North of the town was previously an area of villas, palaces and recreational beaches. These days the road leaving for the North passes through a semi-industrial quarter of docks, tanker quays, military barracks and the University campus. This is also the route that was followed by the Bububu light railway and the iron pipeline which has carried domestic water supplies to the town for over 100 years since the time of Sultan Barghash.
About 500 metres past the junction with Creek Road, on the right-hand side is a fine building which is now the home of the Zanzibar Tourist Corporation (ZTC). Originally built for Sultan Majid in 1860, this house was used by Europeans whilst kitting their expeditions to the mainland, including David Livingstone in 1866. The building was then used by the Indian community until it was bought for the state in 1947 and converted into a laboratory for research into clove production.
Situated 2km up the coast from town (clearly signposted) are the ruins of the Marahubi Palace. Constructed by Sultan Barghash in 1880 to house his hareem (which reputedly consisted of one wife and 99 concubines), the Palace was one of the most impressive residences on the island. Built-in the Arabic style, the main house had balustraded balconies, the great supporting columns for which can still be seen. From here could be viewed the beautiful walled gardens, which are believed to have been inspired by the Sultan’s 1875 visit to Richmond Park in London. An overhead aqueduct and lily-covered cisterns (or ‘pleasure ponds’) can also be seen on the site and are evidence of the extensive Persian Baths. On the beach are the remains of a fortified sable or reception area, where visiting dignitaries would have been welcomed.
Here Barghash excelled in his over-indulgence. After seeing the great palaces of India and Britain, he replaced silver dinner services with gold and woollen divans with silk. Nothing but the finest would do. The Palace was destroyed in a fire in 1899.
Shortly after the Marahubi Palace, just before the small BP oil terminus, are the ruins of the earlier Mtoni Palace. Shortly before he relocated his court from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1840, Sultan Seyyid constructed the Royal Palace at Mtoni as his primary residence. This was a truly beautiful place. The palace comprised a large courtyard, surrounded by a main two-storey house and several other buildings. In the main house, the public areas were on the ground floor, with living quarters above. At the front side of the house was a large round tower with a tented balustrade and pyramid roof, where the Sultan would pace in contemplation, overlooking his fleet across the bay.
It was from here that the Sultan built and controlled his great African Empire and there were over a thousand people associated with his court here, including the royal family, Arab and Swahili merchants, scribes, concubines, servants and slaves. Honoured visitors and envoys arriving by launch would be greeted by the Sultan on the steps of the Palace and led through the palace courtyard, where peacocks, gazelles, ostriches and flamingoes wandered across the lawns, in the shade of fragrant flowering trees and shrubs. A great carved door at the front of the main house led into grand reception areas, decorated with huge ornate mirrors, Persian carpets and massive Chinese vases. Sultan Seyyid, a massive jewel pinned to his turban, his long beard and golden jewellery draped over colourful silken robes and great silver daggers would conduct his affairs seated here on cushions. His magnificence was a great negotiating ploy in itself, as he overwhelmed hard-nosed colonial diplomats with his elegant hospitality.
The palace was abandoned by 1885, in favour of more modern residences built by Sultan Barghash (see Marahubi Palace, above) and quickly fell into disrepair. Use as a storage depot in the first world war caused further damage and now only the walls and part of the roof remain. What remains of the site is sadly sandwiched between commercial premises and the small BP oil refinery. There have been suggestions that the remaining shell be converted into a Museum of Maritime and Industrial History, but this looks some considerable time away from fruition.
Around 3km North of Mtoni, to the left-hand side of the road is Kibweni Palace. This fine white-washed building, which strangely has the appearance of ‘a ship ashore’, is the only Sultan’s Palace on the island to remain in public use, accommodating both the President and state visitors.
Nearly 1km North of Kibweni takes a right-hand turn opposite a small filling station, along a rough dirt road. Follow the track for 4km out through the clove and coconut plantations.
Climbing the gentle incline leads towards the highest areas of Central Unguja and the heart of agricultural Zanzibar.
At Kidichi there are the well-preserved remains of a Persian bath, built around 1850 by Sultan Seyyid for his wife, Sherezade, who was the grand-daughter of the Shah of Persia, Fatah Ali. The Sultan owned many of the plantations in this area and the baths were constructed so that the royal personages could refresh themselves during visits to the plantations. The bathing and toilet facilities are still standing, with stucco plasterwork of peacock, clove and lotus flower symbols, typical of the Persian style. The underground furnace which maintained the supply of hot water can also be seen, but the rest-house that was once also on the site has disappeared altogether. There is a spice farm opposite Kidichi ruins (see also page 189).
Persian poetry inscribed inside the baths at Kidichi has been translated (approximately) as :
Pleasant is a flower-shaped wine With mutton chops from game Given from the hands of a flower-faced server At the bank of a flowering stream of water
A little further along the track is the Kizimbani Agricultural Research Station. This is the centre for the research and development of agriculture in Zanzibar and the place where new crop strains and farming methods are continually being tested in an attempt to improve the efficiency, sustainability and profitability of farming on the islands. Much of the work carried out here over the last twenty years has concentrated on the development of the rice crop. More recently attention has turned to a wider range of species, both to increase the yield for domestic consumption and to look into a range of cash crop export opportunities.
Close by the Agricultural Station are the Kizimbani ruins, which were also constructed by Sultan Seyyid in the same style as Kidichi, although slightly less elaborate. As well as the baths, this was also the site of one of the Sultan’s country residences, of which only rough foundations remain today. There appear to have been four apartments and a dining room around a courtyard. It is said that the staterooms were lavishly decorated with mosaics, stained glass and Chinese porcelain and that great banquets were carried here from town to entertain the Sultan’s party during rides through the plantations.
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Returning to the main North road by the same route, approximately 3.5km further on at the bottom of a small dip is a small track on the left-hand side (signposted ‘Ventaclub’). A short way along this track, there is a fork to the left. After a few hundred yards, this track turns into an overgrown path, which soon comes out on a small headland, upon which are the overgrown remains of the Chuini Palace. To the right is a large tower, presumably a watchtower or lighthouse. Even from close range its quite difficult to make out the grey columns and crumbling walls of the palace itself, through the rough field of papaya trees. The site is presently so overgrown that its difficult to get a good impression either of the building or its position. To the left, the track passes down a small incline to the shoreward side to a small bay, where local fishermen mend their nets. From the small beach where it can be seen that the Palace commands a superb position overlooking this idyllic little cove and the shoreline beyond.
The site is said to be on private land, although nobody seems too bothered by the occasional visitor. In all honesty, by the time the other ruins have been visited, it will not be too much of a loss to bypass Chuini, although this will surely not remain the case when the site is cleared and renovated.
Back on the main road, immediately opposite is a spice farm, open to visitors. A guide will take you around a shady garden, which has an astonishing variety of plants. Also to be found are some of some intricately carved column capitals said to have been stolen from the Chuini Palace many years ago and now used as seats by the local children.
At 12km from town, there is a large samam tree to the right-hand side of the road and a turning to the left (straight ahead), 11 km to Bumbwini.
After a few kilometres, take the first left fork towards Mangwapani and after a further 500m take a small track to the left. This track leads to a small turning area and a path to a flight of stone steps and the cavern. It is best to take a torch with you.
The coral cavern is a large natural cave with a small entrance and a pool of freshwater at the bottom. It is reputed to have been discovered in the early 19th century by a slave boy working on the estate of Hamed bin Salim el Harthy, a wealthy Arab plantation owner. The boy found the entrance whilst searching for a goat which had fallen into the cavern. As a source of freshwater, the discovery was a blessing and from that day Hamed’s slaves regularly collected water from the pool for use on the estate. There is, however, no evidence that the cavern was ever used to conceal slaves after prohibition.
Continue 1km on past the track to the Coral Cavern to a large, dilapidated Arab house. Just before the house, a track on the right leads 500m to the Slave Chambers.
Following the abolition of slave trading in 1873, Arab merchants were resentful of what they saw as British interference. Black-market prices for slaves shot up and a thriving illicit trade developed, aided at sea by loop-holes in the treaties and the inability of the British to effectively patrol the whole of the Indian Ocean. On land, the trade was more difficult to conceal. These Slave Chambers were constructed by Mohammed bin Nassor Al-Alwi, an important slave trader of the time, to hide slaves in transit from the mainland to the Zanzibar plantations and export further afield. The cave consists of two of rectangular pits, dug from the coral limestone and originally covered with a coral rag, laid on mangrove poles. A sunken pathway provided concealed access to the beach.
Rejoin the North road at Selem and after 8km turn right at the police station and sugar factory.
Some 2km further, immediately to the left of the road are a number of huge kapok trees, which resemble giant pines but which are actually deciduous. The seeds produced by these trees are surrounded by a dense mat of cotton-like fibres, which was widely used for stuffing and padding before the proliferation of synthetic fibres. A mature tree can produce over 40kg of fibre each harvest, but being almost pure cellulose, it is not suitable for weaving. Kapok fibre is still used for sealing the hulls of dhows and other small boats.
The East German-style housing estate here in rural Gamba seems even more out of place in than those in town and comes as quite a shock, but it’s quickly forgotten.
Just before Fukuchani, to the right of the road is a small hill, which is probably the most dramatic feature on this low-lying island. On top is a military base, whilst on one side of the hill, there are some interesting erosion features, pictures of which can be seen in the National Museum. It is advisable to avoid the military area.
A small sign and a large rural school next to a giant baobab tree to the left of the road mark the location of the Fukuchani ruins, which are reached by a track across the local football pitch. The ruins, which date from the 16th century, are known locally as ‘The Portuguese House’, although they are more likely to be of Swahili origin. Much of the coral rag walls remain standing, with carved door arches and defensive gun slits still in evidence. The ruins, which are well maintained, overlook the bay towards Tumbatu Island.
Similar to Fukuchani, the ruins at Mvuleni are of a Swahili house from the 16th century, set in a large compound, along with other buildings. In the North-East corner there is a deep cavern with a freshwater spring. A path leads to the ruins from the main road just to the South of Fukuchani, adjacent to some huts and a small shop. Unlike Fukuchani, this site is overgrown and in poor repair.
The island of Tumbatu is the third largest island in the archipelago and despite being only 8km long by 3km wide, it has a very individual history.
The island’s people, the Watumbatu, are distinct from the people of Unguja, having been ruled for centuries by a separate Sheha, independent but subservient to the Mwinyi Mkuu (the infamous Mwinyi Mkuu, Queen Mwana Mwema, who liberated Zanzibar from the Portuguese was previously a Sheha of Tumbatu). They speak their own dialect of Kiswahili and are fiercely independent, being renowned for their aloofness and pride, although not for their hospitality. The Watumbatu are strictly Moslem and will not tolerate unsympathetic behaviour. It is known from Arabic records that the islands had been settled by Moslem peoples by the 13th century and this has been confirmed by archaeological evidence gathered from the ruins of an ancient town on the Southern tip of the island. The Watumbatu, who still claim their descent from Shirazi royalty, have the reputation of being the best sailors on the East Coast of Africa.
Take the left turn at the track that leads down past the transmitter tower and left again at the tree where the road goes over the water pipe to follow the very rough track down into Kendwa.
The fishing village of Nungwi straddles the Northern tip of Unguja Island and its shade is a welcome relief after the barren stretch of road that leads there. There are a number of local guest houses in the village and a couple of small foreign-owned hotels out of town to the South East. On the West side of the cape is the ‘Zanzibar strip’, with a number of guesthouses and a couple of loud bars. There are fine sandy beaches around the cape and excellent diving and game fishing off the coast. For centuries Nungwi was best renowned for its boat-building tradition, but these days its more famous for its bars.