Off the Beaten Track: Coconuts and Cycling in Zanzibar
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.” – Martin Buber
Travellers know this to be true: there is a special type of satisfaction that comes with feeling like you’ve “discovered” something. Zanzibar is famous for white sand beaches, calm clear waters featuring fishing boats with romantic white sales, and a lush countryside ripe for growing fragrant spices.
Many tourists come to this idyllic island to lounge on the beach sipping cocktails and spend their evenings dancing in night clubs. Given my extreme susceptibility to sunburns and inability to sit still for too long, I have never been very fond of lounging on the beach. So I was excited to learn while researching things to do that a lesser known attraction to add to Zanzibar’s magnificence is cycling.
Philip and I attempted to contact a cycling tour operator in Nungwi that we heard about on Trip Advisor prior to leaving Canada, but weren’t able to firm anything up. When we asked for information, the company rep mailed us a brochure and told us to come find them. Once we arrived, we attempted to call the number on the brochure but it was disconnected. We were starting to feel like our cycle trip may not happen.
Luckily for us, Nungwi is a small enough town that we very quickly got our bearings and went toward the turtle aquarium to try to set up a ride. We had read that the cycling tour operator was located there, so that’s all we were going on. Once there, the ticket window attendant seemed confused when we asked about bikes. He checked with his friend, who checked with a friend while we waited for a long time, as it often goes when travelling in East Africa. Eventually someone began leading us toward a small shop back on the beach. The shop sold fair trade items but didn’t seem to say anything about cycling, so we would never have found it on our own. There we met Machano, who would become our guide for the afternoon. He provided an overview of the tour and had us pick out our bikes.
The bikes were in better shape than other bikes I have ridden, but still could have used a good tune up and the selection of helmets was almost comical. I chose a pink, child size beauty while Philip got something a little more subdued, and Machano rocked a camo helmet. We took off through the village toward our first destination: a cave with “crystals” in it.
Meandering through the village provided a much different perspective than Nungwi’s beach front which is developed for tourism. Villagers were going about their business uninterested in our passing through, except for the children who ran behind us singing “jambo muzungu!” as if we were celebrities.
Eventually, we ended up on the same narrow highway that we had rode in a taxi to Nungwi from Stonetown a few days earlier. I had to chuckle to myself a bit because Philip had remarked, “can you imagine cycling along this road?” and now we were.
We definitely thought this through
After a short but tense ride along the highway, we turned off onto a road that seemed like little more than two tracks in the dirt. I began to have difficulty keeping the bike upright and eventually it tipped over to one side. Machano seemed worried so he advised us to leave the bikes where they were and continue to the cave on foot. After a brief jaunt walking with our bikes, we were at the mouth of the cave which our guide said had only been opened to people the year before. Two men were waiting for us with flashlights, as well as two teenage boys in their school uniforms. Together, our expanding posse continued into the cave. Our guide pointed out certain features and some lovely spiders, while the more outgoing of the teenage boys practised his English with me. We walked a short distance underground and made it to this strange “crystal” that was in the cave near its exit.
I asked Machano if he knew what the crystal was made of, but he said he didn’t and was hoping to get a geologist in sometime to confirm. For now, all he could say was it was probably some kind of stalactite.
From the cave, we worked up quite a sweat while heading to little village to see a blacksmith. After trying the bellows and learning how the men melt down the metal to make the nails for the iconic fishing ships that pepper the coastline, we asked cautiously if we could have a fresh coconut to drink.
Trying out the bellows while the pros look on.
We were visiting Zanzibar during the month of Ramadan.Given that Nungwi caters to tourists, it hadn’t really affected us until then. Now in this small village, we knew we should ask permission to eat or drink in front of others. Machano interpreted for us and the villagers said it was fine. So fine, that pretty much before I finished the word coconut, a young boy was halfway up a tree.
He made it look so easy
He began throwing down coconuts for us when the blacksmiths started yelling at him and some villagers joined in too. We thought maybe we had been out of line by asking for a coconut but Machano told us they were telling him that he was picking the wrong ones. Eventually it became so heated, that another lad ran up a different tree and threw a few more down from there. Once the villagers had decided on which two coconuts were the best, they hacked them open for us and let us have the freshest, most satisfying coconut ever. This ended up being our favourite part of the day. No one seemed to mind us eating and drinking except a little girl who told our guide that she wasn’t Muslim so she could have some coconut too which made him laugh out loud. We all admired her courage though.
Again the village kids made us feel like celebrities by running behind us repeating “bye bye” and jambo” over and over until we reached the highway. Then we peddled to the last site on our tour, some Portuguese ruins and an inland salt water cave. It took me a bit of courage to jump in the water but I was glad I did. The water was cool enough to leave us refreshed for our approximately 8km ride back to town.
After dropping off our bikes,we walked back along the beach instead of taking the same way and enjoyed a quiet section of the beach, bathed in golden twilight, where I was able to take this incredible shot of some village boys playing football between the boats.
National Geographic feel free to contact me about this.
Cycling through the villages ended up being one of our favourite experiences in Zanzibar and we were eager to promote the excursion to other travellers we would meet afterwards. We also still chuckle about the villager’s enthusiasm toward selecting the best coconuts too.
A few months after our visit as I write this, it appears that Zanzibar Cycling Adventures is who guided our cycling tour and the company has since improved their web presence. It looks like a lot of people have been enjoying cycle tours with them since our passing through, which is fantastic as they are a great tour operator, and we are glad to see their business grow. Zanzibar is indeed so much more than a beach and we were happy to discover that for ourselves.