The two main Islands of Zanzibar, Unguja and Pemba, lay 40km off the mainland of Tanzania and are separated from the mainland of Tanzania by a shallow channel. Both these islands were once joined to the African mainland.
The archipelago is a scattering of about fifty islands. They sit in calm, translucent waters. Low-lying and palm fringed the undulating hills are picturesque with none rising higher than 200 meters above sea level. There is some of the finest fishing and diving in the world on these islands. Mangrove's and spectacular coral reefs thrive around the islands and guard many of the beaches from erosion and help protect the fish breeding grounds. Here diving or snorkeling with dolphins is common with sea turtles found on the Northern tip of Unguja – whilst blue marlin and sail fish are perused by the big-game fishers.
These islands were first settled by Africans, then came the Shirazis fleeing from Persia and then came the Omani Arabs. This crates an electric mix of cultures that make these islands so popular, so exotic; and occasional so troublesome even to the present day. The islanders have had to struggle for their independence. The Portuguese lay claim to the islands for over two hundred years then it became a British Colony and only as recently as 1964 did the island realize true democracy.
The Zanzibar Islands were joined with Tanganyika to form Tanzania. Zanzibar feels it is still fighting for independence and every five years after the elections there is trouble. Many Zanzibarian's - in a way are still fighting for independence from the mainland.
The island of Ungunja has the main port to the Islands, the port at Zanzibar Town [or sometimes called Stone Town]. It is this island that most people including most Tanzanian's call Zanzibar; although more accurately it is the whole archipelago that is Zanzibar.
Arriving in the main port and as you step onto the wharf the smell of cloves is carried on the breeze to greet you; immediately you are aware Zanzibar Town is out of the ordinary. Arab dhows with white-sails shaped like the crescent moon, sail gently out of the harbor and pass along the miles of palm fringed beaches. Stone Town transports you into the past. The whole atmosphere is of medieval times, veiled women, their hands and feet hennaed with elaborate patterns, haggle in the markets and small shops which cluster the peripheries of the town.
The warm crystal waters and tranquil lagoons are tropical fish tanks – with the brightly colored inhabitants swimming in their underwater coral gardens – these spiced islands offer some of the best diving and beaches on which to relax in the world.
by Ian Williamson