Happy Monday and Heritage Weekend! Today I’m chatting about Prison Island and Stone Town in Zanzibar.
If you have been following along, I have spoken about Spice Tours, Mnemba Island, and Safari Blue so far and I am getting to the end of this four-part blog series on Zanzibar.
I am really starting to feel sad about being home for two weeks already (I know I am strange, been this way since I was a kid) and almost every night I dream about Zanzibar, which is usually a strong indication that something/someone has left its mark on me.
So I really do hope to go exploring Zanzibar again soon, but in the meantime, today’s post is all about Prison Island and Stone Town…
Visiting Prison Island
If you are staying up north/east/west (where most of the hotels are located) you will want to explore Stone Town (south) at some point during your stay, in fact, you will pass Stone Town on the way to the resorts as it is very close to the Airport.
We organised our tour with a guy on the beach outside of our hotel and it included a guide, taxi and boat fare, which came to $50 (R750), excluding a tip for our guide.
We arrived in Stone Town, met our guide and headed straight to Prison Island on a boat.
Our guide’s name was Fadhil, who has been a tour guide for over 20 years.
As we sped off in our boat towards Prison Island, I started to ask him as many questions as I could about the history of slavery – something that I find both interesting and extremely sad.
The history is very complicated and almost impossible to explain briefly, but here is a VERY detailed summary.
Stone Town was host to one of the world’s last open slave markets, controlled by Arab traders and the slaves were shipped in dhows from the mainland Tanzania, crammed so tightly that many fell ill and died or were thrown overboard.
Arab traders would use Zanzibar as their base to launch slave raiding expeditions in Eastern Africa with cloves, ivory, spices, tea, coffee and gold being a huge part of this trade triangle.
Zanzibar Island came to be known all over the world as the island of spices and slaves and eventually the British intervened and slave trade was abolished in the 1890s. From there, the peace-loving people of Zanzibar returned to their fishing and spice trading ways.
The dark secrets are still buried in the heart of Zanzibar, in Stone Town and other regions of this island paradise. Our tour did not include a tour to see the slave site, which we only realised towards the end, so make sure that you ask your guide to take you there too.
After a 20-minute boat ride, we arrived at Prison Island.
In 1860, Prison Island was given to two Arabs who used it as a base to hold ‘difficult’ slaves, before they were sold in the slave market in Stone Town, or sent abroad.
Thirty years later, when it came under British ownership, the plan was to use it as an official prison and the buildings were completed in 1894, but they were never actually used as a prison, so it never fulfilled its purpose. The island later had a brief spell as a quarantine station for yellow fever sufferers, before being opened up to tourists.
After viewing the prison and its cells, we took a short stroll to visit the tortoises that everyone says you must go visit on the Island.
The Aldabra Giant Tortoises
In 1919, the British governor of Seychelles gifted the island with four Aldabra giant tortoises and over the years, the tortoise numbers grew to about 200. However, due to poaching, their numbers dwindled again.
Aldara Tortoises are now listed as a vulnerable species, and the Tortoise Foundation on the island is dedicated to their protection. (Although I do think they need more space than they currently have). There are now over 100 Aldabra tortoises on Prison Island and they have their ages painted on their shells to keep track – we saw one that was 197 years old!
Side note: The snorkeling is supposed to be fantastic at Prison Island if you feel like swimming
Seeing Stone Town
After the visit to Prison Island, we headed back to Stone Town.
Stone Town reflects a melting pot of not only Swahili culture but also Arab, Persian, Indian and European elements. For this reason, Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Its narrow streets are a maze of shops and cafes all with their own unique architecture and there are vivid shades of every colour imaginable; textures and vibrant energy.
There is a lot to see (if you have all day) but we only had another two or so hours left of our tour, so we tried to see as much as we could with Faahid as our guide.
House of Wonders
The House of Wonders, also known as Beit-al-Ajaib in Arabic, was once a palace and the first building in Zanzibar to get electricity. This was used to power lamps that had been installed on the exterior walls.
At night, light from these lamps gave the palace a mystical, Arabian Nights vibe, which is what gave the palace its name. The House of Wonders was built in 1883 and was one of the six palaces that Sultan Barghash made throughout Zanzibar. We couldn’t go inside unfortunately as it is currently under construction.
The Old Fort
Now housing an art gallery and curio market, the Old Fort is a crumbling structure along Stone Town’s promenade. Stepping inside here is free, mostly because there isn’t a lot to do. That said, wandering around and enjoying some peace and quiet is a great free thing to do in Stone Town.
Walk the narrow alleyways
While maps of Stone Town are available, they’re near-useless when it comes to navigating this ancient city, so you can choose to get lost (which isn’t the worst idea) or go with a guide like we did.
See Freddie Mercury’s House
Many people assume Freddie Mercury was from the UK, since he fronted the British band Queen. But his parents were both Indian, and he was actually born in Zanzibar off the coast of mainland Tanzania, alternating between there and India before moving to Britain.
See Tippu Tipp’s House
Tippu Tip’s House is where the powerful merchant and slave trader Tippu Tip (1837-1905) lived.
Despite being a tourist attraction, it is not formally open to visitors and it is in such a state of decay that it is dangerous to set foot inside. The large decorated carved wooden door, testifies the great wealth of the historical owner of the house.
Marvel at the Dhow Palace Hotel
The Dhow Palace was transformed into an elegant hotel in 1993 from a family mansion. It can easily be described as a living museum, dedicated to furniture, art and oriental ornaments.
Acknowledged as the centre of Stone Town, the square is like a down-scaled Times Square and in the centre is a phone strapped to a pole, inviting free international calls (not sure if the phone actually works though?)
Around it, locals sit outside shops and on the raised pavements, sipping coffee or selling fruit and vegetables.
See all the doors!
No visit to Stone Town is complete without snapping a few pictures of the famous Zanzibar doors. These massive teak or mahogany structures grace the front of almost every building of note, and their style has been copied all over the world.
Back then, doors were a way to showcase your wealth and the more intricate and decorated – the more celebrated they were. Our guide told us that all the doors have meanings, and some of the ones with spikes were a warning or security measure to ward off thieves.
Have lunch at a traditional Zanzibar Restaurant
All that walking means we were starving so Fahdil took us to the Lukmaan Restaurant – which we later found out was one of the best restaurants in Zanzibar.
There’s no menu – you just make your way inside (which isn’t easy as this place is packed) to the counter and see what’s on offer.
Servings are enormous and include various biryanis, fried fish, coconut curries and freshly made naan. Not only was the food delicious, but our meal for all three of us came to $7! (R105)
See Darajani Market
Taking place every afternoon, a trip to the fish aisle in the Darajani Market, is a great local experience that always attracts plenty of action.
The fish market is not for those with a weak stomach, due to the lack of refrigeration the smell is pretty darn strong! If you do have the stomach, watch the locals barter and bargain for the best fish price.
If you’re not up for the busyness (or smell) of the fish auction, then head to the market, a great place to get your hands on some fabulous spices, freshly baked bread, fruit and vegetables (beautifully arranged in neatly stacked piles).
Though pristine beaches are what most people think about when they think about Zanzibar, spending some time walking around the local market was for me a fantastic way to learn about the culture of Zanzibar and to observe local life.
Another excursion I’d highly recommend!
Next up, my final post on Zanzibar, which will be filled with tips, tricks and some a personal story on getting engaged!