Feb-March 2010

Day 1 of Diary

Day 14 - Mbweni Ruins Hotel, Zanzibar

Yoga on the jetty 

Yoga on the jetty
Yoga on the end of the jetty, sunrise

I woke early to the sound of a distant muezzin, and made my way down the jetty. A Yoga group were having a weekend retreat at Mbweni and I wanted to film them doing their break of day excercises. It was beautiful to watch, with the sun rising, casting a sheen of pink in the sky behind them. Behind their graceful sweeping arms, fishing dhows slipped by, beyond the reef, heading for their day’s work in the shoals of the Zanzibar Channel between the islands and the distant mainland. There are two groups operating yoga sessions at Mbweni - usually in the ruined chapel, which is a particularly beautiful and peaceful place.

Mbweni Dhow

I had dhows on my mind today. Barbara had arrived from Impala camp for a few days’ R&R, and Cesare had arranged for us to take a trip on the hotel dhow. This dhow belongs to the fisherman who have sailed from Mbweni for many years. When the hotel was first built, they were there, fishing with two outriggers – ngalawas – parked on the beach below the ruins. Over the years they have prospered, selling their wares to the hotel kitchens and the staff, and last year they asked if they could take out guests from the hotel in their hand-hewn dhow. They invested in a smart engine and are available depending on the tides, to go to the nearby islands and sandbars, or to Stone Town and back.

Mbweni Jetty 

Mbweni beach from dhow

The tides were good for us today, the water was high enough by 4pm to allow us to embark on the dhow for a sunset cruise.
We boarded from the end of the jetty, and headed north along the coast towards Zanzibar Stone Town, hugging the coast with the engine chugging along at a leisurely pace.

Mbweni from the sea
Mbweni from the sea, nestled in its lush green gardens

Looking back I could see the hotel beach, with the rooms nestling in the green gardens. Mangroves fringe the shore on either side, ensuring that the white beach remains – without them there would be a danger of erosion. The mangroves are beautiful to swim or paddle through in the two kayaks available for the guests’ use. Many birds and marine creatures shelter in them.

We passed the Mbweni point – this whole area was part of the original mission which sheltered freed slaves in the 19th Century. Sir John Kirk built a weekend retreat home right on the point, and planted an experimental garden there, trying coffee, rubber, cotton and many other useful and ornamental plants. Some of their descendants still survive in the gardens today.

Dhow heads for stone town 

Kiungani ruins

The dhow heads north - Kiungani ruins (rhs)

Further on we passed the ruins of Kiungani, even larger than the Mbweni ruins, and also with a ruined chapel. This was the “brother” school – for freed slave boys. In front of them stands a tall Borassus ethiopum palm – the only one, to my knowledge, in the islands, apart from those young specimens we have planted at Mbweni. This palm is very old and must have grown from seeds brought from the mainland – probably by the missionaries who trod the route along the Borassus fringed Ruvuma river, right through the Selous to what was then Nyasaland.

Stone Town from sea

Soon we began to see the buildings of Stone Town. First we passed Government House – originally built by the British as an administrative centre in the time of the Sultans, then the Africa House.

Stone Town from sea

Large trading Dhows swept past us with their lateen sails rigged.

Stone Town from sea

Mambo Msiige building
The Mambo Msiige building - given by Sultan Majid to the UMCA in Zanzibar, ca 1868

On the Shangani point, the old UMCA headquarters given to the missionaries by Sultan Majid – the Mambo Msiige building, later British Consulate and now a Government Ministry building.

House of Wonders with forodhani Garden in forefront
House of Wonders with Forodhani Garden in forefront

We sailed past the Tembo Hotel and the Old Fort and House of Wonders, with Forodhani Gardens in front. These have been recently renovated by the Aga Khan Foundation, and are a wonderful place to enjoy the early evening. Delicious snacks are prepared on small barbecue grills, and fresh juices round off the treat, for customers who stroll about the gardens in the cool after sunset.

Zanzibar Palace
The Sultan's Palace

Next was the Palace – now a museum with a special room dedicated to Princess Salme, who wrote the famous “Memoirs of an Arabian Princess”.

Dhow harbour

Dhow harbour  Dhow heads west

We rounded a point into the dhow harbour, where many dhows were busy loading and off-loading. As we passed one large boat with a heavy load headed out to see, raising the lateen sail and speeding away.

Dhow captains, with stone town in background 

Stone town from dhow
We turned and headed back to the south, passing Stone Town again

We had used the engine going to Stone Town, but now we turned and were able to raise the sail as wind from the north filled our sails and took us southwards past the town and coast again, towards Mbweni.

setting sail 


The wind was changing – the northerly Kaskazi monsoon wind blows from late November through to March. In March it changes direction, the southerly Kusi begins to blow and brings rain with it. In a few days we knew the rains would come – certainly the gardens at Mbweni had need of it! The sun was setting and Cesare opened a coolbox with cold drinks and wine, and we enjoyed a sundowner.


Everyone was quiet, enjoying the wind in the sail – it was quite a different atmosphere with the engine quiet. We slipped along the coast and came to anchor home at Mbweni.

Mbweni Sunset

The next morning I was due to catch an early morning Coastal flight in time to catch my BA connection back to England. I felt sad to be leaving this beautiful place.

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