Travelling on Tanzanian time


Butterfly is a tree hugger. A coconut tree hugger.

Using only a piece of rope for grip, he wraps his arms and legs around the trunk, and scoots his way to the top, 90 feet off the ground.

He is like a rockstar mounting the stage.

“Hello!” he cries to his audience below, with more sass than Zanzibar’s estranged son, Freddie Mercury.

When he reaches the peak, he performs a couple of daredevil tricks, just to make sure he’s got your attention, and when all eyes are on Butterfly, he launches into his rendition of the Swahili pop song, ‘Jambo Bwana’.

He shimmies his way back down as he sings. “Zanzibar’s got talent,” one of our American companions says. Indeed.

Butterfly is the star of the Kizimbani Plantation, where visitors are introduced to the plants that gave Zanzibar the nickname, the Spice Island. Cocoa, lemongrass, ginger; the smells in the humid forest are magnificent.

It’s the sort of experience you can’t bottle, although they did try to turn it into a range of fragrances and soaps.

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On the far side of Masingini Forest is the island’s main city, Stone Town. It is a bustling marketplace with street sellers on every corner flogging t-shirts, knick knacks and CDs. Some of them follow us on our walking tour, making their pitch as we pass through the streets.

The constant invitation to haggle can be irritating, and some visitors might find it a little overwhelming, especially if the seller puts on a particularly emotional performance.

Luckily, we have two Middle Easterns with us to teach the art of bartering.

First of all, the items are always overpriced, so if you are looking to make a starting bid, at least halve the price the merchant offers and work from there.

The sellers are happy to let you handle the items beforehand, so inspect them to get a feel for what you’re buying.

Stand your ground; don’t pay a shilling more than you think it’s worth, even if the seller insists you will put him out of business next year; you won’t. And make sure you both agree on the final offer before parting with your money to avoid any disputes.

Sometimes it is best not to think of these situations as a hassle, but as a bit of fun. It certainly gives your boring old souvenirs more of an edge if you’ve had to argue for them.

Of course, Stone Town was a centre of commerce in the 19th century, and was home to one of the world’s last open slave markets.

Visitors are invited to tour the remaining slave cells near St Monica’s Hostel.

Stepping into the chambers is a frightening experience, and when it quickly becomes claustrophobic with our tiny group, it is hard to imagine how the cell could hold up to 75 women and children.

The slaves would have spent two weeks here without food or water. Many of them died of starvation or suffocation.

Clara Somas’s monument in front of the anglican cathedral is harrowing: Statue prisoners are chained together in a pit using real chain.

Clara Somas's monument to the slaves
Clara Somas’s monument to the slaves

Our visit to Stone Town concludes at Mercury House, where the aforementioned Freddie Mercury spent his very early years.

Apart from a plaque and a collage of faded photographs, there is no real commemoration to the Queen singer, but the local trade relies a lot on his name to attract visitors.

The city’s connection with Mercury is as faded as the photographs: He spent most of his youth in India, and briefly returned to Zanzibar as a teenager before fleeing to England with his family during the 1964 revolution.

Then again, if Offaly can claim Barack Obama, Zanzibar can claim Freddie Mercury.

Pictured outside Mercury House
Pictured outside Mercury House

We take the ferry to Dar Es Salaam. The sea was choppy, not at all like the smooth sailing over to the island. Luckily, the journey to Tanzania only takes 90 minutes.

Even in the capital, everything runs on “Tanzania time”. A good Swahili phrase to bear in mind is pole, pole—  slowly, slowly — because the traffic is always hideous.

Hakuna matata will be your mantra; as the Disney song says, it means no worries.

From Dar Es Salaam, we take a domestic flight to Arusha, where we set on a four-hour drive through the desert to Ngorongoro Crater.

The highway was built by the recently elected Tanzanian president, Magufuli, when he was works minister; his road projects earned him the nickname the Bulldozer.

The roadway is smooth, so we glide through the landscape, passing villages and marketplaces. We pass the coffee fields and Mount Meru, the introductory climb for novices who have set their sights on Kilimanjaro.


Maasai boys line the road, whooping at tour buses. They wear black cloaks and white headdress after taking part in a maturity ceremony and know that foreigners would like to take a photograph. It is safe to stop, but you must be respectful and ask for permission before taking their picture.

You will be expected to pay as well — they strike our jeep with rungu sticks when one of the passengers takes a sneaky photo without permission or payment.

You should not pay any more than 500 shillings for the privilege and make it clear exactly who you are paying, especially if you meet a group of boys.

We stop for lunch in the Mto Wa Mbu district, home to 120 tribes and 24,000 people. The name, unnervingly, translates as River of the Mosquitos.

We are told that Tanzania is home to 30 species of banana, available year-round. The banana is used to make a range of foods and drinks: curry, soup, beer.

The delicious meal energises us for a game drive in Lake Manyara National Park, where baboons are in abundance.

Blue monkeys, zebras and elephants also make an appearance.

Pole, pole is also an phrase for a safari; the experience is all about slowly scanning the landscape in search for hidden creatures.

It’s not just about the big animals. There are all kinds of interesting life worth looking out for; birds, insects, and flora.

We can only go so slowly though, because we are under pressure to get to the Ngorongoro Crater gate before it closes at 6pm.

Our driver and guide Crispin puts the boot down, but we are still too late.

We arrive at 6.15pm. By that stage, the park rangers have lowered the barrier and are pointing to their imaginary wristwatches, indicating that it is hyena time.

After thirty minutes of negotiation, they let us in. We are reminded that the park belongs to the animals, so we have to keep the windows closed until we reach our resort.

“Anything can happen,” Crispin says ominously. And so we set out on an unscheduled — and illegal — nighttime safari.

Sadly, our safari in the dark is largely uneventful. We don’t encounter any big cats looking for prey, but we do catch a glimpse of a buffalo, a hyena and an enormous porcupine.

We stay at Sopa Lodges, which provides visitors with a nightwatchman to protect them from hidden predators. It is a gentle reminder that, although you are experiencing luxury, you are in the wild.

One of the perks of staying inside the crater is that you can start your safari early.

We set out at 6am, and start the morning with Thomson’s gazelles, ostriches and a herd of wildebeest.

Ngorongoro doesn’t have as many animals as the Serengeti, but the it is still a thrill.

We watch the drama unfold as a herd of naughty jackals tease the mooching lionesses as they guard a buffalo’s carcass.

We spot hippos lounging in the water, giraffes on the horizon and an amusing warthog couple.

Two of the Big Five made an appearance; a lion and an elephant stand near each other, setting up a perfect photo op for the long lenses.

We have lunch at Lake Magadi where we compare pictures and soak up as much of the landscape while we can.

It is not until long afterwards — when you are repeating the stories for the hundredth time and remembering the sights, the sounds and the smells — that you fully realise what you have experienced. And is for memories like this that we travel in the first place.

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I was hosted by the Tanzanian Tourist Board in Tanzania and Zanzibar. I flew from Dublin to Dar Es Salaam via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, and from Dar Es Salaam to Kilamanjaro Airport with Fastjet.


Travel Tips

  • In Zanzibar, the all inclusive Mélia resort is ideal for couples. The rooms are fresh, and include a semi-outdoor shower, and the private villas are impressive. The food is good, but not does not live up to the overall experience. That being said, there is a fantastic floating bar where you can enjoy sushi and cocktails.
  • If you are staying in Dar Es Salaam, your best bet is the Ramada resort. The next best option is Hotel White Sands.
  • For agents: Never sell Dar Es Salaam as a beach destination; the water is polluted even though the resorts insist that it is safe to swim in the sea.
  • Sopa Lodges in Ngorongoro are old, but still offer plenty of comfort. They also boast the best views of the crater.
  • Pack a jumper if you are staying in the crater. It gets very cool in the evenings, especially because you are at a higher altitude.
  • Mosquitos are rife in the crater. Give yourself peace of mind and take your anti-malarial medication.
  • When you are on safari, be sure to charge your camera batteries and bring a back up. There is a lot to see, and your long lens or zoom will double-up as binoculars.

2 thoughts on “Travelling on Tanzanian time

  1. We were in Tanzania last year and in almost all the same places. What a trip! We posted extensively about our trip there which was 3 weeks long. Definitely the Ngorongoro Crater was a highlight as was the dhow trip on the Indian Ocean for some snorkeling while in Zanzibar.

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