The Tanzania mainland has a couple of nice options; Ras Kutani just south of Dar es Salaam and the Tides Lodge at Pangani, and Zanzibar is of course a well-established and renowned tourist destination, but is there an alternative?
Having just spent some time on the beautiful Mafia Island, I would say yes!
Located some 160 kilometres south of Zanzibar, Mafia Island is the main island of an archipelago which also includes the islands of Jibondo, Juani and Chole. Tourism has yet to have a major impact here and the population of around 40000 continue to live in small fishing and farming communities.
The west coast of the island has some nice sandy beaches and both Ras Mbisi and Butiama Lodge are excellent accommodation options, particularly from October through to March. This coincides with the best chance of seeing whale sharks, the gentle giants of the ocean which gather to feed on the rich nutrient deposits from the Rufiji River Delta. As Rob will attest, snorkelling or diving here is a highlight!
For me however it was the east coast of the island which captured my imagination.
The jewel in Mafia’s crown is undoubtedly the waters that surround it, over half of which is protected with marine park status. There are some spectacular and challenging dive sites off the east coast; the Kinasi Pass and Kinasi Wall to mention but two, but you don’t need to be a diver to enjoy the underwater wonders here.
After a night spent at the lovely Pole Pole resort, I left early and walked along the beach to Mafia Island Diving where I was kitted out with good quality flippers, snorkel and mask. Leaving the beach behind us we motored out into the sheltered waters of Chole Bay. After some 40 minutes we laid anchor and after a briefing from Hassani, our charismatic guide, I plunged into the warm waters.
Below me were the Coral Gardens, a beautiful and expansive area packed with coral and teeming with fish. I have never seen such an array of visual textures and colours. There are apparently 50 genera of coral within Chole Bay and I felt like I was floating above all of them! We later moved location, closer to the edge of the bay where we explored Big Rock. Here the visibility was like crystal and it was akin to swimming in an aquarium; shoals of small black and white striped fish separated as we approached and not far below was an explosion of colour as Triggerfish, Parrot Fish and Angel Fish seemed to view for our attention.
Having spent a couple of hours happily exploring the waters, what better way to return to shore than under sail with the only sounds heard being the gentle slap of water against the hull and the contented sighs of tired, but exhilarated, snorkellers.
Mafia may not be to everyone’s taste as it does not have endless white sandy beaches, nor a huge variety of accommodation options. It is, however, a beautiful island, packed with coconut plantations and edged by mangrove thickets which at low tide reveal small and characterful beaches. The ‘Mafians’ are friendly and welcoming and you certainly won’t get unwanted attention on the beach. Mafia feels like it has been left behind, and that is really where its charm lies.
If you still desire a bit of activity and adventure after your safari, do consider Mafia where in addition to snorkelling and diving, you can take picnic lunches to deserted sandbanks or explore the outlying islands where ancient ruins have been overrun by vegetation and now provide refuge to monkeys, wild pigs and birds.
If however you still yearn for a perfect beach, how about a combination with Fanjove Island (see Rob’s trip report) will give you the best of both worlds!