Swahili Coast Island Hopping – Tanga to Dar es Salaam by Dhow and Ferry

“It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.”
– Henry David Thoreau

A contrast is immediately apparent upon crossing the border from Kenya to Tanzania. The paved road gives way to a dirt track, and concrete buildings with tin tops are replaced by mud huts with thatched caps. We are in Tanga, and decide to island-hop down the Swahili coast Dar es Salaam. We are always looking for adventure and romance. But, as exotic as some things may sound, reality is often quite different from expectation.

Similarly, there is a huge discrepancy between mzungu (that’s us) and resident prices for sea and rail transportation in Tanzania and other African countries. To compound this, foreigners are expected to pay in US dollars, regardless of their nationality.

Inquiring at the Tanga port about cargo dhows to Pemba, we are quoted a price of US $25 (25000 Tanzanian shillings) each. We know the price for locals is 5500 shillings, and are able to negotiate a price of 8000.

A romantic notion of sea travel

The boat is primarily used for transporting goods, not people. Like most African buses, the cargo dhow leaves when full. And, there is always room for one more person. We board the boat at 6pm, and are told that it would leave at 8pm. We stake our claim on the deck with our backpacks, which will be our seats for the journey.

Adrift Along the Swahili Coast

Surprisingly, at 8pm, the motor fires up and we leave. After a brief tour of the Tanga harbor, we return to our starting point where we wait another two hours. Apparently, the boat is not full and, in the meantime, more passengers board the vessel. One young man decides that he will share my two square meters of deck space, and proceeds to turn up his transistor radio. It isn’t long before he finds somewhere else to spend the trip, and someone else to bother.

Relaxing in Misali after an arduous boat ride to Pemba

Once we were finally under way – for real this time – we spend the night inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke from our fellow passengers, and exhaust fumes from the engine compartment directly below us. We toss and turn between the deck floor and our “seats”, are bumped and stepped over by the chattering crew, and shield our eyes from the starboard light. Our aggregate time asleep doesn’t exceed twenty minutes.

Twenty hours after we got on the boat and embarked on a four-hour trip, we get off and hurry onto dry land without turning back or taking a photo of the wretched vessel. We are grateful that four things didn’t happen – it didn’t rain, we weren’t attacked by pirates, the boat didn’t sink, and we didn’t pay U$25 each.

Pemba and Zanzibar

We spend a few days in Misali on Pemba Island, recuperating from our voyage and relaxing. Our next destination is Zanzibar and we purchase tickets for the ferry plying the route between the two islands in the middle of the Swahili coast.

This one is an actual passenger ferry rather than a cargo dhow. Much like our last passage, it too is overfull and deck space is very limited.

Across from us sits a young family. The mother is holding her baby, and the baby is holding a can of Coke – suckling it like it would its mother’s nipple. A photo would be worth much more than the last 23 words, but would also be completely inappropriate.

Overcrowded Zanzibar Ferry

We curiously pass through immigration in Zanzibar, although we never left Tanzania. And, after a few days exploring Stone Town on Zanzibar, we begin heading back to the mainland of Africa. We buy first-class berths and board the ferry in the evening. Once on board, we discover that it won’t sail until the following morning. We are to spend the night on the boat, in the harbor. We don’t bother asking the reason for such an arrangement, because it doesn’t really matter.

Zanzibar’s Stone Town

Toilets are located in the second class cabin, of which there is only one cavernous room filled with hundreds of people. The lights stay on all night, presumably to discourage assaults, and the toilets are flooded. We must balance precariously on the elevated edges of the steel floor to keep our boots clean and dry. We arrive in Dar es Salaam mid-morning, and begin a three month overland journey from the Swahili coast through southern Africa. Our next boat will be crossing the Zambezi from Zambia to Namibia.


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