On the road: reaching Tanzania’s Mafia Island


p1060898Braving the waters to head to Mafia and experience diving with turtles and touring in bajajis, Giles and Niamh Sacramento find that the crossing is somewhat precarious

For Giles and I, the reason for travelling is to learn about and from new people. Often the best way to do this is to eat with and travel alongside the locals. Dismissive of warnings from cautious expats, we decided to travel by ferry to Mafia Island from Nyamisati in December 2015. I was begrudgingly impressed by Nyamisati’s mosquitos, which managed to bite through my clothes!

Just before 3am, barefoot men hauled heavy sacks of maize, bananas and tomatoes onto the ferry while we stood on the shore with a crowd of patient passengers waiting for the ferry to depart. One hour later, we were still waiting. Another hour passed before we finally boarded. We had not expected a comfortable ride, so we did not mind sitting on deck, squashed between a jolly older lady and two tired-looking men. Chatting to local people made it an enjoyable experience.

After a wonderful week of diving with turtles, touring in bajajis, friendly meals at local restaurants and lots of lounging on the beach, it was time to return to the mainland.

Before dawn, we joined the scrum to get on the smaller boat that transports people to the moored ferry. This meant wading thigh-deep into the water carrying our bags and holding onto small children once we had hopped on. A strong swell had developed overnight, which resulted in our little boat being pushed against the ferry and then sucked away with equally unforgiving force. Timing was crucial when jumping between the two!

On board, people clamoured to find space to sit, leaving no room to move. Setting off, waves of water engulfed the bow and poured over frightened and soaking cold women, leaving us all ankle deep in brine. The sea was calm but the ferry was dangerously overloaded at the bow. I grabbed hold of the rusted guardrail to steady myself; it crumbled in my hand. An hour into the journey, smoke was belching from the engine and continued to do so in spite of frequent examinations by the mechanic. I searched desperately for any sign of land. We were a long way from safety and I felt we had crossed the line from adventure to recklessness. Finally, we did arrive safe and sound, if a little shivery and salty. Next time, we will take a flight!


Top Tips for Tanzania

  • Coming from Mozambique, the Rovuma River Ferry is up and running – or at least it was in December! Previously, wooden canoes were used to transport people and cars – but now there is a roll-on, roll-off ferry.
  • A little off the beaten track, Kilwa Masoko offers beautiful beaches, snorkelling, heritage tours around ancient ruins and dhow safaris.
  • Selous Game Reserve is a must for those who enjoy the wilderness and challenging 4WD routes! It offers affordable camping in a luxury setting.
  • Fly to Mafia Island. I highly recommend diving there – we were lucky enough to see turtles.
  • Makadi Beach Resort & Spa is a good option for overlanders. South of the city centre, it is easy to camp and take public transport for sightseeing.
  • Don’t miss Stone Town in Zanzibar – a real highlight. Our favourite beach on Zanzibar is Paje (although that may be influenced by our love for kitesurfing). Dine at Mr Lekker Lekkers, a locally owned food shack with delicious meals and friendly service.
  • Bagamoyo is a good mixture of beach and culture. Stay at Firefly Lodge, worth the visit to Bagamoyo alone.
  • If you don’t have time to venture far from Dar es Salaam, but still want to have the Tanzanian beach/safari experience, consider Saadani National Park and Pangani.
  • You can catch a glimpse of Kilimanjaro’s peaks from Moshi, but if you want a closer look (without the effort of climbing), go to Marangu. Most tourists whizz by here on their way up or down the mountain, but take some time to stroll around and quench your thirst with a ‘Kili’ beer with the guides.
  • An absolute highlight for me was hunting with one of the last hunting tribes in the world: the Hadzabe tribe near Lake Eyasi. Simply an experience not to be missed.
  • The Ngorongoro Crater is a vision of what the world may have looked like before Adam and Eve arrived. So magical that I half expected to see a unicorn trot by. Instead, I only saw rhino, zebra, wildebeest, antelope and a wounded buffalo escape from both a pride of lion and a pack of hyena! No unicorn, though.
  • The Serengeti is the Africa that the movies promised but it’s even better in the flesh. Go and see it for yourself!