2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, a trend that has gained momentum over the past 20 years. Since 1997, the options on the continent’s coastline have improved considerably, with beach escapes becoming increasingly accessible, diverse, ethical and eco-conscious, says Gabriella Mulligan
The sharp, loud ‘snap’ sounds like a whip crack. I’m momentarily worried for my fingers. No, they’re still all there. I dunk my hand back into the bucket and hold out another piece of seaweed. The turtles shove each other in the water, greedily pushing for the prized morsel on offer. Jaws snap, and the biggest one has taken it, his smaller and weaker companions looking mournfully up at me.
Hawksbill and green turtles have long been hunted in Zanzibar for their attractive shells and meat respectively. Yet since 1993 the Mnarani Marine Turtle Conservation Pond, in Nungwi, in the north of Zanzibar, has educated fishermen, as well as establishing a pool where captured turtles can be nursed back to health. The project currently employs 20 local residents and has saved more than 200 adult and 1000-plus hatchling turtles.
Nungwi has always been a quiet place. Up until the mid-1990s, the development of hotels and resorts was widely opposed by locals. Today, the long, powdery-sand beach is scattered with hotels ― ranging from the flamboyant, such as Royal Zanzibar Beach Resort or Hideaway of Nungwi, to the more affordable Smiles Beach Hotel or Amaan Bungalows. It has evolved into a thriving, sustainable beach destination with friendly local residents. Tourists can float in the warm, transparent waves by day and dine al fresco on fresh lobsters and grilled fish by night. A trip to visit the turtle conservation efforts is quasi-obligatory. Nungwi combines blissful beach life, community involvement and acceptance, with serious conservation efforts.
While Zanzibar may be Tanzania’s most obvious beach destination, the country has some other interesting hidden gems, such as Saadani National Park. Covering an area of 1100sq km, stretching along the Indian Ocean coast, it is a unique beach destination, offering wildlife viewing alongside deserted beaches. In the reserve, safari-goers can glimpse elephant herds up to 80-strong, lion prides, giraffe, zebra, antelope, waterbuck, hippo, crocodiles and a fantastic array of birds. The marine life is also exquisite: green turtles hatch on a protected breeding beach, and the ocean boasts dolphins, humpback whales as well as a kaleidoscope of vividly hued fish.
This remarkable place was given national park status in 2005 but still remains below the tourist radar. However, visitor figures have been increasing over the past five years or so. Importantly, also on the rise are its animal numbers. With several farming-reliant villages in the area, human-animal conflict used to be rife and poaching common, but since the Tanzania National Parks Authority took it under its wing, populations have begun to thrive.
Private organisations are playing an active role in developing Saadani as an eco-friendly destination. There are only three places to stay in the park, so it retains its authenticity and is sustainable. Simply Saadani Camp features only 13 bandas set along the beach on raised viewing platforms. The lodge makes every effort to leave no trace on the stunning environment: it is built from recycled local materials, such as elephant-felled coconut bark and disused dhows, and operates entirely on solar power. The camp’s owner, David Guthrie of A Tent With A View, was a founding member of the Tanzania Elephant Protection Society, and conducts elephant collaring projects to combat poaching, further scientific research and help with community education projects in the area. Perhaps the most heartening aspect of any trip here is leaving in the knowledge that this place is in the hands of people who understand its worth and will safeguard it long into the future.
Advancements in beach tourism are not limited to Tanzania. Further down Africa’s 30,500km eastern coastline is Portuguese-speaking Mozambique, with its string of equally breathtaking beaches. Since the 16-year civil war ended in 1992, increasing numbers of tourists have trickled into Mozambique as security and infrastructure have improved, although the country is still less developed than its neighbour.
The small, vibrant town of Vilanculos is a beach lover’s paradise, with its long, white beaches fringed with coconut palms rattling in the warm breeze. This place oozes relaxation. In town, there’s a bustling marketplace capable of swallowing visitors for hours ― with vendors offering everything from fresh fish to colourful capulana fabrics ― and myriad restaurants and stores.
But Vilanculos is really all about the ocean: dhow trips, game fishing (the area is famous for its black marlin) and scuba diving, particularly in the adjacent Bazaruto Archipelago. The town is the gateway to the five islands of this 1430-km marine park of indescribable natural value. The ocean here is home to thousands of tropical fish and coral species, five kinds of dolphin, humpback whales, hammerhead, whale and Zambezi sharks, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles and, perhaps most excitingly, the largest dugong population left on Africa’s east coast.
The Bazarutos are developing fast as a tourist destination, possibly helped by the tale that Bob Dylan composed his song ‘Mozambique’ on one of the islands. Nowadays, top-end resorts, such as Anantara Bazaruto Island Resort, offer private villas on secluded stretches of beach, complete with hammocks, outdoor showers and beachfront jacuzzis.
Vilanculos, on the other hand, offers more modest and affordable accommodation directly on the beach, such as the chalets at Baobab Beach, with travellers enjoying the warm evenings under the stars at open-air seafood restaurants and bars.
As more tourists of all budgets arrive, operators and local communities are particularly conscious of the need to ensure sustainability. Hotels endeavour to live in symbiosis with the communities: providing employment and buying produce from local fishermen and farmers. In the national park, conservation policies have been developed and entrusted to local residents.
No exploration of Africa’s eastern beaches could be complete without a stay in Mozambique’s Tofo and Barra. Substantial reefs are found just offshore from this long arc of sandy bliss, attracting the permanently resident whale sharks and manta rays that draw people here.
Once a sleepy fishing village, today the small town comprises a cluster of restaurants and bars surrounding a busy village marketplace. Hotels have sprung up along the beach, stretching from the central Hotel Tofo Mar to the quieter and more remote Barra, where good accommodation options include Barra Beach Club and Blue Footprints Eco Lodge.
Locals treat visitors like long-lost friends. Everyone is there for the love of the ocean. A lazy beach vibe dances around Tofo ― unless the diving boats are going out.
People stand watching wistfully from the beach, as wetsuit-clad groups cling to the motorboats bouncing away over the rolling waves. “There! Whale shark! It must be around six metres!” And with that, in we plunge, trying to find our underwater bearings, only to swim ― with all our might ― to keep up alongside this friendly, blue-speckled giant.
Fanjove Private Island, Tanzania
Tucked away on the remote Songo Songo Archipelago, 140km south of Dar es Salaam, lies this unspoilt Indian Ocean bolthole. Managed by Essential Destinations (ED), Fanjove embodies the company ethos of making “a minimum impact on the environment while supporting conservation and helping to sustain local communities”.
The six secluded bandas, bar and dining room are constructed with natural materials, such as palm leaves, coral rocks, chokaa (lime) and bamboo, so blend harmoniously with their surroundings. Solar panels provide electricity; septic tanks have been installed for the bio-degradation of waste; and fresh water is bought from the local community in order to provide business as well as being produced through a desalinator.
Fanjove is a delicate ecosystem that must be protected ― and the ED team strives to conserve both its terrestrial and marine habitats. Research is always in progress here, with sightings meticulously listed and monitored. “This is an important ecological area for nesting sea turtles and marine birds,” says ED’s chief ecologist Malcolm Ryan. “We hope to encourage a natural diversity of wildlife.”
The tone is set when guests are given a map on arrival, which urges them to “use the island with respectful freedom”. On a walk among the mangroves or along its palm-fringed beaches, bountiful fauna may be spotted. Avian species, in particular, are given space to thrive. The north-eastern shore is known as the Birds’ Sanctuary, where humans can only linger in a hide. Cattle and dimorphic egrets, grey-headed herons, whimbrels, terns, pied crows, amethyst sunbirds, Burchell’s coucals, pied kingfishers, black-headed weavers and more than a thousand crab plovers all reside here.
“There is [also] a substantial wader migration from late October to March, when sandpipers, sand plovers, common greenshanks, Eurasian oystercatchers, ruddy turnstones and others swarm in,” Malcolm tells me. “Fanjove is a vital retreat for them to recover from their epic journeys.” In addition, many interesting butterflies, including painted ladies and yellow pansies, appear in January.
Crustaceans are rife ― the most famous of which being the coconut crab. The largest terrestrial crab, this enormous creature can grow up to 60cm long and lives in a burrow rather than a shell. Considered a local delicacy, it has been nearly poached to extinction, so the safeguarding of this small population is vital.
Out snorkelling or scuba diving, guests will see coral reefs and prolific marine life, such as harbour rays, pufferfish, lionfish, crocodile fish, butterflyfish, oriental sweetlips, batfish, snappers, angelfish and hundreds more. Indo-Pacific bottlenose and spinner dolphins dance in the waves all year round and there is a steady stream of humpback whale sightings from mid-July to October.
The survival of this rich biodiversity is dependent on conservation efforts, and essential to this is the involvement of the Songo Songo community. “We must engage with them and educate them on the importance of sustainable fishing practices,” Malcolm explains. “We must show them how beneficial conservation is.” Hence the foundation of the Beach Management Unit, mostly comprising villagers dedicated to establishing and implementing laws. The result has been positive, and today, more than half of Fanjove’s coral reef is reserved for non-consumptive activities and the whole archipelago is dynamite fishing free.
Another major project is the protection of green and hawksbill turtles. Adults breed on Fanjove’s sloping beaches between April and May. However, they lay their eggs perilously close to the ocean, so Sea Sense has trained staff to move them to safety. The numbers of nests, eggs and hatchlings are then recorded, providing crucial data for ensuring their future survival. Progress is evident: in 2012 three nests and 318 hatchlings were recorded, compared to seven and 700 last year.
Tourism on Fanjove Island also supports the local community, providing jobs (70-80 per cent of the staff are from neighbouring Songo Songo), regular rental income, business (95 per cent of the food is bought from them) and a livelihood for women (coconuts are given to them to be made into oil to be sold back to the lodge). Most importantly, 3 per cent of the lodge’s income funds community development projects, such as new schools.
Getting there The only way to get there is to fly with Coastal Aviation to neighbouring island Songo Songo (via Mafia), then travel by rickshaw to a traditional fishing dhow that delivers you safely to Fanjove. Book through Essential Destinations.
TA extra To watch a video of ‘Fanjove, a Turtle Island’ online, visit the following YouTube link: http://ow.ly/3ut130eQiwi.
Nosy Ankao, Madagascar
Hugging the curves of the shore of Nosy Ankao, a remote speck of an island off north-western Madagascar, is a brand-new lodge: Miavana. Designed by the formidable duo Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, this is the first property to be built on the island and it may well be the country’s most opulent. Excellence is the key word here. Fine wines, Bose headphones, Smeg appliances ― no expense has been spared.
In addition to Time + Tide’s determination to please the most discerning of five-star guests, the brand is equally committed to the development of the island, the support of its people and the conservation of the whole archipelago.
The lodge’s arrival has already brought positive changes to Nosy Ankao. In the two small villages, locals and skilled Malagasy people recruited from the town of Diego Suarez and elsewhere are being paid well and are dedicated to the project. Their homes are being upgraded. Fresh water, flush toilets, showers, a shop, stocked clinic ― with a resident nurse ― and a school in the south of the island have been provided. Solar panels will be added in the near future.
Malagasy men and women have been trained in various skills including stonework, driving heavy machinery and skippering motorboats. Some are being mentored as guides for forest walks, scuba diving, snorkelling or spa treatments. Skills to be brought to the islanders include beekeeping, permaculture and hydroponic vegetable growing for both local and guest needs.
Nature guide Simon Andrianiaina has been learning about the ecology of the region. He is pioneering paths for Miavana’s guests to explore the fascinating flora and fauna such as the fish-scale gecko, Oustalet’s chameleon and birds, including the Malagasy coucal and Malagasy paradise flycatcher.
Since 2013, Miavana’s island manager Greg Wepener has supervised the removal of more than 10,000 casuarina trees that use vast quantities of precious fresh water. Subsequently, 70,000 indigenous trees have been planted by teams of workers. Over the next three years, 4000 baobabs will be planted. After negotiations with leaders on the mainland, four highly endangered crowned lemurs are to be captured, relocated to Nosy Ankao and monitored there. Sadly, in Daraina ― their current territory in the mountains ― mining operations are threatening their survival. In the long term, lemurs born on the island will be returned to the mainland, where a reforestation project and education of local people is under way.
Situated in the Loky Manambato Protected Area, Miavana works in partnership with local communities and Fanamby, a well-respected Malagasy NGO. A percentage of the fees of tours and excursions from Miavana will be donated to the organisation’s many projects.
To prevent overfishing and coral damage, Fanamby and Miavana have established a core no-fishing zone in conjunction with the Madagascan government. Fishermen now need permits, which will facilitate regulation of the waters and coral. Miavana will purchase its seafood from licensed fishermen, at prices higher than they normally receive. Expect fresh linefish, such as red snapper, dorado and tuna, plus sizeable crayfish, prawns and squid to be on the menu.
Turtle activity is also being monitored. Hawksbill, green, olive ridley and loggerhead species are found here, and lucky guests may observe female turtles laying their eggs in the pure white, soft sand or hatchlings dashing to the ocean.
Besides having a memorable tropical island experience in an elegant lodge, you can rest assured that at Miavana you are contributing to the improved conditions of the islanders, contract workers, staff and the island’s ecosystem itself.
Getting there Airlink flies daily from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport to Antananarivo and direct to Nosy Be on Sundays. From there, Time + Tide’s R66 Turbine Marine helicopter will take you to Nosy Ankao. If you’re planning to visit other places in Madagascar on the same trip, it’s worth booking through a reliable tour operator such as ASISTEN Travel, which specialises in high-end experiential trips in Madagascar.
TA extra To read more online about Nosy Ankao, visit travelafricamag.com.
By Gillian McLaren
Taken from edition 80 of Travel Africa magazine, Oct-Dec 2017