Mafia Island in low season

Categories Travel

Thanks to the work schedule we’re been trying to keep (I’ll just call it “very ambitious”), I’ve been working long, intense days, some evenings and weekends, and parts of the four public holidays Tanzania has this month.  Fortunately for my personal sanity, we caught a momentary breather just before Easter weekend, so a quick two night getaway was a feasible idea!  A few of the girls in my building decided we’d try Mafia Island.  It’s rainy season, so there was a definite risk that the grim skies and downpours we encountered flying out of Dar and on arrival in Mafia would last all weekend, but we mostly lucked out! There was some overcast and periodic rainshowers, but we were still able to get snorkeling and beach time in.  

The views leaving Dar and from the lodge lounge on arrival in Mafia.

Where Zanzibar is a 20 minute flight east from Dar, Mafia is a bit further south, about 30-35 minutes away. The airport on the island is two rooms, a dozen chairs, and the obligatory gift shop.  Mafia is much less developed and populated than Zanzibar; the main town Kilindoni is just under 12,000, and the whole island about 40,000. There’s only half a dozen lodges on the island, mostly clustered on the east coast along Chole Bay, along with some backpacker establishments.  It’s pretty flat, with grasses, palms and trees, and a mix of mud brick and concrete buildings. Given the rains, everything was a lush, lovely bright green. Rice paddies that look like golf course from a distance.  Mafia is most known for scuba diving and snorkeling and Coastal Airlines offers “last minute” weekend packages from Dar including 2 nights hotel, food, airfare and transfers on the island for $350 per person (assuming double occupancy).

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It doesn’t get too much hotter than 30 C / 86 F in Mafia, but the humidity is positively stifling so it can feel quite uncomfortable,if you’re any distance set back from the coast and the breeze.  Damp damp damp, and trickling sweat while sitting still!  

Overall, we give the weekend a mixed review.  Mafia Island Lodge was less than impressive, but we had a great day excursion, a good bit of relaxation and some girl talk at the beach and the lodge, so it was still worth the trip!  I’ll write up the lodge with some other beach hotel reviews in another blog post, so this is just the fun part!

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Ndimbo found us lounging fully dressed on the beach on Friday afternoon after arrival feeling a bit glum at the forlorn state of the beach and hotel and the damp weather. It wasn’t sunny or hot enough to warrant swimsuits or venturing further than ankle deep in the water. But we were determined to have some fun – you can still snorkel if it’s raining, right?  We decided to take him up on his excursion pitch and go snorkeling and for a sandbar picnic lunch the following day. We even negotiated the price down from $35 per person to $20 for the half day outing. We made a group of 6 on Saturday morning, promptly proving again how small the world is!  The two “strangers” in the group turned out to be a friend/colleague one of my neighbors met working in Burundi, now living in Rwanda, and vacationing in Tanzania with her husband. It made for a chatty boat!

Considering the iffy weather and the splashing in the boat, it was probably the right decision not to take my phone or camera along, but I was sad not to be able to take pictures of the rocky islands we visited!   The waters were slightly murky for snorkeling, probably due to the season and the peekaboo sun, but the incredible variety of fish and interesting coral formations made up for it. We weren’t hurried along, and Ndimbo was very accommodating to the two non-swimmers in our group, towing them around to the good stuff with life jackets and a ring while the rest of us swam freely.  We snorkeled in two spots around micro islands/rock formations with coral and currents swirling around them.  It rained briefly and heavily while we were on the boat between sites, but otherwise we had a mix of sun and clouds, and warmth that was pleasant rather than hot.

After we were done with the snorkeling, we tried to buy fish for our picnic lunch from guys in two locations, but no luck.  Ndimbo ventured to a third spot water so shallow that they turned off the outboard engine, pulled it out of the water, and pushed us through the knee deep water to an old man and his canoe.   A lively Kiswahili negotiation ensued, resulting in the purchase of 6 fish – a beautiful blue and orange parrotfish and a few reddish pink ones he called goatfish, for the beard-like feelers they have on the chin.  So we set off to the sandbar and hopped out with our boat driver/cook while the other continued on for snorkeling. We lounged in the sand and swam and picked shells while lunch preparations went on. He descaled and cleaned the fish by the waters edge and rinsed it in seawater, then built two very clever and beautiful vertical grill arrangements. Two sticks were split carefully along two-thirds of their length. Each fish had a narrow skewer threaded through it from snout to tail to keep it rigid, and was slotted into the split stick and tied off with strands of dry palm leaf to keep them separated. These two stakes were then stuck into the sand at an angle facing a small sand pit of charcoal lit with a small bottle of fuel (probably gasoline?) Periodically he would pull the stake, take it down to the waters edge and rub the fish with a bit of sea water and a cut lime before returning it to the fire.  All this done with no other tools but a single knife. 

Meanwhile, the tide started coming in, and the very large sandbar began to shrink. Our fish was shared out on flimsy paper plates and eaten sitting on the sand with fingers and a chapati ( Indian style pancake flat bread). By this time the boat was coming back, and not a moment too soon, as the sandbar was swallowed up as we pulled away.

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Photo credit: Hilary

Of course, the best weather day of the bunch was the day we left. It rained before breakfast, but cleared up  promptly. I spent a hour reading after breakfast at the lodge before going down to the beach.  It was stifling and sticky up at the lodge, despite its airy construction, but nice and breezy down at the water!  Not a bad way to wrap up the last bit of beach getaway I had in Tanzania.  It’s almost time to go home!

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3 thoughts on “Mafia Island in low season

  1. You are such a great story teller Tara along with your photos. If gov’t service ever becomes lackluster, you can always travel write for a living.

  2. Hey T.! I must agree with Dad. You paint a great picture with your colorful choices of words: “rice paddies that look like a golf course from a distance”; “despite grim skies”; “trickling sweat while sitting still”; “You can still snorkel in the rain, right?”; the sandbar that began “to shrink”, and your description and pictures of the fish prep for lunch. Really makes the reader feel and see what you do and want to go/be there. Yup that’s the makings of a successful travel writer!
    Apart from that, I ‘m so glad you were able to get some literal R&R–all part of that “saving your sanity” thing. May you get done all that you set out to accomplish, Hon. Sooner than you can believe, you’ll be home in D.C., and all this will recede into memory. How rich those memories are and will remain!

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