Flying down the coast of Tanzania, you’ll see a number of small islands. Some are just beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean – whimsical attempts at islands that didn’t quite make it. Some are little more than sandbanks, one beach against the whole ocean. Some are covered with dense vegetation, some show signs of being inhabited. While the rest of Tanzania cashes in on the tourism industry, these islands have remained untouched. But all that is starting to change.
I boarded a five-seater plane early one morning with a group of people who had gathered together for reasons that don’t bear thinking about, but included a photographer, an ecologist, and a man looking to buy an island. I was there in my capacity of hired pen, expected to produce a glowing investment report on the area. As it turned out, it was mercifully easy to say nice things, because despite being so many miles off the beaten track that they have almost come full circle and rejoined it, these islands are spectacular places.
I wasn’t so confident about the choice of destination when our plane landed on the island of Songo Songo, currently home to American gas company Songas. Gas companies and glamorous beach holidays have never gone hand in hand, and the lonely airstrip offered no clues: it was surrounded by inscrutable jungle. We were driven along dirt roads to the gasworks. The friendly operations manager, whose northern English accent remained intact after a lifetime working in places as far afield as the Arctic, showed us around the company’s barracks. The accommodation was like a David Lynch vision of western suburbia, all washed up in the middle of the Indian Ocean: the whitewashed buildings were labelled ‘Dining Room’ and ‘Laundry’, and the neat concrete walkways were lined with flowers. Palm trees loomed just beyond the fenced-off vegetable garden. The manager assured us that neither alcohol nor women were allowed on site. He claimed that the team of mostly Tanzanian workers spent a month at a time focused on the task in hand, providing gas to the mainland. Later, when the Italian company director, with an eye for the important things in life, asked two gas workers how they coped without drink or female company, they smiled and pointed in the direction of the nearby village. In Tanzania, even the most rigorous corporate control has a tendency to blur in the heat, becoming porous and flexible.
We stopped for a coffee in the airconditioned canteen, before moving on by boat to the little island of Fanjove. Through the window, the Indian Ocean glittered, an unlikely apparition partly screened by palm trees. Beyond the lovely beach lay a stub of land, hardly an island, which could be reached on foot at low tide. The locals call it Kisiwa cha Pumbatu (Fool’s Island). Whatever it is, it was very striking: a lone outpost of land in the wide ocean, dhows moored beside it. One of my companions on the trip – and the reason I was there in the first place – owns a travel company that runs hotels and lodges around Tanzania. We admired the island together. “You could build a honeymoon hut on that,” he explained to a Songas representative. “Row them over there by dhow and leave them to it for the night.” His plans for a dirty weekend in the middle of the ocean appeared to fall on deaf ears at the time, but Songas is currently in talks to see if the island might usefully be opened up to tourism. This would potentially benefit the island’s 6000 inhabitants, who have so far seen little of the money generated by the gas project. Promises of community development are being kept, but slowly. Meanwhile, all along the Tanzanian coast, tourism is held up as a source of salvation.
On the boat from Songo Songo to Fanjove, a government official from Kilwa district who had mysteriously joined the party clenched his teeth and muttered what sounded like a prayer. I asked him if he liked boats. A wave slapped against the side of the dhow and soaked his shirt. “I feel that death is very near,” he said, for the third or fourth time since we’d set off from Songo Songo. I was criminally unsympathetic: the sea, the sun, the small islands we were passing, made me feel very alive, not close to death. I couldn’t stop smiling. “Death is very far away,” I told the official. “He’s over there.” And I pointed to a distant stretch of water where, who knows, perhaps a fish was closing its mouth on another, smaller fish at that very moment.
After an hour’s journey, we arrived at Fanjove. A remote island paradise, Fanjove is a travel photographer’s dream. The sand was like white sugar, the sea a dazzling blue, and a ruined lighthouse guarded the beach. The Italian businessman’s eyes lit up. He was already hatching plans to transform the island into a destination for travellers hoping to get well and truly away from it all. In the future, hotels, restaurants and spas could spring up on the hitherto deserted beach. How all this will affect the itinerant fishermen who use the island as a base for fishing trips around the Mafia archipelago remains to be seen. They seemed totally unfazed by our arrival, as we paddled from boat to beach laden with bags, cameras, books and maps. Shy at first, children eventually came over to take a closer look, and one little girl posed for pictures, somersaulting on the perfect beach in her pink dress. Tiny white crabs scuttled away, diving into the holes they’d dug into the sand. Even the government official relaxed, steadily smoking his way through my cigarettes as he watched us swim in the sea.
Fanjove and Songa Songa’s hotels and restaurants are still in the future, but efforts to develop this remote part of Tanzania are opening new doors for the region. But if you can’t wait that long, fly to Songo Songo or Kilwa Masoko, charter a boat – pick a traditional dhow with an outboard motor for the full effect – and head out to sea. I can’t promise the standard beach getaway, but then Tanzania’s strange, uncharted coast is all about getting more than you bargained for.
• Tanzanian domestic airline Coastal Aviation flies from Dar es Salaam to Songo Songo. Check out their website at http://www.coastal.cc/.