Conquering Stone Town’s Labyrinth and Feeding Prison Island’s Gentle Giants

Bright and early, without the guidance of Lisa, the three of us attempt to make our way through the tangled streets of Stone Town, numerous times, before we finally arrive at the place where our French friend awaits us.  Larissa, comfortable in Zanzibar and speaking Swahili, has spent the last 7 months on Tanzania’s mainland.  She knows most of her way about Stone Town, but not quite as well as Lisa, who knew it like the back of her hand the previous night.  On a small, wooden, dhow-like boat, we make our way out of Stone Town’s harbour to Prison Island, also known as Changuu Island.  We are there in no time, perhaps 30 minutes.

Prison Island has an interesting and unfortunate history for such a beautiful place.  It is small and was used to confine troublesome African slaves by an Arab trader before he would ship them off to Arabian purchasers, or to the auctions at Zanzibar’s slave market.  Much like how the troublesome slaves were sent to the island to prevent their escaping, the prison was built in 1893 by Lloyd Mathews to send and seclude the mainland’s most violent criminals.  Oddly enough, the purpose of which the island’s most well-known name descends, it never served.  The Yellow Fever Epidemic turned the prison into a quarantine center; quarantine island.  Remnants of the prison, or quarantine center still exist.

Our feet first take us to see the gigantic tortoises that are conserved on the island.  They are HUGE.  I see one that is 185 years old.  Apparently the oldest is 200+ years, but we cannot find it.  We stand there looking at them.  Such slow and surprisingly pushy creatures, they climb over each other to get their food; spinach and something resembling cabbage.











I keep my distance as first.  They are just so big!

However, I soon realized that they are only interested in getting their food; harmless so long as I keep feeding them.  I find a friendly looking crowd and squeeze my way into their circle of feeding frenzy.

We contemplate how odd it is to think that these wrinkled, hard-shelled animals will outlive us.

I was surprised to see  that their conservation wasn’t right on the water, but I suppose, after taking ourselves on a mini self-governed walk, that the tide must fill in certain crevasses at different times of the day and night.  I say this because the island is covered in coral and small crawling sea creatures who carry their homes on their backs; no, not the tortoises, small seashell dwellers.

We walk the island and imagine its history as we see the prison and quarantine structures.  I see a large dining hall with the sky as a roof, looking out over the sea, with nature entangled into its walls and am reminded of scenes I would expect to see in a medieval, King Arthur-like movie.  We pass still other ruins which validate the island’s history by revealing proof that many different coroners of the world once dominated this small piece of land.

The sand is white and I see my first starfish of the trip washed up and dried in the burning sun.  There are many shells and when standing in the water, you can see your toes clearly through its aquamarine colour.  After enjoying the buoyancy of the salt water my stomach is grumbling as we cross back to Stone Town to meet Lisa for lunch.




We are in a small restaurant, white and blue, bringing me back to Greece but with a more laid back pace.  We have the most amazing smoothies we could have dreamed into creation (or perhaps we were just unbelievably hungry and thirsty) before our food arrives.  I eat Bunny Chow – but don’t worry, it is not actually bunny or rabbit.  It is chicken masala in a hollowed out loaf of bread, and it is delicious!

The afternoon our French friend, Danika and I spend traversing, exploring and discovering Stone Town.  We are lost in its maze of narrow winding paths.  We find the market, stumble across a place where I enjoy some spiced tea, marveled at the nice old buildings and meeting a variety of people willing to sell us anything and everything.























We pass the post office and the Old Dispensary, dating to Zanzibar’s colonial past and stop for a minute to contemplate a place called the House of Wonders which was built in 1883 as a ceremonial palace for Sultan Barghash.  I later found out that it was bestowed the name ‘House of Wonders’ because it was the first in Zanzibar to have electric light and an electric lift.  The things we take for granted these days…

Watching the sunset from Mercury’s, named after Freddie Mercury who was born in Zanzibar under a different name, reminds us that it is time to reunite for Lisa’s farewell party.  We leave the coast where a relatively huge ship is being loaded with containers, balanced by the multiplicity of small wooden boats sitting in the harbour next to it.

After getting lost in the labyrinth that is Stone Town, we eventually arrive.  House of Spices; a place with an awesome name and which has the absolute best spinach and ricotta tortellini I have tasted in …God knows how long.

Dinner and wine behind us, we meet the rest of the party at Livingston’s.  It is a grand send-off for Lisa.  Friends, both expatriate and local, are there and we half dance the night away; star-gaze the other.  Lisa looks so happy here; her love of Zanzibar visible with every smile.  Our feet in the sand, under a canopy of stars, I can’t help but be reminded of Lindsay Duncan’s fanciful, surreal and life-loving character as Katherine from Under the Tuscan sun, or of Kathleen Turner’s character Joan Wilder and who she becomes in film Romancing the Stone.  Such a mesmerizing island; an exotic, far away and dreamy feeling is tangible in this place.  Life here is so different from home.

By the end of the night the dance floor is covered in sand and we head back to Lisa’s place.  The next big adventure will soon dawn and I can only imagine how our senses will be bursting as we learn all about the spices grown on this island.  I cannot wait.


1 thought on “Conquering Stone Town’s Labyrinth and Feeding Prison Island’s Gentle Giants

  1. Laura, so happy to hear you were in Zanzibar!!! Isn’t it just a wonderful place? Glad you had a well acquainted tour guide to bring you out to all the great spots! Wish I could have been there with you! Xoxo – V

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