A crab wanders along the Marimbani sandbank.
A crab wanders along the Marimbani sandbank.
Villagers make their way to the waiting ferry on Utende beach.
Villagers make their way to the waiting ferry on Utende beach.

Mafia Island, Tanzania - How to write 1 200 words about a holiday on which you did nothing? Tough job, but someone’s got to do it. As a deskbound sub-editor, I don’t get to travel for work, but I do work to travel – and let me say up front that I paid for this one; it was no freebie.

The highlight of my year is late January, when I take my annual leave. It’s a good time to travel – the school holidays are over, the roads are quieter and it’s low season in many places.

Part of the fun is picking a destination. So many places, so little time. But this year I was pretty clear: it had been a difficult 12 months and I was exhausted. So, a tropical island holiday.

Mauritius? Too commercial. Thailand? Too far. Mombasa? Not an island, but it does offer some great-looking beaches. Too volatile, though. Madagascar? Too wet. Mozambique’s beaches? Too many South Africans. I have nothing against South Africans. I just wanted to get away from it all.

How to do that? Go “over there” to Mafia Island, Tanzania. Mafia, so our guide Asheli tells us, has nothing to do with mobsters or crime. “Crime? What is crime?” he replies when we ask whether it’s a problem on the island. That’s a good start for a tourist from South Africa.

Mafia is the old Arabic word for “over there”, Asheli continues. When the slave traders came down from Zanzibar, they used to say they were going “over there”.

Who knows how much of what he tells us is true? Who cares? He’s a great storyteller; we gape when he tells us, over a beer in the bar in the market town of Kilindoni, about the 2m barracuda he came face to face with once while diving; we are spellbound when he talks about the “ghosties” that haunt one stretch of the road between Utende village and Kilindoni, and about the bushbabies that bring evil.

Ten years ago – though I think it must be more – the villagers still fled when they saw a white person, and babies started crying, he says. We look like the ghosties, of course. That’s how unspoilt Mafia Island is. This is confirmed on our sunset cruise to Marimbani sandbank, when Juma, our dhow’s skipper, tells us that on the way to the lighthouse somewhere on the archipelago, there are villages where a white person is still a rare sight.

And to think, we’re only about 160km south of the touristy Zanzibar, with its glitzy hotels and organised activities.

There are several lodges on Mafia Island. Where we stayed, at Mafia Island Lodge – a slightly faded 1970s establishment on Utende beach in Chole Bay – we couldn’t see any of them, not even the lodge next door. We didn’t even know there was one until the second day.

It’s the kind of isolation in which a tired mind and body can recover. Which is not to say there is nothing. Regardless of the tourists lying like lizards on the beach, life goes on for the islanders.

The ferries bring women with bright headscarves to Utende beach, from where they catch a bus to Kilindoni to do their shopping (though not in the sense that we know it – there is no mall, just small shops set along the dusty road). In the afternoons they return, heavy bags on their heads, back into the dhow to take them to whichever small island they came from.

Here is a man in shorts loading coconuts on to the dhow, there is a youngster taking on board jerry cans of fresh water to take to the island where the water isn’t sweet, Thomas, our other guide, tells us. There, on Chole Island beach, five strong men are trying to get a cow into the dhow, but it’s not interested in the 15-minute boat trip to Utende.

You can lie on the beach all day, watching this stream of humanity, these interesting strangers coming and going.

But there are other things to do. There is more – much more – to Mafia than its shimmering beaches.

It is apparently one of the best diving spots in the Indian Ocean. I wish I could say more about that, but I don’t dive. We met a couple at the airport at Dar es Salaam – it’s a three-hour flight from OR Tambo, and from Dar there’s a small 12-seater plane that takes you on the 30-minute trip to the island – and they were on their way to Mafia for a fourth time. They have dived all over, but they keep returning. I reckon that says more about the diving at Mafia than I ever can.

Then there are the whale sharks, one of the island’s main attractions.

But even if you’re not a waterbaby – though the electric-blue water should be enough to lure anyone for a little amateur snorkelling – there are islands and sandbanks and villages and craft shops to satisfy your curiosity.

The craft shops in Utende offer paintings by local artists with names such as “K-Star” and “Picasso”, Maasai beads and wood carvings of elephants, zebras and giraffes, none of which can be found on the island. It was a little funny, as was the cheap South African wine offered at the lodge, at a huge mark-up – in dollars.

A trip to Kilindoni is another adventure – 30 minutes in a tuk-tuk over a pretty bad gravel road (“There are no black roads in all of Mafia,” Asheli says. “The government just doesn’t care”.) and you’re in the biggest town in Mafia.

A gander through the market, a little bartering to get a piece of cloth brought in from Dar, a stroll along the beach where the fishermen ply their trade and women sit in the shade waiting for the boats to get in, then a walk through the palm-treed village, where it feels as if you’ve left the 21st century.

Here are two blacksmiths, in a makeshift palm-thatch hut, hammering nails for a new boat. A boy works the bellows, an innovative contraption made of two mealie meal bags. Asheli asks them in Swahili if we can take a picture. Their price is TS1 000 – less than R8.

A word of advice here. You can book all your excursions through the hotel, but that’ll cost you. Thomas roams the beach – as do several other guys – and they can organise the same trips for you at a fraction of the price.

Thomas charters a dhow to take us to Fisherman’s Island, where the locals come to catch fish to send (fresh) to other islands and (dried) to Dar. He sweetens the deal by offering us lunch on the beach – fresh white snapper grilled over a fire made of coconut husks, served with coconut rice. We watch the afternoon ferry traffic on the beach as we eat. It all costs us $20.

He also takes us to Chole Island. We explore the ruins of a slave trader’s mansion, now taken over by tree roots, and the “lock-up”, as Thomas calls it, where the slaves were held before being sent elsewhere.

In the boatyard, where they build the new dhows (it’s only TS8 million for a new one), we take a break and discuss corrupt governments. We’re a long way from South Africa, but it feels like home.

On our last day, we have an early-morning swim in an ocean that is as still and as see-through as glass. I think, as every tourist does: “I have to come back.”

I probably won’t – so many places, so little time. But even if I never do, I won’t easily forget how a holiday in which I did so little could do so much for my soul. - Saturday Star