Zanzibar part 3: Prisons, tortoises, dhows and curries

In the morning Matt headed off. Morton, Naomi, Sam and I had organised an early boat trip out to Prison Island, five kilometres off shore, and, for the afternoon, a sunset dhow cruise. I thought to myself I shouldn’t push Sam too hard in the middle of the day, it would be a lot for him to cope with.

The Arabs had isolated recalcitrant slaves on Prison Island. Later, the British had erected a prison there but the buildings were never used for their intended purpose. Instead the island was used as a quarantine station, in reserve for British colonies around east Africa. With the intention of protecting Stone Town, then the busiest port in east Africa, from epidemics, individuals on ships who were suspected of having yellow fever or cholera were isolated here for a week or two. More recently, its isolation has provided protection for another species, the Aldabra giant sea tortoises of the Indian Ocean.

Previously widespread but then nearly hunted into extinction in the nineteenth century, the tortoises are now only found in the wild on one atoll in the Seychelles. In 1919, four specimens were given as a gift to Zanzibar by the British governor of the Seychelles, and their numbers quickly increased. Through the late part of the twentieth century, poaching for pets and food dramatically reduced the population,  nearly wiping out the colony, before a secure enclosure allowed the tortoises to once again thrive.

Sam was fascinated by the huge beasts, which can weigh more than 250 kilograms and have amazing longevity. One specimen on Prison Island was 192 years old.

‘That means he was born in 1823. He was born before the American Civil War.’

Naomi was impressed with Sam’s history knowledge. All those conversations we’d had in the back of buses were paying off.

We had unfettered access to the animals, and Sam was brave enough to gently pat one old timer’s head, which apparently they liked. An idiotic Italian tourist stood astride one of the tortoises, which we were clearly instructed to not do as it distresses them.

I thought the head of the South African curator was going to explode.‘Get off that tortoise now!’

I caught the curator’s eye, and shook my head in disgust. He came up to me.‘Why on Earth do they have to do that? What are they thinking?’

‘You get idiots everywhere.’

‘You know, I had to have one tortoise put down a few years ago, when some clown stood on top of his shell and broke it.’

The afternoon dhow cruise was a much more laid back affair. The elegant sailing ships were a masterpiece of simple design. A single triangular sail was rolled and tied to a long yard, mounted at an angle on the mast. By adjusting the angle of the yard and the sail with two simple ropes on the end of yard, the sailor can easily adjust direction and speed, including being able to tack into the wind. It was like a giant windsurfer, or more correctly, a windsurfer was like a mini dhow; dhows have been around the coastlines of eastern Africa, Arabia and India for thousands of years.

Sam was chilling pretty well as we glided along beside Stone Town, a cream obtuse triangle floating on the jade waters. His floppy hat, which we had bought way back in Guma Lodge on the Okavango Delta blew off and landed in the water, away from my reaching grasp in a flash. Another item to add to the lost, broken and missing in action list. Well, at least our packs were getting lighter.

That evening Morton, Naomi, Sam and I went to an Indian restaurant were the food was excellent, the electricity supply intermittent, and Sam’s behaviour, to put it in his words, ‘disappointing.’ I think he had picked up that term from his mother. Protracted negotiation regarding the balance of wanting all of the garlic naan and none of the curries dominated the table, and then the room, before I finally had to pull the plug and leave early so as the rest of the restaurant could eat in peace. I think the heavily scheduled day had knocked him around; we had had three boat rides, lots of sun and lots of newness. Maybe a curry challenge was a bridge too far.