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The resort that time forgot
When visitors alight in Zanzibar, the expectation is that they will head off on one of a short list of typical Zanzibari tours and activities. These are the spice tour, the Stone Town tour, the Jozani monkey tour and the sea safari excursion.
These are all worth doing and are popular for good reasons. But once in a while a different type of tourist turns up - one who wants to see Zanzibar shot by a non-mainstream director. They don't want the easy crowd-pleasers, but the quirky, the unexpected, the cool and the otherworldly. Not necessarily the spooky, but the spots that make them feel that they are in another place, another time - away from safari outfits, sunhats, camera flashes and constant questions.
Now a new breed of tour companies are emerging, and they are catering to these travellers - offering them something different. Guides often have less encyclopaedic knowledge, but offer more in the way of laughs and camaraderie. It's a style that appeals to, although not exclusively, younger travellers - who prefer some rough on their edges to a slick, rehearsed product.
And so it is with Mambo Poa Tours, a company set up this year in Jambiani on Zanzibar's south-east coast by Bojo and Lau, and their friend Mwalim - all young former students of the local tourism school. They want their tours to be good, but not deferential. Instead of disappearing into an air-conditioned hotel after their tours, their customers are just as likely to share a beach dancefloor with their guides later in the evening.
Lau, one of Mambo Poa Tours' founders
But what is really special is some of the imaginative and novel tours that Mambo Poa is offering - including the Mtende abandoned hotel tour and the Uzi island tour.
Mambo (magazine, no relation...) went recently to check out the abandoned hotel tour. A gang of guides and tourists of different ages and nationalities piled into a minivan reminiscent of the Mystery Van from Scooby Doo, and trundled off down the coast road to the village of Mtende, close to Makunduchi.
The deserted resort was the main attraction but, keen to give value for money, the guide took us first to a couple of caves. The first was particularly eerie and the site of the village's main water pumping station, built by the Chinese back in 1974. The combination of darkness, damp, crumbling stone and recent industrial archaeology in a stalactite-dotted cave certainly offered atmosphere. However, while the bats proved hospitable, the resident spiders seemed to object to the intrusion and promptly bit one of us. The next cave, down the road, proved prettier, if a bit less spooky.
Next we alighted in the village of Mtende, rarely visited by tourists. There are no major sites, but people are mostly friendly, and we pottered around on foot. Mtende native Hassan, a friend of the tour guides, told us about the village and acted as cultural interpreter. The fertile soil in this area makes the village pretty self-sufficient, with good crops of bananas and cassava.
We peered at the village's baobab tree, said to be almost a millennium old, and pepperered with holes that lizards use as egg receptacles. "Some people try to be friendly with the shetani [spirits] in this tree," one guide said, but we gave this a miss and headed to a local house for lunch.
Sitting out on the porch, we laid out a woven mat and our hosts bring out octopus, beans, vegetables in sauce and coconut rice, followed by bananas and sweet, sweet oranges.
Now it was time for the main act - the abandoned hotel. This had been, naturally, hyped to us ahead of time and I was curious as to whether it could really live up to expectations.
What I underestimated was the extent to which the hotel had been finished. There were more than twenty beach bungalows - built using natural local materials but to a high spec. Each came complete with bed, shelves, shower, toilet and even bidet. All were dusty, dilapidated, curling at the edges - but only a few years and a spring clean away from being comparable to $500 per night bungalows.
Nature leaves little to waste, and it was the same with local fishermen, some of whom had made use of the empty rooms. A kerosene lamp here, shirt there, or bicycle; it was clear that some of the rooms were being used. A disconcerted security man approached us soon after our group arrived and remonstrated with our guides, but some money changed hands and soon we were exploring freely.
The story is, as is often the case in Zanzibar, a little blurry round the edges. The people behind this hotel project were (probably) Italian. They left the island because they may or may not have not satisfied the right people in government. Do they still own the site? Did they own it in the first place? Possibly.
As well as the many rooms, the hotel featured a disused restaurant area complete with scores of wooden sun loungers, chairs and tables; a 'swimming' pool with a shallow layer of rust-coloured water; a curving white strand of paradise beach strewn with plastic bags and other rubbish; and a long, rotting, wooden jetty heading out into a stormy sea. A sunny day might have made for a different ambience, but the vibe that we got was one of desolation and abandoned dreams.
What it did have as a location was that severe beauty that results from the bare bones of a stunning place shining through its neglect, and the kooky charm that its useless but surreal facilities conferred. A rundown hotel for ghosts.
We said our goodbyes and went with our guides back to Jambiani to see the guesthouse they are building to accommodate travellers as another part of their tourism business. I was left hoping that this building project - and these dreams - reach fulfilment.7
If you would like to go on the abandoned hotel tour with Mambo Poa Tours, call +255 7748 90489 or email mambopoatours [at] gmail [dot] com