Prison Island Tour

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The boat we took across to Prison Island.

Yesterday I headed off on the last of my organized tours. (Feels like that word is going to be in heavy rotation in the coming days – last tour, last day on the island, last day in Africa…) This one involved taking a boat (not unlike the hugely crowded motorboats we saw while on Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda, only these ones had roofs and far fewer people) across to Changuu, also known as Prison Island. The island is about 5km northwest of Zanzibar, and was originally used to detain ‘recalcitrant’ slaves, and later as a quarantine station. It’s now privately owned, but still permits visitors, who come to see the giant tortoises at the sanctuary there, and to snorkel at the nearby coral reefs.

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Feeding one of the giant tortoises at the sanctuary on Prison Island.

The tortoises were a total trip. They’re huge, and, like the Colobus monkeys at Jozani, extremely used to having frequent visitors. It was fascinating to watch them lumber about – it definitely gave me a new appreciation for the feats of that tortoise from ‘Tortoise and the Hare’. We were each given some shoots to feed them, which was fun since it meant they made their way over to us, and would literally be eating out of the palm of our hands. There was a married couple on my tour from Boston, who could not have more aptly personified every cliche about well-to-do tourists in Africa. I took a video of one rebel tortoise who had left the main sanctuary area and was walking along the concrete pathway nearby, and on the video you can hear the husband asking “Can we keep one?” They were completely delighted by everything we saw, so it was difficult to feel much antipathy towards them – particularly when they were so entertaining to have around.

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I was too chicken to test out whether my camera was truly waterproof, but this shot actually looks like what I saw while snokelling.

We stayed on the island a while longer, looking at the remains of the detention centre there, and then again boarded our boat, this time to head to the coral reefs offshore for snorkelling. After putting on our borrowed flippers and snorkel masks (which we’d shelled out a whopping $2 for), we jumped into the water. It was amazing the first time you put your head under – one second you’re looking out at turquoise water and the white sand beach in the distance, and the next you’ve entered a whole other world of reefs and schools of fish that swim within inches of you. We spent about an hour in the water, just floating with the current and watching all the activity taking place below us. Despite having put on sunscreen that morning, it didn’t even cross my mind that floating with my back and legs exposed would necessitate another application. Although I’m kicking myself for the resulting sunburn, the snorkelling was by far the coolest thing I’ve done on this trip.

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Kids play in the water at sunset, in front of the beachfront patio at Mercury's restaurant.

Once we’d made it back to shore, and I’d been over to my guest house to change and grab more water, I headed to Mercury’s restaurant for dinner. It’s named in honour of Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, who was born on Zanzibar in 1946. He only lived on the island until he was eight years old, and there’s still dispute as to which house(s) he and his family actually occupied, but Mercury’s doesn’t let that deter them from capitalizing on his name. Regardless, I ate some delicious fajitas on their beachside patio, and watched local kids try to outdo one another with ever more daring flips and back handsprings into the water below where I was sitting. Not a bad way to spend the evening.

Just two more days left on the island, and then I’ll catch another ferry across to Dar, and head to the airport in time for my afternoon flight on Monday.

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  • Kelly

    So when you say giant tortoises you really meant GIANT tortoises. Those things are HUGE!!!!