Mafia Island Tranquility
Going to Mafia Island was a spur of the moment decision and one of the best we’ve made. We were actually going to Malawi but decided to go to Tanzania as an add-on to our Malawi trip since it was just a little bit extra to get there from Malawi.
Mafia Island ("Chole Shamba") is an island in Tanzania. The name "Mafia" derives from the Arabic morfiyeh, meaning "group" or "archipelago", or from the Swahili mahali pa afya, meaning "a healthy dwelling-place".
We made a stop-over in Blantyre, Malawi, and from there boarded our flight to Dar Es Salaam. We spent the night in the city and decided to book our flight to the island the next day.
Dar Es Salaam City
We ended up being really happy with our decision to stay in the city and experiencing the busy city vibe, although short, it gave us a feel for the country and its people. Like many African countries, the Tanzanians are friendly and welcoming. The city comes to life at night and is quiet during daytime hours because of the soaring temperatures. Our helpful taxi driver who met us at the airport was telling us about his country with so much pride. We flew through the traffic to get to the hotel in true African style with the beep beeps of car horns all around, dodging scooters and pedestrians.
There are great places to visit in the city, have a taste of the local food, do some shopping, walk around and take in the sights and smells and mingle with the people. Whether it’s roasted maize or mama cooked Tanzanian chapatis, you won’t want to miss a few meals and snacks of Tanzanian street food when you visit Dar Es Salaam. You can visit the local market; this is the place to go if you are hunting for the best bargains in town or wish to see the authentic side of local style Tanzanian shopping. If you want to learn more about the history and culture of Tanzania or see some of the fossils that have been uncovered in the country, you’ll be interested in visiting the National Museum. The Village Museum offers a chance to observe a number of typical Tanzanian traditional huts and learn more about the tribes of the country.
The next day we were off on a tiny plane to the island, on a 30min flight. It’s beautiful looking down at the deep blue ocean below scattered with little islands. Large areas of the island – especially the south and northern sides – are covered with coconut trees, mostly planted by pre-World War II German settlers and descendants of Omani Arab, Shatri, Shirazi, and Baluchi pioneers. These provide work for many inhabitants and a source of cash income, especially during the dry season when most coconuts are harvested and home-grown food is in short supply.
The Big Blu Mafia Island Dive Resort is a lovely place situated in the Mafia Island Marine Park in Utende, in the South-East of Mafia Island. It has a beachfront location with uninterrupted views over Chole Bay.
The pace of life here is very slow and makes this a great break away. You can sit for hours taking in the beautiful scenery and listen to the peaceful flop flop sound of the water or watch the cute little ghost crabs patrolling the beach.
The Mafia Island region which includes the Rufiji River Delta and Mafia channel, forms one of the finest complexes of estuarine, mangrove, coral reef, and marine ecosystems in the world, all lying in an area of around 1500km². The coral reefs are particularly diverse for Eastern Africa. Habitats in the area of the MIMP (821km²) include hard coral dominated reefs, soft coral and algal dominated reefs, sheltered back reef systems, inter-tidal flats with hard and soft substrate, mangrove forests, extensive seagrass beds, algal, sponge and soft coral sub-tidal beds. The average sea temperatures are min 26.5°C and max 29.4°C.
On our first day, we went on a lovely long 84min muck dive to see all sorts of interesting tiny creatures like frogfish, sea horses, and harlequin shrimps, it’s an amazing macro photography dive.
Shore dives or snorkeling can be done right in front of the resort where you will see all sorts of marine life. We had 2 boat dives scheduled every day except for the two days we booked other excursions. Going out on the wooden boats was fun and comfortable, compared to the rubber duck boats we are used to. We did double tank dives which meant our surface interval was spent on the water just chilling on the boat, warming up for the next dive, enjoying some drinks and snacks, and chatting to the interesting people we met or even taking a cat nap.
There are shallow and deep reef dives with a wonderful diversity of marine life. There are more than 50 kinds of coral, including giant table corals, huge stands of blue-tipped staghorn corals, and more than 400 species of fish. You'll always see something exciting, from rainbow-colored clownfish to octopus, rays, and the odd gigantic grouper or large potato cod. Sharks and dolphins are found in the deeper waters, and at night turtles haul themselves onto remote beaches to nest.
Snorkeling with the whale sharks of Mafia Island was the highlight of the trip. You take a short ride to the west side of the island where you go out on a Chachungi speedboat along the channel between Mafia and the mainland. During the summer season, usually November to March, the whale sharks can be spotted swimming at the surface. These beautiful giants grow up to 20m long.
Mafia Island follows the “Code of Conduct” which is a set of guidelines used all over the World in interacting safely with marine animals. The income that is created by marine tourism is pivotal in the conservation of the whale sharks of Mafia Island. We were lucky enough to have met Simon J Pierce on our trip, he is the co-founder and whale shark researcher at the Marine Megafauna Foundation, and we attended his talk on whale sharks. Raising awareness is key as well as working with the local communities and accommodating their livelihood and concerns in conservation.
Chole Island is one of the oldest inhabited islands in the Mafia archipelago. It has a long, varied history dating back to the 12th Century and was once the capital of Mafia.
On this tour, we explored the ruins that have been overtaken by nature and saw the Arabic and German influences, including a prison and customs house. We walked across the entire island through the small villages and varied vegetation. Along this walk, you will see some impressively large Baobab trees and see where traditional Swahili dhows are built by skilled craftsmen using hand tools. Chole also acts as a sanctuary for the Flying Foxes (Fruit Bats). You can hear the squeaks of the bats as you get closer to the very large trees that they live in, when you look up you can see them hanging like ripe fruits from the branches. They rely heavily on their sense of smell to locate food and they have large eyes which they use on to navigate.
There are a few other excursions available if you have the time, we, unfortunately, did not but will explore more when we visit Mafia Island again.
Keep an eye out for our next trip to Mafia Island.
by Madelein Wolfaardt