Destination: Zanzibar

Zanzibar has captured the imaginations of travellers for decades. The clear waters, the distinctly Arabic feel, the call to prayer echoing through the streets of Stone Town, the heat and the typical island vibe are enough to make anyone want to stay forever.

To get to Zanzibar, you can either get the ferry from Dar es Salaam, on the coast of mainland Tanzania, or you can fly with Precision Airlines from Dar, Nairobi, and several other airports within East Africa. The ferry is generally the cheapest option, but is a relatively uneventful ride until you draw near the port of Stone Town. Looming over the top of the low-rise building is the Anglican Church, once housing the holding cells for hundreds of slaves being smuggled to Europe and the US.

Stone Town is mind-boggling. The alleys (you can’t possibly call them streets, they’re far too narrow for a car!) twist and wind and go on forever. All the buildings start to look the same, and it’s incredibly daunting. Throw away your map, and embrace the feeling of getting lost. Women should note, I recommend avoiding wandering alone, especially at night.

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The Anglican Church is built on the original slavery market grounds. There is a memorial there now, and a small museum set up. The underground holding cells have been refurbished and are open to the public, and definitely worth seeing to put the plight of the slaves into perspective. It’s claustrophobic, dark, small, and it smells. Unimaginable that we held people in these underground rooms, with no light, no food, no clothing, no water, and against their will.

The night markets are lively and there are always a good mix of locals and tourists alike looking for a cheap street food dinner. Try the Zanzibari pizza – not a pizza at all, but something between a pizza, a pancake and gozleme.

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Built by Sultan Barghash, the Persian Baths have been around since the late 19th century. While no longer functioning, they were the first public baths in Zanzibar, and as such hold an insight to a different history. Ask the caretaker across the alley to unlock the gate for you, you may need a small tip to coax him.

Sultan Seyyid Said built the Mtoni Palace as his residence in the early 19th century, and although it is now in ruins, in it’s heyday it was a beautiful building with a large balconied exterior, an observation turret and it’s own mosque. A conservation project is now in place, and guided walking tours can be arranged locally.

Spices no longer dominate Zanzibar’s economy as they once did, but there are some plantations dotting the centre of the island. You can book a tour through any of the tourism outlets in Stone Town, and visit to learn about what cloves, vanilla, and other spices look like in the wild. Tours should cost between US$15 and US$20 per person at time of writing.

The beaches are where Zanzibar really comes into it’s own. Sensational sunsets, impromptu volleyball games, dhows anchored offshore, fresh seafood and cold beer. There is something for everyone on the northern beaches, so head north and get into the water. Snorkel, swim, take a boat ride to Prison Island to visit the tortoises.

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Luxury Stays: Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve

Long term followers of my other blogs and my Twitter or Instagram feeds will know that while Australia is my place of birth and London is my second home, Africa owns my heart and soul. I fell in love with that diverse continent back in 2009 on my first trip to Zimbabwe and Mozambique and the love affair has continued over the years. As much as I love Africa as a whole, it took me several visits to actually like South Africa as a country.

SA is volatile, a country still finding its feet after years of racial discrimination and outbreaks of violence and xenophobia. Crime rates are high, and in some places they’re higher than the rest of Africa combined. It’s country of stunning mountain scenery, with a backdrop of tense bitterness experienced by its people. South Africans that I know who live in Australia tell me wild tales of assault, rape and murder. People who have never been ask me constantly what it is about Africa that keeps drawing me back, but people who have been know. It gets under your skin like no where else on Earth.

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Recently, I was lucky enough to be escorted by Swagman Tours through some of the most beautiful spots in SA. We started in Cape Town and headed out along Cape Peninsula, hitting the Garden Route hard and fast before flying north to Kruger National Park. I was looking forward to this part of our itinerary the least. I had been before, and I wasn’t overly enthralled with it last time. In my subsequent visits I avoided it, marking it in my head as a tourist trap – a sprawling mass of land that was far too big for me to explore on my own and still have some understanding of what all the fuss is about.

It rings true today. Since my visit to Leopard Hills, in the western sector of renowned Sabi Sands private conservancy attached to Greater Kruger I’ve completely changed my tune on safari in Kruger – but only if it’s done right. And lucky for me, the team at Leopard Hills definitely know how to make your stay into a trip of a lifetime.

Sabi Sand Game Reserve comprises 10,000 hectares of incredibly diverse ecosystems where the Big 5 wander freely, and the ability to view them at close proximity and watch them in their natural environment and witness their normal behaviours is a high priority for the team at Leopard Hills. Situated on a rocky outcrop to maximise the magnificent views over the bushland and an active waterhole, the small lodge has only 8 glass-fronted suites, each complete with their own private pool and sundeck. The lodge facilities include an extensive library with internet access, a traditional Shangaan boma, a fully stocked wine cellar and a curio shop as well as a tastefully appointed restaurant with quality food and service from friendly staff. There is also a gym and spa with glass frontage to make the most of those game viewings while having a massage. Leopard Hills has understated luxury down to an art. The small touches from our housekeeping team made me feel so welcome, it was like being a part of their family. A family you never see, because I honestly did not even see my housekeeper. She came and went while I was out, tidying and leaving me little notes and restocking my Amarula so that I would have plenty there when I came back.

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Now, while the rooms were beautiful and the bushland so accessible, what really impressed me was the staff. They remembered our names even though we stayed one night only, and our guide and tracker team were unbelievable. I’ve been on a  lot of safari in my time, and I’ve had some really incredible experiences in Africa. But at Leopard Hills, their knowledge and spotting abilities meant I got an in-depth understanding of how Sabi is different to those  conservancies in the northern part of Kruger, and indeed different to other parks I have visited in Kenya and Tanzania. I was able to quiz the guides on routines around the reserve, what happens when they find poachers, the different behaviours of even the smallest creatures – these are guides who genuinely love what they do and have a passion for sharing that with their guests.

In the two game drives I had with Reese (guide) and Congive (tracker) we managed to find all of the Big 5, including four different leopards. We were surrounded by elephant and witnessed a pride of lion with a buffalo kill. As much as these remarkable sightings thrilled me, I was also especially glad to find small lizards sunning themselves on boulders, chameleon hiding in the bushes late at night,  beautiful lilac breasted rollers, red beaked and black feathered drongos hiding in the cold mornings and many other birds, including eagles and owls.

Promise me, if you have the time and the budget – fit a stay at Leopard Hills into your African itinerary. You absolutely won’t be disappointed, this is one place I will guarantee it.

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Proof Going on Safari is Good for Your Soul

“The only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa, for he has so much to look forward to.”

Ernest Hemingway

 

I have never known a quote to sum up my love of Africa so perfectly. How I wish I could wind back time and rediscover my favourite continent again. I’m not alone here, there are so many people who have withdrawals from their safari addiction and prefer to spend their lives chasing bush time. There are so many magical moments you experience on safari, it is a shame we can’t bottle them so we can revisit them as needed once we are home again and bogged down with work and other obligations.

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FORCES ME TO BE IN THE MOMENT

When in the African bushland I seem to be able to live more naturally in the present. I become immersed in whatever is or isn’t happening minute by minute. Just like mindfulness, yoga and meditation, being more in the moment delivers great benefits to our minds, bodies and souls. I come out feeling refreshed and motivated.

CUTTING OFF

Living in the moment like this means I am genuinely cut off, literally disconnected from the world (provided you don’t connect to WiFi!) and figuratively from my daily life at home. I feel free from all the normal pressures and responsibilities of work and family, it’s like forcing myself to relax. It comes so naturally though, it’s not forced at all. It just… is.

SLOWING DOWN

A typical safari day follows my natural circadian rhythm. I get up very early and have very productive mornings, and then I just want to chill out and read books or rest for a few hours in the middle of the day. I then get another burst of energy around 3-4pm, and then I’m usually in bed by 10pm. Combining this with my more mindful existence, and I function at a much slower pace when on safari. This slower pace aids well being and means I have more time for the things and people that are important to me when I do go home.

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APPRECIATING THE LITTLE THINGS

Pausing to notice small details and finding joy in simple things is something we often can’t find time for in our frenetic daily lives. This is one of the most calming and genuinely enriching experiences gained from safari.

THE JOY OF BEING OUTSIDE

It’s obvious isn’t it? When on safari, we typically spend more time outside than we would normally. In addition to the benefits of breathing in fresh air and absorbing some Vitamin D from the sunshine, our souls are fed by being much closer with our simpler more primitive needs – food, water, shelter, warmth.

ENGAGING OUR SENSES

For most of us, the safari environment is more multi-sensory than our normal lives. We engage and rely on our five senses much more so than usual, especially when walking and sleeping in the bush. This is more stimulating and calming, and enhances our well being.

FEELING MORE ALIVE

Karen Blixen is known for saying “You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” Being in the company of big game, witnessing their behaviour and interaction with each other; there is a sense of vulnerability and adventure that makes us feel more empowered. I know that I can certainly feel my blood pumping faster, my heart beating more wildly, myself feeling more grounded. I get a flush in my cheeks, I feel warmer and more calm. Simply, I feel more alive.

 

Have you been on safari? How did you feel afterward? Where did you go and what was your favourite experience? Let me know in the comments below.

It continued in Africa: Photo-essay

I may have found my wanderlust in Asia, but I left my heart and soul somewhere in Africa. From the plains of the Serengeti to the jungles of Rwanda; from the mountains of South Africa to the beaches of the Comoros, I’ve pretty much seen it all. From that first foray into the African bush, I knew I had found my home. Africa teaches me something new each time I travel. I get an insight into myself, and what I can handle as a human. Africa teaches compassion, appreciation, faith, humility and patience like no where else on Earth. Beware – Africa will uplift, inspire, challenge, dampen, push and question you like you never expected. But Africa never disappoints.