Mafia Island

This weekend we took our first proper vacation from Dar and went to Mafia Island. Normally I try not to focus on how we got somewhere, but I think it’s important in this case. There is a ferry that you can take, but you have to take a 4 hour bus from Dar to the ferry terminal, and then a 4 hour ferry ride that “leaves when there are more than 50 people but less than 60 people”. In other words, you could end up waiting there a while. So like most tourists, we opted for the flight there. We knew it was going to be an experience when we walked into the domestic terminal and we checked in to the flight by writing our names on a piece of paper. The terminal lost power at least 3 times in the 2 hours we waited there. The boarding announcement was a lady yelling, “Coastal flight to Mafia,” and then eventually, “Kyle and Sara for Coastal flight to Mafia” when we weren’t fast enough. We walked out on the tarmac and saw our chariot for the day:

It was definitely the smallest plane either of us had ever flown on. But it was actually a less terrifying experience than expected; you could use your phone the whole flight, there was no time wasted on safety briefings, and watching the landing from basically inside the cockpit was quite enjoyable. We were certainly happy to land on Mafia, though, and get started with our vacation.

Two quick asides about the flight:

  1. We were disappointed that the US government apparently just paid to have the landing strip paved. We were really looking forward to landing on a dirt pad. #ThanksObama
  2. My online boarding pass wouldn’t pull up on my phone when we left Mafia yesterday. So the workers just took our word for it we bought a ticket, and let us on without ever seeing proof we actually paid for the flight.

Carefree life on Mafia

Anyway, Mafia! The island has nothing to do with Italian crime families; it actually means “islands of health”. It was used as a stopping point (and prison) for Arabic traders as they moved south from Dar to the southern coast of Africa, and later by Germans doing the same. The beaches here are mediocre (lots of seaweed, and very extreme tides), but the main reason to go is for the ocean life. A good amount of the island is marine park, which means it can’t be fished in (which is nice, as most of the good coral is destroyed by dynamite fishing in Tanzania). We spend the first day doing a SCUBA diving in Chloe Bay. Highlights were seeing a sea turtle eating amongst some coral (explains why their necks are so long), a crocodile fish, and some shrimps and lion fish. As another totally inappropriate aside, we ate really good seafood while we were on the island. Almost every day you could get a 3-course seafood meal (lots of squid) that was fresh and delicious. While a bit expensive ($15-20), it was quite tasty.

While the diving was nice, our activities on day two were the highlight: swimming with whale sharks! Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea, and can be as long as 12m (36ft)! From October through January, there is a population of young whale sharks living off the coast, where they fatten up before going off on their own. We went out with a local guide, Afro, who was a super nice guy and knew exactly where to take us (highly recommended). We set out on his dhow around 7:30 AM, and by 8 we were scrambling to jump in the water. We half expected them to just be sitting in the water, relaxing, like the whale we saw in Plettenberg Bay. But no, these guys were actively feeding. As soon as I put my snorkel under water, this was my first view:

Photo courtest of National Geographic. But I swear it looked just like that!

Photo courtesy of National Geographic. But I swear it looked just like that!

The next 45 minutes were an adrenaline filled chase around the ocean. I’ve never kicked flippers so hard in my life to keep up with these things, but it was simply amazing. You would follow one (you just needed to keep 2-3m distance) and then all of a sudden another one would come out of nowhere, and you were looking down its massive mouth, flailing to get out of the way. Luckily they are completely harmless to humans (they don’t have any teeth even) and just eat plankton. After a while, the winds shifted, and as quickly as they appeared, they were gone for the rest of the day. It turns out they disappeared for the rest of the weekend, and the other boats that went out later that day saw none at all. So we were quite fortunate; Afro said there were around 10 of them total. This was easily one of the coolest experiences of our trip around the world. My heart is pumping just writing about it!

Not a bad place to unwind

The rest of our time on the island, Afro took us out to a nice sandbar where we took some fun photos. Our last day, due to the tide schedule and our flight, our options were limited as to what we could do. Instead of doing another tour, we contacted a super remote, upscale hotel to see if we could spend the day there. They agreed, and we spent an hour van ride through sandy roads to finally reach Ras Mbisi, a honeymooners destination set on an undeveloped 8km stretch of beach. They had a lovely pool, comfortable bandas with hot showers and big fluffy towels, and an amazing 3-course lunch. It was the quietest place we’d been in months; I don’t know when the last time I heard birds chirping was. It was a perfect end to a great weekend escape that we’ll look back fondly upon for years.

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