ZANZIBAR, Tanzania — "Kilimanjaro or Zanzibar?" asked Keisha, our expedition guide. To climb 19,000 feet for five frigid days, lose your meals to altitude sickness and perhaps not even reach the summit, or to slip on a sarong for a week of tropical nirvana. I, for one, knew which way the trade winds blew.
Nine adventurers on a trans-Africa trek, we chose Zanzibar, an Afro-Arab island that is part of the East African country of Tanzania. We were signed on with Dragoman, an overland tour company out of Suffolk, England, that runs five-week expeditions through the wild lands of eastern and southern Africa several times a year. British traveling companions, Aussies and New Zealanders made it a lively group; I was the only American. One of our company, Drew, was a sheep station foreman from Australia. Keisha, a petite Welsh woman raised in Namibia, was a masterful driver, yet the long, dusty drives of our wildlife safaris had us aching for the slow life. The "Who Has the Filthiest Feet?" contest amuses for only so long, so we traded in our khakis and slipped into port at Dar es Salaam, Arabic for "Haven of Peace."
Though Dar es Salaam is the commercial center of Tanzania, and the embarkation point for the 22-mile ferry ride to Zanzibar, it's delightfully unspoiled.
The ferry itself was our first clue to the mystique of that spice island. We queued up at the waterfront in Dar with throngs of natives; women in long, black shrouds or vivid sarongs, men in caftans and gilded, white fezzes. Someone wedged a five-foot, woven cage of live birds between Drew and me. An old woman chanted a traveling prayer in rapid Swahili. She wrung her spidery, henna-adorned hands as she purred her mantra.
Dusk arrived with us as we pulled into the harbor at Zanzibar town, the main city on the 640-square-mile, coral island. The air was warm and thick with the fragrance of spice. Local "agents" approached, eager to find us hotels, restaurants and transport. I marveled at the rich shades of their mahogany skin. "This way, Mista!" "Welcome, Madame. Welcome!" (Madame being pronounced "Mud 'em.") Our man of choice, Mohammed, would prove himself dedicated, albeit unpredictable.
Having arrived on the late ferry, 4 1/2 hours of standing room only, we learned that there were no vacant rooms left in town. Reassuring us animatedly, Mohammed secured a van and driver, chauffeuring the nine of us to a lively seafood restaurant, the Fisherman, on Shangani Street. Despite the fact that the menu had nothing to do with what was available in the restaurant, it was an enviable feast. We stuffed ourselves greedily with fresh crustaceans, calamari and African beer, while Mohammed worked out the accommodations.
He returned with our van and we were off again, winding through dimly lit Zanzibar streets, too spent to ask where we were going. Finally, Mohammed pulled over to the edge of a deserted beach and announced that we would spend the night on Prison Island.
No one said a word as we unloaded our gear and slipped out onto the sand, just a few titters of nervous laughter. As adventure travelers, we had asked for this. Closer to the water, two boatmen held a sail-less dhow at the ready, the whites of their eyes glistening in their thin faces. They seemed agitated, as if by the thought they might lose the fares they had been promised for ferrying us to our destination.
Dhows are among the last sailing ships making regular runs on the world's seas, and they hold a particular significance in Zanzibar, and her sister island Pemba, as coral reefs surrounding both islands hinder the passage of cargo ships.
A deep breath, then another, and we handed off our bags and struggled aboard, each finding some dry perch amid the nets and bail buckets. The old motor rumbled to life and we slipped into the mist. Mohammed, gaunt in his gray, tattered caftan, waved us away, a Merlin of that East African sea.
About 500 yards from the shore of Prison Island, the dhow suddenly ran aground. While the boatmen and one of the women in our group hopped overboard and struggled to free it, one of our group began a stream of hysterical gibberish and another simply froze in her seat, silent and petrified. I handed over the bags, tied my sarong up around my knees and joined the others in the thigh-high water. The coral wasn't as sharp as I had feared, but there were plenty of slimy, cold plants and marine creatures to wade through. As I made my way with the others toward the lush island, I saw tiny bungalows lit by oil lamps and candles.