Chasing Whale Sharks on Mafia Island

January 17, 2014
Mafia Island

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My time backpacking in Southeast Asia left me more flexible, more patient, more worldly, and a more interesting traveler. But the bottom line, and embarrassing truth, remains: I was a coddled tourist.

Thailand is often referred to as the backpacking mecca for a reason. People flock there not only for its breathtaking beaches and purge-worthy food, but because it’s easy. Tourism is its forte, and the Thai people have done a great job at paving the backpacker’s trail, freeing it from most snares and obstructions, all for a price that a broke, jobless vagabond like myself can afford. It was my own choice to not veer off the beaten path too far, but it was just so easy not to. I harbor no bitterness or disappointment towards my journey; I did and saw some insanely incredible stuff and can appreciatively accept it for what it was.

However my time in Africa, it seems, will prove to be a stark contrast to the ease and comfort I experienced over the last three months. I moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania the day after Christmas, and after less than 24 hours in my new home, I braced myself as my dinky 12-seater plane streaked 40 minutes across the Indian Ocean to the almost unheard of Mafia Island, for a long awaited reunion with my boyfriend, as well as a New Year’s vacation.

Mafia Island
Mafia Island

Most people have heard of Zanzibar, the popular tourist destination, which is a quick ferry ride from Dar es Salaam, but unfortunately the only remaining availability there was several hundred dollars a night… yeah right. While Mafia does have a few pricey resorts, it is still a diamond in the rough in comparison, and luckily, my boyfriend and I were able to find an affordable bungalow for a five-day new year’s celebration at the very last minute.

Chasing Whale Sharks on Mafia Island.

Mafia Island’s history dates back to the eighth century, when it was used in Arab trade routes. The name “Mafia” derives from the Arabic morfiyeh, meaning “group” or “archipelago,” or from the Swahili mahali pa afya, meaning “a healthy dwelling place.” It’s part of the Zanzibar archipelago and is now home to over 40,000 residents. It’s a beautiful destination with a lot to offer a visitor, but is yet unknown to the majority of travelers–happily for me. There is definitely no clearcut backpacker route here, although moves are being made to change that, including a ferry port.

In Asia, I could easily show up to my next destination with minimal preparation and immediately find lodging, food, and something fun to go explore. In Africa, not so. While there is absolutely no lack of alluring attractions, the tourist industry is still developing, and even being thoroughly prepared can result in unforeseen obstacles. But I’m done with being coddled.  Bring on the challenges.

I stayed at Mafia Beach Bungalows on the southeast side, a beach called Utendi on the edge of Chole Bay. Though we were supposed to have a bungalow adjacent to the shore, we were instead placed inside the village 500 meters away, a displacement I welcomed. Throughout all of my travels, I’ve never had the privilege to reside inside a local village, next to an elementary school, among other residential huts. I savored this experience, knowing it was rare and beautiful.

 I know people who have waited years to see a whale shark, and I saw no less than three in the span of two hours.

I spent my time participating in an abundance of slightly overpriced but entirely worthy activities. The first day on the island was
spent in a small wooden boat a couple hundred meters off the island, literally chasing whale sharks. My image of a relaxed float leading to a casual view of the faraway giant creatures was obliterated when our guide, the self-proclaimed Whale Shark King, began barking at us to grab our snorkels and fins.

He was carefully and strategically positioning the boat to cut off the whale shark’s path. At just the right moment, he shouted, “Go, go, go!” to us half-equipped and completely confused passengers. Those who didn’t feel as if a certain doom would meet them when they jumped in the water were able to land nearly on top of the massive fish and view him from within a few feet. I know people who have waited years to see a whale shark, and I saw no less than three in the span of two hours.

Another popular activity, and my new addiction, is scuba diving. Mafia Island is home to a large biodiverse aquatic community and a surprising number of scuba shops scatter the coast. The clear water and stunning colors present beneath the surface are spellbinding. I saw tons of vibrant coral formations, unique and colorful fish, and a sea turtle.

Chasing Whale Sharks on Mafia Island.

If scuba diving is not for you, there is also great snorkeling in Chole Bay, where the visibility is around 20 meters. Visiting Chole Island via small wooden boat is another option. The Muslim community is much stricter there, so I had to be completely covered as I navigated through the 200-year-old ruins of an old settlement, wandered through a quaint village, perused local artisan shops, and fearfully avoided bat-lined trees. Here and in Jibondo, another village community, there is a great boat-building industry.

Activities I didn’t have the time to do included visiting the town of Kilindoni, checking out the other beaches, taking a birdwatching tour, viewing the wild hippos, and trekking to the northern Bweni and Ras Mkumbi to see the lighthouse via bicycle or motorbike. While there were plenty of options for tourists, making them happen was a difficult feat, and the prices were significantly higher than what I became accustomed to in Asia. Despite these drawbacks, I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more on Mafia Island and I look forward to the next adventures Africa presents.

About Mandi Schmitt

I am a world wide traveler currently calling San Diego, CA my home. Dissatisfied with typical vacation traveling and the conventional lifestyle, I have endeavored to teach, study, intern, and live abroad as much as possible. No matter what comes along, I am determined to sustain my nomadic tendencies.

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