Mafia Island, 30 minutes by air from Dar es Salaam is a world away from the bustle of the city or the tourist beaches of Zanzibar! As you land on the ‘bush strip’ you immediately get the feeling that this is somewhere that time has stood still for a very long time … the luggage is wheeled into the ‘terminal’ building with it’s sagging velour armchairs in the tiny waiting room, dusty desks where clerks can sometimes be found and the ‘waving bay’ to the side of the building where people can wait for new visitors or wave off the old ones. Out into the main street the ‘capital’ Kilindoni and you get the feeling of the old wild west with dust billowing down the road and a few sparsely clad shacks and cafes to be found selling pineapples, cashew nuts and sodas.
The archipelago of Mafia is governed by the Tanzanian mainland and considers itself to be quite seperate to the semi-autonomous Zanzibar. Chole Bay which is a deep water anchorage and original harbour is home to a protected Marine Park and is studded with islands, beaches and sandbanks. The stretch of water (part of the Indian Ocean) that seperates Mafia from the mainland where the Rufiji River empties itself from the Southern Safari Parks is called the Mafia Channel. You will hear rumours of pygmy hippo being sited around the islands of Mafia though there is no evidence of this. The many tiny islands provide fabulous places to take a boat trip and picnic, exploring old ruins and tiny fishing villages, many islands are uninhabited so you are often enjoying your own company.
If you are looking for a ‘beach holiday’ then Mafia may not be right for you, as it’s mainly mangroves along the narrow beaches although there are gorgeous pristine sand banks that rise out of the water at low tide, where you can set up a shade cloth and while away a few hours! There is also a distinct lack of nightlife (which is great!), so if you want beach bars and parties, head to Zanzibar.
If you head to Ras Mbisi Lodge on the other side of the main island to Chole Bay, there is a much longer sandy beach with few people and if you are looking for an eco-lodge with fantastic food, friendly people and great community and conservation ties, then this is ideal. Around Chole Bay itself, you will find the well established Pole Pole Lodge with lovely chalets along the side of a small hill loooking out over the palms to the water. The Italian influenced food here is great and you can get a traditional Swahili style massage too. Next door is Kinasi Lodge, the most ‘hotel-like’ accommodation on Mafia, if you don’t like getting back to nature! Kinasi is decorated in a Moroccan style and the gorgeous rooms are spread out up the hillside surrounded by palms and cashews. There is a small beach here, a swimming pool, a good wine cellar and a dive school. My own favourite place to stay on Mafia is Chole Mjini. This unique eco-lodge has individually designed rooms wrapped around ancient baobab trees, giving you views over the tree canopy to the water from your romantic perch high up in the branches!
The main attraction for Mafia Island is the world class diving and snorkelling. Mafia Island Marine Park protects amazing numbers of species and it’s also a great place to swim and dive with Whale Sharks as they pass through and visit the bay on their migration between December and March each year.
Mafia Island has a history back to the 8th century and once played an important role on the ancient trade routes between people of East Africa and the Far East, where Arab boats made a regular stop. The tiny island of Chole once had a settlement that was one of the major towns controlling trade from the silver mines of Zimbabwe. Some of the history of the region is quite gruesome such as the attack on the town of Kua on Juani Island (part of Mafia) in the 1820s, when cannibals arrived from Madagascar with 80 canoes who ate many local people and took the rest into slavery. In 1890 Germany took control of Mafia then the British took control for their troops in 1915. There are many ruins and old buildings dotted around the archipelago to this day that you can explore and listen to the tales of history on Mafia. These days, tourism is the main income and diving the main attraction, the island does grow a lot of tropical fruit and cashew nuts.