Close your eyes.
Wait! Before you do so, imagine a place where you can see waves but can’t hear them. They are so silent.
Its 7.07 in the morning and you have just left your hotel room to go for a swim. But when you reach the beach, just a minute away from your hotel, you can’t bring yourself to go into the warm, salty waters.
The ocean is spread out before you in a blue canvas of beauty. You can see ripples mingling with the whitish sand as small waves crawl onto the beach. But you hear nothing. No soft hiss from the ocean, no whistles from beach boys, no roars from motorboats, no laughter from children building castles in the sand. Nothing. Golden silence engulfs you.
Close your eyes now and imagine this silence.
Welcome to Tanga and the tantalizing islands that are in its vicinity.
As we walked along the peaceful Swahili Street, it was hard to imagine that back in 1889, Tanga had been one of Germany’s military posts. I just couldn’t bring myself to associate any kind of military presence or action with this peaceful place.
After arriving at Tanga Port, we jump into Captain Ali’s speed boat. He is wearing a white cap with the words, ‘TZ’ emblazoned on the front.
‘Dakika moja mtakuwa mmefika kisiwa cha Toten!’ Within one minute you will have arrived at Toten Island. He assures us with a firm handshake and a warm smile.
True to his word, a minute later, we are docking at Toten Island, German for ‘Island of the dead.’ During the period when they colonized Tanzania, the Germans are said to have used the island as a graveyard. This was however not the first European presence there because decades earlier, the Portuguese used the tiny island as a prison.
‘I can see that Tanzania had its very own Robben Island!’ Mulhat quips as she fishes big, round sunglasses from her small leather rucksack and slips them on.
Two hours of carefully exploring Toten island fail to reveal any prison-like structures although we do stumble on what looks like an ancient graveyard.
‘Can you imagine that lying in this graveyard are people who once ran along those beaches and fished in these waters.’ I say, triggering a five-minute long philosophical talk from Captain Ali about the unstoppable claws of life and death.
Soon, we are back in Haraka, as his boat is called, racing northwards to Ulenge Island only 8 kilometres away.
‘Asalaam aleykum,’ Mulhat greets the elderly captain of the boat that we were docking next to. She rolled up her baggy jeans trousers to knee level and jumps into the shallow water excitedly. I look up and see the source of her excitement.
About one hundred metres from our boat, a sturdy, rugged lighthouse stands tall above us. It is the first time that I have ever seen a lighthouse, so I smile at it in silent awe.
‘Ilijengwa karne ya kumi na tisa ikikaribia mwisho,’ It was built towards the end of the nineteenth century. Captain Ali tells. He removes his cap and wipes the sweat on his forehead with the back of his large hand.
I jump into the water without rolling up my jeans and walk briskly past a group of young, boisterous American tourists. ‘Jambo!’ ‘Jambo!’ ‘Jambo!’ They shout at me a series of jolly greetings to which I reply with my own ‘jambo’ series.
Mulhat is matching on even faster than me. It’s as if she has been looking for the lighthouse for all her life and has finally found it.
A few moments later, I am disappointed to learn that the lighthouse was vandalized a few years earlier so we can’t climb it to catch sights of dhows dotting the ocean. But it feels good to scribble on the rough, aged walls of the lighthouse that, ‘Bwak was here in 2014.’
The rest of Ulenge Island is a cocktail of coral rag forests, ruins of what was once a sanatorium for lung patients, jagged coral reefs, giant clams and the occasional beach. We take in all these sites in less than two hours because Yambe Island nearly 20 kilometres to the south is waiting for us.
The mechanical roar of the engine boat combines with the natural roar of waves to form an intriguing mosaic of sound. Captain Ali adds his own roar into the mix as he shouts to us information about his family.
‘My first son Yusuf joined secondary school this year!’ he turns a gentle left to leave the path of an oncoming smaller, slower boat, ‘I have already taught him how to ride a boat and sometimes he joins me!’
As he is still telling us about his two daughters, Yusra and Saada, we arrive at Yambe Island.
Mangroves and other coastal vegetations spread across the island from head to toe. Tucked away in these mangrove forests are ruins that point to human habitation at during the past. Nobody lives there now, so there are no children playing hide and seek in those trees. As we walk through the silent, thick mangrove forest, I marvel at its intact state. In a world where deforestation has clawed away trees increasingly, it is great to find a place where forests still exist in their pristine states.
‘That’s it?’ Mulhat wonders when we walk back to the boat in less than one hour. The incredulous look in her brown eyes asks even more than the two words.
She goes on to wonder whether the island is worth the trouble, ‘mangroves are all over coastal lands, so if all this island has to offer is acres of mangrove, then unique is not an adjective I would use to describe it.’
I explain to her that it’s not every day you stroll into an island fully covered with virgin forests. But she doesn’t buy it insisting that at least there should be some bandas, traditional houses, on the island for tourists to stay in. Interesting, I think. But would that mean the end of the independent forests of Yambe? I ask myself.
At this point, I move on to another tantalizing fact about Yambe, ‘coelacanth, a fish species that was thought to have become extinct was discovered near Yambe Island in 2003,’ I pause for effect, ‘that shows how undisturbed the marine ecosystem around this island is!’
Although Mulhat was born and bred in Wasini Island 10 kilometres from the Kenya- Tanzania border, she doesn’t seem impressed by my revelation of an ancient fish that still swims in the water of Yambe. For her, fish is fish, and the fact that people discovered a fish they thought was long dead is nothing to write home about.
We continue arguing about the significance of the coelacanth during the 45-minute boat ride to Maziwe Island south of Tanga. Upon arrival, I notice that there is not a single tree in sight. The entire island is a vast beach.
‘Wow!’ that’s all I can say as I take in the beach island. Although I have lived partially in Wasini Island which is just fifty two kilometres from Tanga, I had no idea that Maziwe Island existed.
‘Shame on me!’ I mutter, wondering why I know about places like Cook island that are thousands of kilometres away, yet I don’t know about Maziwe Island, which is just over one hour boat ride away from my base in Wasini Island.
Although Maziwe is currently bereft of vegetation, it was teeming with trees like casuarinas barely fifty years ago. The last tree on the island breathed its last in 1980 leaving the island barren since then. But what it lacks in vegetation is compensated in other areas that set the beach island apart from the rest.
Maziwe’s trillions of sand grains have not gone to waste as they provide nesting ground for the green turtle. Every now and then, it swims from the salty ocean, crawls into the island and lays egg after egg into the warm bosom of sand.
The turtles love Maziwe because the island is a trusted nesting ground for three endangered marine turtles. Apart from the green turtle, the other two are olive ridley turtle and the hawksbill turtle.
Over the years, the ocean has steadily encroached into Maziwe claiming more and more breeding ground for turtles. If this trend continues, then the very ocean that they call home will sweep away the next generation of turtles.
As Captain Ali’s boat roared to life and sped away from Maziwe, I took a deep breath of the ocean breeze that had accompanied us as we ventured into each of Tanga’s wow! islands.