My hand reached for the railing, a light blue paint chip like a feather gently fell to the floor. The banister was smooth over the parts that had coats of paint, but on the worn sections that my hand slid along I could feel the century old wood splinter beneath my fingertips. The step creaked as I advanced onto the small platform in between the flights of stairs. I looked upwards towards the squared, spiral staircase that hugged the walls of the lighthouse. Some of the open windows let beams of light in and dust danced in the air as my eyes trailed higher where the shadows grew darker. I glanced back towards the door, it was still opened and I involuntarily breathed a quick sigh of relief. The rest of the overnight guests had left and unless there were any day trippers coming later from Stone Town, I would be the only guest on the island. I had an irrational fear that someone would forget that I was in the lighthouse and sometime during my ascent I would look down to discover the light from the open door slowly diminish as the door would shut and lock leaving me in the tower alone.
“Stop being fearful of the completely unlikely”
I quickly reminded myself that wouldn’t happen and slowly continued up the 132 stairs to the lighthouse platform. The view was just as rewarding as the feeling of accomplishment over the silly fear I had. Chumbe Island, even at full capacity, already felt deserted and so looking down at the calm turquoise waters, scanning through the lush green forest and over the tops of the palm huts it was relatively quiet. Aside from the movement of the wind and the handful of boats bobbing in the bay, there was no one else to be found. I stood on the platform in silence for a moment, overlooking the island and the horizon out towards Zanzibar. It was somehow simultaneously lifeless and yet fully alive.
Staying on the Island
Chumbe Island Coral Park is a unique eco destination. With 7 lodges and space for a dozen day visitors, there are never more than 26 guests on the island at its maximum. The bungalows are designed to be minimalistic but are extremely comfortable and they are for an environmentally conscious beach lover like myself. Your air conditioning is the ocean breeze, your showers and bathrooms are private but connect you with nature. The island essentially powers itself, using the rain water and the sun for energy and utility sources. I was so impressed by how efficient the systems were and yet I still felt pampered and relaxed.
The bonus of an overnight stay as opposed to a day trip is in late afternoon when the day tourists leave, and the island truly feels like you have it all to yourself. For the few nights I was there, the number of guests wasn’t above 8 people so an overnight is the epitome of a relaxing paradise. How many times have I been on a crowded beach wishing for an island all to myself? Chumbe is a chance to live that dream.
Eating on the Island
The meals on the island were some of the best I had during my whole trip through Africa. The staff goes out of their way to present each breakfast, lunch and dinner perfectly and will be more than accommodating if you have any dietary restrictions. Warm clay pots resting on straw mats, all in a line, spices and smells wafting through the visitors center was a daily occurrence and do not skip the desert, the oatcake was one of the sweetest, most delicious things I’ve tasted!
The food is based on a sustainable model, where local and fresh takes precedent. The staff has developed a sustainable seafood guide to make sure they are avoiding threatened species. The bread is baked fresh and the desserts are all homemade making each time you sit down to eat a special treat. Tables are placed sporadically around the side deck of the visitors center to overlook the ocean at morning and afternoon meals. Dinners are served by candle light with a canopy of palm trees and stars above you.
Things to do on the Island
Search for Critters
Have you heard of a Coconut Crab? They are massive crustaceans, the largest crabs in the world to be exact and they are more famous than I initially realized. Charles Darwin was astonished by their massive size and some people even believe that Amelia Earhart’s remains were carried off by these giant arthropods never to be seen again! We gathered together in a group, armed with flashlights and made our way down the sandy path into the island forest. The mangrove and baobab trees make for perfect hiding places for our shy friends. The Coconut Crabs favor, you guessed it, coconuts for their main source of food however they are scavengers at heart, they will even go so far as to eat their own exoskeletons or resort to cannibalism if necessary. Small beams of light scanned the roots of the mangroves, looking for any quick movements or clicking noises, like nails tapping on an office desk. They aren’t hard to find, mainly because of their size, the crabs can grow to be almost 3 feet and weigh 9 pounds so spotting them can be easy, especially in the evening since they are nocturnal animals.
Explore the Marine Life
Snorkeling is a daily activity here and the highlight of the trip. The Coral Reef is a protected marine space that is attempting to keep a pristine piece of the ocean for the hundreds of local sea life species. Coral is an important part of the eco system and since the island is located near major fishing communities, it is important to have a safe space for the wild life to flourish. Witnessing the different fish, turtles, sharks and sea creatures who live around the waters of Chumbe and staying on the island means you are promoting the education programs, community outreach and conservation efforts that go hand in hand with the activities at the sanctuary.
Climb the Lighthouse
The Lighthouse on Chumbe is a famous landmark of Zanzibar. It was erected in 1904, in addition to the keepers house and small mosque, those three buildings were one of the few things on the island until the early 1990’s. It was a small island with big responsibilities, as Zanzibar is a stop on the old spice trade route. Stories of Sultans and the mix of Arab and East African culture is what makes this region such an exotic mystery and the Chumbe Lighthouse is intertwined into the folklore. In 2013 the Chumbe Island Coral Park in line with their focus on sustainability converted the lighthouse to solar power. The jaw dropping arial views of the island are found from the top of the lighthouse. Overcome your irrational fears of getting locked in and it being haunted (My imagination gets the better of me most of the time) and climb to the top. We spotted whales breaching one afternoon but in my opinion sunrise or sunset provide for some stunning scenery.
Do A Whole lot of Nothing
Vacations are for recouping, resting and relaxing. There is no better place to do that than nestled in a lounge chair on a soft white sand beach with a light breeze and the sounds of cooing doves in the trees above you with the waves slapping the rocks in the distance ahead. I read several books over my long weekend stay and having an uninterrupted read has been hard to accomplish with my recent schedule. I spent the afternoons lazily relaxing in the alcove of the island watching reef sharks speed closely along the shoreline, their small black tipped fins revealing themselves occasionally as the darted in and out of the tide. My last morning I had the whole island to myself for a few hours before the day tour arrived. It was by far one of my favorite mornings spent in Africa and it surprisingly involved doing very little. Sometimes I really do believe that the art of nothing is really something.
Although I was visiting Chumbe Island Coral Park through my work with Green Pearls, my opinions and recommendations are all my own. Thank you to Green Pearls for finding such relaxing & responsible accommodation, one of the best weekends I’ve spent anywhere and they do a phenomenal job matching conscious travelers with unique and sustainable vacation choices!