Sunday, January 23, 2011

Zebras: Boys will be Boys

This series, shot on the Southern Serengeti with Wildebeest grazing peacefully in the background, is of a group of high-spirted young male Zebras engaging in a bit of mock fighting. Ultimately, they headed off into the distance -- only to start all over again. Hmm, I wonder if there was a young female around to impress.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Paradise Lost

We moved quietly through the lush tropical jungle in search of the giant green sea turtle that had come ashore to lay her eggs. Julia and I (separately, we compared notes later) were thinking if only I hadn’t had that last glass of wine this would be a lot easier. Peter led the way, briefing us on the need for quiet and alerting us that our viewing time would be short so that we did not disturb the turtle. Solvay brought up the rear as we made our way to the spot she had chosen to lay her eggs.

I had never seen a turtle up close and personal – on water or on land so this was to be a first. Aah, there she was bathed in the eerie red light of a flashlight covered by a filter. And then she was gone. We toddled off down the moonlit beach for our last night in our tropical hideaway.

In Unexpected, I wrote about the late-breaking decision that I needed to make around the last leg of my Tanzania trip just six weeks before my niece and I were slated to depart. A long-planned trip was – at the last minute -- on the cusp of a potentially disastrous choice. Was it to be the Isak Dinesen moment in a fly tent somewhere in the Selous Preserve or a tropical beach get-away? In the end, it wasn’t such a difficult decision and the choice was a perfect coda to a near perfect trip.

Mnemba is one of the islands that make up Zanzibar. It’s a tiny little speck in the ocean. Getting there, as my niece and travel companion Julia put it, was one of our more epic journeys. In terms of modes of transport (2 cars, 2 planes, one boat), it only lacked the bus that marked our trip from Botswana to the edge of the Zambezi in Zambia. It made up for that with an unpaved, teeth rattling, neck snapping, cow-watching road that wound its way to a beach littered with fishing boats where our chariot – in this case the Mnemba Island Lodge speed boat – bounced in the surf awaiting our arrival. In a matter of minutes, our stuff was loaded and we were aboard and off to our own little island.

There is an advantage to traveling during the short rains in Africa – lodges aren’t as full (more about that in another post) and this was certainly the case here. Not only were we at a small, intimate lodge on a very small island, we were almost alone with only four of ten bandas (loosely translated banda = hut) taken for the first day and a half of our stay. And what bandas they were! Each tucked away in its own little oasis of privacy (OK, we could periodically hear the couple next door, a gentleman of a certain age and his much younger paramour) but for the most part, we were awash in just the sound of the ocean, birds chirping, and the occasional snorts and huffs of Mnemba’s resident Sunis (a small deer-like creature that seems to spend virtually all of its time eating).

These bandas are tricked out for relaxation – just no better way to put it. From the shaded beach beds facing the azure blues of the Indian ocean to the deep and soft reading chairs to the lights at the side of your bed that cast the perfect amount of light for reading, all is designed to get you to slow down, nap frequently, and otherwise just be one with the sea, the sky, the sand. Add in a stocked fridge, an assortment of games, and a staff that is ever ready to fill your smallest whim and life does not get much better than this.

I’m not a diver and so Julia and I opted for snorkeling – floating along above the multi-colored coral reef as fish galore swam and darted beneath us. This is snorkeling at its best – on a calm day, there was a glorious reef just steps from our banda and if the sea breezes make for rougher waters, it was a short boat ride away to a larger reef off the windward side of the island where the waters are calmer and the current wafts us gently along the reef. It’s not a boat filled with other snorklers or that is yours for just a limited time. It’s a boat that is there for you for as long as you want to be one with the sea, the reef, the fish. Hang out above parrot, trumpet, and clown fish cavorting as schools of tuna swim by and flounder hug the bottom. Coral fronds wave gently as cleaner fish work hard to keep the other fish pest free. Giant clams with purple blue lips gently snap shut as you dive down for a closer look. Sated, climb back into the boat (mercifully there’s a ladder for that!), for the quick ride back to shore where a drink of your choice awaits, either at the dive center or back at your banda.

An early morning walk is just the thing to complete that feeling of being alone on a desert island that this place can induce. Walking briskly, it’s twenty minutes around the island. With a digital camera, waves to chase, a desiccated forest to navigate, and sea birds taking flight, this excursion turns rapidly into lost time to drink in the smell, the sounds, and the play of light on the water. The only tricky part is the stand of downed trees and other debris that must be navigated on land at high tide. Not to worry, I discover the “director’s bandas” as I head slightly inland to get around the forest. Imagine, for $5,000, &Beyond directors built their own private little island retreats as a part of this resort. Sign me up!

This is not Gilligan’s Island when it comes to eating. Breakfast can be whatever you would like – amazing fresh fruit, lime butter for your toast, fresh coffee or tea. Perhaps you’d prefer eggs over easy with bacon – no worries. Lunch and dinner are set menus – except you can pretty much ask for whatever your heart desires and the capable Mnemba kitchen will accommodate your every wish. We dined like queens on ginger crabs, fish curry, cashew crusted fish and assorted breads and salads. Desserts included passion fruit and banana sorbets. Dinner is served under the stars – the glorious African stars spread against a velvety African sky.

So who keeps this island paradise running while the guests are off napping, snorkeling, eating, and diving? A great hotel is like a swan gliding serenely atop the water with nary a ripple from the paddling feet below the surface. Mike, Sara, and Peter run a superb lodge for &Beyond (the company that built Mnemba Island Lodge). They are attentive and not intrusive and the staff is trained to be so as well. Karen and Jason are equally as accommodating at the dive center – snorkeling, a beginner’s dive, a sunset dhow cruise – no worries. Kundi, our butler (who saw to our every wish) has been with &Beyond for eleven years. The company prides itself on longevity and training and it shows. It also prides itself on giving back to the community – setting up its lodges and camps so that they enrich the communities that surround these properties. At Mnemba, they draw employees from Zanzibar and the chefs buy from the local fisherman.

The big question is why travel half-way around the world to go to the beach?  Safaris are dusty affairs – even during the short rains. Up early to see the wildlife (and it is WILD life), sitting up late around smoky fires to swap stories, and then it starts all over again. It’s an assault on the senses – bouncing rides in jeeps, eyes filled overfull of lions feasting on a pregnant Wildebeest, elephants closing ranks around a one-month old baby, hippos yawning and crocodiles (big ones) snapping. It’s almost more than the mind can fully grasp when in the thick of it. Each day brings a new wonder, a new memory, new friends. There is much to learn from the guides – not just about the animals but also about their lives, their culture, their hopes and dreams for their children. There are small planes to catch to the next safari lodge or camp and bush breakfasts and lunches to be eaten. There is sunscreen and mosquito repellant to put on and malaria pills that must be taken. The days are at once mind-blowing and exhausting.

And, then, there is Mnemba – a place to unwind, relax, fill the senses with gentler images and sounds. This is not your average beach resort – no big blue pool, casinos, palapas or umbrellas to stake out early in the morning, towels to be retrieved from the towel desk, dinner reservations to be made. Really nothing to do other than get up in the morning, put on a bathing suit grab a book, and head for your beach bed. There are no roaring lions here and the sea water adds a languor to the snorkeling (which, after all, unlike a safari, is not really about seeing one fish eat another fish).

On Mnemba, I stumbled on that Isak Dinesen moment without really expecting it. It came as the sea birds took flight upon my approach early on a January morning at the dawn of 2011. There they went -- glistening in the air, floating away to the next spit of sand. And there I was. Alone. With nothing but the sea, the wind, the sky, and my footprints already fading away in the sun-kissed sand.

Paradise found.

Practical MattersMnemba (let’s just say north of $1,000 pp per night and leave it at that – paradise is not cheap) is an &Beyond (formerly CC Africa) lodge and the perfect capstone to any trip to Tanzania. I booked through Ginger Hill at Heritage Tours Private Travel. You can also book directly with &Beyond.

From NYC, KLM offers flights to Dar es Salaam (around $2,500 in economy at this writing) and it’s a quick transfer to the domestic airport for a short hop to Zanzibar. Although seemingly epic, the drive to the boat is only an hour. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a truck filled with Zanzibarian men heading off to play soccer as the island has a quite active soccer league. The boat ride itself is about 10 minutes and before you know it, you’ll be ensconced in your own private paradise.

Be sure to bring plenty of sun screen, your bathing suit, and a good book to read (although the island does boast quite a good library of abandoned books including at one point Ulysses and War & Peace!).

Check your sandals at the door – no shoes required.