When Finding A Zanzibar Hotel Gets Scary

We didn’t book a hotel in Zanzibar. It was a mistake. We wandered around the city at dusk getting desperate, with a tout stalking us the whole time.

Drawing of a sunset in zanzibar with a traditional dhow fishing boat

Our first night without our car full of stuff

Road tripping across the continent, our tents were back in our car in Dar Es Salaam, so a hotel was the only option. We walked out of the ferry port disorientated, as the other tourists fanned out to find their accomodation.

Stone Town lived up to its name; walls and roads and forts of stone, a trade port from the age of sail, frozen in time. High stone walls and archways introduced tiny crooked alleyways and uneven cobblestone roads; cannons aimed out to sea and flags fluttered in the air. Medieval-style crenellated walls faced the shoreline, whilst pretty palm trees sprouted overhead to remind us that we were in the tropics.

It was a beautiful city, but there something more than beauty at work here. A sense of timelessness pervaded that we found utterly intoxicating. Most of all, we felt like we had earned our arrival here.

Our road had started in Cape Town, and we drove; weeks of baked beans and campfire cooking, slugging through deep sand offload tracks, figuring out road maps and crossroads – there was something immeasurably satisfying about our arrival as weary travellers, humbly in search of a roof and three hot meals.

Urban sketching Zanzibar beach ships palm trees bicycle
Locals on the beach at Zanzibar

The helpful touts approach

As the swarm of tourists meandered away and disappeared into the maze of streets, the taxi drivers and street touts closed in. We quickly attracted the attention of a local in a blue buttoned shirt who wanted to show us where to find a hotel. 

Stubborn as we were (and from experience, suspicious of scams), we ignored him, and preferred to find our own hotel. We tried a few hotels we liked from our Lonely Planet, but vacancies were in short supply, and we couldn’t find a room with three beds.

The streets were labyrinthine. Built long before the invention of cars, many streets were too narrow to allow any traffic besides motorbikes. The street layout was as tangled as a bowl of spaghetti. None of the streets seemed straight, and there were no major intersections or landmarks to gauge our whereabouts. We walked in circles a few times.

A tout follows us a little bit too long

Blue Shirt was still attached to us, telling us about his favourite hotels and pointing down streets we should go down. We kept telling him that we didn’t need help, but he was insistent. It was sunset and he had been following us for about forty-five minutes.

He eventually fell back, but yet still he followed us, hiding behind corners when we turned around to look at him. It became a bit unnerving as we thought he might change tactics and try and rob us. Paranoid, perhaps, but this was Africa after all, and anything could happen.

A hotel, at last

Then we got lucky, and a hotel managed to accomodate the three of us. It had been a stressful hour or searching. We checked in and lay down.

The hotel was cheap and central, a tall stone building with an earthy touch, decorated with woven carpets and ceramic jugs. It was four stories high, with many confusing staircases. The floors were tiled and Arabic artwork hung on the walls. The hallways were colourful and decorated with old leather couches and weaved carpets.

Our bedroom contained just three single beds with mosquito nets and scratchy tartan blankets. We put our bags down, and tried to hide our passports. Nowhere seemed secure, so we kept them on us. To complete the night, we needed dinner, and we chose one named after Zanzibar’s most famous person.

Time to celebrate at Mercury’s restaurant

Named after Zanzibar-born Freddy Mercury; we sat at a table on the dining deck at Mercury’s, overlooking the sea. Kids were playing soccer on the beach. The kitchen was attached to the dining room and we could watch the chefs at work. Queen memorabilia hung on the walls.

We had learnt a little bit of Swahili at this stage, and tried our best to communicate with the friendly waitress as much as we could in her language. ‘Jambo‘ for hello; ‘asante‘ for thank you; ‘moja, mbili, tatu’, one, two three.

We were able to remember a few other words just from watching The Lion King, such as ‘rafiki’, and ‘hakuna matata’. We clinked together three Tuskers beers to celebrate the halfway point of our road trip through the most amazing continent on earth.


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