Scooter crashes, police roadblocks and flea bites – a crazy riding day on Zanzibar

The three scooters parked in front of us looked rough. If we sat on them, I imagined we’d collapse into a clanging pile of rusted engine parts and bald, eroded rubber tyres. But Jeff and Wessel were wearing the biggest grins i’d ever seen.

We had poorly-fitting helmets, no riding experience and brake pads as effective as kitchen sponges. What could go wrong!?

Renting scooters to people who can’t ride scooters

Zanzibar was baking under a sweltering hot day as we waited around in a back alley for the rental scooters to arrive. We were grateful to be sitting in the shade, avoiding the oppressive heat. A crowd of locals were sitting with us; it was Ramadan, the holy Islamic month of fasting. They sat, choosing not to move too much, or even talk, saving their energy.

Within half an hour, the police stop Jeff (the first of three times)

A scooter pulled up, followed by another, and half an hour later, a third. Our rides for the next 24 hours. They had manual gearboxes, their hard-working chassis dented, scratched, and well-ridden. Jeff enthusiastically seized the first bike for a test ride, zooming down the alley and around the corner in a cloud of dust. Then we was gone.

Half an hour later he returned, with a sheepish look on his face. He had been stopped by the police for not wearing a helmet, and was warned that they were considering taking him to court. Even though they were just trying to scare him, it took a $10 note in a back alley to clear things up.

Some disgusting helmets

The helmets didn’t look much better than the bikes. Not daring to place the sweat-stained foam liners directly on our heads (or risk mites or lice), we decided to wear hoods, hats and headscarfs underneath (so we ended up looking like Lawrence of Arabia with a helmet on top).

We rode pillion with three rental agency employees to a nearby soccer field so we could practice riding the bikes, then to a petrol station to fill up before we left for the east coast. They gave us verbal directions to get out of the city, and walked back to their office as we cranked the engines.

Jeff and Wessel were excited, but I was apprehensive. Whilst they were pretty strong bike riders, it was my first time, and I was terrified of the traffic.

Entering heavy traffic

The traffic of greater Stone Town was a free-for-all. Overloaded trucks rumbled down the cracked and potholed roads, honking smaller vehicles out of the way.

Opportunistic cars and taxis squeezed through any gaps they could find. Motorbikes, as the smallest vehicles on the road, held the lowest rank, and zipped around the larger vehicles where they could. We pulled an absurd U-turn through 4 lanes of slow traffic, and began our journey.

A gear change lever that hurts to pull

Changing gears was the first challenge. The clutch was a lever on the left handlebar, and as squeeze it in, you twist the left handlebar forward. The whole thing was horribly awkward – the lever, bent and damaged, was slightly too far away from the handlebar.

It meant I needed to grope for it each time, and what’s more, it was very resistant and took a fair amount of force to pull. This awkward distraction was not ideal for a beginner rider like me.

I frequently fell behind the others, as I hugged the side of the road to avoid the worst of the traffic. Jeff and Wessel had to stop and wait for me several times on the way out of town. As the city thinned and the palm forests appeared in front of us, the traffic also evaporated.

I was getting used to the gear changes, and we started to gain speed, cruising through the shade of perfect green tropical jungles, under tall palm trees and banana plantations, and across sunbaked highways beside the sea. Monkeys skitted across the roads and birds called to each other, and I was loving the ride.

I discover I forgot my licence (during the second police stop)

Under the shade of a palm grove, two policemen stopped us at a roadblock. They asked for our driver’s licences, and we produced two, suddenly realising one was missing. It was mine and I began to panic. Did I leave it at the rental agency? I didn’t think they asked for it; it may not have even been on the island. It was probably back in the car in Dar Es Salaam!

They checked Wessel’s bike and documents, which checked out. Then Jeff’s bike and documents, all OK. Then my bike. They seemed to get bored with us suddenly, as they let me go without even noticing the missing document. With a wave, we were off again, and I was inventing a convenient story about a bag theft at the petrol station, just in case we found some more police. And we would, soon enough.

Surprise speedbumps on the highway

Following an awfully vague map from our Lonely Planet, we made our way in an east-ish direction, checking roadsigns as we went. We found a very long straight, and we decided on a speed test. We realised that none of us had a working speedometer. We squinted into the wind, rolling the throttle back as far as we could as sand blew and stung our faces, and the cheap helmets slid backwards off our heads.

Wessel and I were leading, when a bend appeared, and we slowed slightly. A speed bump materialised out of the road; no warning, no signs. We squeeze the brakes and skidded and wobbled violently with a sickening screech of rubber on asphalt.

Both bikes hit the bump, jumped and lurched, and miraculously crashed down on the other side on their wheels. Jeff, just behind us, saw the incident and slowed down in time. Wessel and I stared at each other in disbelief, at the huge accident that could have been. We carried on, a little more cautiously.

Finding a resort

We wanted to stop at a resort for the night. We hadn’t booked, so any resort would do. The east coast of Zanzibar, a calm turquoise staring wistfully off into the Indian Ocean, was beautiful and peaceful. A lone fishing dhow with its iconic triangular sail drifted slowly offshore.

A long, sunny road surrounded by low bushland ran alongside the east coast. As we rode, we saw signs advertising resorts, and we communicated by thumbs up and thumbs down to gauge an on-the-move consensus of how the resorts looked. A better idea was to stop and figure it out, so we found a big gift shop with a few tourists hanging around, we decided to stop and have a drink of water. Next door was a resort that looked good.

My big crash, on a bike that would always stall

I had discovered another serious problem with my bike. When stopped, the scooter would stall instantly, even when in gear. When I reignited the engine, it would simply stall again. The only way to get moving was the start the bike, and immediately accelerate. This was a problem, as a beginner, as I was still learning how to ride, and the throttle sensitivity wasn’t exactly delicate.

This particular time outside the gift shop, I stalled, and restarted the engine with way too much power to the throttle. I was flung backwards and fell back-first onto the road, whilst the bike launched into the bushes like a rocket, breaking off the side mirror. As everybody on the balcony of the gift shop watched, I lost my temper in humiliation, yelling at the stupid piece of junk and leaving it in the bushes, storming into the gift shop to buy water.

Jeff and Wessel picked up the bike, rolled it onto the stand, and followed me inside to calm me down. “Shit happens“, they reassured me. We bought three bottles of water and cooled down.

Wessel and I were wearing cheap flip flops that we picked up in Zambia, and we needed relief from the severe blisters they had given us. We bought the only replacement shoes on offer, counterfeit Crocs that were two sizes too small and looked ridiculous.

Arriving at our destination

My spirits calmed, we got back on the bikes and drove down a sand road that would lead us to our resort. It felt like we were sailing, as we wobbled and slid through the dunes to the Paje By Night bungalows. Along the way we saw some local kids who ran next to our scooters, shouting “Jambo!! Money!!, to which Jeff eloquently replied, “No money, only jambo“.

My first real motorcycling experience had so far been very challenging. Speed bumps, police roadblocks, high speed, a faulty throttle, no brakes and no speedometer, deep sand, blisters, and a crash; it was a lot for one day. But we were in Paje, on Zanzibar’s east coast, and it was exquisite.

Finally, some time to relax

The sand was white and fluffy as snow, the ocean a light turquoise running into an inky blue. It was late afternoon and a cool ocean breeze was washing the heat of the day away. Palm trees decorated the beach, and our timber cabin stood on stilts on the edge of the sand.

Leaving our bag at the cabin, we went for a swim. Anxiety washed clean. The sand between our toes felt like soft clay, and the Indian Ocean soothed our sunburn and blisters. It was getting late, and the water cold, and we made our way to the beachside bar.

Drinking our troubles away

The bar was even better than the cabin. It was also timber and stood on stilts, coolly surveying the beach underneath it. We sat at a low wooden table right next to the water, made ourselves comfortable on the benches, and ordered a slew of gin and tonics.

We talked about the bikes, about the trip so far, about the next half. Wessel played with Jeff’s camera, trying to perfect portraiture photography. A food menu appeared on the table, and soon enough a fish carpaccio, followed by a massive seafood platter, piled high with fresh fish, prawns, octopus, and crab. It was a welcome change from hot chips, a staple of our camping days on mainland Africa.

After staying for more drinks, the bar closed, and we walked back to the cabin to drink bourbon, a small bottle I had kept in my bag since Johannesberg airport. Jeff retired to bed, whilst Wessel and I stayed up drinking. We were all drunk and fell asleep instantly.

In the morning we received a phone call from uncle Jan; he was going to be in Zanzibar within the hour and wondered where we were. We didn’t realise it would be so early, and we were on the wrong side of the island. 

Flea bites, made worse with hangovers

We were worried about a repeat of the previous days discomforts, and didn’t envy getting back on the scooters so early. We were hung over, and what’s more, the beds were infested with fleas, so our legs were speckled with itchy flea bites. Grumpy, we wandered to the bar for the free breakfast, at least to reduce the hangover before we hit the road.

While I waited for breakfast, I walked to the beach and stood in the waves, wearing a black hood and jeans rolled up. Back at the bar, breakfast of fresh fruits and coffee arrived, and we began to become alive again. I was learning on this trip how much having (or not having) food could influence my mood.

Dreading the ride all the way back

We climbed back on the bikes, strapped on our helmets, and tried to plan our return route. Our time in Paje was very short – I could have easily spent a week there. Despite the discomfort and danger, and the very short stay – I wouldn’t change any of it. It was one of the most special places we saw in Africa. At the time we left I felt miserable; looking back upon Paje, it was the perfect fling, our short stay there truly memorable.


Wessel has his crash

The three motorbike engines spluttered into life and we filed out of the sandy driveway of the Paje By Night. Still without a map, and with a deadline of a few hours until we were to meet Jan, we took a gamble on a different road than the one we had come in on. Barely 30 seconds on the tarmac, Wessel crashed his bike, at the exact same place I had crashed mine yesterday. The headlight was smashed in, but in the foul mood we were all in, we didn’t care.

The police snag us. For the third time.

We turned inland straight away, down a shady jungle road, and within twenty minutes a police roadblock stopped us for a vehicle check. These guys found out I had no driver’s licence straight away, so I began my carefully rehearsed excuse story.

Flicking through the beginner’s Swahili section of Lonely Planet, I acted frantic and hopeless, and explained in broken Swahili that I had been robbed of my documents. The policeman, skeptical at first, wrote me a note in Swahili (a free pass!) which I could use to explain the story to any other police. What luck!

Life flashes before our eyes when a speedng truck appears

We kept riding, following street signs and riding relatively responsibly for most of the way. As we neared Stone Town, we hit roadworks. The tarmac changed to sand and we weaved through endless roadwork obstacles, road workers, and surface changes.

Further down the road, Wessel nearly had a huge accident as a speeding truck overtook us on the left, coming within an inch of clipping Wessel. He was furious and screamed at the driver. The roadworks led us into Stone Town.

The rental shop is not happy with the broken crashed bikes

Eventually we found ourselves on a road we recognised, which took us to the waterfront. We rode up to the motorbike rental place to drop off the bikes and Jan was standing there with a smile, waiting for us. We pulled up with big grins, happy to see our uncle and happy to have survived the roads in one piece.

The woman from the agency wanted to take our photo to put up in her office, along with other traveller’s photos. We parked the three bikes in the shade and posed with them. We looked the part; scruffy and dirty, wearing singlets, helmets, sunglasses and bandanas. It remains one of my favourite group photos from the trip. We left with Jan, who was checking us into the Dhow Palace Hotel, a place that definitely would not have fleas.

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