A trip to Mafia Island

6 March 2024

Recently, Kieke took an adventure trip to tropical Mafia Island. She got to know the island from the inside and managed to capture daily life on the island with her camera. Read her extraordinary and extended story and see the beautiful images from her trip.

Mafia Island – day 1 – 23 November
After a short layover at Kilimanjaro Airport, it’s just under an hour to Dar es Salaam. From the plane window, more and more lights slowly loom in the dark night. We fly closer and closer over the city and then touch down in the southern hemisphere. Treehouse, here we come!

There is a little visa party at customs and I am not the only one. With a lot of patience, some jokes and a smile it usually works out well here in Africa. At the stroke of midnight everything turns out to be correct … and voilà. An hour and a half later I was united with my bag. Yes, for once it had to wait for me. It was nice to have an Airtag, because at least I knew it was on the flight and not secretly getting off at Kilimanjaro, but just waiting 200 meters away from me until I was ready.
Fortunately, Patrick the driver also had angelic patience. Thus we drove into a nighttime, hot and humid Dar Es Salaam. Here and there recognition among the new tall buildings of a past.

24 – 28 November
Patrick drops me off at Four Point hotel for a short first night alone traveling in another country. Another threshold to cross. Sort of a power nap, because in six hours he will be back on the doorstep to pick me up for the next stage. With as big a smile as yesterday, Patrick is ready in the early morning to drop me off at the Domestic Airport. I appear to be the only one for a one-way ticket to Mafia Island. And no, it has nothing to do with the Italian Mafia. Mafia comes from the Arabic word “morfiyeh” which means “group or archipelago” or from the Swahili “mahali pa afya” which translated is a “healthy place.”

So there appear to be no other visitors to Mafia today, so I have a private jet. There is a huge water shortage in Dar right now and people are eagerly awaiting the rains of the short rainy season. Suddenly the rain clatters against our windshields and we can’t see a hand in front of our eyes as we fly in the middle of the downpour. The pilot responds happily as we set a sort of blind course through the downpour to the southeast. The downpour was short-lived because as soon as the small plane leaves the mainland behind, the rain clouds also disappear. In the distance we can already see the islands and after 24 minutes of private flight we land on Mafia Island. It is a small quiet and relaxing island with small huts along the side of the road among palm trees. The driver drops me off at the beach, because the first 5 nights I am staying on Chole, a very small island off the coast of Mafia. I cross over with the small wooden dhow and then land in paradise. Chole Mjini Eco lodge. A small lodge in a magnificent location with tree houses.

As a child, I loved building huts and could dream away at the story of Robinson Crusoe. How he lived in a homemade treehouse on an uninhabited island. The Tree-house surpasses my wildest dreams. High up in the old Baobab trees, a beautiful treehouse has been built.. Even with 2 floors. The 2nd floor is a kind of watchtower from where you have a view of the sea between the treetops or at night the shooting stars. The mangrove forest extends below the hut, so at high tide you can hear the sea murmur and you are gently lulled to sleep to the rhythm of the waves. The height of the hut puts you at eye level with the birds in the early morning. No doors or windows, but everything is open and a breeze from the wind cools nicely as you dive into your mosquito net under a fantastic starry sky. The bathroom is downstairs, so showering in the open as well. A kind of million star hotel … on a tropical island … truly insane.

In the afternoon we go out right away with the boat boys and a dhow. It’s time to explore Chole and the surrounding area, including Juani Island. Deep among the mangrove near Juani island is a Blue Lagoon , you can snorkel here among the jellyfish. They are a little weird though because they prefer to swim upside down and their tentacles don’t sting.

We also visit the Kua ruins, a palace where a queen ruled with a hard hand around the 14th century. As the red sun disappears behind the horizon, we sail back to the lodge and slowly awaken thousands of stars.

The next day I took a look at the women, who grow some kind of fields of seaweed in the sea here. During low tide, the ladies work hard in the blazing sun. The seaweed grows around rope that is stretched on sticks that they stick into the ground. First all the seaweed ropes are checked for debris, then they are re-tensioned, and seaweed that is ready is picked. After drying it on land, once a month, seaweed traders come to purchase the harvest. A tough job and you also have to be a little careful, because sea urchins like it cozy among the seaweed …

After lunch, I dive into the deep blue. First into the landscaped Coral Garden, which works a bit like seaweed … growing coral on string and then giving the baby coral a nice spot on a rock formation. Unfortunately, the fishermen here did a lot of damage to the reef through dynamite fishing. Fortunately much of the area is now Marine Reserve fishing in this manner is prohibited within the reserve boundaries. Despite the high tide, there is a lot of current during the first part of the dive and we drift through the coral garden at breakneck speed into another dive site.

The next day there are already threatening clouds hanging over the island and a nice thunderstorm rages on the sea. In the morning I am whistled out of my bed by many different birds with the most beautiful songs. At least that’s a nice way to wake up early. The bush shower is a treat and ingeniously together. First fill the rope can with petroleum, light it and put it under the pipe construction, important detail the matches back in the watertight jar otherwise you will have a cold shower for the rest of the days. E voilà, the rest goes by itself if you wait just 2 minutes … nice lukewarm shower … because if you don’t add cold, the water is way too hot!

After breakfast I have to make a quick dash to stay dry and as I step up the stairs to the treehouse the heavens burst open. For almost two hours it rains heavily. After lunch it clears up and it is surprisingly quickly warm and dry again.
Guide Rejabu takes me to his village of Chole village. We go to take pictures for the annual report to show what the government grant has added for the village. In addition to the small stores, the ferry and the clinic, we are also on the hunt for solar panels and water tanks, as this upgrade is fantastic for the village and offers so much potential. Rejabu gets a crash course in photography and goes wild with my other camera. Furthermore, we take pictures of everything in terms of food that grows or can be caught. Meanwhile, they have a village cinema here where you can watch news or of course a soccer game for a small fee. We walk past the small boat yard, where seaworthy dhows are manufactured by hand. Nice to see that Rejabu, -even though he had the opportunity to study in Dar and speaks English well-, his heart is here and he lovingly cares for his community.

Today we are going to Jibondo Island. First we set sail past Juani Island and drop off a few more people. Jibondo is a little further south of Juani Island and there too they have asked if I want to take pictures for the annual report. Once again we set out with Rejabu. We have to leave early, because you can only dock at Jibondo at high tide, since it dries up around the island for a few kilometers. So that also means that we can only return at the next high tide. It is a delightful early morning boat ride of about 2 hours sailing. A packed wood-rigged ferry rushes past us and a dhow on the horizon in the morning light.

A rocky island slowly looms in the distance with palm trees. Typical of what I think “Land in sight!” looks like. And that’s all there is to say. There is only a little bit of sand on the rocky bottom so almost nothing grows. No fertile soil to grow fruit trees. Even the attempt at palm trees has failed because only a few trees have mini coconuts often without coconut milk. The people who live here depend entirely on fishing, some small livestock and what comes by ferry from fertile Mafia or Chole. We brought a large bag of fruit for the chief to distribute. Because of the high water, we can now dock in the small harbor which will be completely dry in an hour. The same ritual here: photographing everything; the fishermen preparing their nets, the women drying the catch, ruins, mosque, the village, the effort with the palm tree plantation, especially showing that little wants to grow, but also the litter and plastic that washes up here in bizarre quantities, seriously threatening their fishing grounds.

We trudge around the whole island in the scorching heat and very few places to take shelter in the shade. Rejabu actually wants to wait for the fishermen, but that will be on the edge in terms of high tide and then we would have to return in the dark. On the way back, the waves lapped gently against the boat….

In the morning we are hit by a big storm, while above Mafia Island all hell breaks loose …. the wind starts to blow terribly with a few short downpours. Fortunately, as quickly as the storm came, it blew away again. Everything dries up nice and fresh. A day in and around the lodge, the tree houses, views, restaurant and also just as soon as the evening falls another round of tree house photography between the countless stars.