Travel

Where the safari started

Our flight into Zanzibar settled on the runway after midnight. I looked out the window. It was dark and soft like the inside of a smudge pot and there was little to see except the flashes of the ground crew. A tug swung around. Its lamps illuminated palm fronds just beyond the pavement. Dense vegetation completed the backdrop.

Tanzania and Kenya are part of a constellation of East African countries. Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Tanzania and Kenya are part of a constellation of East African countries. Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Vicki was awake.

“It’s so hot,” she mumbled.

“I know.” My shirt was damp too. The cabin was suffocating. I fanned her with the safety card from the seat pocket. We had come so far. We were so tired.

O take me back to Zanzibar
Where I may sleep and dream some more
And wake to dawn of cinnabar.
O take me back to Zanzibar,
The land of beasts and men of tar
Where zebras roam and lions roar.
O take me back to Zanzibar
Where I may sleep and dream some more!*

We had been dreaming of zebras and lions for nearly a year. Going on a safari is, after all, a sacred obligation, a foray into to world of the untethered. Such experiences are rarer than tanzanite.

The Swahili Coast includes the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

The Swahili Coast includes the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Two thousand years ago much of the area south of the Mediterranean—including this one—was beyond the experience of the Roman world.** Terms like barbaros or barbarus or “barbarian” were used to describe human societies in these remote places (think of the Berbers of the Sahara or the city of Berbera in the modern Republic of Somalia). Ptolemy even referred to the littoral south of Africa’s horn (sometimes called the “Swahili Coast”) as Sinus Barbaricus.***

Richard Burton, the swarthy explorer and linguist, claims the Persians knew better. The term “Zanzibar” is theirs he writes. It means “Blackland” or “land of the Black” (-skinned people) and has a pejorative feel in the Arabic tongue. Here, zang or zanj is used of rural Blacks and bar connotes “land.”**** The combo package was picked up and broadly delivered by medieval geographers. Zanzibar could be a coastline, an island, or even a single city. These last two uses continue to be plied today (see the map above).

Zanzibar City from the Sea. Illustration from Burton’s  The Lake Regions of Central Africa. A Picture of Exploration  (1860). You can find the ebook    here    (accessed 9/15/2019).

Zanzibar City from the Sea. Illustration from Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa. A Picture of Exploration (1860). You can find the ebook here (accessed 9/15/2019).

Our Turkish crew instructed the few of us continuing on to Kilimanjaro to stay in our seats. The rest of the passengers queued for the exit. Many were Europeans in holiday or honeymoon mode, an inference not drawn from their tired eyes or slumping shoulders, but from their colorful outfits; shorts, hats, and beach bags were à la mode. They were prepared for a tropical release.

Resigned to another hour of sitting, I drew a deep breath. Humid or not, it would be splendid to follow them outside—if only for a day—to wander this medieval entrepôt of the Indian Ocean. Memories here are many and worth hunting.

Zanzibar City is the tip of the spear pointing toward the heart of Africa.

Zanzibar City is the tip of the spear pointing toward the heart of Africa.

Slumbering just a couple of miles from our wheels was Stone Town. It is the tip of a spear, a coral peninsula pointing at the continental heart. Twenty-two miles of salt water, corals, and sand bars separate that tip from the mainland.

The point was a port in the medieval period and home to sultans and merchantmen, sailors and fishermen. Its market hustled many commodities, but primarily slaves and spices. Today, remnants of that past lurk in a maze of narrow streets framed by rose-tinted buildings and walls. The aroma of cooking seafood wafts about carved teak doors and overhanging balconies and through hidden gardens. It sounds like the perfect place to get yourself lost before suddenly finding an outdoor cafe with flowers and a table. There you sit in the shade and drink sweet tea from a glass and look at a paper map while trying to figure out where you are. The sea breeze cools your damp hair.

That would be nice. I closed my eyes in the sweltering plane and tried to imagine it. The map is in my hand

I find two sites.

The first is the Old Fort. After centuries of occupation, the Portuguese were expelled from Zanzibar. Omani Arabs did the job in 1699 and built this stout structure to prevent their return. Old Fort is centerpiece of Stone Town. Over the course of time, its thick walls have served as a bastion, a prison, a tennis club, a bar and restaurant, an amphitheater, and an art museum.

I find a second site of interest on the map. It is the Livingstone House. This unassuming block building was erected around 1860 near the harbor. Its most famous resident (I presume) was the Victorian explorer, medical doctor, and missionary, David Livingstone. He lived here for a short time while planning his last African expedition. He would not return alive. Zanzibar was a launching site for many East African expeditions in the heyday of the European colonial movement.

Livingstone House near the Zanzibar Harbor. Image from    here    (accessed 9/17/2019)

Livingstone House near the Zanzibar Harbor. Image from here (accessed 9/17/2019)

Like Livingstone, other legends spent time here. Speke, Cameron, Stanley and Burton also slept in this historic structure. Today it houses the Zanzibar Tourist Cooperation.

It was Burton who carried the term “safari” from the Swahili Coast back to England. There it found a home in the English vernacular and a place the Western imagination. To this day, a journey into an untethered region for the sake of hunting or observing wildlife is called a safari. At its core, it is an East African experience. While it is a bit of a stretch—but not so much—one may envision Zanzibar as the place where the safari started.

It would be for us.

O take me back to Zanzibar
Where I may sleep and dream some more
And wake to dawn of cinnabar.

Burton on safari? Image from Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa (18xx: 101). Image from    here    (accessed 9/16/2019).

Burton on safari? Image from Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa (18xx: 101). Image from here (accessed 9/16/2019).


*This poem by Discoveria may be found here (accessed Sept 15, 2019).

**Roman-era expeditions to this area are not unknown however. An anonymous work remembered as The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (1st century) is one of most famous. Its itinerary identifies one island as Menuthias (Μενουθιάς) thought to be either Zanzibar or Pemba. See Wikisource here (accessed Sept 16, 2019).

***The label, al-Khalij al-Barbari, was picked up and applied by early Arab geographers to stretches of the Indian Ocean. See the article “The Indian Ocean in Arab Geography: Transmission of Knowledge between Formal and Informal Geographical Traditions” by Marina Tolmacheva here (accessed Sept 16, 2019).

****Compare Burton’s history of the term Zanzibar in his The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860: 38) with the contemporary Wikipedia article on Zanj found here (accessed Sept 16, 2019).


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If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator, let me hear from you. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor academic experiences in the lands of the Bible. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities. See our list of future trips here.

Notes from Karanga Camp, Kilimanjaro

Notes from Karanga Camp, Kilimanjaro

The following observations and reflections were made on the afternoon of July 22, 2019. On that day I reached Karanga Camp (elevation 12,992 feet) by foot. The camp rests directly under the peak of the Kilimanjaro.

Ants in your pants

Ants in your pants

Look out for the Siafu! This species of carnivorous ant swarms in massive numbers, eats animal protein, and has dedicated soldiers with serious pincer-style mandibles. An unfortunate encounter with the siafu in an East African rainforest made us all a little jumpy.

Rookie mistakes

Rookie mistakes

Two lessons here. The first is this: don’t brush your teeth. The second is akin to the first: don’t ever think you are faster than a black mamba. Follow these two rules in order to get the most from your foreign travel experience.

Required reading for explorers (part 3)

Required reading for explorers (part 3)

Rachel Levin’s first book, Look Big and Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2018), offers an interesting take on our North American friends from the wild side.

Naturally I lost my bearings

Naturally I lost my bearings

Gordon lifted the oversized compass to his face. The transparent plastic flexed in his hands, making his nose appear to wiggle. His voice was less animated. His words came out deliberately.

“Turn the bezel until the arrow is in the box.” He turned the disk on his plastic demonstration model. His nose wiggled again.

Wisemen Wafers

Wisemen Wafers

We are busy here at the Bible Land Explorers’ headquarters chewing the magoi. So far we’ve noted how Jesus was born in a Cold War (see here) and how the magoi were savvy politicians with a reputation for king-making and king-breaking (see here). As Christmas morning approaches, however, we lean toward something more festive: wisemen wafers!

Enter the idea of the eulogia.

He blowd his brains out his ears

He blowd his brains out his ears

The descent into Spain is rugged. The bright pastures of the sommets des pyrénées slip downslope, gradually at first, then furiously, precipitously, until they tumble into dense beech forests. Bob and I do the same. Spattered by mud, decorated with leaves, and swathed in shadow, we appreciate the epic Song of Roland.

A chain of whispered stories

A chain of whispered stories

The Pyrénées do not look imposing on a map. But don’t be fooled. This mountain chain between France and Spain is ancient, steep, and full of whispered stories.

A cup

A cup

This is the Spain you never heard about. It is old and earthy and green and has the feeling of something Irish, or maybe something out of a Tolkien universe. On cue, the sound of a bagpipe and penny whistle drifts through the door.

First touch

First touch

The Tower of Saint James in Paris, France, is impressive. Its architecture is pure gothic in style, with all the ribs and nubbins favored by pigeons. It rises 203 feet from the base to the noggin of Saint James who teeters on top. This tower was our first touch with the Camino de Santiago.

The grape farmer's story

The grape farmer's story

The grape farmer asked if we were pilgrims bound for Nájera. We affirmed the obvious.

"Do you know the story of the Camino?" His English was stained but it was clear enough.

Bob and I had notions, but we welcomed his company. We also welcomed the conversation that his question set in motion.

“No. Tell us.”