YOU’RE OFF TO FIND A BASE in Zanzibar – how wonderful! Do you love it there” comes the inevitable question, when friends hear that I’m planning to set up camp on the legendary Tanzanian island.
Confusion follows, because the truth is that I’ve never been there.
After a few years of job-hopping around southern Africa, my partner Gem and I crave stability. Our main criteria in a potential home include decent transport links back to the UK, world-class beaches, and – of course – diving.
Zanzibar, tropical-island-paradise personified, seems to fit the bill nicely. How could we not fall in love with it With typical impulsiveness, we book our flights and begin day-dreaming of living life in a Bounty advertisement.
As is the case with most visitors, our first experience of the island comes in the manic form of Stone Town, the old quarters of the capital, Zanzibar Town.
The best thing to do here is discard the Lonely Planet and get lost among the higgledy-piggledy alleyways of crumbling coral stone houses.
A slave-trading hub in the 19th century, Stone Town is a fascinating blend of Arab, Indian, African, and European influences. Our noses lead us to a market where vendors sell plump mangos, handmade soap and mountains of spices.
Shops erupt with brightly coloured scarves and fabrics, while numerous mosques, some stylish hotels, bazaars and palaces reflect the city’s diverse heritage. Eyes were made for places like Stone Town.
We visit nearby Changuu Island, which was a prison for slaves in the 1860s. Other than inappropriately dressed tourists (cover your shoulders and less of the hot pants – this is a Muslim country) nowadays Changuu’s main inhabitants are Aldabra giant tortoises, a gift from the British governor of the Seychelles.
Craning out their ancient necks to reveal grizzled faces, it seems that these animals rather enjoy being tickled on the chin.
Traipsing around Stone Town is hot work. The most sensible (and enjoyable) way to chill out is a dip in the waters.
One Ocean is Zanzibar’s biggest, longest-serving dive operator. We load up its traditional dhow and glide through gloriously flat, clear water to Pange, a small sandbank under a mile from shore.
I back-roll into the Indian Ocean and am embraced by 27° water. Acropora, brain, honeycomb and stag coral erupt out of Murogo Reef’s sandy bottom to form perfect marine sculptures.
In among these works of art we spot nudibranchs, unicornfish, lizardfish, pufferfish and boxfish, along with a giant school of yellow and black sweetlips.
Pange North, our second site, is renowned for its giant coral outcrops and bommies, which I gloss over in favour of its tiny inhabitants.
I don’t like to anthropomorphise fish, but this dive kickstarts a love affair with pipefish, which seduce me with their doughy eyes, cute snake-like slither and patient temperaments – attributes that turn the underwater photographer in me weak at the knees.
My fawning won’t stop here, because Zanzibar seems to be teeming with them.
A school of whiskery striped-eel catfish, packed into a tight ball, finally lures me away from the pipefish, and we spot a mantis shrimp protecting its lair with typical ferocity.
Its bright colouring is the perfect fit for an island like Zanzibar, and if there is a more photogenic creature in the whole animal kingdom, I have yet to snap it. So far so good.

THE NEXT DAY WE DIVE MUROGO again, this time finding a rather ornate leaf-fish that looks a little fed up. Then again, with downturned lips that look as though they’ve been injected with collagen, when did any leaf-fish look happy It falls on its side and makes a hilarious attempt at swimming to some nearby coral.
We move on to dive Pange South, with its giant porcupinefish, lots of parrotfish and more nice coral and bommies.
We leave Stone Town pleasantly surprised by the quality of diving there – the coral and macro life scores a solid eight out of ten. We hire a car and head north to Nungwi.
Before hitting the water we spend a couple of days at Mnarani Marine Turtle Conservation Pond, a community-based NGO that rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured turtles.
Our guide Suleiman takes us to Nungwi’s fish-market. The sun is edging up over spindly palm trees, throwing a golden veil over the returning dhows.
As the fishermen pull in, they offload gigantic devil ray and sailfish, dogfish and yellow-fin tuna, plus a few species I don’t even recognise. Although these reefs have been chronically overfished, it would appear that life in the deep blue thrives.
Located further down the beach is a strip of hotels and bars inhabited by an eclectic mix of Speedo-clad Frenchmen, elderly Italians and backpackers who come for a sex, drugs and rock & roll fix.
Divine Diving takes me to a dive-site called Mbwangawa, with a sweeping wall of petal coral, but while the setting is great there’s a disappointing lack of life and little to see but a lone octopus, which emerges from its hole for a picture.

IF THIS DIVE IS BLAND, the second more than compensates. Shane’s Reef is so packed with macro life that I would have spent days down there if my darned computer hadn’t been beeping at me.
We see a huge black frogfish, purple leaf-fish, flying gurnard, crocodilefish, flounder, thornback cowfish and scorpionfish: an array of very chilled out, highly photogenic fish that allow me to plonk my lens close to the end of their patient little snouts.
Shane’s Reef’s most exciting resident is an ornate ghost pipefish, my first and, I’m sorry to say it, superior to the standard pipefish in every way.
On seeing it, my emotions are split 50:50 between sheer astonishment that such crazy-looking animals exist and perplexity – what sort of life must it have, hanging upside-down for weeks/ months/ years on end Does it not get vertigo
Pondering this and other issues of great weight, we continue our search for a home around the island. The next destination, and the one we’ve been really excited about, is Mnemba Atoll.
Located 1.25 miles off Unguja in north-east Zanzibar, the island hosts a single luxury lodge, operated by andBeyond. And it is definitely beyond our price range.
I’m joined by the owner and founder of One Ocean Gary, an ex-cave-diver from Australia who has been based on Zanzibar for 17 years. When he arrived on this coast there were hardly any hotels. “Those were the days,” he says, wistfully.
We chinwag our way through the 45-minute boat-ride – 12 other guests are on-board. At Mnemba we wrestle for space among a handful of operators and numerous fishing-boats.
Although $3 from every dive goes to the fisheries department to protect Mnemba, it is rarely patrolled and, inexplicably for a world-famous dive destination, fishing takes place right on top of the most popular reefs.
Despite the crowds, once we hit the water we encounter only a handful of divers. The conditions are exquisite – 40m visibility and warm, warm water.
The skipper drops Gary, manager Sylvia and me on top of Moray City,
a coral outcrop that is home to masses of reef fish and eels, as hinted in the name. I make furious “OK” signals to my buddies, but it’s more than OK – it’s a superb start.
Sylvia leads us to a dive-site called Kichwani, and turns out to be a willing and patient model. We witness schools
of butterflyfish involved in a feeding frenzy, along with gigantic numbers of yellow snapper. I can see where Mnemba gets its reputation.
Our day gets even better as we hit the second site, Aquarium. Is there a famous dive destination that doesn’t have a site named Aquarium
A gentle current eases us to 28m, as a juvenile turtle flaps by, barely a speck of plankton between the two of us.
While it’s usual to see turtles here, Gary later informs me that a few years back he would regularly see 10-15 on a dive. I’m so wrapped up in the scene that I miss a pod of dolphins speeding by above.
Gem and I switch hotels, moving to Matemwe Beach Villas, a boutique lodge with easily the finest sand into which we have ever dipped our tootsies – it’s almost like dust. It’s also far more our scene and the food – in particular the breakfast – is delicious, and the perfect stomach-lining for more Mnemba action.
We visit another section of Aquarium where three leaf-fish and a red scorpionfish make me rue having a wide-angle lens on. A Frenchwoman manages to simultaneously flood One Ocean’s camera and run out of air.
Luckily she is within grabbing distance of our instructor’s octopus. Back on the boat, manager Sebastian – the unfortunate owner of the camera – looks less than impressed.

THE FAILURE TO NOTICE DOLPHINS the previous day might have upset me had our next destination not been Kizimkazi. This small fishing village in southern Zanzibar is reckoned to be one of the best dolphin-spotting destinations in Africa.
I’m taken out by American/ Zimbabwean Stratton Hatfield, who runs the Dolphin Project for volunteer-tourism company African Impact – a true bushman, and wise beyond his 23 years,
Local operators regularly drop four or five boatloads of customers on a single pod of dolphins, so we head out in the late afternoon, when the tourists have long gone. As the light morphs from white to yellow to orange, we spot a 20-strong pod.
The guys at African Impact allow me to slip into the water alone to take photos uninterrupted. For 10 glorious minutes
I am accepted into the dolphins’ family as they bite each other’s tails, scratch their backs on the seabed and somersault around me.
The trip to Kizimkazi leads us to nearby Paje. This chilled kite-surfing community has a long, quiet beach lined with small independent lodges and restaurants. There is barely a man-pouch or human-leather handbag in sight.
The diving doesn’t rival Nungwi or Mnemba, but the coral life – particularly at the sites Powoni and Barracuda Point – is magnificent and there are no other dive-boats in sights.
Few tourists, great reefs, dolphins, and just 45 minutes from Stone Town – our search for a new home may just be over.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Fly from London with Turkish Airlines, www.turkish airlines.com. Baboo organises car hire, tours, safaris and trips to local islands, www.zanzibarbabootours.com
DIVING Stone Town & Mnemba: Zanzibar One Ocean, www.zanzibaroneocean.com. Nungwi: Divine Diving, www.scubazanzibar.com. Paje: Buccaneer Diving, www.buccaneerdiving.com. Rising Sun Dive Centre, www.risingsun-zanzibar.com
ACCOMMODATION Matemwe Beach Villas, www.matemwe beach.net; Bluebay Beach Resort: www.bluebay zanzibar.com; Paje/Jambiani Garden Bungalows, www.gardenbungalows-zanzibar.com; Breezes Beach Club & Spa: www.breezes-zanzibar.com
WHEN TO GO October-March, before the long rainy season, which can affect visibility. Humpbacks arrive around July and generally stay until November.
MONEY Tanzania shilling.
PRICES Original Diving offers prices from £1350pp for seven nights’ half-board at Breezes (two sharing) with return flights, transfers and eight dives, www.originaldiving.com
TOURIST INFORMATION www.tanzaniatouristboard.com