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A man stood on the vast, dazzlingly white beach, ready to greet us as we jumped out of the boat.
“Does this remind you of anything?” I asked Simon.
“Fantasy Island” we both said in unison.
We waded through the shallows and onto the beach.
We had arrived on Chumbe Island Coral Park, a private nature reserve off the coast of Zanzibar.
Chumbe Island Coral Park is a UN-recognized nature reserve off the coast of Zanzibar (Tanzania). The island includes a coral reef sanctuary and a nature reserve.
Visits to Chumbe are organized through the reserve – you can take a day trip or stay overnight. Numbers are strictly limited and pre-booking is required.
Accommodation (whether you’re a day tripper or are staying overnight) is in one of 7 eco-bungalows. This means a maximum of 14 visitors on the island. Meals are taken at the resort centre and all food and soft drinks are included in the price.
Rangers are on hand to guide your snorkelling trips, accompany you on forest walks and answer any of the questions that you have.
Our bamboo hut had 2 storeys: a living area with bench and eco-bathroom downstairs, and a sleeping area with bed (and mosquito net) up a ladder at the top. The sleeping area had a bamboo blind that could be opened to give a perfect sea view FROM THE BED. (This was the point where I started to regret not booking an overnight stay).
Handily, the resort provides towels and sun hats, along with bottled water. You basically need to bring yourself and your swimming/sleeping/photography gear. Oh, and t-shirt, shorts and sandals. That’s pretty much it.
Sadly, much as we would have liked to settle in and enjoy the sea breeze, there was no time for any of that. We had to head down to the beach for the part I was most looking forward to: the snorkelling trip.
My BIG reason for visiting Chumbe was the snorkelling. Here is a pristine coral reef, with no divers, no boats and it’s in pristine condition. Could it live up to expectations?
In a word: yes. I’ve snorkelled on the Great Barrier Reef and dived in the Red Sea many times. But I have to say, for sheer ease of access and quality of underwater life, Chumbe beat them all hands down.
The water was fairly shallow – most of the reef is in 3m of water or less. So it was incredibly easy to swim around, and to spot the coral and sea life. (It was made even easier by the helpful rangers accompanying us to point things out..).
So there was the lobster hiding under a rock, given away by his tentacles. Then the trigger fish passing by, the clown fish lurking in the anemone and coming out to play if you went too close. Friendly batfish swam past to say hello, and shoals of goatfish navigated along the reefs.
For anybody who got tired, there was a spare tyre bobbing along to cling to, and a boat to take us to and from the shore.
I could happily have stayed in the water for hours, were it not for the prospect of LUNCH.
The fish curry, vegetables and rice that we had for lunch were great, but what really sold the meal was the setting.
Here we were, at a table for 2, watching the waves wash in on the beach, while shoals of fish drifted along the shore. We took our coffee for a walk, to one of the benches that adorn the coast. The only distractions were the waves and the wind.
(Meals and soft drinks are included at Chumbe. Vegetarians are catered for too).
Shame there wasn’t time for a siesta…
There is no groundwater source on Chumbe, which makes it all the more remarkable that there is a forest here at all.
In fact, the plants here have learned to store water, or take humidity from the air.
Chumbe is made out of a fossilized coral substrate, so watch where you put your feet (that stuff can be painful). Plant life survives by wrapping its roots around the coral or anything it can find. Baobab trees and mangroves abound.
We spent an hour or so wandering the forest with a ranger. He showed us hermit crabs hiding in the coral, caves where Coconut Crabs could hide and assured us that, yes, the Ader’s Duiker was hiding somewhere.
Ah, Coconut Crabs. These largest of crabs (diameter up to 45cm) live plentifully on Chumbe, but they are (sadly for us) nocturnal, so we didn’t see any. (Another reason for an overnight stay: I was really gutted not to see one).
The Ader’s Duiker is the world’s rarest antelope. Now extinct in Zanzibar, it survives on Chumbe. It is exceptionally shy, so it’s extremely unlikely you’ll see any (we didn’t).
The walk around the forest helped me to realize just how special Chumbe is: the nature of the dead coral reef that makes up the island was only clear once were away from the resort. The forest is also surprisingly thick, for such a small area. And there was a surprisingly high concentration of wildlife: if it wasn’t vines wrapping themselves around tree trunks, it was termite trails along the branches!
We finished the walk by climbing up the lighthouse. We had a perfect, if windy, view of the island, which made the climb worthwhile. (Oh, and the eco-minded will like the solar panels up here).
And then, sadly, it was time to leave Chumbe and get the boat back to Zanzibar.
So I’ll leave you with one last image of Chumbe, taken from the top of the lighthouse.
A full photo gallery is available at Chumbe
Good To Know
Visiting: Chumbe Island may be visited on a day trip, or for overnight stays. You can only book through the reserve itself – details are here. At the time of writing (January 2014), adult rates were US$90/US$280 for a day trip/overnight stay. This includes food, drink and activities.
What to Bring: Snorkelling equipment (incl. wetsuits to prevent sunburn) is provided; bring your own gear if you prefer.
Pluses: The peace and quiet (no TV/music etc.); the pristine natural environment.
Minuses: Accessible only by the reserve boats: getting here under your own steam is not an option.
Time Needed: Day trip if you must (we had to), but I’d highly recommend 1 or 2 nights if you can.