When Liberatus first moved to Mafia Island, he approached the lodges about offering whale shark viewings for tourists. Nobody was interested. At the time, the lodges wanted to focus on promoting the marine park and the coral reefs to tourists. Then one day, the story goes, a group of tourists spotted the whale sharks from the air as their plane approached the island. They instantly became fascinated, and the lodge they were staying at contacted Liberatus to see if he could take them out on his boat.
Liberatus now owns three boats and employs his nephews to lead tours. The animals are gentle vegetarians and it is possible to get out of the boat and swim with them. It is important, however, not to touch the whale sharks. They are large wild animals and, if startled, could unintentionally cause injuries with their powerful fins and tails.
Last Saturday morning was warm and sunny and we set out to sea in a small wooden boat. We were prepared for a long day, as Liberatus had warned us that it could take hours to locate the whale sharks. It took half an hour. Someone yelled shark and a large gaping mouth emerged from the water. We jumped in with the shark, joking about how counterintuitive this felt and humming the theme song to Jaws.
Up close, the whale shark’s skin is grey and white dots arranged into an intricate pattern that Liberatus explained is unique to each animal, like a fingerprint. The shark swam around us and under us, and we followed it as it moved around the boat.
I’m not sure how I lost sight of a 10-metre long shark, but somehow I did. And then, before I could move out of the way, it was swimming directly underneath me, and then surfacing, and then I was sitting on its back. Like that scene in Free Willy but much, much less graceful. I screamed, a sound that was stifled by my snorkelling gear and came out sounding like a strangled sigh. I considered whether I should crawl to the side of the animal’s back and try to jump off. If I moved around on its back, would that make it more or less angry? The shark retreated back underwater and I swam quickly towards the boat, where Liberatus’ nephews were laughing at me.
Later, back at Mama Lizu’s, we decided that Liberatus was right. The whale shark is not beautiful, with its wide lips, tiny eyes, and ungainly body. But it does possess a certain grace. And spotting one in the Indian Ocean is kind of like spotting an elephant in the Serengeti.
Kilindoni, the main town on Mafia Island, feels small. The airport is approximately a five-minute walk from the centre of town. There are no ATMs. The roads are the same white sand as the beach. And, perhaps most importantly, if you want to eat out in Mafia you need to order dinner a day ahead of time.
Mafia Island is located 160 kilometers south of Zanzibar, near the mouth of the Rufiji River. There are few tourists on the island, but some do come for diving and snorkelling – the reefs off Mafia are supposedly some of the richest in the world. Most tourists stay in a handful of upscale lodges, owned by foreigners and located on the east side of the island.
My friends and I arrived late on Friday afternoon and checked into Mama Lizu’s Guesthouse, a large maze of a house that was converted into a bar before the owners finally agreed that it should be a hotel. Located in the centre of town, Mama Lizu’s rooms go for $6 a night, a much better bargain than the beach lodges.
Only one restaurant, Hakuna Matata, was open on Friday evening. An empty open air patio with a handful of tables and two stray cats. No printed menus, but the waitress recited the choices available to us: wale na kuku (rice and chicken) or wale na samaki (rice and fish). These are the dishes of fast-food Tanzania, cooked hours or sometimes days ahead of time and available at nearly every roadside stall and corner restaurant.
A helpful bajaj driver told us that the lodges on the east side of the island were only a fifteen minute drive away and served very good food. Hoping for grilled seafood, we decided to walk. Fifteen minutes turned into an hour and finally we flagged down a bajaj heading in the opposite direction. “You are still 25 kilometres from the nearest lodge”, the driver said, and turned his bajaj around. We got in, and drove for forty-five minutes on the white sand island, as the sun set and the moon rose.
We were stopped by a guard at the gate to the Mafia Island Marine Park, who informed us that all of the lodges on the island are located inside a protected area. Admission is $20. A large grey sign proclaims: “no exceptions or waiver of fees for delayed departure”. JL, who grew up in Tanzania and speaks Swahili fluently, got out of the bajaj to negotiate with the guard, while the rest of us sat low in our seats and hoped that he would forget about us. Twenty minutes later, JL had convinced the guard to let us in for dinner and we were on our way.
Our driver got lost. The bajaj broke down. Twice. Flat tires both times. And then got stuck in a patch of mud. We got out and pushed.
At the first lodge we were told that there was only enough food for guests. “You should have ordered your dinner this morning”, the receptionist explained patiently, “otherwise we don’t buy enough food at the market.” The second lodge was dark and deserted, with no guests or owner. The third had no food left by the time we arrived.
We made it back to Hakuna Mutata by 9 pm. Reheated wale na samaki never tasted so good.