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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Adventure Travel

May 19, 2017

Finding Barefoot Paradise on Mafia Island – Part 1

Despite its ominous name, this virtually unknown island has been discovered as a utopia for anyone willing to make the journey—a truly ‘off the beaten track’ experience and a scuba diver’s dream.

WRITTEN BY

Sarah Kingdom

Dar es Salaam’s airport is not exciting at the best of times, but at 4:30 in the morning, once we had passed through immigration and been ejected into the airport concourse,  the only signs of life were a lady sweeping and emptying rubbish bins. It felt like we had arrived in a post-apocalyptic world. The handful of shops were all closed and we had to spend an hour or so sitting on the stairs outside the airport, waiting for the only “restaurant” to open its doors, until it was time to check in for our short flight to Mafia. ‘James from the UK’ summed up The Flamingo Restaurant pretty accurately on Trip Advisor when he wrote: “being clean and having many plug sockets are really the only two positives to this pretty dire airport restaurant”, which, though clearly not a great review, is decidedly better than ‘Lampan from Austria’ who had this to say:

Looking for hell on earth? That’s as close as you can get”.

We, however, knew this would be our last time ‘roughing it’ before we got to the laid back luxury of the island—not even having to make our ‘breakfast snack’ last for four hours could dampen our spirits.

Our seemingly endless wait over, we eventually boarded our flight for the short hop to the Mafia. Most of the other passengers on our flight were headed further down the coast to the natural gas fields of Songo Songo and so only four of us got off when we touched down on the island.

We were collected and driven the 14km stretch of tar that represents the only sealed road on the island and to the ‘Mafia Island Marine Park’ gates, where we signed in and paid for our permits. This was our last taste of ‘officialdom’; shortly we would abandon our shoes and our cares, barely thinking of civilisation again until it was time to leave.

Goodbye civilisation. Photo by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

Mafia Island

Contrary to any other thoughts that might come to mind, Mafia Island has nothing to do with the Mafiaosi; the Mafia Archipelago most likely got its name from the Arabic word ‘morfiyeh’ meaning ‘archipelago’, or possibly from the Ki-Swahili ‘mahali pa afya’, meaning ‘healthy dwelling place’. In fact, in precolonial times the island was known to the Portuguese and British as Monfia, and it was only after Germany took control of the island in 1890 that the spelling changed to Mafia. The archipelago lies just south of the Equator and is made up of a group of islands, atolls and tidal sandbars, scattered in the Indian Ocean off the coast of the Rufiji Delta in Tanzania. The largest of these islands is Mafia Island itself, which is approximately 50km long, 15km across and surrounded by a barrier reef teeming with marine life.

This is a virtually unknown destination, a jewel in in the Indian Ocean.

Picture perfect beaches and incredibly diverse marine life make it a divers’ paradise. With a total population of about 40,000 and annual tourist numbers in the region of 4,000, the island is one of the safest and quietest places in the Indian Ocean, virtually devoid of crime and free from the crowds and hustlers that can ruin a holiday in paradise.

Yes, looks like paradise to us. Photo courtesy of Mafia Island Diving

Mafia is a remnant of the old Swahili coast. Very little is known about its early history, but it is believed to have been inhabited for a millennia. The first settlers are thought to have crossed from the mainland to the islands in the 3rd and 4th century. The Mafia archipelago is home to antiquities and ruins ranging from a barrel-vaulted mosque built in the 15th century to a number of well-preserved buildings of the latter half of the 18th century. Relatively recently, a discovery has been made of what appears to be a ‘sunken city’ off the coast. Some believe this could be the remains of a Portuguese fort that was washed away by the sea some time in the mid 1800s. A more tantalisingly hypothesis? One researcher suggests it could possibly be the ruins of the lost ancient city of Rhapta, dating back to pre 50AD. Although unfortunately, this is thought by most to be extremely unlikely.

From the sunbathers to the restless, what to do on Mafia Island:

Mafia has something for everybody. There is plenty to do, but if you want to lie on a beach and ‘do nothing’, you can. In fact, we met a French honeymoon couple doing just that! The newlyweds appeared to spend their time basking in the sun, with the occasional break to head out on a sunset cruise, an ‘introduction to scuba diving’ course or the occasional pampering massage.

Understandable why some people might want to let themselves be pampered while taking in this view. Photo courtesy of Pole Pole, Mafia Island

My husband, unlike the French honeymooners, is ‘allergic’ to lazing on the beach; sitting ‘aimlessly’ on the sand makes him restless, fidgety and, in general, a pain to be around. Fortunately, we had no time at all to test his patience levels. Between boat trips, snorkelling, scuba diving, watching baby turtles hatch, a walking tour of a nearby island, long beach walks and more, we were kept very active. Don’t get me wrong, Mafia is the perfect place to relax and unwind. In fact, the ‘beach sitting allergic’ husband rapidly got into the habit of post breakfast naps, post lunch naps and even some pre dinner naps, while I occupied myself with some early morning beach runs and yoga.

Almost half the coastline of Mafia, about 822km², was gazetted as the first marine park in Tanzania by the Government in 1995. The Mafia Archipelago and the Rufiji Delta form one of the most interesting and diverse marine ecosystems and coral reefs in the world. Both the coastal and marine environments are protected by the presence of this Marine Park. The area has a high biodiversity and is considered an important habitat for endangered species like the dugong and a variety of turtle species. The immensely rich marine life makes for some of the finest snorkelling and diving sites in the Indian Ocean and beds of seagrass and the open waters around the islands support some of the world’s most endangered marine life.

To dive deeper into Sarah’s scuba adventures and all her tips, stay tuned for Part 2 coming next week!

We were lucky to stay in three beautiful places while on Mafia Island and each was unique and special in its own way:

Where to stay

Pole Pole is an exclusive seven bungalow eco-lodge, located inside the Marine Park, where we were pampered by the lovely Paola. Great cuisine, unpretentious and laid-back atmosphere, and warm but discrete hospitality.

Shamba Kilole Lodge is a 6 room eco lodge, on a five hectare plot inside the Marine Park, owned and operated by Marco and Francesca. Marco is known as the island’s most knowledgeable and passionate dive master.

Butiama Beach is probably the best value for money on Mafia. Owned and operated by the indomitable Maura and her husband, Butiama is the perfect place for families—with a seemingly endless expanse of pristine white beach just footsteps from your room.

Mafia Island Diving is run by the highly organised Danielle and multilingual dive master David, and is one of the longest standing dive operators on the Island. They offer scuba certification and both water based and land based activities. /

Feature image by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

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Adventure Travel

Jul 31, 2018

Kayaking’s Elite Return to India at the Malabar River Festival

During the week of July 18th to 22nd, the Malabar River Festival returned to Kerala, India with one of the biggest cash prizes in whitewater kayaking in the world.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

A $20,000 purse attracted some of the world’s best kayakers to the region for an epic week battling it out on some of India’s best whitewater.

The kayaking events at Malabar River Festival were held on the Kuttiyadi River, Chalippuzha River, and the Iruvajippuzha River, in South India on the Malabar Coast. The festival was founded and organized by Manik Taneja and Jacopo Nordera of GoodWave Adventures, the first whitewater kayaking school in South India.

Photo: Akash Sharma

“Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there”

One of the goals of the festival is to promote whitewater kayaking in the state of Kerala and encourage locals to get into the sport. One of the event organizers, Vaijayanthi Bhat, feels that the festival plays a large part in promoting the sport within the community.  “The kayak community is building up through the Malabar Festival. Quite a few people are picking up kayaking… It starts with people watching the event and getting curious.  GoodWave Adventures are teaching the locals.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

Vaijayanthi is not lying when she says the kayak community is starting to build up.  In addition to the pro category, this year’s Malabar Festival hosted an intermediate competition specifically designed for local kayakers. The intermediate competition saw a huge turnout of 22 competitors in the men’s category and 9 competitors in the women’s category. Even the professional kayakers who traveled across the world to compete at the festival were impressed with the talent shown by the local kayakers. Mike Dawson of New Zealand, and the winner of the men’s pro competition had nothing but good things to say about the local kayakers. “I have so much respect for the local kayakers. I was stoked to see huge improvements from these guys since I met them in 2015. It was cool to see them ripping up the rivers and also just trying to hang out and ask as many questions about how to improve their paddling. It was awesome to watch them racing and making it through the rounds. Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

 

“It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake”

Vaijayanthi says the festival has future goals of being named a world championship.  In order to do this, they have to attract world class kayakers to the event.  With names like Dane Jackson, Nouria Newman, Nicole Mansfield, Mike Dawson, and Gerd Serrasolses coming out for the pro competition, it already seems like they are doing a good job of working toward that goal! The pro competition was composed of four different kayaking events- boatercross, freestyle, slalom, and a superfinal race down a technical rapid. “The Finals of the extreme racing held on the Malabar Express was the favourite event for me. It was an epic rapid to race down. 90 seconds of continuous whitewater with a decent flow. It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake.” says Dawson.

Photo: Akash Sharma

The impressive amount of prize money wasn’t the only thing that lured these big name kayakers to Kerala for the festival. Many of the kayakers have stayed in South India after the event ended to explore the rivers in the region. With numerous unexplored jungle rivers, the possibilities for exploratory kayaking are seemingly endless. Dawson knows the exploratory nature of the region well.  “I’ve been to the Malabar River Fest in 2015. I loved it then, and that’s why I’ve been so keen to come back. Kerala is an amazing region for kayaking. In the rainy season there is so much water, and because the state has tons of mountains close to the sea it means that there’s a lot of exploring and sections that are around. It’s a unique kind of paddling, with the rivers taking you through some really jungly inaccessible terrain. Looking forward to coming back to Kerala and also exploring the other regions of India in the future.”

 

For more information on the festival, visit: http://www.malabarfest.com/

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