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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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How-To

Sep 09, 2019

How To Choose A Safe Whitewater Rafting Company

Whitewater rafting is a unique experience in nature, filled with adrenaline and excitement. Recently though, we have been reminded of the real risks involved.

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WRITTEN BY

Benjamin Baber

Last year, headlines from around the world were plagued with tragic river accidents. Four Americans passed away on a rafting trip in Costa Rica. Two Australians passed away in separate kayaking incidents in Nepal. The southeast U.S. alone had four separate whitewater kayaking deaths. And these examples are only a small sample of the river tragedies that occurred in 2018.

While some accidents are unfortunately inevitable, there are many situations where an accident can easily be avoided. Unfortunately, most countries lack standardized rules that you might expect from within the whitewater industry. This is more common in less economically developed countries. However, it’s important to stress this doesn’t mean that all companies in less economically developed countries are unsafe. You just have to set a few basic standards, and know how to pick the best one! No matter where you are in the world, there are a few basic things to look for in a rafting company to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable whitewater experience.

Rafting in Morocco. Photo: Ben Baber

Leader to Participant Ratios

The whitewater industry has general safety standards for guide-to-participant ratios on commercial rafting and kayaking trips.  

A safe industry standard on a fourteen-foot raft is one guide to every six participants. Most companies won’t live up to this standard, but if you want the safest experience – this is it! Ask your company what their leader to participant ratio is! 

It all boils down to this – any raft can flip. When that happens, one guide is expected to rescue the raft, re-flip the raft, then save each participant. If you are one of those participants, do you want to be the sixth person to be rescued or the ninth? The better companies will reduce the number of people in the raft to keep the weight balanced, the trip safe, and to maximize the rafting experience.

Kayaking carries greater risk than rafting simply due to the fact that the participants are in control of their own boat, rather than a trained guide. Instead, the guide is usually in their own kayak telling you how to manoeuvre from a separate craft. Industry standards recommend a ratio of one guide to every four participants for kayaking and canoeing. However, this ratio may decrease and become 1:3 or even 1:2 as the whitewater gets more challenging and consequential.

Read next on TOJ: A veteran river runner turns 70, and heads off into the Peruvian wilderness to raft the Rio Marañón, the headwaters of the Amazon.

Safety Boats

Safety boats are your best friend on the river. If a participant falls from a raft, they run the risk of being swept away by the current. This is when the safety boat shines. It will pluck you out of the water and give you a safe ride back to your raft or shore. It is a recognized industry standard to never have a single-boat trip. If there are only enough customers to fill one boat, then there should always be a safety kayak or safety raft along with the participant-filled raft.

With multiple rafts on the river, there should always be a safety kayak or safety raft to support the trip. This may pose an extra financial burden for the rafting company, but it is a small price to pay to increase participant safety. Problems sometimes arise when companies try to cut corners, perhaps deciding to take a guide off the water and undercut the competition by 5 dollars. If your company doesn’t have a safety craft, find out why.

In some locations, it has become standard for single or half-day trips to not have a safety boat when they have 2 or more full rafts. The theory here is that the other boats on the river will provide safety for one other. This is a debatable standard, but in some locations, you might not be able to find a company that uses safety boats for shorter trips. Certainly for multi-day trips, no matter how many rafts, there should be a safety boat.

Rafting in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

Cut-Off Levels

Every river rises and falls according to snowmelt, rainfall, or changes in upstream dam release. It can happen with the changing of the seasons, or it can happen in ten minutes with changing weather patterns. Companies should have a set cut-off limit for each river they operate on. This cut-off level should be based on their own expert knowledge of that river.

One good way to double-check a company is to find out the cut-off levels for several other companies running that river. Call them up, send them an email, check their website – whatever you need to do to find out. If your company’s level is much higher than the competition’s, ask why! Is it because they have more experienced guides and provide more safety kayakers or rafts? If not, it may be a money-motivated decision that could translate to a dangerous experience for customers.

Equipment

Properly maintained and up-to-date equipment is a vital part of whitewater safety. All participants should wear a Personal Floatation Device (PFD), closed-toed shoes, and a helmet. If the guide hasn’t checked that your equipment is fitted correctly, don’t get on the water.

The shelf-life of most outdoor gear is around 10 years. You can use this as a guideline when deciding which equipment will keep you afloat and keep your head intact.

All PFDs from the United States must be approved by the United States Coast Guard. They will be marked to show they have been through a standardized testing process. You will see this written as “USCG Type V.” Any product from Europe must have a certification “EN ISO 12402-5 / 12402-6.”

Find out more information on IOS standards relating to PFDs here.

For Helmets, look for the CE standard CE EN 1385. This ensures your helmets is suitable for whitewater and has been tested accordingly.

Further reading:

Buying a canoeing & kayaking helmet – what does the CE mark really mean, and Sweet Protections guide to Helmet testing.

Whitewater Kayaking in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

Alcohol

It is forbidden for guides and participants to consume alcohol on the river. Intoxicated participants can pose as much of a threat to the safety of the trip as an intoxicated guide. Take note of the company’s alcohol policy, and if you have any concerns that your guide or another participant may be intoxicated, make sure to raise those concerns.

Qualifications

There are various different qualifications for whitewater guides. From the British Canoe Union, to the American Canoe Association, to Rescue 3 International. The trouble is that certifications cover different skills according to the river and country in which the certification process took place. However, no matter how much the certifications vary, every guide should have a minimum of a swiftwater rescue certificate, a First Aid/CPR certification, as well as some sort of whitewater guide certification and/or in-house whitewater training.  

Conclusion

Whitewater activities are risky. There is no way around it. However, with proper training, skill, equipment, and experience, this risk can be mitigated. Take the time to research the company you go with, and make it a lasting memory for the right reasons.

Rafting in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

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