African Potpourri: Dar Es Salaam

Tanzania’s largest city is the gateway to numerous spots of natural beauty, from Zanzibar to Kilimanjaro.

Dar Es Salaam, Gate of Tranquility… Once a small fishing village but Tanzania’s biggest city today, Dar Es Salaam more than deserves its name. Surrounded by Africa on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other, you can be left wondering whether to go to Zanzibar or the Serengeti.
As your plane descends to land in the morning light, a magnificent landscape of small peninsulas and dazzling white sands greets you from the air.

Go to the top of one of the skyscrapers before strolling around the city and you will hear it whispering to you, inviting you to explore its beauty. In the gift shops, dozens of colorful seashells - no two alike with their amazing shapes - will appear to you as one of the ocean’s most wondrous gifts to man. And when the traffic congestion that reigns supreme in the city morphs into splendid placidity on the ocean shore, you will feel it is a boon specially for you.

In this country, where the sun rises at six in the morning and sets at six in the evening, greeting the day at the seashore with people singing songs to the rising sun is a feeling like nothing else. The fish market, a hive of activity in the early morning hours when the people living on the tiny islands in the ocean bring their catch to the city, is one of Dar Es Salaam’s must-sees. Hundreds of people attend the fish auctions held several times a day at this market where tons of fish are received daily. What’s more, you need not remain a mere spectator because you can sample the tasty frutti di mare at kitchens set up right next to the market. Lobsters by the kilo, myriad varieties of octopus, and giant prawns weighing up to half a kilo can turn a whirl around Dar Es Salaam into a veritable feast for seafood lovers. And as the day advances and the amount of fish arriving from the villages thins out, watching dozens of people bargain good-naturedly for the two kilos of fish that are left is a rare treat.

Another must-see sight in Dar Es Salaam is the museum of natural history, which is chock full of artifacts showing how important a place Africa occupies in the history of mankind. The most interesting among them is a human footprint said to be approximately three and a half million years old. The museum offers eminently satisfying visuals for those who would like to understand more about how Tanzania developed and the periods through which it passed.

Those interested in savoring not only history but the last drops of summer should definitely  give Dar Es Salaam’s beaches a try. Another alternative is a trip to the many islands large and small that lie off the coast. Devoid of all settlement, Bogoya Island, in particular, is an excellent choice. You can bask on the beach during the daytime and take a pleasant stroll at sunset.

Dar Es Salaam is Tanzania’s gateway to other exotic beauty as well. Serengeti National Park, for example, where wildlife continues to thrive, albeit under protection, and the Ngorongoro protected area, which is on Unesco’s World Heritage list. Joining tours to these areas will give you a glimpse, up-close if brief, at how wildlife lives. Another possibility is to visit Kilimanjaro, in whose shadow Hemingway found peace. Although its fabled snowcap has begun to melt of late, this enigmatic mountain still has the power to impress.

It’s time now to move on from Dar Es Salaam to another beauty spot, Zanzibar. The pleasure begins with the boat ride to this exotic island. During the crossing, which takes two hours, tiny sailboats unique to the country will glide past you in a mystical procession.  When you reach the island you will be struck by the all-pervasive calm which is the exact antithesis of Dar Es Salaam’s chaotic bustle. The mysterious image of the house where the electricity brought to the island by the British was first used is a sight to behold. Immediately next to this strange looking house, the castle built to fend off Portuguese attacks and the cannon balls on the square in front of it throw light on Zanzibar’s history.

The food court set up in a square near the ferry landing is popular with tourists seeking the pleasures of the palate on Zanzibar nights. You can sample here the cooked versions of literally hundreds of varieties of seafood. A stroll through the streets around this tiny square, which is rather quiet even by day, will take you to the sophisticated products of wood carving unique to this island, the doors and window frames of whose houses are densely covered in patterns and decorations. Meanwhile a smaller island only 20 minutes by boat from the Zanzibar capital will greet you with hundred-year-old turtles and peacocks by the dozens. Noteworthy here are the reed houses built on rocks shaped by the waves that pound this island, which takes its name from the turtles that live on it.

Zanzibar is also known as the ‘spice island’ for its hundreds of acres of spice gardens. As you wander through them, you can observe in their natural state all the dozens of spices you’ve seen on herbalists’ shelves all your life in either dried or ground form: Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, turmeric, cocoa, coffee, vanilla. During this tour, which will frequently leave you awestruck, you learn that what we call menthol is obtained from the capillary roots of a tree and that lemon-scented cologne is actually made of the juice squeezed from an herb. The island of Zanzibar is a thin strip of land extending along a north-south axis. As you go towards the south of the island, you may encounter monkeys in the forests that line the main highway, or stroll on the narrow paths that crisscross these still virgin tracts.

Well worth seeing, the rare forests that cover this part of the island are nourished solely by the ocean waters, which rise and fall with the tides. You can also observe dolphins in their natural habitat by taking a boat from one of the villages on the south of the island. If it’s peace of mind you seek, far from the madding crowd, you should see the endless white sugar sands on the north of the island and the palm trees waving at the waves. But the ocean’s greatest gift to the islanders are the giant waves that break some 400-500 meters off shore. The strong tides in this region make it possible to walk all the way out to the ocean reefs.  Even when the waters are high, the crash of the waves comes from meters away, and the seaweed and sea urchins left behind in the little pools that form when the tide recedes behind the reefs are an important source of nutrition for the islanders.

Romping over ocean sands like as fine as, white table salt, little black children will surround you and call out, “Mzungu Mzungu!” (their word for the white man), engraving themselves in your memory forever. So, if you want to do yourself a big favor, pack your bag and head for the island. Rise with the sun and take a long walk on the white sand beach. Gaze on a distant scene of fishing boats quietly setting out to sea and the unmatched beauty of palm trees waving at the ocean across the sands. Sip the milk of coconuts, nourished by the ocean’s salty waters and picked by children who sing as they shimmy up the tree trunks.
If you want to experience Africa’s peace and chaos and its unparalleled beauty, Dar Es Salaam is your gateway. And it’s open wide…

Turkish Airlines has scheduled flights from Istanbul to Dar Es Salaam and back three days a week. Departure times from Istanbul are at 12:30 a.m. and returns at 7:45 p.m. for the flights, which are on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Although there are accommodation alternatives in Tanzania’s historic city of Dar Es Salaam, the island of Zanzibar is the place of choice for lodging. Famous for its touristic richness, the island also boasts five-star hotels.

You can find a variety of exotic fruits like you’ve never seen in your life in Tanzania, which is rich in tropical species. The area is also extremely rich in fish and giant prawns.