Sunday, December 30, 2012

Swim with whale sharks

After the first couple of minutes the camera goes underwater - amazing video of a swim with the whalesharks from Ras Mbisi Lodge.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Moving on, fresh starts

This article was published the weekend of Dad funeral, he would have been so so proud to see me 'quoted' in the New York Times. I have not re-produced the photos but can't get rid of the captions - sorry.

Off Tanzania, Serene Mafia Island Brendan Spiegel for The New York Times

Published: January 27, 2012
WHEN seen on arrival by air, Mafia Island doesn’t appear to be much more than a crescent-shaped splash of green off the eastern coast of Africa. Slightly smaller than New York City, the verdant island, 20 miles from mainland Tanzania, is densely covered in coconut trees, with nothing but green flora visible in the interior and just a few intermittent stretches of white sand breaking up the coast.

Map Mafia Island, Tanzania.Related
Travel Guide: Tanzania
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Brendan Spiegel for The New York Times
A local fisherman navigates Chole Bay, popular with divers.
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Brendan Spiegel for The New York Times
Ras Mbisi Lodge, an eco-resort on a remote stretch of the island.
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Brendan Spiegel for The New York Times
Mafia Island, a mostly undeveloped area 20 miles from mainland Tanzania.
Just a half-hour after leaving Dar es Salaam, our shaky 12-seater approached a dirt-and-gravel runway. As we made our descent, a few sparks of civilization flashed into view: a lone wooden dhow patrolled the coastline; a trio of gleeful children pointed up at the plane from the edge of a marshy mangrove; two women wrapped in colorful kangas, traditional African dresses, and headscarves walked by with large clay pots balanced on their heads.

With just a few thousand annual visitors, Mafia Island is hardly a tourist hot spot, and has few of the high-end accouterments that draw hordes of honeymooners to other Indian Ocean isles like the Seychelles, Mauritius and Zanzibar. Over the past decade, though, it has built a small but passionate following among travelers drawn by its simple charms and serene atmosphere. Serene, that is, on land; underwater, a protected marine preserve offers some of the most magnificent diving and snorkeling in the region, perhaps the world: sea turtles, stingrays and the occasional white-tipped reef shark troll these waters nearly year-round.

While few modern travelers know its name, Mafia has drawn international visitors since at least the 11th century, when it served as an important trading base for Shirazi sailors who controlled the region. Later, the island became a hub for the Middle East slave trade, then a military base for German, and eventually British, colonists. (While Italians number high among the expats running lodges on Mafia today, the island’s name has nothing to do with organized crime; it likely derives from the ancient Arabic word for archipelago. For the past century, Mafia and its 40,000 residents have been mostly ignored by the outside world, reached only by slow ferries from Tanzania.

That began to change in 1995, when the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental activists successfully lobbied the Tanzanian government to protect the southern half of the island and the surrounding waters as the Mafia Island Marine Park. The 510-square-mile preserve is home to 400 species of fish and 48 types of corals, as well as giant green sea turtles and at least a few nearly extinct manatee-like dugong.

With fishing and other industry sharply curtailed inside the preserve, Mafia’s rich reefs soon began attracting the attention of divers. After fishermen on the western side of the island discovered that friendly whale sharks liked the plankton-rich waters there, boats taking groups out to swim with the brightly spotted creatures became reason for water-bound visitors to stay longer. Regular air service from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s main point of entry, was added in 2006. The number of lodges and guesthouses on the island has mushroomed from just a handful a few years ago to roughly two dozen today. In 2010 the number of international visitors was up 300 percent from four years earlier, according to local government statistics — although the total number was still a modest 4,100 people.

During a recent visit with my girlfriend, our first stop was the standard tourist pilgrimage to Zanzibar. While I had no complaints about the white sand beaches, ample hammocks and tropical cocktails, I was turned off by the overdeveloped oceanfront and omnipresent beachside hawkers. I craved a more far-flung beach break before returning home, and every time I opened my guidebook my eyes kept floating back to the smaller island south of Zanzibar, about which I knew little.

Three weeks later, after returning to Dar es Salaam, we left for Mafia, where we spent Christmas weekend at Mafia Island Lodge, inside the marine park. The sandy, semicircular strip of beachfront was the perfect antidote to busy Zanzibar. No more than a handful of tourists lounged on the swinging wooden beach beds, and when a group of four of us sailed out on a small dhow to snorkel among schools of zebra fish and bright red corals, we had a prime slice of tropical reef completely to ourselves. Those reefs are in part preserved by a $20 per-person, per-night fee, paid by tourists at the park entrance (U.S. dollars are accepted all over the island). A scattering of budget guesthouses have recently popped up just beyond the park’s boundaries for those wishing to avoid the fee — including an outsize number of genuinely environmentally friendly options.

“Most people who make the effort to come to Mafia are of a particular mindset,” said Michelle Vickers, who was raised in Tanzania and lived in Britain before returning four years ago with her husband, John, to open Ras Mbisi Lodge, an eco-conscious resort on the west side of the island. “They aren’t looking for incredibly high-end luxury. They just want a place to chill out, relax, and not feel that because they’ve chosen to stay somewhere sustainable that it has to be hard work.”

After two days of snorkeling and swimming inside the marine park, I headed off on my own to Ras Mbisi Lodge. Hailing one of a handful of the 4x4 taxis that ply the island’s dirt roads, I reached the thatched-roof compound after a bumpy, 40-minute drive.

There, luxury beachside bandas, or cabins, are built from sustainable, indigenous coconut wood, lighted with biogas-powered electricity and stocked with solar-heated water. The resort blends seamlessly into the coconut groves, with nary another unnatural object visible along the five-mile expanse of beach that fronts the property. On an early evening walk, I shared the entire stretch with just a few others: a fisherman tending to his dugout canoe; two women hunched over in the low tide, digging for clams; and dozens of sand crabs that skittered out of their holes and into the sea.

Though the lodge arranges excursions, including trips out to swim with whale sharks, I chose to spend my time reading alone on the beach with nothing in sight but coconut trees and an endless expanse of aquamarine water. I was happy to be disturbed only when summoned for meals centered around the catch of the day — turmeric-scented, beer-battered squid one evening; hot green chiles atop fresh filets of a local snapper known as chugu the next.

Not everything went smoothly, though nothing was complaint-worthy. A generator that provided electricity failed at one point, but I was able to read via the hand-cranked, battery-free flashlight provided to each room. The solar-powered water supply worked great the first morning, but I made do with a cold shower on the second.

Ras Mbisi isn’t alone among eco-lodges; others take the small-footprint efforts even farther. Manzie Omar Mangochie, the district commissioner of Mafia, said there is a conscious effort by the government to develop the tourism industry without overwhelming the island and its residents.

“We want more development and we want more tourism here, but we don’t want it to turn into another Zanzibar,” he said. “The essence of Mafia isn’t tourism. It is about conservation and minimizing human impact.”

This emphasis on maintaining limits isn’t just talk. There are no big international hotel chains on the island, and most of the lodges have committed to hiring only locals. In 2010, a huge trance music festival that had previously taken place in Greece began to set up an offshoot event here, but island officials quashed the project and tickets had to be refunded.

The big question, of course, is whether Mafia can maintain its laid-back milieu and dedication to conservation if its popularity continues to grow. A tarmac runway that would allow larger planes to land is in the works, as is a jetty that could welcome additional ferry travelers from the mainland.

“Of course there will be more hotels,” Mr. Mangochie said. “More flights means we will need more rooms. But our goal here is to find a balance between welcoming visitors and protecting what we already have.”


Coastal Aviation ( and Tropical Air ( run daily, 30-minute flights between Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Mafia (from $145).

Note that many hotels will quote prices per person, including meals, as there are few restaurants on the island. Most lodges close during the rainy season, April and May. U.S. dollars are accepted.

Ras Mbisi (255-754-663-739; has “luxury bandas” — open-air coconut-wood cabins with queen beds and hot showers. Full board for two, from $330.

Lua Cheia Beach Camp (255-777-424-588; has high-end tent camping along a private beach on the extremely secluded north end of the island. Full board for two, from $250.

Mafia Island Lodge (255-786-303-049; is ideally situated for diving and snorkeling in the rich reefs along Chole Bay. Full board for two, from $220.

A version of this article appeared in print on January 29, 2012, on page TR8 of the New York edition with the headline: A Serene Isle (for Now) Off Tanzania..


A wee bit more self-indulgence

Grief is a truly bizarre thing, they say there are many stages, you may experience all, some or none, so far mine have been numbness, sheer rage, auto-pilot, rage again, and now just constantly wanting to sob. It has taken nearly 2 months for that last stage to appear, mainly because I had to just plain 'get on with stuff' and I suspect partly because I couldn't or didn't want to believe Dad was really gone. The last night before I left the UK I was sat in the living room when I suddenly realised that once I shut the door the next day for the last time, that was it, the last 'link' with him was gone, there was absolutely no chance he was going to walk in the door with a big grin, a bear hug (my dad was the best for hugs) and a cheery 'hello my love'.

I was that nauseating thing, a 'Daddies girl', I can remember being devastated aged 5 when I realised that I couldn't marry my Dad, to me he was perfect, a total prince -even though in later life I had absolute proof that he wasn't, a part of me has never accepted it. Dad and I had much in common, a love of books, the sea, Africa, our careers, which meant we never had a shortage of things to talk about.

He was so sentimental, something that whilst clearing his house (alone, which was hard) I raged about, he had kept every letter ever written to him in his life (something he had in common with his father and grandfather - and he had ALL theirs as well)including all mine from my boarding school years, I have to say I was a far more prolific correspondent than family lore would have it and it was very amusing to read my teenage angst after so many years.

I miss him more than I can say/put into words,

My Dad

(sorry, appalling photo, will change once i scan more of the old pics)
Below I have reproduced the Reading from my darling Dads funeral, please don't feel obliged to read, it's there for those loved ones and friends that for one reason or another couldn't attend.

Richard John Longstaff – known as Richie to loved ones, Dick to friends and colleagues, Daddy to his two children and Babar to his grandchildren.
Richard was born in June 1939 just as the war started, he was very close to his Mother (Sylvia) as, until the end of the war, it was just the two of them living together with his father (Jack) being away in the Army. His first true memory of his father was when he was dragged by his ear by a Constable to face the music after being caught with friends playing on the railway tracks near home in Lilliput. In the spirit of those times he received a hiding, he and his fathers relationship was very much of those authoritarian times until far into his adult years when they became very close, a combination of mutual respect, mellowing of age as well as their shared interests of sailing, golf and a deep love of Africa.
Richards big love was music, first as a choirister at Hustpierpoint School, then Lonnie Donegans form of skiffle, swiftly followed by Rock and Roll, the blues, country music (but not country and western which he considered an abomination), throughout his life he played in bands, even being asked at one point to play for Adam Faith he was never sure if it was actually a good thing he turned the opportunity down. In Malawi he formed one group named ‘The Lilongwe Leftovers’ a reference to the other main band there being a folk band, a form of music he and his fellow musician leftovers refused to play. In Dar es Salaam he and a group of like minded individuals all drawn from one Aid programme or another formed Rockbottom, playing loud Rock and Roll covers for weddings, Yacht Club Balls and parties. His teenage children like most teenagers found it profoundly embarrassing to turn up with friends to parties to find a parent in the limelight, parents should be not be seen or heard! There was no escaping Dick the Riffers electric guitar thrashing out Jumping Jack Flash – his only saving graces being, he was a profoundly talented guitarist, and he tended to stand at the back behind the drummer with the ever present fag hanging out of the corner of his mouth. The band Rockbottom can still be seen playing in Dar, now known as Roots and Rockers with only one original bandmember, Joel Strauss, a close friend and the owner of the most amazing gravel toned singing voice Richard had ever heard.
Richard spent his career in the Civil Service, a large proportion of that time was spent working in Africa a place he loved, for its people, the work that he felt was so important, the opportunity to see animals in their natural habitat, plus of course playing golf and sailing year round. He was deeply saddened that due to ill health he would not be able to see it one last time, although he blamed it on the fact that he didn’t manage to see the snow capped peak of Kilimanjaro as he flew out for the last time from Tanzania in 2007 having visited his daughter and her family in Mafia Island. Richard loved his work, he was very proud to have been involved with the work on the Uganda Emergency and the aftermath and clearing up of the Falkland War, he credited both as the reasons he was selected for postings to Malawi and Tanzania. He was not so pleased towards the end of his career that his beloved ODA became in his words ‘the bloody Welsh office’ a reference to the fact that the acronym DFID when pronounced as a word sounded like a welsh county. Due to his love of English Rugby, Wales was simply beyond the pale.

Richard was very close to his grand-daughters, Maddie and Scarlet due to having lived with his daughter and her family for the first two years after he retired. On his first seeing Maddie several hours after her birth he was very emotional due to her being the first born of his first born. Sadly he only spent the first month of Georgias life with her as she left the UK at that point and has yet to re-visit the country of her birth. His grand-daughters lived in hysterical dread of ‘Mr Hand-fly’ Richard would waggle his hands which to them then became separate to their beloved Babar and became a tickle machine. His God son Harvey knew him as Mr Tickle – he always found the spot you were most ticklish and exploited it mercilessly.

Richard was a life long Man United fan, never happier than when taunting his son in law Jon about the misfortunes of Blackburn Rovers in relation to the giddy heights of the top of the Premiership table where his beloved team spent so much time.
He had an enormous capacity for friendship, never a fair weather friend he could be relied on for loyalty and support in the bad times as well as being a fun loving party animal during the good ones.
As you entered here today you will have heard Dick the Riffer and his band Rockbottom playing, please remember him with joy not sadness.

Normal service??

Hmm, well despite the promises I didn’t manage to start posting regularly again. The last few months have been a whirlwind of activity both with the lodge, my digital media business and personal ‘stuff’. Not to mention good old Vodacoms total absense of service for weeks at a time!!

November – saw me flying to London for the World Travel , hectic but ultimately fruitful, also managed to catch up with friends and family and shop for the girls Christmas pressies – I did well this time round, only 2 suitcases.

December was obviously full on with a Christmas and New Year full house and lodge, trying to keep both the kids and the guests happy is an annual challenge.

January, January was hard, I received the news that my beloved Dad had passed away, he had been low level ill for much of my life, but it had accelerated in the last 5 years, when I saw him in November it was obvious that he was really very ill. I spoke to him at New Year and he sounded very positive and more like his old self and we were all looking forward to seeing him in April, sadly he died just a couple of days after our conversation, there are really no words to explain how lost I feel without him, it took a number of weeks of being in his house and sorting and decorating it ready for sale before I really took on board that he wasn’t going to walk in the door with a cheery ‘Hello my love’. Grief really is a bizarre thing, I spent a lot of my time in the UK just raging – at him for the state he’d left things in, at myself and the world, I mean I cried the night I heard and at the funeral, but other than that I was numb, on auto-pilot and angry. But, the tears have come, and they show no sign of stopping now.

You may wish to skip the next post which will be a tribute to my lovely Dad, normal service to be resumed shortly.