With my daughter’s tenth birthday on the horizon, I set my heart on an exotic Zanzibar ‘seafari’ for just the two of us. When my son turned ten, I took him to Kenya for a truly African safari adventure full of the things that boys dream of – towering Maasai warriors, roaring lions, stampeding wildebeest and so many zebras they made us dizzy!
Both of these trips provided me with an unmissable opportunity to deepen and solidify our bond before the teen years hit. My hope was that by connecting with them in the limbo between being a little child and an independent teenager, and in such a focused, one-one-one way, they’d experience the connection as almost an ‘anchoring’, returning again to us during the inevitable storms of exams, peer pressure, crushes and digital disconnection.
This is especially helpful for multi-sibling families, where individual focus and quality time can be centred on just the one child, making them feel special in their own right. It’s definitely not your typical family vacation where your brother’s pulling your hair and you’re trying to compete for space or airtime.
Below follows Ruby’s own version about her Zanzibar island escape. It truy was the unforgettable rite of passage I’d hoped for – and more.
Ever since my brother’s trip to Kenya for his tenth birthday, I’d been itching with daydreamy curiosity about where my mom would take me for my tenth birthday. So when she told me we’d be celebrating the ‘First Ruby Decade’ in (OMW…) Zanzibar, I was actually speechless! At school the next day, my friends were just as gobsmacked as I was – though one friend had a rather unusual travel tip I wasn’t expecting: “Ruby, you have to eat a red banana when you get to Zanzibar!” Seriously?
We flew via Nairobi onto Zanzibar. Piling into our taxi, I couldn’t wait beyond a polite minute or two before asking our friendly driver (as unimpatiently as possible) where I could get a red banana.
“Because it’s your birthday, I’ll get you your red banana, little miss,” he winked. He pulled over next to one of the colourful roadside stalls and convinced the fruitseller to part with just one red banana instead of an entire bunch. How did it taste? My mom thinks it tasted exactly the same as a normal yellow banana – but I am absolutely convinced it was yummier! It tasted of adventure and spices – whereas our yellow bananas back home tasted like… school.
From Stonetown to Prison Island
Stonetown is such an ordinary name for a magical place filled with amazing carved doors, fragrant breezes of sweet, spicy cinnamon and the promise of seeing Prison Island‘s huge turtles! As for the colours… The beach sand was the softest, warmest white – and calling the ocean ‘turquoise’ would be an understatement. Spotting a starfish was just the first in a whole holiday of seaside discoveries! The weather is perfect – not too hot, not too windy. Goldilocks weather! (My mom said the temperature was between 25 to 28 degrees.)
Hopping into a very simple little boat, warm seawater swirling around our bare feet, we cruised over to Prison Island – just the two of us and our guide – under the makeshift shade of a recycled old canvas advert that had seen better days.
Strangely (and thankfully) the prison after which the island was named, never actually housed prisoners and was instead turned into a lodge and restaurant, with an incredible sanctuary for turtles bigger than my wildest imagination! The guide told us that the new hatchlings are separated from the huge, heavy adult turtles. And guess what? I got to feed them! I made sure each and every turtle didn’t go hungry that afternoon and was super chuffed to feel part of the island’s hard conservation work. My mom seemed as fascinated and proud watching me feed the turtles as I was feeding them. #MomsBeMoms
From Prison Island, we headed to our first lodge called Baraza which means ‘chamber’ in Swahili. The awesome staff told us that when the tide goes out we would be able to walk far out in the knee-high, warm, gentle waves. Of course, we decided to do it immediately, kicking off our sandals and wondering what on earth we’d find in the shallows!
A very friendly local man approached us when we were already quite far out, doing his polite best to sell us his touristy wares which ranged from beautiful seashells to sailing, fishing and scuba diving trips. My mom gave off her firmest ‘not buying’ vibes and so, instead he took it upon himself to totally WOW and educate us about the fascinating, freaky and sometimes downright frightening sea life around us. His knowledge was amazing! He’d bend down to carefully pick up a spiky sea urchin, bristling with pretty purple spines, convincing me to hold it in my own hands. He also gave me a huge sea worm which really freaked my usually unfreak-outable mom out. She thought they looked way too much like snakes, lurking on the sandy bottom. For me, it was the sea spider and her hundreds of tiny, creepy babies floating all around her that was just a bit too much. It’s one thing in a National Geographic magazine and another thing completely in real!
Let me paint you a picture about beautiful Baraza. It was the exquisite epitome of exotic! Ornate (that’s a word my mom used a lot in Zanzibar) wood carvings and rich, shimmering fabrics made me feel like I was visiting an actual Arabian palace! My favourite spot to chillax like a Persian princess was a totes gorgeous daybed with a daydreamy canopy – and the perfect place for a catch-up nap before my big turning-ten day tomorrow.
It’s my birthday – and what a birthday it turned out to be!
Can you guess where in Zanzibar an awesome mom like mine would take her daughter for the most unforgettable birthday lunch? Only to the most famous restaurant in Zanzibar! I secretly wished the tide wouldn’t be out because I so badly wanted another exciting boat ride rather than walking to The Rock from the beach. Birthday wish granted!
When the kind old ‘captain’ of the little putt-putt boat stopped next to the stone stairs leading up to the restaurant, I swear my jaw dropped open in awe as a towering warrior prince (that’s what he looked like to me!) dressed in blood-red cloth and absolutely WOW beadwork, smiled down at us, holding out his hand like an old-fashioned gentleman to help us out of the boat and up the stairs. Like something from a movie!
Once we got to the top of the stairs, I realised why The Rock was so famous! It has the most unbelievably, beautifully breathtaking views of a fairytale-blue ocean, fluffy clouds playing tag across the sunniest sky! And this is exactly why we chose the gorgeous outside lounge for our celebratory and delish mocktails. After an adventurous lunch of octopus, The Rock‘s owner arrived beside our table, with a super special bracelet for my birthday! How cool is that?
Birthday Surprise #2: A super-duper snorkel lesson from Mom
To add even more amazingness to my already incredible birthday, my mom taught me to snorkel! She says I’m a ‘fish’ because I love swimming so much – but I was actually quite nervous about jumping straight off a boat into the wide open sea. As always, my mom knew how to coax me into trying something outside of my comfort zone – and seeing the most mindblowingly stunning fish in the crystal clear water was just the hook for this fish! Needless to say, my mom couldn’t get me out of my new happy place!
Popping in at Pongwe
Our next stop was a place called Pongwe Beach Lodge. Compared to Baraza which is quite shi-shi and fancy pants, it’s more chilled and a bit smaller. The people at Pongwe were awesome: helpful, kind and they really cared about us. Mom said, and I have to agree, it was Pongwe’s ‘people factor’ that made our stay with them so special. One of the things I’ll never forget is how they scattered rose petals across my bed, where a precious little birthday gift and a handwritten note lay waiting for me. (Wish I could turn ten every year!)
The next day, I spotted a group of guests watching one of the local staff members climb a coconut tree like it was an Olympic sport and he was the worldwide champion! He made it look so easy – but trust me: it’s better to watch and be amazed than try climb and get grazed! (Ouch!)
He brought down a fresh coconut for us and sliced it open so we could taste the coconut water inside. Not something I’d really rave about but well worth being able to tick it off my list 😉
One of our other fave things at Pongwe were the shady hammocks between the trees. While my mom was in full relax-mode in her hammock, lost in a new novel, feet resting up against the trunk, a passing guest commented: ‘Wow! You look very comfortable!’ My mom responded with, ‘Buddy, if I was any more relaxed I’d stop breathing. This is the most relaxed I’ve been since I was born!’
M is for Mnemba!
Now this island should be on every girl’s wishlist! Our gorgeous chalet was the only one where the sunrise and the sunset could be seen. It also meant we had the longest walk but it was totally worth it! It was like stepping straight into a Nature Channel documentary and we stopped along the way to enjoy the view, discovering beautifully unusual shells I’d never seen before and being distracted by a troupe of helter-skelter crabs. When we arrived at our chalet, we washed our shell treasures in the bowl of fresh water actually meant for washing the sand off our feet. It’s all about priorities, right?
Right at our front door, a little wooden carving of a turtle watched over a sign which read: ‘Can we wake you up at 3 o’clock in the morning when the mama turtle is going to lay her eggs?’ Who could refuse?! An important turtle fact is that the female turtles always return to the same island to lay their eggs! We were so inspired by how andBeyond Mnemba Island goes above andBeyond to protect and care for these precious creatures.
I loved that our windows had no glass! Like a glam version of Robinson Crusoe. One window even had a beautifully carved wooden frame hanging inside it. Perfect for selfies? You guessed it! At night, we rolled down the amazing blinds made from banana leaves.
At this point, I didn’t think my birthday holiday could get any better. So when we got the news about the turtle hatchlings, I wasn’t sure if I should:
a) squeal in glee
b) hug my mom very tight or
c) jump up and down.
I think I did all three at once?! You’ll have to ask my mom!
With the turtle hatchlings being released that very night, we all had to meet at the designated spot at 6 o’clock promptly. I could barely manage to sit through the grown-ups canapes-and-champagning with all those tiny little turtles waiting for us!
We watched in awe as the carefully protected nests were gently opened up and all the little hatchlings started waking each other up, jostling to get out of the nest and across the sand to the sea. It’s like they were testing out their flippers’ superpowers, seeing which brother or sister could reach the waves first! It was our job to give them safe passage to the ocean’s edge, protecting them from scavenging crabs and hungry sea-gulls. (I felt a bit like Moana!) It only took about an hour for the entire tribe of 85 turtles to reach their destiny. What an honour to have been part of this miracle!
This really was such a rare and precious privilege for Mom and I. It’s not something she could plan like her clients’ organised itineraries from New York to Nairobi. It’s very unpredictable and her timing couldn’t have been more magical! She called this a ‘pinch me’ moment – like standing awe-struck before the Egyptian pyramids or the spectacular Sistine Chapel. It’s really like we became members of The Rare Wonders Secret Society. ‘Special’ doesn’t even begin to describe it…
After my Moana job was done, we arrived on the beach as the sun swam away into the indigo night, lanterns glowing gold on the dinner table they’d laid for us right there on the beach, the sand still deliciously warm between our toes. The chefs made me the yummiest pizzas and burgers – and my mom raved about how they created the most exquisitely fresh seafood dishes, with the local fisherman arriving each day with their catches.
Yet another birthday surprise awaited me the next day: sailing right around the island in a dhow, the warm salty water splashing over us as we shrieked in wild delight! When we got back home to South Africa, I overheard my mom telling my dad that it was the most carefree and happy she’d ever seen me. #WotAMomIGot
Want to know what my dad’s comment was after he smiled proudly back at her? (I could feel him smiling all the way from the lounge!)
He said: “I’m turning ten next year. And I want to go to the Okavango Delta!” #WatchThisSpace