The high intensity of the green that shrouded the island transitioned to an earth brown. What we were now standing in looked similar to a zoo, with a palisade (wall of vertical sticks), the surrounding trees, and designated walkways railed by larger pieces of crossed wood. There were a few small thatched roof structures, but otherwise, it was open space.
Only because of their size, and not because of any rash movements, would you have noticed the inhabitants. Virtually perfectly camouflaged within their environment were the largest tortoises I had ever seen. From a distance, you couldn’t even see the numbers painted on their shell in blue, which marked their age (the oldest being close to 200 years of age). People and tortoise alike could freely roam. I personally had not seen as many as this in one enclosure. I found it all to be quite spectacular.
We were told that we could touch them as well as feed them branches that were available at the gate. Feeding them proved to be a fruitless act because we must have just missed the feeding time. Scads of fresh greens were already at the feet of most. Either way, I was going to try, but it still felt pretty silly trying to force-feed an animal that was literally standing in a pile of food. This wouldn’t be any different than someone trying to make me take a bite of a hamburger when I am seated at a plated 5-course meal. Eventually I had a taker, hesitant, but nonetheless the branch I offered was nibbled. What gentle giants they were. Another guide on site informed us that they like their necks scratched and rubbed. And sure enough they do. I watched one person do just that, and the tortoise's neck stretched with delight, while simultaneously his legs raised its shell and body like a slow elevator high off the ground.
Sherif recommenced the tour. There were other things to see on the island, and we said goodbye to the tortoises. On the way out, we passed a structure that housed the newest of the Testudinidae family. They looked minuscule in comparison. No different than anyone you might see crawling along in the grass of your front yard. The door was secured with a padlock, possibly to prevent people from going home with living souvenirs, because I don’t think there was any real concern about them finding a way out on their own. Our group meandered by ones and twos along the path as we followed Sherif and each other. Between the entrance and the ocean, we passed several large buildings and courtyards. I do recall seeing a chalkboard menu at the entrance. I am not sure exactly what the buildings function as now. They were all unique and beautiful in their own right, with iron gates, vividly painted accents, and arched doorways.
We walked until we could walk no more. This dead end path took us to a set of steps, dropping down through a walled doorway. With no railing, from far away, the steps were invisible. Immediately beyond the open iron door was the narrow perch, and an infinite view of the clearest, bluest, turquoise water imaginable. How could a place this magnificent have been the site of such horror that is slavery? Not to mention that the notion of, “rebellious slaves,” is an oxymoron. Standing in a place that marked the end of someone’s civil freedoms is a hard pill to swallow. I would assume that this landing might have been used as an entry and exit point for people by way of a large ship. There was something eerie about standing in that same place.
Time had run short. We needed to move on, and start heading back. When our feet hit the beach, Sherif allowed us some free time to putz around before we boarded the boat. Most of us casually meandered about the sand to investigate. Another travel mate, who was properly harnessed with a real camera, explored the walkway. At that precise moment, I thought about my grandmother Frances, whom I have been told wanted to put her feet in every body of water possible. Apparently, that was her goal for many coastal trips. I submerged myself into the present, and walked purposefully into the Indian Ocean. I stood there in silence, with a wash of memories pulling at my heart with the force of the tide, and here I was clear across the world...I was here at that instant because of her, and her wandering spirit that I will forever hold in my heart. The moment passed, and I was fully aware again. I looked at my feet and noticed the shells, deciding to pick one up. It was a gem of a shell, and the plan was to take it back. But for some reason, I was hesitant after trying to remember if taking shells was a cause of bad luck. I don’t know why I was struggling with this because I have an entire gallon glass jar filled with collected shells. I was mistakenly cross-referencing my, “leave things in the parks legend or ye shall be cursed,” with beachcombing. I blame it on the exotic location. To me, this place wasn’t just a regular beach. Something was spiritual about this water. I was prepared to place the shell back on the sand just in case, but I changed my mind when several other travel mates had some in their hands too. If there was going to be any, “bad macumba,” as my father calls it, we would all be damned.
Spice tour, large lunch, and an island excursion had wound us down. It had already been quite the day. We boarded the boat to return to Stone Town. The 30+ minute trip was not as smooth as the way out. There were choppier waves to face. We docked at the other edge of Forodhani Gardens, on the side at the sea walk, where people gather along the stone edge. Keeping the boat still enough for us to make the steps proved to be a bit of a task, because the timing of stepping off while the boat rocked was problematic. Some of the locals tried to assist in steadying the boat, along with our footing. Unfortunately, one of our real camera travel mate was a casualty, and injured her foot in dismount.
Next we stopped at the Old Forte (Arab Forte), which was close to our hotel, and a place that so far, we had only passed from the outside. The name is exactly what it is, a fortification, facing the waterfront. It is recorded as the oldest building in Stone Town. According to the Zanzibar Travel Guide, “It was built between 1698 and 1701 by the Busaidi group of Omani Arabs, who had gained control of Zanzibar in 1698, following almost two centuries of Portuguese occupation. The fort was used as a defense against the Portuguese and against a rival Omani group, the Mazrui, who occupied Mombasa at that time.” As you can see, the history in Zanzibar, specifically in Stone Town, is deep and rich; I dare not try to explain it in my own words. You would need an FBI whiteboard to keep track of who took what from who and when.