Stone Town - Feature

Lost in Stone Town

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Words by Pete Heck / Photography by Pete Heck

Many thanks to our tour mate Lucy, who after having read previous reviews of our Intrepid Travel tour, suggested that we skip the one night stay in Dar Es Salem and head straight for Zanzibar. The stay in Tanzania’s capital was only meant to break up one very long travel day, but in reality it didn’t make that much of a difference. It was a unanimous decision among our entire group, wooed by white sand and a relaxing end to our hecktic trip, to rise a little earlier and do it all in one shot. And so we landed in Stone Town with a little extra time to spare.


It was early morning and already hot. With Dalene still lounging in bed, I quickly downed my coffee and was ready to take advantage of the golden light. The sun had already started to bake the deteriorating buildings and the rays were sneaking their way down the narrow winding streets. Kathy, another member of our tour, joined me to capture early morning Stone Town life.We stepped out from the hotel into the street and made our first random choice between left or right. This would be a common theme along our morning walk through the seemingly endless winding streets lined with locals shops, homes and cafes.

The locals were celebrating the first day of Ramadan. Curtains were drawn in the restaurants catering to the tourists, being ever so careful not to offend anyone who was sacrificing for the month. A call to prayer echoed down the street from the nearby mosque. Kathy mentioned to me that she got a dirty look from a woman in a shop for the small slit in her ground length skirt. A couple of children curiously wandered up and wondered why I was taking a photograph of their father’s coconuts laid out for sale on the street. I proudly showed them my photo and smiles lit up their faces. In turn they asked us to take a photograph of them to which we gladly obliged.

A motorbike whipped past and almost knocked us over. By that point, we truly had no idea where we were.We were caught up in details of the historic city. This once bustling trading centre, originally under the control of Oman, has a number of visible influences throughout the old part of the city. Its name comes from the fact that buildings in the old quarter are made from coral taken from the sea. The result is that over 75% of the buildings are in a state of deterioration, with much rubble remaining exactly where it fell. We saw bits and pieces of coral being used as goal posts on an impromptu football pitch in a courtyard.

We came across a woman out for her morning walk with chickens being lead by homemade plastic leashes. I asked if I could capture the moment, but she wanted nothing to do with being in the frame. Instead she offered her fowl up as models. I gladly accepted her offer and caught her snickering in my peripheral view.

It was a couple of hours in which we wandered through the maze of Stone Town, reflecting on the many influences throughout. From the rounded top Indian doors and the traditional rectangular Arabic door frames, to the intricate carvings on the doors signifying either religious or symbolic beliefs. We snuck peeks past the doors as the city began to wake up.

It all became a blur in that short while. Our senses were over stimulated and we lost track of time and direction. Coming to a crossroads we asked a local which way it was back to our hotel. He urged us to follow him but we refused. We wanted to take our time during our return and I also didn’t believe he was steering us in the right direction. I suspected he wanted to bring us to his shop.After some time and several wrong turns, we finally made it back. Near our hotel, two small girls shyly emerged from their parent’s shop. When they returned my smile, they also asked for me to take a photo. It was my last (and most memorable) shot of the day.

Turns out that the local was right, by the way, and I felt embarrassed for my earlier suspicion. He definitely would have gotten us back to our hotel in less time.

But then I also would have missed this moment.

how to do it

We really were very grateful for this extra time in Stone Town on our Road to Zanzibar tour, and were happy that our group leaders were flexible to make that change!For more thoughts on this tour, check out our post on all of Tanzania, as well as our safaris through the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti.

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  1. Absolutely stunning shots, per usual. Love the variety in the doors from colours to textures to symbols.

    I completely agree, if you only have a limited amount of time in a place, wander, get lost, explore. It often makes for a much more memorable trip. When my husband and I were in Bangkok in January, we were completely burnt out from seeing the sights. Instead we took the long (LONG!) way back to our hotel through back streets and markets. It turned out to be the best part of our four days in Bangkok and led to the best photos.

    Great post, Pete.

  2. Good decision to skip Dar and just go straight to Zanzibar. We made the same decision when flying from Zambia – even though it too was a VERY long flying day (arrived about 3:00am in Stone Town). Your photos are absolutely exquisite! Especially the ones of the Zanzibari doors. We stayed for 4 nights in Stone Town in a restored boutique palace-hotel (absolutely recommended!) before a long stretch of beach time, and our travel article on “Nine Unforgettable Moments in Zanzibar” was published in Canada’s national Globe & Mail newspaper – forgive the shameful self-promotion please :-). We also have a few Zanzibar posts on our blog and one on “Stone Town, Zanzibar: Haunting slave markets and palaces” if you’re interested… Looking forward to more of your Zanzibar posts!

  3. Amazing photos! Love the moment you captured with the chickens – their little leashes are too funny.You guys are in a corner of the world that I’m not totally itching to travel, but I’m really enjoying reading your account of it.

  4. Great story Pete. I love the little details you added as well as the random photos of doorknobs and such. That last shot of the girls is precious. They are so adorable.

  5. Oooo, this is probably one of my favorite sets of photos of yours, Pete! The details really tell the story of the place – and I love all those details from the doors!

  6. What a gorgeous post. I feel as though I’m right there with you.

    Refusing help from strangers comes naturally to us, too. I remember our first day in Morocco, which was also our first trip outside Europe or North America, my husband and I were dropped off by a cab and left to wander the narrow alleyways in search of the Dar we had booked for the night. With no street names and no map of the area, we had no way of finding our way.

    We stopped at a little hole in the wall vendor selling water, bought some water and asked for directions. Three young boys overheard us and insisted that we follow them. We wanted nothing to do with them and tried to shake them as we stopped and asked more “trustworthy” people to point us in the right direction.

    The boys stuck with us and eventually led us right to the door of our Dar, which we never would have found on our own. Then they scattered far too quickly for us to even think of giving them anything for their trouble.

    They had only been trying to help and I’m sure they thought we were completely insane for refusing!


  7. I like the initial photos where everyone is swimming, not sure why. Everyone seems happy and playing, I suppose.

    Looks like a neat place to visit 🙂

  8. Hello Pete,
    I too am a photography nerd and enjoy taking pictures of things in twilight and early in the morning. Your blog and the pictures you have taken speak so much about your style and work that I had a great time going through it. Keep up with the wonderful work.

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