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DAR ES SALLAM, TANZANIA – If this city’s notorious traffic jams are feeling forgiving, it takes just 45 minutes to travel from the bustle of Tanzania’s largest city to tropical island paradise. It’s called Mbudya Island, and it’s a destination most travellers see for only the briefest of moments as they take the requisite ferry trip from Dar to Zanzibar.
But for those of us living in Dar es Salaam, Mbudya Island is the best day trip out there. It’s also a necessary one – a welcome opportunity to escape life in the big city, which can be exhausting, oppressively hot and manically busy.
Dar es Salaam sprawls up the coast of the Indian Ocean, meaning it’s possible to see and smell the sea from most of the city. Swimming is a questionable activity. The seafront within the city is polluted by garbage and sewage. The tourist beach resorts north of the city are cleaner, though the shallow ocean evokes thoughts of tepid bath water. Most travellers stick to the pools and reclining chairs provided by their hotel, swimming laps in a chlorine tank with the ocean just 50 metres away.
Mbudya Island is the perfect trip for locals and visitors alike. My first trip to Mbudya was a few weeks after I arrived in Dar es Salaam. I was still adjusting to the heat and humidity, sweating through three shirts a day and napping incessantly. I was desperate to get in the water, and the constant coastline provided more tease than relief.
That weekend, a few friends and I piled into a taxi in the city centre, where I live. I had suggested we spend the day on Mbudya Island, and I was anxious and nervous for my recommended destination to be a hit.
The trip to Mbudya starts in a narrow 15-seater motorboat that departs from Water World, a slightly dilapidated water park next to the stretch of pristine tourist hotels. I’d be lying if I said I liked boats. Ever one to get seasick, I focused on the horizon: an abandoned shipwreck rotting on the shores of Dar’s Kunduchi region, the distant outline of the Twiga Cement factory that inspired Roald Dahl to write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Our boat slammed along the waves, leaving speckles of salty seawater on my lips and face.
It took about 20 minutes for the boat to reach Mbudya Island. My first view was an exercise in hyperboles: the most turquoise of water, the whitest of sand, the most spectacular of screensaver views. Just stepping off the boat made me giddy with excitement. Unlike in mainland Dar, the water off Mbudya was cold and refreshing. Sinking my toes into the soft sand, I ran to arrange my belongings under a beach banda, a small hut made of coconut wood and palm leaves.
Within minutes I was bobbing happily in the water, floating on my back like a starfish. The saltwater content was so high that no effort was required to stay afloat. I consciously had to remind myself not to fall asleep. With my ears under the water I could no longer hear the chattering from the beach or the occasional rumble of a motorboat engine. The sea gurgled like a hypnotizing rain stick.
Midway through the day we decided to explore. We had spotted a small path earlier, and now we allowed the sharp coral trail to twist us around the island. We weren’t sure where we were going or how long we’d be gone. Stupidly none of us thought to bring water. But we trusted our instincts: why would there be a hiking path on a tropical island unless it led somewhere good?
About 30 minutes in we began to hear the ocean lapping the shore. My friend and I picked up the pace, darting up one last rocky patch and down a dune onto a pristine strip of isolated beach.
There was nothing as far as the eye could see, and the ocean met the sky in an undisturbed aquamarine line. We had no other choice: it was time to skinny dip.@ Draping our swimsuits haphazardly along the beach, three of us ran in, pasty butts and farmer’s tans glowing in the midday sun. Swimsuits back on, we lay in the surf of the shore, feeling the cool water rush in, over us, around us. It was an unforgettable moment.
We returned to the main beach famished and incredibly dehydrated. Luckily Mbudya Island had us covered. At a bar banda you can find ample bottles of Kilimanjaro beer and Savanna cider baridi (cold). In the hut next door, fish are grilled in their entirety and assembled on a plate with fries, a wedge of green lemon, and a tiny pile of salt. Settling back under our banda, I knew it was probably the freshest fish and chips I’d ever eat.
The last boat back to the mainland leaves just as the day is turning to dusk. It sputtered back through the ocean, stopping about 400 metres out from the shore. I was certain we had broken down and was Zen in the concept of swimming back to the beach. The man operating the rudder jumped out, and I held my breath waiting for him to submerge. The water reached his waist.
Even the most precise of boat schedules are no match for the ebb and flow of the tide. In that moment, it was out, and we walked back to the main road, which would carry us south to our homes in the city. The sunset reflected in the pools left by the receding ocean. The water was hot in my sandals. Mbudya Island sat in the distance, so close, but seemingly a world away.
I was there for just a day, but it felt as though I spent a lot longer, recharging from the buzz of the city.