The Island

Laura Thubron
May 15, 2020
Island Sketches - Songosongo Port

It was May 2017 and we were making our way towards a tiny island in the Songosongo archipelago of Tanzania. We were sailing the Southern reaches of the Swahili Coast, not far from the Mozambican boarder. The island, which spanned a mere kilometre by 400m in size, was coming into focus on the horizonline like some kind of inverted oasis.
On the near approach we could make out six guest accommodations interspersed between mature coconut palms along the shoreline. The structures on the island were made from recycled dhow timber and woven palm leaves.
We stepped ashore, plunging our feet directly into the warm shallows and our travel weariness gave way to broad smiles as we took in the empty white sand beach, watched over by a historic German lighthouse.
The sand between our toes was as fine as flour, the island the very picture of a private paradise. A glance cast seaward saw our boat take anchor, the sail being lowered. We did not yet appreciate what a central role dhows would play in everyday logistics and that every drop of fresh water, building material or piece of fruit we would use, would arrive aboard one of those elegant workhorses. Our entire logistics completely reliant on the trade winds.

Island Sketches - Dhow

The following weeks saw us fall into the island’s sleepy routine. We spent time getting to know our colleagues who were predominantly Muslim and all male, I was the only female staff member. We were working in a part of Africa where culturally men and woman filled different roles and mine would not be a typical one and I was not sure they’d be receptive to me. However if there were doubts about my capabilities I’m relieved to say I never sensed them from the team, and as time passed they seemed happy to discover that I was person capable of practical tasks like driving the boats or operating the desalination plant. Almost the entire team hailed from the neighbouring Island Songosongo, a massive fishing community. When I read through their job descriptions I couldn’t help but notice that among them there was a traditional healer called Mzee Sadi. I’d never managed a witch doctor before. The more we got to know Mzee Sadi, a 6ft tall elderly gentleman, the more apparent his quirkiness became. For one, he was the only man I’d ever seen smoke cigarettes with the flame inside his mouth and the filter-side outside, completely adamant that the rest of the world was doing it wrong. Despite his poor eyesight he was also the best at finding the elusive coconut crabs that roamed the island at night.
Mzee Sadi also believed routine was important, and was an absolute creature of habit. He began his days by making a tea he brewed from the locally available moringa leaves which he called mlongelonge chai. By 07:00 Johan and I would be enjoying coffee in the office when Mzee Sadi would greet us. Every morning we would have the following exchange recited in the exact same way:

Habari za Asabhui Bwana (How are you this morning Boss?) [to Johan]
Safi sana na wewe j? (Fine thanks and you?)
Alhumdeallah, nashkuru sana, mama n’gangari? (Praise Allah, I’m grateful, are you strong? [to Laura]
Ngangari Asante Mzee Sadi (I’m strong thank you Mzee Sadi)
Ngangari cama nangaru? (Are you strong like the fishing trawler? [Nangaru])
Ndio ngangari cama nangaru Mzee Sadi! (Yes I’m strong as the fishing trawler, Mzee Sadi)
Ok, bas Badai (Ok, stop, see you later)

Aside from the obvious perks of living in a tropical paradise (no shoes, surprisingly toned calves and fresh coconuts on tap) we were spoilt for interactions with wildlife. For the best part of a decade the director of the island, Malcolm Ryan, had been working tirelessly to establish a series of no-fishing zones and rotational reef closures which through their success had allowed a coral nursery to flourish and the health of the reef to constantly improve.

Island Sketches - Reef

There was a chain of soft coral bundles within swimming distance of the beach that were home to an astounding variety of marine wildlife including blue spotted rays, nudibranch, pufferfish, batfish, groupers, lionfish, seahorses, octopi, lobsters, squid, as well as hundreds of smaller reef fish.
I often took the time to do guided snorkelling with guests and I never became bored of the feeling of diving underwater and being washed with a state of complete calm. Exploring the snorkelling area became a bit of an addiction for me and when I met a Swiss guest who felt the same way we decided to try going out at night with underwater torches. It was thrilling to experience the Indian Ocean after dark with its occupants behaving differently, like entering an alien universe where the reef creatures were on acid.

In times when the island felt stiflingly small, scuba-diving on the 11km coral reef would open up a world of endless exploration to us. Diving on the reef was truly a memorable experience, leaving the surface was like descending into an underwater rainforest, a veritable kaleidoscope of life. The diversity of the reef was astounding, corals occupying every shape and colour imaginable. Green turtles would surprise you by appearing out from under vast table corals. During deeper dives if you cast a glance into the blue there were often giant pelagic fish like greater barracuda and yellow-fin tuna that could be seen passing like spectral torpedoes. On one occasion I felt a shadow cover me, I looked up following the trace of bubbles climbing from my regulator and saw a goliath grouper swimming above me, a 2 metre scaly blimp making its way gracefully past one minute before eerily disappearing over a drop-off the next. Grey reef shark would often show their curious side while we were diving and they’d perform precise turns to keep an inquisitive eye on what we were doing. I was in permanent awe of their elegance, such a perfectly designed predator. Aside from the bigger fish it was always a wonderful experience to just pick out one coral and watch it, a microcosm of life visited constantly by different creatures, each one engrossed in the daily survival game on the reef. One of the last dives I did on the island I remember being able to hear whale song from migrating humpbacks while we made our safety stop a few metres from the surface. Often coming to and from the reef enormous groups of spinner dolphin would join the boat, leaping and breaking the surface with their battleship grey dorsals.

Island Sketches - Tuna
Island Sketches - Coral

During the humpback whale season we would spend more time on the boats hoping to see them. It was exhilarating to see their colossal bodies breaching the surface with such incredible strength and force.
One of our first whale encounters remains the most memorable. We had found a lone whale basking in an uncommonly shallow channel next to a sandbar. Malcolm was with us and was in the water without hesitation hoping to snorkel with her but it seemed that the whale had moved away. We spotted some bottlenose dolphins in the same channel and decided to swim with them. I jumped in and started watching them execute their flawless corkscrew movements. I began listening to their mesmerising echolocation, a busy series of whines and clicks when I heard something foreign mixed over their normal chatter. I lifted my head out of the water in time to see the boat Captain shouting and pointing behind me. I turned in time to see a fluked tail, metres wide rising out of the water and making a gentle slap on the surface. I swam closer to Malcolm and we watched underwater as the whale drifted by us like a small aeroplane. For a few moments my peripheral vision was left to right full of whale, the bottlenose dolphins were interacting with her, seemingly enjoying the swirling currents created by the humpback’s movements. Juvenile golden trevally were swimming just in front of the whale’s mouth giving the scene a sense of scale and contrast in colour. In no other wildlife sighting in my life had I felt so wholly suspended outside my own environment, and as the whale descended into the deep and out of sight it was obvious that we could never hope to follow her. It was her habitat, her migration, her world; where interactions at the surface were minimal. A momentary glimpse of us with her humanlike eye was likely an inconsequential phase of her journey, meanwhile the same fleeting instance remains one of the best of my life.

Island Sketches - Whale

After long spells on such a small island we did of course go partially mad, the kind of niche castaway madness that leaves you able to recognise individual hermit crabs and drives you to conspire to raise turtles and name them after Italian artists. On several occasions I had what I perceived at the time to be deep, meaningful conversations with a Diederik’s cuckoo that had taken up residence in the coconut palm above our house. Johan let his beard and hair grow long and wild and we were really starting to be on brand. When a relief manager called Wilson joined our team the image was complete.

Island Sketches - Whale

Into our second year on the island we decided that to stave off those Tom Hanks moments, it would be good for us each to have a project to divert us during quieter times. I decided to keep myself busy I would identify and record as many species of fish as I could in the snorkelling area, while Johan’s project took a bit more of an outlandish shape but before I get to that you need to understand that behind the white and turquoise front of paradise, the island was home to an ever-growing population of rats. The numbers were beginning to spiral out of control and the wee devils were starting to pay visits to guests in their rooms, which provoked varying reactions ranging from a shrug of the shoulders just thought you should know, to extreme horror and disgust. Trying our best to be shrewd managers we deduced that this was not something people enjoyed or wanted in their rooms, and trying our best to be good managers we listened and nodded solemnly and said things like “that is an undesired addition to the normal honeymoon itinerary”. Meanwhile the island did the real service recovery by being so stunningly beautiful that it made it impossible for guests to leave unhappy or bearing a grudge.
However the severity of Situation Rat was highlighted and put into boldface for us one morning when a particularly irate Lebanese woman presented me with her chewed Italian leather sandals. Before I could stop myself I made a remark about how you didn’t need shoes on the island, going on to explain that I personally hadn’t worn shoes in a matter of months and had only regretted it twice, once when I cut my heel on sharp coral and once when I skewered my foot on a sizable fish bone. My tourism filter must have been full of sand or needed serviced or something because I then misinterpreted her baring her teeth for a smile, a grave mistake. My jovial rambling had provoked a veil of spit-coated insults instead of placating the woman as I had intended. Among the fury I heard her describe me as childish and although I’m sure it was not intended to do so, it made me feel pretty good, what could be better than being a carefree child after all? After twenty minutes of nodding whilst being showered in venom I was forced to acknowledge two things; that her sandals were clearly very important to her, and that if I valued my life it would be prudent to act on the rat situation.

Therefore while my project took quite a leisurely and relaxing form and got me out swimming most days and seeing a healthy share of exercise, Johan’s project lead him into a highly stressful war on rats. As I became tanned and fit, he became derailed and terse. Johan approached the rat problem very scientifically or at least I assume he did because he carried a clipboard around whilst looking very serious and muttering to himself. He built and loaded over 100 special bate stations that prevented other wildlife from getting effected and distributed them over a grid of every 50m. He checked these with diligence and produced maps and graphs that told him which stations were getting depleted the fastest and thereby identified which areas were the rattiest. He even kept a rat diary; now a man’s rat diary is a matter of privacy but in my head I liked to imagine he was writing reflective things like “Dear diary, when will this bloodshed ever end? My sleep is fitful, tormented by rodents, they must not get the better of me”.
After three harrowing months of dedication, there were finally no more rats on the island. It was a point of celebration, to get my partner back, his sanity for the most part intact. Even though I never got the chance to groom one rat into a wise sensei like Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles it was good to know that for guests who regarded sandals as the most revered and important thing in their lives, they could relax and leave them unguarded… …perhaps fall into a deep sleep and dream of a world where everywhere smells of Italian leather and everything is made of sandals making sandal interactions a constant possibility and I’m not being petty, you are!

The truth was that I was never really bored on the island, the ocean with all her variables was unwaveringly beautiful and there was always so much to observe. Our second year was an incredible year for turtles, with a record 21 nests distributed along our humble beach. Watching the little turtles as they fearlessly made their way to the sea was a mind-blowing event. A few days before the turtles surfaced the sand at the centre of the nest would begin to collapse, this telling sign meant there was movement below and so we were able to be there like proud parents during most of the hatchings. Turtles always know instinctively and resolutely what they must do and where they belong and I find there’s something very beautiful about that.

When a nest hatches there is about 10 minutes of action before it’s all over, and for those guests who were lucky enough to be present during a hatching, ensuring the turtles made it to the sea became the most important thing in the world to them. It was immensely satisfying to watch everyone abandon their composure; you see apart from the obvious shell and fins, baby turtles are also born with a superpower that forces everyone who sees them to involuntary say “awwwww” and often provoked grown men to say things like “did you see how cute their itty bitty fins are?” or “this one is a fighter, I’m going to call him Champion!
We wished they could all be champions and did what we could from the beach to improve their chances: filled in crab holes, scared off predatory birds and ensured no boats with props were operating, but in reality as soon as they touched the water’s edge they were on their own. Baby turtles are about the size of the palm of your hand when they surface from the nest and within their first five minutes of life they have to climb, crawl, surf and swim off into the boundless hydrosphere. A sort of Tough Mudder for babies. It was staggering how they embarked on their journeys so intuitively and the whole concept always caused me to feel resoundingly envious of their solid unwavering sense of direction. We’d wave them off on their life voyage usually in the small hours of the morning and then we’d go back to bed, forced to acknowledge that we were merely directionless humans.

To truly appreciate the island, there was no better place than to sit on the lighthouse platform at sunset. From that unbeatable vantage point, we were able to see the island in its entirety as well as the 11km of coral reef stretching out into the Indian Ocean beyond.

Laura and Johan were managers on Fanjove Island for two years. We are missing our little island paradise at this time so reading Laura's blog has taken us back there and we hope it has done the same for you. To view Laura's original blog, click on the following link

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