Once the reigning capital of Zanzibar -‘The Kingdom of the Sultan’- Tumbatu has gained a reputation for an aloof and unfriendly population that turned its nose to the booming tourism industry sweeping Zanzibar. On the tiny island located off the Northeast coast of Zanzibar, solitude is a familiar experience. The morning waters are eerily calm. The translucent Indian Ocean is so still that it looks just like the sky, only distinguishable by the handful of dhows and fishing canoes along the horizon. Below us is a stunning coral reef and hundreds of tiny multicoloured fish enjoy the solitude of their swim.
Tumbatu’s muddled history is part of its mystique. Its inhabitants, the Watumbatu, claim to be descended from Shirazi kings who left Persia in the 10th century, although history books differ on the origin of its settlers. The sultan is said to have ruled all Zanzibar from his Tumbatu kingdom until rebel groups terminated the monarchy in the mid-13th century. The Watumbatu have since had understandably tense relations with the people of Unguja and most other visitors. Shaped like a long, slender dagger, even the physical nature of the island seems to hint at its uninviting character. A few enormous Baobab trees tower over the island, keeping an ominous vigil over potential intruders. The island is powered entirely by solar panels, keeping it proudly independent.
Tumbatu is a scenic island teeming with history. For patient, respectful travelers with a firm grasp of Swahili (or a translator) a trip will help orient you in Zanzibar’s past while sidestepping the nuisance of its touristy present. But make no mistake; Tumbatu is a wholly different experience than anywhere else in Zanzibar.