Mafia Island, off the Swahili Coast of Tanzania, is a relatively undeveloped haven for divers, nature lovers, and adventurous souls. It is situated southeast of Dar es Salaam. White sand beaches, turquoise waters, and a lush, green interior with unpaved roads are all characteristics of a tropical paradise. Locals commute by Tuk-tuks and bicycle, and unlike the nearby island of Zanzibar, there aren’t any rowdy nightclubs or shady beachside vendors. The island is rather well-known for its protected underwater reefs, which elevate it to the top of Africa’s scuba diving destinations. It also has a few intriguing ruins and a number of charming luxury lodges.
HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY
Mafia played a significant role as a stopover on the trade route connecting East Asia and the Swahili coast beginning in the eighth century. When it was a part of the influential Kilwa Sultanate in the Middle Ages, traders would travel there to sell goods to customers from across the Arabian Sea, including those from the Tanzanian mainland and the nearby islands of Zanzibar, Pemba, the Comoros, and Madagascar. Mafia has experienced various periods of foreign occupation throughout its history, including by Arabs, Omanis, Portuguese, Germans, and the British.
It is a tiny island, only 50 kilometers (50 miles) long and 10 miles (15 kilometers) across at its widest point. The primary settlement, Kilindoni, is situated on the northwest shore and is connected to Utende in the southeast and Bweni in the far north by a road. The majority of tourists stay in Utende, which serves as the starting point for trips to nearby Chole Bay, the Mafia Island Marine Park, and the ruins on Chole and Juani islands. There are most of Mafia’s five-star hotels and dive shops, including Mafia Island Diving and Big Blu.
THE TOP THINGS TO DO ON MAFIA ISLAND
The most popular activity on Mafia is scuba diving. The Mafia Island Marine Park oversees the protection of almost half of the coastline, and there is an abundance of aquatic life there. Highlights include the elusive dugong, more than 460 different species of tropical fish, five different species of turtles, and an abundance of both hard and soft corals. Whale sharks make their annual migration into Mafia’s waters between September and March, where they are frequently spotted in large groups feeding on plankton upwellings. The opportunity to swim alongside the biggest fish in the world is provided by ethical Local operators like Focus East Africa Tours.
Fishing and Other Watersports:
Deep-sea fishermen are also drawn to Mafia’s abundant marine life. Charter trips offer the chance to catch a variety of species, including sailfish, wahoo, tuna, and giant trevallies, outside the marine park on the reefs, atolls, and seamounts. Numerous other watersports are also available for your enjoyment. While the island’s tidal mangrove forests are best explored by sea kayak, shallow reef sites are excellent for snorkeling. Dhow cruises and tours to the archipelago’s uninhabited islands and sandbanks are another popular service provided by Mafia’s lodges and resorts.
The lush interior of the island is home to a variety of habitats, such as lowland rainforest and stretches of coastal high forest. With over 120 different bird species to see as well as local monkeys, squirrels, flying foxes, and lizards, these untamed wildernesses can be explored on foot. The majority of the birdlife in Mafia lives near the coast, where they hunt for food on the tidal flats. Humpback whales can be seen passing the island in August and September as they migrate, and between June and September, baby turtles hatch on Juani Island’s eastern beach.
Historic Ruins and Culture Tours:
Ruined communities all over the archipelago contain traces of the Mafia’s former trading activities. A thriving medieval trading post with Swahili homes, mosques, and a sultan’s palace once stood at Kua Ruins on Juani Island. You get the impression that you have stumbled upon a long-lost civilization because many of the ruins are now being overrun by fig roots. Additionally, Chole Island has German ruins from colonial occupation during World War I and Arabic ruins from the 12th century. Visit the modern boat-building communities on the island in addition to the ruins of Chole.
CLIMATE AND WHEN TO GO
Two distinct rainy seasons characterize Mafia’s tropical climate. The long rains last from March to May, while the short rains last from November to December. If diving is your top priority, try to stay away from trips during the rainy months when the visibility of the ocean is decreased. For the duration of the protracted rains, some lodges closed. Plan your trip for sunny, dry weather between August and October (a little cooler) or between late December and mid-March (hotter and more humid). Although generally cool and dry, June and July can be windy, which can affect the state of the sea. The whale shark season lasts from September to March.
GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND
Flying is the quickest way to get to Mafia Island. From Dar es Salaam, there are several 30-minute flights every day from Coastal Aviation and Auric Air. Ferries are another option for low-cost travelers to get to the Mafia. There is only one, and it leaves at 4 a.m. from the mainland village of Nyamisati. It only costs 16,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $7) and takes about four hours. Flying is the safer choice because the ferry is notoriously crammed and poorly maintained, and there have been several incidents of capsizing.
Once you arrive in Mafia, you can take dala-dalas, or neighborhood shared taxis, to explore the island. These link Utende and Bweni to Kilindoni (where the port and airport are located). While the trip to Bweni takes between four and five hours and costs 4,000 Tanzanian shillings, the trip to Utende only takes thirty minutes and costs one thousand Tanzanian shillings. Tuk-tuks and rental bicycles are other options for transportation. The majority of resorts offer transportation from Kilindoni, and most hotels and dive shops in Utende can arrange boat trips to the islands of Chole and Juani.
WHERE TO STAY
The majority of the lodging on Mafia is either in Utende, which is best for luxury lodges and divers, or Kilindoni, which is best for budget travelers. If you decide to stay in Utende, you will have to pay a daily conservation fee of US$20 because it is a part of the Mafia Island Marine Park. The Eco Shamba Kilole Lodge and Kinasi Lodge are two of the best places to stay in Utende. The former, which has just six rooms and an organic restaurant, is Mafia’s first certified eco-lodge. The latter offers colonial-style rooms with a 5-star rating and views of Chole Bay. A PADI dive center, two restaurants, and a spa are also present.
Ibizza Inn is a reasonably priced bed and breakfast with clean en-suite rooms, air conditioning, mosquito nets, and a buzzing treetop bar located in Kilindoni, if you’re traveling on a tight budget. As an alternative, think about staying at the distinctive, independently run Chole Foxes Lodge on Chole Island. The resort’s self-contained chalets are in a stunning location on a secluded mangrove beach, and the casual restaurant’s on-site chef serves delectable regional specialties.