Listening to our briefing in the baking sun of a late November afternoon safari in the Okavango Delta, it was hard to get excited about anything at all. We’d spent an exciting, but long and very hot morning on a game drive. After lazy lunch, adding another hour to my afternoon siesta seemed far more appealing than abandoning my bed at Little Vumbura for a wobbly dugout canoe. We were warned not to move around too much- “I have seen these capsize often,” said our poler, and not to trail our hands in the water for too long. Not because of hungry crocs apparently- it just made steering the mokoro more difficult.
Once we climbed aboard our mokoros and lowered ourselves gently into the seats, peace descended. I picked the back seat so I could snooze discreetly behind my sunglasses and bush hat if the heat overwhelmed me (and while sleeping would’ve been an utterly disgraceful waste of precious hours in the bush, it really was very hot). However, though the mokoro ride was the embodiment of tranquillity- this is Botswana’s equivalent to punting- and despite my tiredness, sleeping suddenly seemed a lot like missing out.
Travelling up front on hippo duty, our guide made sure the waterways were clear of unexpected four-legged surprises. Behind, our mokoro poler engaged us with tales of growing up in Botswana, and issued us with a challenge to spot the tiny Angolan reed frogs clinging to the top of swaying stems. We learnt the difference between night-time and day-time water lillies, how the jelly of the water shield plant could be used as sunscreen, and glided up on a pair of ducks so quietly that they shot away from us with startled squawks.
Our mokoro ride ended as all good days in Africa should: watching the sun set with a cold G&T on a sand island as a family of elephants padded silently past. Afterwards we floated serenely home, listening to the calling frogs and watching the poler in front silhouetted against the light of the setting sun.
(Please excuse any fuzziness- all pictures the author’s own)
One of the great delights of visiting Stone Town (and if you are on holiday in Zanzibar, this is the No. 1 on our do-not-miss list) is in buying treasures to bring home. There’s the fun of discovering some hidden gem you’d never find anywhere else, the post-holiday boast-factor (“Oh this? I picked it up in a little shop I know in Zanzibar…”) and above all, the fun of the bargain.
First of all- know where to bargain. Stone Town hotel boutiques or swanky air-conditioned shops where all of the stock has price-tags are unlikely to be as flexible as cash-only market stalls and owner-run shops.
Perfect bargaining territory – visiting Stone Town from Matemwe Retreat
Exploring Stone Town from the Serena
Do your research… If you spot something you like and want to buy it, ask around before you approach the store owner and get embroiled in negotiations. Who to ask? Well- ask the staff in your hotel (though don’t follow them to their brother’s shop) or our guide if you’re on a tour of the town. It’s also possible to ask multiple store owners for a rough guideline price before you buy so you can compare, but you must make it clear you’re not looking to buy right away, or be entangled in hours of unwanted bargaining and the poor stallholder will get his hopes up.
Remember, you really, really like the person you’re bargaining with, even if you’ve only known him for 5 minutes. Charm- and a touch of Swahili- always gets you the best price. Try “Ni ghali sana” (“it is very expensive”) to help your cause.
Bargaining is supposed to be fun– be prepared for the odd touch of melodrama (“Oh, my friend, my children won’t eat if I sell it at that price”/”But my wife will divorce me if I spend $200 on a Zanzibar chest”). Making a good deal is fun. Be prepared to walk away if you really feel you’re being ripped off, but don’t come back unless you’re seriously planning to make a deal- it’s not fair on the man or woman who’s devoting half an hour of their day to you and not their other customers.
If you reach a price that you’re happy with, and the stallholder will sell to you at- go for it! There’s no perfect price- just the perfect one for two people in that moment. You might pay more or less than others, but you’ll always have a memory of striking a fun deal with a proper Zanzibari merchant.