In photos: Tanzania’s last true paradise

Posted on 15 October 2014

Just off the coast of Tanzania is Mafia Island: a raw, untouched paradise still immune to the melee of seasonal sun seekers. Tyson Jopson spent a week there and discovered that things work a little differently when you’re off the tourist radar. For now…

For the full story, buy the November issue of Getaway magazine.


mafia island, beach, sea, tanzania

Mafia Island is just 50 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide. At its heart is a thicket of green bordered by white pinstripe beaches that hold firm age-old mangroves in the shallow wash. It’s been like this for centuries.

Mafia Island is the kind of place any travel journalist would be reluctant to write about. It felt, and still feels, like I’ve given up a rare secret: the location to paradise unfamiliar – an overlooked time capsule floating in suspended animation, almost impervious to the swell and squabble of its postcard cousins. Less than 1 000 visitors touch down on its shores every year and most come for one reason alone: to experience underwater nirvana. But things might be changing. I spent a week there doing a story for the November issue of Getaway magazine (on shelves next week). Here are some photos I took along the way.


Mafia Island, tyson jopson, flying, aeroplane, tanzania

It’s less than 35 kilometres from the mainland but most visitors access Mafia Island by small plane (dhow trips can take up to a whole day and they do not operate to any particular schedule). This is Clement, an Italian pilot flying one of Coastal Air’s 40-seater Cessna Caravans. The plane was at capacity, so I flew shotgun in the cockpit. Shortly after we took off, he turned to me and said,

‘Eees your fist time in a small plane?’

I said yes. He said,

‘Don’t wooory, we are safe.’

Then he took out his phone and began texting.


sunrise, mafia island, dhows, tanzania

Lilac tinted egg-yolk sunrises are the norm over the Kinasi Pass that separates Mafia Island’s mainland from the rest of the archipelago.


tyson jopson, mafia island, portraits, tanzania

Every morning Mafian woman head down to the shore to help the fishermen tally their haul. The men stay out all night and come in with their catch at dawn. I didn’t quite catch this woman’s name but she giggled when she heard mine, ‘cos I’m little and white.’ Cheeky.


crabs, mafia island, tyson jopson, beach, tanzania

Aside from a plethora of fish species, unbleached coral and seasonal whale sharks, Mafia Island’s aquatic playground is home to ghost crabs. They scurry up and down the ephemeral, low-tide sand banks moving fistfuls of sand each time. It seems like a giant waste of time, but I’m assured they have a plan.


mafia island, ruins, tyson jopson, , tanzania

On Chole Mjini (one of the smaller of Mafia’s islands), stone ruins hint at a past that stretches back to the early Omani slave trade. Nature, however, has reclaimed its space and many of the ancient walls are today smothered in dense foliage. Some even have giant fig trees reaching up from the tops of their walls, growing from seeds deposited there by small birds many years ago.


tyson jopson, mafia island, dhows, tanzania, sailing

The waters around Mafia are its lifeblood. Naturally, dhows abound. Whether its fishing, snorkelling or excursions to the islands, the only way to do it is by dhow.


sailing, mafia island, tanzania, dhows

I stayed at Kinasi Lodge while I was on Mafia Island. Its staff are intelligent, knowledgeable and friendly and, like most Mafians, know the waterways intricately.


tyson jopson, mafia island, farms, cows, tanzania

Aside from fishing, Mafia has a strong agricultural base. Indeed, most of the small villages dotted around the island (linked only by dirt roads) hum to the sedentary pace of subsistence living.


football, soccer, mafia island, tanzania,

Every two months (give or take) the two biggest ‘clubs’ on Mafia Island get together for an epic derby match on a sandy football field outisde Utende Village. Villagers turn up in their droves and storm the field every time there is a goal. Restoring order takes time and the matches last well over the standard 90 minutes.


mafia island, chole island, treehouses, tanzania, forest, ruins, tyson jopson

While the ruins on Chole Island date back to the 8th century, its latest architectural addition is a little, well, newer. A smattering of treehouse now dot the copses of pine and baobabs on the island, and you can stay there if you like.


mafia island, beaches, dhows, tanzania

Bare feet and unfettered beauty is the status quo on Mafia Island. It’s impossible to leave not feeling relaxed.


scuba diving, mafia island, tanzania, dhows

Diving is the lifeblood of Mafia’s tourism industry. In fact, of the 1 000 visitors who travel here every year, more than 90% come to dive in the Mafia Island Marine Park. And it’s no wonder why – it’s the largest, most fecund and well-preserved in East Africa.


tyson jopson, mafia island, tanzania, dhows, sailing

For guests of Kinasi Lodge (and indeed all the other lodges situated in the Mafia Island Marine Park – they number just five) a sunset cruise to one of the islands aboard a traditional, sail-powered dhow is the perfect place from which to watch the sun go down.


fruit bats, bats, flying foxes, mafia island, tanzania

Large fruit bats, or flying foxes, hang inverted from fig tree branches on Chole Island during the day. At night they fly in unison across the Kinasi Pass to hunt on Mafia Island. They’re huge, and kind of scary. Their wings don’t flap, they thud.


tyson jopson, tanzania, mafia island, dhows, land rover, lighthouse, kande beach,

On the northernmost tip of Mafia, outside of the marine park, the island’s only lighthouse (built by Germans) stands sentinel over the unprotected shore. To the south, it’s dhow business as usual.


sunrise, mafia island, dhows, tanzania, fishermen

Sunrises on Mafia Island sees the last of the night fishermen return to shore around daybreak with their haul. Getting up early and heading down to the beach is well worth it. The afternoons are for napping.


Getting to Mafia Island

The flight from Dar es Salaam to Mafia Island is about 45 minutes by light aircraft. Prices vary seasonally but are usually around US$100 (one way). Take note: in the off season, flights may be cancelled if they are not at capacity. FastJet offers flights from Johannesburg to Dar es Salaam from R1 600 (one way). There are five lodges on the east side of the mainland (inside the marine park), one on the west side of the mainland and one on Chole Island. Transfers from the airstrip to your accommodation are organised by the lodges and are usually included in the price of accommodation. If you’re staying inside the marine park (recommended), you will need to pay a Mafia Island Marine Park fee of $20 per person per night (at the time of writing). Cash only.

Where to stay

Unlike many other island destinations, Mafia does not cater to itinerant backpackers. There are a few backpacker-friendly ‘hotelis’ in Kilindoni but getting around the island can be tricky (there are only a handful of cars and tuk-tuk taxis do not operate on any kind of schedule). I highly recommend staying at one of the lodges inside the marine park where meals, drinks and activities are taken care of. Booking is essential. I stayed at Kinasi Lodge, which is a perfect mix of island-style chalet living, with slick service and friendly staff. The lodge also has free Wi-Fi for those who can’t wait to send photos home. Rooms start at $160 per
person per night (


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