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My Time on  Mafia

When I first arrived on Mafia I was struck by it’s simple beauty and how much of a stark contrast it was to Dar Es Salaam (my only previous experience of Tanzania). Instead of the sprawling, shabby and run down suburbs on the roads between the airport and central Dar, here there were palm trees, open expanses of grass and shrub-land with goats and cattle happily grazing at random intervals.

We took a tuk-tuk from the small local airport into the marine park and Utende - what would become our familiar local village. There was such a mixture of rural life and optimistic developments on our journey across the island. Neat and simple huts, surrounded by simple gardens filled with flowers and vegetation and expanses of grazing land passed us by, until the still-as-new road took us past the growing skeletons of future lodges for visiting tourists.

We settled into life on camp almost instantly, barely a week passed before I felt firmly a part of the local scenery. Every day we would be in the water, at least once if not several times more. The temperature of the water was mind-boggling at first. One step into gently lapping waves upon sand almost too hot to walk on bare-foot, and it couldn’t possibly compare with any beach experience from the UK. Perhaps the only comparison could be dipping a toe into a bath that’s slightly cooler than you expected but still comfortably warm.

Picking up Swahili was initially a challenge but daily became easier and the joy of parrying the banter of our local friends in their own tongue became more and more commonplace.
It was in my first fortnight on Mafia that I experienced that youtube worthy experience of contracting a jigger to my toe. I promptly turned up at the small makuti built shop of the local Masai and asked him to remove it. He laughed and smiled reassuringly, sat me down and began the delicate operation of prizing the larvae out from under my skin using a sharpened twig.

If a single experience could truly reinforce you feeling a part of Africa that must be it.

Over the course of my two month stay I would continue to take huge amounts of pleasure in the little things:

The animals on camp, James & Jeremy the dogs and Kasa the cat. Always friendly (well, occasionally very grumpy on Jeremy’s part) and always ready for cuddles or a chat. Kasa particularly liked the sound of his own voice and to tell long stories.

Making friends among the Mamas in town, learning how to cook chapattis with Mama Fatuma, or singing and dancing with Mama Suzanne before dinner.

Swimming next to incredible coral reefs every day. Finding cuttlefish, lionfish, cowfish and dragon sea moths within metres of the shoreline is something I could only have dreamt about before coming to Mafia.

Learning to dive was perhaps the biggest success of my trip, and being able to find Green Turtles, Moray Eels, Mantis Shrimp, Grouper, Barracuda and Stingrays frequently made for incredible dive experiences.

However, my favourite experience, that would totally eclipse every happy moment on Mafia, was swimming with whale sharks. Since I was a very little girl I’ve been in love with sharks, any and every shark fascinated me. It was always my personal dream to dedicate my life’s work to sharks and the marine environment. This may have changed a little as I grew, pursuing slightly different career paths, but the passion never died, and I always stuck with marine science. I was able to fulfil every childhood fantasy and adult dream the day I accompanied the tourist boat for a whale shark safari. Not just to enjoy the experience, like the tourists, but to assist in educating, inspiring, monitoring code of conduct and collecting valuable data.

I was lucky to have a wonderful tour group who listened attentively to my briefing, took the code of conduct very seriously, asked lots of questions and indulged my slight obsessions with plankton and other marine life related to the whale sharks. They rewarded me by being the perfect and responsible tourists in and out of the water, making my experience even better than it would have been already.

By Julie Cannon - Tanzania Marine Conservation Intern

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