The Mafia Archipelago is a number of sleepy tropical islands, clustered together in the Indian Ocean. Though only a 35-minute flight from Dar, these islands are little known, rarely visited and blissfully lacking in development. On arriving at Mafia’s tiny airport (one runway, one windsock and a simple building) it is clear that the pace of life is slow here. Trundling along sandy roads to your lodge you pass the little capital of Kilindoni, then friendly farming and fishing villages. At the coast you’ll find mangrove forests, a few short stretches of golden beach and a brilliant turquoise sea. Sleepy dhows float between the islands.
The five main islands of the archipelago Mafia, Jibondo, Juani, Chole and Bwejuu – have lush vegetation and wildlife, with coconut palms, baobabs, cashew, mango and papaya trees in the interior. These are home to bushbabies, wild pigs, blue duikers, genets, vervet monkeys and Pteropus fruit bats (flying foxes). On the coast, the mangrove forests and tidal flats attract endless sea birds.
It is the ocean here that is the greater attraction though. In 1996, Mafia Island Marine Park was formed to protect the archipelago’s coral reefs. Within the bay, the shallow reefs are perfect for snorkelling or learning to dive. Outside, the bay’s entrance is guarded by a long coral wall, attracting more experienced divers. There are more than 50 genera of coral here, including giant table corals, huge stands of bluetipped staghorn corals, and over 400 species of fish.
This is one of Tanzania’s best areas for diving and you’ll always see something exciting, from rainbow-coloured clownfish to octopus, rays and the odd gigantic grouper or large potato cod. Sharks and dolphins are found in the deeper waters, and at night turtles crawl onto remote beaches to nest. Between the months of October and March the chances of being able to swim with whale sharks are quite high – this can be arranged from the lodges.
There are three totally different lodges here: two on Mafia Island and one on adjacent Chole Island. None of these have miles of sandy beaches, but Kinasi and Pole Pole each have small sections of beach in front of them, with protecting mangroves around.