A Rendezvous with the Giant Aldabra Centurions—an afternoon excursion at the Prison Island, Zanzibar
The brisk salty breeze caressed me, tangling its gentle fingers in my hair, stripping away my worries. The sedate pole-pole spirit of Zanzibar, to savor the bounty of life at a slow pace, was growing in on me. When an old traditional boat covered with black tarp carried us over the twinkling turquoise water, I realized that the spirit had also seeped within my children’s hearts.
There were no loud protests about the boat’s speed or the monsoon gale during the thirty-minute ride. Nobody said anything about the boat swaying when the waves crashed against it. As if, in that split moment, we were enveloped by the essence of Zanzibar.
The boat was called Mr. Beans and the tour guide, Benjamin. And at this particular hour, we were headed to one of the many paradisial islands around the mainland. Experience the sedate calm of the boat ride here.
The many nomenclatures
Benjamin apprised us with many names of this small island.
It’s called Changuu island after a Swahili fish common in these parts. A few other names are Kibandiko, Prison, and Quarantine Island, all by virtue of a unique history. The British had built a prison complex on the island; no prisoners were ever detained on this beauteous coastline by some turn of events. Instead, the complex was used as a quarantine station for yellow fever. Due to its clear sparkling water, it is a tourist hub now, best suited for snorkeling and scuba diving. It is also a government-owned sanctuary for endangered Aldabra giant tortoises.
As we docked, the color of the water astounded me. The sea frolicked like a damsel dressed in different shades of blue, each melting and merging into another. I could count at least six different shades of blue.
The sky was another story altogether; it mirrored the exquisite hues of the Indian ocean.
A wooden staircase and a rustic bridge hovering a few meters above the water added to the old-world charm. The white sand sprinkled with coral tickled against our toes as we made our way to the tortoise sanctuary.
Meeting the centurions
Oh! What do I say about these majestic, fascinating giant tortoises?
The excitement was palpable in the air as we hobnobbed with this rare, vulnerable species. They accepted our humble offerings of cabbage leaves with much delight, allowing the visitors a rare privilege of stroking their tan domed carapace.
The coat on the long thick neck was wrinkled and aged, yet so soft like the warm skin on your favorite grandmother’s hands.
Perhaps, that is why my six-year-old grew so fond of these gentle animals, especially the elderly 197-year-old giant tortoise with a cracked shell named Babu.
Their age is a rough estimate and inscribed in white over their thick shells. However, it is hard to prove since most of these creatures have outlived their caretakers.
Soon, hilarity ensued!
As the clock ticked away and the kids refused to leave, we became acquainted with their social language. They lay down next to each other or rubbed noses with the neighbors, defecated, and consorted with the peacocks. But what happened next was something that we had not anticipated.
“Look, they are mating,” my nine-year-old shouted as one giant tortoise mounted another. A lady winked at me, her all-knowing smile saying it all. How could I tell her that my National Geographic enthusiast of a son was comfortable with the concept of animal mating and reproduction?
People chuckled, men sported silly grins, and women pressed their palms over their surprised, giggling faces.
I bit my lip to repress a burst of laughter as I met Husband’s gaze. It was hilarious as the tortoises grunted and many more pairs followed suit, giving us a full rundown on their mating rituals. It was as if the tortoises had decided to bestow the tourists their money’s worth.
Multiple cameras clicked, capturing the tortoises in their private moments. As for me, I slid into a tortoise nursery to avoid questions about tortoise-mating bubbling on my six-year-old’s tongue. Hundreds of baby tortoises housed in a wired cabin and bred in captivity were enough to divert her.
Aldabra giant tortoises are the largest living terrestrial tortoise species and rank amongst the longest-lived animals. They represent one of the remaining two groups of giant tortoises in the entire world — the other group living in the Galapagos Islands.
Like the spices, these turtles are not indigenous to Zanzibar; they were originally a gift from the British governor of Seychelles. These giant inhabitants are endemic to the islands of the Aldabra Atoll in Seychelles. Catch a video of these rare centurions.
The Peacock Saga
The rest of the island is inhabited by peacocks, kingfishers, sunbirds, and monkeys. We were lucky to witness the mating rituals of yet another creature.
I would have missed it had it not been for my nine–year–old (yes, I can see that smile sneaking on your lips). The male displayed his train in a fan shape, strutting back and forth; shaking his feathers. Several peahens gathered across, and a few minutes later, one of the peahens opened up its tail and followed the peacock in something similar to ballroom dance. For someone born and raised in a city, this was comparable to catching a blue moon in my backyard. Watch the peacock dancing and courting.
Aders’s duiker, the endangered antelope, made a brief appearance. The rest of the island consisted of a prison library, a small restaurant, and a million photo opportunities; the roots of the trees gawping at us from the walls said a lot about these ruins.
I stood on the edge of the wooden staircase, jetting out into the sea. Many marine creatures—starfish, sea urchins, and jellyfish—made regular visits, their lustrous hues sparkling in the dwindling afternoon sun.
Do I Recommend the Prison Island Tour?
Of course, yes! Where else would you get to witness those glorious giant tortoises? Plus, if you are lucky enough, you’d also get to observe the peacock mating ritual.
A Few Pointers
It’s better to wear flip-flops or crocs during the visit as you’d be regularly stepping in and out of the ocean.
A mosquito repellent, sunscreens, bottled water, and sunglasses are to be counted as essentials.
It’s best to keep smaller denominations of Tanzanian shillings at hand for tipping the boatmen, local guides, and assistants.
You can check out my other posts about this beautiful country here: