I recently returned from a trip to Zanzibar, an independently governed island of the United Republic of Tanzania. The purpose of the trip was to visit family now living and working in Stone Town, a sprawling city on the western side of the island.

No trip of this nature is made without my camera and this journey was no exception. My first task was research, I found as many books and maps as I could and with that great tool in the clouds, the internet, I spent countless hours combing sites with information and images. With much anticipation and the prospect of countless photo-opportunities I planned to explore as many places as possible in and around Stone Town.

Rooftop view of Stone Town city at sunset

Zanzibar is strategically positioned off the main African coast of Tanzania, and has long been a sought after piece of real estate. The island has been occupied by a number of different cultures over the decades; including African, Arab, Persian and more recently the Portuguese, Germans and British. All these cultures have left their mark on the island and its people. The architecture is a combination of African, Middle Eastern and Arabic. Stone Town oozes a charismatic charm that envelops you, literally, when walking through the town.

The alleyways are sided by cracked walls and crumbling buildings, yet the town still seems all the more intriguing due to its general state of decay.

While the town is unique in its layout and architecture, this is not what ultimately captivated me; it was the profusion of the traditional, locally made Dhow. Originating in India, these boats which were adopted in the Middle East and Africa, are still used today in countless countries found between the Persian Gulf and East Africa.  They come in numerous forms, shapes and sizes and are used for fishing, transportation and tourism. The dhow has a distinctive hull and a single or double sail, with a unique gaff rig which turns this vessel into the most beautiful and graceful working boat in Africa.

The changing angle of hull and sail brings an ever changing mood, beauty and energy to an image. Choose your background carefully as it strongly influences the photograph. For a cluttered and busy feel you will find moored fishing boats and modern ferries or liners, while for a more serene and peaceful mood look for small islands, open ocean, or another sailing vessel.

I was hooked, and tried to get to as many vantage points as I could in order to get a great shot of this majestic vessel. Choosing to remain near the main harbour, I went out early morning and late afternoon to catch the boats leaving and entering the port. Since we were on the western side of the island  the only chance of getting the sun and ocean was at sunset.

Using a recommended taxi driver, I travelled up and down the west coast a few times looking for hubs where the boats were built, moored, refurbished or repaired. Whilst there were plenty around in the numerous fishing villages dotted along the coastline, the northern most village of Nungwi had the largest boat building presence. Watching the skilled craftsmen build these vessels from local timber, using rudimentary hand tools, was fascinating, and makes for some great imagery.

Traditional African Dhow at sunset

My next trip to Zanzibar, which I am planning already, will definitely include a ride on an actual working boat. To see the crew in action and feel the energy as the sail fills with wind, shaking and pulling at the rigging. This first-hand experience should certainly get the creative juices flowing.

For anyone planning their own trip, I would recommend one hires a skipper with a small and fast run-around motor boat which will allow one to get shots of passing dhow from a number of vantage points, close-up and wide angle action shots from the water line could look quite dramatic. Time your jaunt so you are out and about in the late afternoon, during the golden hour when the sun is low and the light crisp. With the continually changing weather you might get lucky and be provided with dramatic cloud activity, or a brilliant sunset, as these are the elements needed to portray these powerful and beautiful craft.

Traditional African Dhow at sea in daylight
Traditional African Dhow in late afternoon at sea

Here is a YouTube link to a 3 minute slideshow to the music by Enya called “Drifting”

I use Canon gear and the lens equipment I used was mainly my EF 70-300 f4-5.6 L IS USM, for distant subjects, the EF 24-105 f4 L IS USM for wider landscapes and my Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 DX wide-angle for architectural shots.