PART 2: Matemwe Lodge

Photography and report by Bert Duplessis

High resolution photos available on Flickr!

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After an early breakfast at the Mashariki Palace, our driver from Island Express showed up at 0900A for the transfer of about 1 hr 15 minutes to Matemwe Lodge on the far north-eastern coast of Unguja Island.  Initially we were stuck in a traffic jam caused by arriving and departing  passengers for the ferry to Dar.  Once past that, we made pretty good time along a good asphalt road, passing through several villages along the way.

Closer to Matemwe our driver had to negotiate a very rough dirt road for about 15 to 20 minutes through an impoverished village.  I felt a little uncomfortable being chaffeured to a luxury resort while driving through the village, with women, children and men giving us blank stares from their very modest dwellings.  It was unsettling to witness the squalor of the village, while anticipating a nice and relaxing time.

Ideally of course this should be a win-win situation with the villagers benefiting directly (a tourist levy or lodge contributions to educational or other facilities) and indirectly (employment, sale of goods & services) from the proximity to a lodge.  This does not always happen in practice and many Tanzanian villages on the edge of tourist areas gain almost no benefit from the non-stop influx of visitors.  At Matemwe Lodge there are several programs and objectives in place to better involve and benefit the local population.  For example, they encourage visitors to leave extra clothing behind and they are active participants in the ‘Pack for a Purpose’ program, as well as helping with finance for school rooms. 

Operating a luxury resort catering to affluent foreigners on the edge of a poverty-stricken village is hardly unique to Matemwe.  It happens all over the world and in many areas in Africa.  Hand in hand with this goes tension, potential conflict of interest and issues with perception.  Is there anything to be done about this?  Of course yes.  For one thing, visitors need to be made aware of the fact that their presence creates a powerful impetus for local upliftment.  Lodges should – and some already do this very well – communicate how they involve local communities and how they work with them in the areas of employment, direct & indirect benefits, resource utilization, environmental protection and remediation.  Asilia (who operate Matemwe) has a good track record in sustainable tourism and is committed to improving the livelihoods of their local neighbors. 

On arrival at Matemwe it was obvious that great care is taken with the gardening and landscaping as everything was perfectly manicured and all the buildings had been repainted over the off season; the place really looked good.  We were taken on a quick site inspection looking at some of the 12 standard rooms and four villas, as well as the dining area, bar, spa, beach and activity center.  The Matemwe rooms – and the villas even more so – have as much space as you’ll ever need and each room has an ocean view.  Two of the standard rooms have plunge pools and all of them have nice big baths as well as separate showers with a good supply of hot water. There is no air-conditioning.  Lighting was so-so but adequate while internet access was not: I could not get access from Room #1 and had to go and sit in the lounge to be able to get on the internet.  Drinks are included but the list of included cocktails (as opposed to the list of ones you have to pay for) was not very exciting.

After freshening up we enjoyed a superb lunch (grilled fresh fish and a mélange of beans and chickpeas with basmati rice).  The head chef could not have been more solicitous of our food preferences and personally discussed the meal options with us and kept a close eye on what was being served to us.  Matemwe gets high marks for that. 

Then it was time to explore the beach to the south of the main lounge area – perfect for exploring and running or walking.  Would-be visitors need to know that the beaches here and elsewhere on the east coast are extremely tidal – many hours can go by when it is not possible to swim.  

There are many activities at Matemwe (several of which are at additional cost) including snorkeling, SCUBA diving, a reef walk, village visit, kayaking, dhow sailing, Swahili cooking lesson, all day ‘Blue Bay’ excursion, big game fishing, and kite sailing. Plus several others. 

We took a reef walk one morning from the activity center.  Over the course of a couple of hours we walked out to the first line of coral reefs, looking at sea creatures such as sea urchins, sea cucumbers, starfish, small zebra fish and coral outcrops while slowly making or way in single file, being careful not to step on sea urchins.  All around us to the right and left there were women poking around the reef back water, looking mostly for octopus or whatever edible items they could find.  Earlier, there were women and young men with small sacks, collecting some stick-like sea-grass, apparently to be sold to Chinese distributors. 

Some of the other guests had done a snorkeling excursion to a reef close to Mnemba Island, and reported enjoying it despite it being difficult to get there due to windy conditions.  A stiff breeze comes up pretty much every afternoon (at this time of the year), sometimes becoming really strong.  For SCUBA diving you’re picked up by a small tender boat, and you then join up with the ‘Scubafish’ boat from the nearby diving center.  Prices range from $85.00 p.p. for a single dive plus snorkeling to 4 dives over two days for $210.00 pp.  Equipment rental is $15.00 per day (Information valid for June 2014).

The water around Matemwe Lodge is crystal clear but unfortunately there were a lot of trash items visible along the edge of the beach and on the craggy rocks in front of the lodge.  Bits of fabric, discarded clothing items, plastic bottles, labels, shoes and insoles were widely scattered all over.  We saw this at its worst due to the effects of the very high spring tide.  Matemwe Lodge Manager Ross Owen noted that the lodge has an ongoing program to clean up the beach with one staff member doing this on a full-time basis. 

It is a pity that trash dumping elsewhere in Zanzibar (Unguja) and in the rest of the Zanzibar archipelago is creating this unsightly situation.  Adding to this there was a heavy fallout of seaweed, caused by the prevailing wind and exacerbated by the spring tide conditions (full moon).

On a long run along the beach edge to the south of the lodge, Kathy and I witnessed several young kids using the beach instead of the woods, without getting too explicit about it.  This is clearly not a sanitary situation and while few visitors are likely to see this first-hand (long-distance running not being one of the most popular activities at Matemwe) it is best that prospective visitors know about this.  

At all times we felt totally safe running and walking along the beach and the locals were always ready with a wave and a ‘jambo’ or ‘hakuna matata’ as we trundled by.

In summary, Matemwe is not a ‘beach resort’ in the full sense of the word due to tidal activity.  It is however ideal for a relaxing, peaceful stay with very few other visitors around.  There are beautiful views from all the rooms, it has an exceptionally friendly and attentive staff, very good food and the all-inclusive rate makes it an attractive proposition particularly for visitors who are into snorkelling, diving and other water activities.  Matemwe Lodge is a private retreat and over the course of just a couple of days or so, you will get to know the various members of the staff who will go out of their way to make your stay a very special one with special ‘treats’ like private al fresco dinners or breakfast on the patio at your room.

Continue to Part 3

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