Contrary to thoughts that may come to mind, Mafia Island has nothing to do with ‘The Mafiosi’! Mafia Island was an important port on the trade route in the 8th century, and Arab merchants traveling to Madagascar and Mozambique would use the island as a stopover. It seems most likely that, as a result, the Mafia Archipelago got its name from the Arabic word morfiyeh, meaning “archipelago,” or possibly from the Swahili mahali pa afya, meaning “healthy dwelling place.”
The Mafia Islands are a group of islands, atolls, and tidal sandbars scattered in the Indian Ocean, just south of the Equator, off the coast of Tanzania. At only 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, Mafia Island is the largest of the islands. This is a virtually unknown destination, a jewel in the Indian Ocean. With a total population of 40,000 and annual tourist numbers of about 4,000, the island is one of the safest and quietest places in the Indian Ocean, virtually devoid of crime and free from the crowds and hustlers that can ruin a holiday in paradise.
Mafia is not really the place to go to do nothing, though we did, in fact, meet a French honeymoon couple doing exactly that! The newlyweds appeared to take the occasional short break from basking in the sun to head out on sunset cruises, swim, or have occasional pampering massages. My husband, unlike the French honeymooners, is allergic to lazing on the beach. Sitting aimlessly on the sand makes him restless and fidgety. Fortunately, we had no time at all to test his patience levels. Between boat trips, snorkeling, scuba diving, baby turtle hatchlings, walking tours of neighboring islands, long beach walks, and more, we were kept very active. Don’t get me wrong, Mafia is the perfect place to relax and unwind, but there is so much more to do…
1. Scuba Diving And Snorkeling
Picture perfect beaches and incredibly diverse marine life make Mafia a divers’ paradise. The archipelago has some of the richest reefs in the world, with an amazing variety of coral and tropical fish. Mafia Island Marine Park, at 317 square miles, is an important habitat for endangered species like the dugong and sea turtle and has some of the finest dive sites in the Indian Ocean.
I learned to scuba dive many years ago, but it had been a rather long time since I’d dived when I arrived on Mafia. We are not talking brass diving helmet and lead boots times, but still long enough ago that I felt I’d forgotten a lot of what I had once known. Fortunately, I was able to do a quick refresher course and was given the green light to don a wetsuit and tank. We did several beautiful dives and saw an array of fabulous fish, colorful corals, and a myriad of other sea life.
Different from the scuba, but just as spectacular, was the snorkeling. It was hard to believe how much there was to see just below the surface of the water, with only a mask, snorkel, and fins. A deep breath and some vigorous kicking, and it was easy to swim down to investigate lobsters hiding between rocks and sea urchins bristling between soft corals. Everywhere I looked, there were vibrant, shimmering fish darting about, a mesmerizing display of color and movement passing before your eyes as you drifted past.
2. Whale Sharks
A definite snorkeling highlight of Mafia is the whale sharks, and if you are there at the right time, October to February being the best, you can swim with these gentle giants just a few hundred meters offshore. There are only a handful of places in the world where whale sharks are known to visit all year round, and Mafia is one of them (though spotting a whale shark out of the prime season is rare). Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, often living into their 60s and known to reach sizes of up to 45 feet. Swimming with them is an awesome experience. Whale sharks are generally solitary animals; however, aggregations are found in several locations around the world, including Mafia.
Boats out to the sharks move quietly, and visitors can hop in and snorkel to get a closer, underwater look at the gentle giants. The locals call the whale sharks Papa Shilingi, ‘papa’ meaning shark, and ‘shilingi’ meaning coins, because the bodies of these beautiful creatures look like they are studded with coins.
3. Sea Turtles
Sea turtles have been nesting on Tanzanian beaches for over 150 million years, and between June and September, it is possible to see this amazing phenomenon for yourself.
We took a 30-minute ride in a traditional wooden boat, called a jahazi, to Juani Island, where we moored at the base of some of the biggest baobab trees I have ever seen. We walked across the island, through dense rainforest, to the eastern beach where we witnessed, and counted, 87 newly hatched baby turtles make their instinctive and erratic scramble from the white sandy beach to the warm Indian Ocean waters. When they reached the water’s edge, the waves proved a formidable obstacle, and a number of the babies were, quite literally, ‘swept off their feet’, deposited back up the beach, and had to try again. By this stage a couple of the hatchlings were clearly having second thoughts, and halfway to the water’s edge, they turned around and tried to go back to the nest. It was very tempting to reach out a helping hand to save them the ordeal, but it is strictly forbidden to touch or interfere with them in any way. Eventually, they came to their senses, and we felt like proud parents at a school athletics day when they finally reached the water and disappeared.
On average, only one in every thousand of these babies will survive to adulthood, but those who do, will return to the waters around the islands to mate, and the females will lay their eggs on the very same beach where they hatched 30 years earlier.
Hippos may well be a common sight in mainland Africa, but they are not at all what you expect to find on a tropical island. Nevertheless, a rogue gang of reclusive and seldom spotted hippos can, in fact, be found in a network of lagoons in the northwestern part of Mafia Island. Nobody knows for sure how they got there, but the favorite theory is that they washed over during floods from the Rufiji Delta on mainland Tanzania. The waters between Mafia and the mainland are relatively shallow and believed to have been even shallower in the past, making this flood water theory plausible. The first record of hippos on the island comes from the late 1800s, and there is still a handful of them today. Years of inevitable inbreeding in the small population and probable malnutrition led some to some suggestions they were pygmy hippos, but there hasn’t been any research to back this theory up -- most likely they are just inbred and hungry!
5. History And Ruins
Mafia is a remnant of the old Swahili coast. Little is known about its early history, but the island is believed to have been inhabited for millennia, with the first settlers thought to have crossed over from the mainland in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
The rich cultural heritage of this remote nook of Africa can be seen in the ruins found on the islands. The Mafia archipelago is home to a selection of ruins dating back as far as the 12th century and the Omani slave trading days as well as some much more recent German ruins from the 19th century. The ruins include Roman artifacts found on Juani Island, a barrel-vaulted mosque of the 15th century, and a number of well-preserved buildings from the latter half of the 18th century. We took a short trip on a jahazi across to nearby Chole Island, where nature is working on reclaiming these ancient stone ruins, and many of the walls are now smothered in dense foliage, overgrown with giant figs, and in danger of disappearing completely under plants that have grown from seeds dropped by birds many years ago.
6. Incredible Lodges
There are only a handful of places to stay on Mafia. Three places that are highly recommended are:
Pole Pole is an exclusive seven-bungalow eco-lodge located inside the Marine Park. Great cuisine, unpretentious and laid-back atmosphere, and warm but discrete hospitality.
Eco Shamba Kilole Lodge is a six-room eco-lodge on a 12-acre plot inside the Marine Park. This is a popular place for keen scuba divers, as the owner, Marco, is a qualified divemaster.
Butiama Beach is probably the most affordable place to stay on Mafia. Owned and operated by the indomitable Maura and her husband, Butiama is the perfect place for families, with a seemingly endless expanse of pristine white beach just footsteps from your room.
7. Get There With Ease
From Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam airport, called Julius Nyerere International Airport, the quickest and easiest way to get to Mafia Island is a 45-minute flight (around $150 each way). There are also light aircraft flights from Zanzibar and a number of Tanzania’s mainland safari destinations. Coastal Aviation flies every day.
Citizens of most countries must have a visa to enter Tanzania. Visas can be obtained at any Tanzanian Diplomatic or Consulate Mission abroad (Editor’s Note: an embassy equivalent), normally within one business day. It is also possible for most nationalities to obtain a tourist's visa, for single entry, at any of the main entry points, including Julius Nyerere International Airport (it is, however, best to check before you travel). Tanzanian tourist visas are valid for three months. You can check if your passport/nationality requires a visa here and to check eligibility for the online visa process, see here.
For scuba, snorkeling, whale shark trips, and various other activities, Mafia Island Diving is particularly recommended. Run by the highly organized Danielle and multilingual divemaster David, Mafia Island Diving is one of the longest standing dive operators on the island. They offer scuba certification and a full range of water and land-based activities.
Malaria is common in Tanzania, so you may wish to take precautions. If you are traveling from a yellow fever area, you will need to carry a valid vaccination certificate.
Traveling in Tanzania is, for the most part, safe, but you should take the same precautions as you would traveling in any country.
Mafia Island is a truly off-the-beaten-track experience. This is barefoot paradise at its very best. The sand is white, the water is warm, and the people are friendly and welcoming. If Mafia isn’t on your bucket list already, it should be!
Here are a few other bucket-list experiences that are once in a lifetime: