The Tortoises of Prison Island

“Hand me your shoes.” The quiet, no-nonsense guide requested with his hands out towards me, gesturing to my sandalled feet.

Mark and I had decided that while in Zanzibar, we wanted to venture out to Prison Island, a small island about 5.6 km from Stone Town. It’s home to about one hundred giant, rare tortoises. We were the only two on our group tour to book the boat ride out to the little island, so we were heading out on our own. But after some previous….let’s say, issues, with people losing their shoes the day before when we were basking in the sunshine on the idyllic white sands of the Northern Beaches, I was reluctant to hand over my shoes to a stranger. We were standing on the shore, the waves lapping at our feet, the canopied boat waiting to go, while I stared at our guide blankly, as if he had just asked me to hand over my wallet.

I’m not usually a shoe freak, but I was wearing my favourite leather sandals: sandals I love so much, that I’ve replaced them with the exact same pair three times over the last fifteen years as they’ve worn out. Not only did I not want to lose them, but I didn’t want to find myself having to walk across the Stone Town sand barefoot, covered in broken glass, plastic bags and decaying fish heads.

The guide gestured to me again. “Shoes!” he prompted. Ok, if we were doing this thing, I had to relinquish my sandals. I slid them off slowly and handed them over. Mark and I waded into the ocean toward the boat, and climbed in. I was slightly surprised when our guide appeared in the back of the boat, shoes still in hand. Ok, it’s good to be cautious, but sometimes you have to trust people too.

Although it was early morning, the sun was already beating down, so we were grateful for the bright blue canopy overhead. We started off, just Mark and I alone on the boat, except for our guide and the captain.

Prison Island, Zanzibar

When even the captain is this relaxed, you know you’re in for a good day.

It took about a half an hour to arrive at the island, where our guide assisted us off, and handed us our shoes. As the captain waved goodbye and began to sail off, our guide started yelling at him in Swahili, more and more frantically, waving his hands and jumping up and down. But to no avail, the captain either didn’t hear him, or chose to ignore him. Apparently he forgot to give us our tickets to enter the tortoise sanctuary. Our guide told us not to worry though, he had the situation under control. (It’s probably happened before.) As it is, entry to the sanctuary is only about $6 US.

Before entering the sanctuary, our guide bent down to show us one of the many other wonders of this part of the world:

starfish, Zanzibar

Colourful starfish surround the shores of Prison Island

There were easily thousands of starfish of different colour combinations and sizes surrounding the island, so many that you should see their outlines through the crystal clear water. We gave them a gentle touch before our guide settled them back down into the water.

As soon as we entered the tortoise sanctuary, we were blown away by the number of tortoises, as well as the size of many of them. We were told we could approach them, pet them, and even feed them. There is such wisdom in those beautiful eyes.

Aldabra Tortoise

Aren’t they gorgeous? And look at those little razor-sharp teeth!

Some of the tortoises had numbers drawn on their shells, but we weren’t sure whether this was to keep track of their ages, or just a numbering system to survey their population. We were also allowed to pick up some of the juveniles, which are not only heavy, but incredibly strong, you can really feel the power in their legs.

Once we had our fill of petting and feeding the beasties, we wandered through the few buildings open to the public. There isn’t really anything of amazing import to see though, since the buildings have all been converted to more modern purposes.

Background: Prison Island actually goes by many names, including Changuu Island, Quarantine Island, Kibandiko Island, though Prison Island is probably the most common name. Initially, the first sultan of Zanzibar gave the uninhabited island to two Arabs for use as a prison to house rebellious slaves in the 1860s. After Zanzibar became a British protectorate in 1890, the island was purchased from the Arabs with the intention of building a prison to house violent criminals. The buildings were completed in 1894, but were never used as a prison.

Instead, diseases such as Yellow Fever and Cholera became the more pressing threats to East Africa, so the island buildings were used as a hospital and quarantine station. In between outbreaks, the island became a popular resort for Zanzibar locals and Europeans.

What It Offers: In 1919, the British governor of Seychelles gifted the island with four Aldabra giant tortoises. Over the years their numbers swelled to about 200, then dwindled to as few as seven, mainly due to poaching and being sold as pets. They are now listed as a vulnerable species, and the foundation on the island is dedicated to their protection. This is the real reason to come here:

Aldabra tortoises, Prison Island

Juvenile Aldabra tortoises having their lunch

Snorkelling is supposed to be fantastic also, though with my fear of water and lack of time, Mark didn’t try it out here. But this can all be booked at your hotel in Stone Town if you feel so inclined.

Although the old prison is still standing, it was never used as such, but instead used as a quarantine hospital. It has since been converted, for the most part, to more practical uses. If you happen to use the women’s bathroom though, be sure to take note of the metal rings imbedded in the floor. No doubt meant to chain prisoners when the building had a more somber purpose.

Getting Here: By boat from Stone Town takes about a half an hour. It’s a nice, leisurely trip, on some of the most spectacularly-coloured water I’ve ever seen in my life. Seriously, the ocean seems to glow from underneath, and the water is the most heavenly aquamarine hue I’ve ever seen. See those dark shadows in the water though? Starfish.

Prison Island

Prison Island upon approach. This doesn’t even do justice to the colour of the water.

Food and Drink: There was a bar and a restaurant that we walked by, but since we came early in the morning after breakfast we didn’t get the munchies. Unless you plan on spending the day lying on the beach or snorkelling, you probably won’t need to grab food on the island anyway.

Shopping Level: Basically non-existent on the island itself, but since you’ll most likely be staying in Stone Town, you won’t feel cheated. This island is all about the tortoises, interspersed with a smattering of some pretty interesting history.

How Long to Stay: If you get here early in the morning, not only will you avoid the crowds (we were the only two people in the sanctuary for at least a half hour), but you’ll probably be back in Stone Town for lunch. Once you’re done with the tortoises, the rest of the sights go by pretty fast. Allow about an hour to get there and back by boat, and about 2-3 hours on the island.

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