Drinking a cool beer in the Red Herring Bar I ponder my stay at Chole Mjini, while traditional dhows with their lopsided sails gracefully pass by. Some stop and drop off a handful of tourists from the neighbouring and bigger Mafia Island to do a guided tour of Chole village others carry drinking water and supplies between the various islands in the Mafia Archipelago. Life at Chole is as slow and laidback as the dhow crossing Chole Bay. Time is of no consequence here and it has taken me a while to adjust to this island pace, but it’s a wonderful feeling to fall into that same pattern as the Chole community. Nobody is in a hurry here. People take time to stop and chat, enquire about your day, work and family. With a small population of about 1,000 people, everybody knows each other or is at least acquainted.
It’s on this small island off the coast of Tanzania, where the multiple award winning Chole Mjini lodge is situated. When the owners, Anne & Jean de Villiers, arrived here more than 20 years ago, there was no tourism and islanders used to subsist on farming and fishing. However, since 1995, their fishing practices have been restricted when large sections of the Indian Ocean surrounding the islands were gazetted as Marine National Park.
Chole Island has no fresh water, no electricity, no sewerage system, and is only about 2 km2 in size. The coral rag and its natural vegetation is sensitive, as well as its mangroves lining the coast. To build a lodge in such a delicate and complex location amongst a small, underprivileged community had to be done not only in an environmentally sensitive way, but also in a way that benefitted its community. This is when the treehouse concept was born and Jean built his first and still most popular treehouse Moja next to one of the most magnificent Baobab trees on the island.
All 6 treehouses and its one groundhouse were built using local and sustainable building materials, local craftsmanship and artisans who, where necessary, were trained for the job. The treehouse concept has an extremely small footprint and blends in with its surroundings, so the lodge is almost invisible from the outside.
The open sided treehouses give you a sense of being one with its jungle like environment. For obvious reasons, all toilets are dry composting loos and the ground floor bathrooms have brackish water for showering heated by surprisingly effective paraffin burners. The paths through its extensive gardens are lit by solar lights and hurricane lamps and dinner by candlelight is set in various romantic locations, like in the Persian ruins, under the tamarind tree, or on the jetty.
From waking up to the lapping waves beneath your treehouse and the bird chorus from the surrounding baobab and mangrove trees to sun-downers in the Hanashi Bar, while 100s of Comoros Fruit bats leave their roosting trees on the island, a Chole stay is an experience that is hard to put into words. Chole allows you fall into island pace and relax. It strips away all the superficial layers of modern day life. It takes you back to basics and provokes life questions we often forget to ask ourselves, because we are too busy chasing our own tails.
Chole people remind us of the importance to make time for each other.
Words: Louise de Waal
Pictures: Chole Mjini