Before the COVID-19 pandemic halted all travel, we found calm on Chole Mjini, Chole Island off the coast of Tanzania. Chole Mjini is a magical place that offers global visitors a unique experience. We need places like Chole to exist, particularly in our post-COVID-19 world. Here’s our story.
Chole is a life passion
Chole Mjini hotel is the life passion of Anne and Jean de Villiers. The couple was drawn to Chole many years ago by the dhows built on the island by fundis, rumored to be the best in East Africa. They raised their children there and have supported the local community over the years through the Chole Mjini Trust.
Chole Mjini is more like a castaway fantasy in a jungle, not so much like a hotel. In many respects, it reflects the quirky personality of its founders and owners who have a curious and worldly view of life. By the time we arrived at the island, the sun was setting across the water, and we could understand the allure.
The tree houses are unique
Our accommodation at Chole was out of the ordinary. The hotel rooms are built on towering baobab trees, made out of wood and run solely on solar energy. This means, you truly get to be in nature, but with comfort. You also get to completely disconnect in the treehouse. There is no wifi, no cellular signal in the treehouses. At the resort there are no vehicles at all, even on the island itself, no cars, no television, no noise. Just pure unadulterated nature. As I settled in that night, I was amazed at how at ease I felt high up in a tree, listening to the lapping of the ocean and the sounds of birds and other creatures. It did not take long for us to find calm at Chole. By the end of day one, we had left our city lives behind us. Barefoot and in our swimsuits, shorts and hats, we unwound.
Retreat to an island
Anne explained: “We decided to move to Chole for a year or two and build the kind of place that we would have liked to find upon first arriving in such a beautiful place. Something simple, yet at the same time elegant and comfortable. We wanted it to be appropriate for the site. To blend in with the bush, ruins, and mangrove forest, to be open to nature, but still secure and able to withstand the occasional tropical storm. We also wanted it to reflect ourselves, the kind of people we think we are, or would like to be.”
The couple used the island’s resources to build the retreat, which is made up of a series of tree houses. Each tree house took from six months to a year to complete. They were built completely by hand, using traditional tools, and materials sourced only from traders living on Chole.
A journey of calm on Chole
It’s not easy for most people to accept the idea of having a complete, unconditional break from daily life. During our stay we let go of our cellphones and laptops in favor of books, long walks, swims and naps. After breakfast each day, there was a choice of yoga or another form of physical activity. We had a great morning on a stand-up paddle. Afternoons were left open for rest. Dinner and conversation were always lively and shared with other guests. Our food was wholesome and healthy. No dieting, rather a focus on eating well from local produce. The fish was sublime, freshly caught and a surprise each day.
By day four we were all really in a place of beautiful calm. And on this day we were to experience something incredible.
A once-in-a-lifetime experience
At breakfast, Jean told us there had been a sighting of whale sharks. An accomplished diver and teacher, Jean also owns Kitu Kiblu, which offers half-day encounter trips, allowing visitors to interact with whale sharks in a safe, relaxed, and respectful way. It wasn’t quite whale shark season yet, so it was a unique opportunity for us. To prepare ourselves, Jean gave us lessons on free diving, and shared techniques for our swim with the shark.
Diving with Whale Sharks
After four hours out on the boat and in and out of the water, we still had not found the whale sharks. Jean had all but given up and decided to call it a day. Then, about an hour off our final destination, one of the crew spotted a whale shark in the waters close by.
We all got ready to slip into the water, stealthily so as not to frighten it away. I lay on top of the ocean with my mask immersed and watched the Whale Shark as it swam beneath me. I could see the delicate markings on its back and then started breaching about five meters away.
One of life’s great privileges
It’s one of life’s great privileges to swim alongside one of these gentle giants, and the season when these magnificent animals aggregate here is longer than anywhere else on the East African coast. They occur in Mafia waters year-round but when the conditions are right they feed on the surface in the shallow waters on the western side of the island, close to Kilindoni and they are therefore easy to find.
Whale sharks are fascinating creatures: some live more than 100 years, reaching lengths of up to 20m and weighing in at 15 tons, yet they are totally harmless, feeding on enormous quantities of plankton that they hoover up as they swim. Swimming with a whale shark was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The whale shark descended again, and we followed it for another 20 minutes until we couldn’t keep up anymore.
I went to bed that night believing in miracles and in the power of ocean to remind us of what is truly important. Not the day-to-day accumulation of stuff and the stress of the daily grind. But the brief moments in life when something unbelievable, something truly magical happens that touches our hearts and makes us feel as if we are just one with nature.
Giving to receive
Apart from its astounding beauty, we chose Chole as it’s a place that supports the community around it and enriches lives. Since 1990s, the Chole Project, which has its origins in a partnership that continues to this day. A partnership between Chole’s community and Chole Mjini Lodge, has flourished to become an example of open-ended social development.
We spent the last morning before we left visiting the local village. We were shown around the schools by Platinum Buddha DJ Don’t Touch (as the locals refer to him). He’s one of the younger staffers at Chole Mjini, and was raised in this village. Through the Chole Project, he was able to get a better education so that he could join the team when he left school.
The island and its people had a profound effect on all of us who spent time there. We were reluctant to leave after our time came to an end. And I understood how Jean and Anne had succumbed to the healing calm that is Chole.
Important update on Chole Mjini
Sadly, the COVID-19 global pandemic has hit the travel industry and Chole is facing the challenge of fighting for survival. Without visitors this treasure and the amazing work that has been done to protect the ecology and support a local community may be lost.
Co-founder Anne De Villiers says, “27 years ago we pledged to educate two generations of Chole Island children. Every child that starts in kindergarten and goes to the primary school that we built on the island knows that, as long as they pass, they can go all the way through university because of our scholarship scheme. Their choices are no longer limited to being fishers or farmers. They can dream of being doctors, lawyers, engineers, ballet dancers, opera singers or even Presidents. The first generation of University graduates from Chole are just starting to have families of their own. Without your support COVID 19 will close the Chole Mjini Tree House Lodge and with it will go the support for education on Chole Island, when we are only half way to our goal.”