Mafia Island – A hidden bounty


“the hidden bounty for the intrepid adventure seekers”

The winds of change have brought in what appears to be long-awaited short rains!! All Homo sapiens, hoofed wildebeest and cattle alike must be happy to this change of weather one can only presume? It was certainly needed in every department, and proved an added bonus to some B2B clients that headed out to the western corridor to Mbalageti late afternoon to be met by thousands upon thousands of wildebeest…

A great image of charging wildebeest returns to my mind of the experience of being surrounded by the moving masses, whilst the Land Rover casually idled away waiting for the last nutty ‘Gnu’ to pass by our bull-bar without actually running into the car!! I exaggerate not; obviously two of these horned beast had been to the hari-kiri school of suicide and ran head first in to the car before correcting their compass bearing, with a snort and a moo to join the rest of the mass disappearing into the rising dust cloud.

Now as I sit here in our Arusha office digging deep into my memory bank in preparation for the latest shout out from the beach a steady pita patter in the shape and form of a morning shower is happening outside my window. This seems to have been the trend of the last two weeks starting off our day with the sun punching through to regain dominance by 10 am at the latest.

Now to try to brighten and lighten up everybody’s day, including mine, I want to tell the tale of our Mafia island experience that happened in and around the beginning of September.

Mafia Island

A very short history and geographic reference is in order for the much underrated island of Mafia, which is constantly overshadowed by The Spice island of Zanzibar.

The name “Mafia” brings about images of the Italian under world driving around in slick model Fords and carrying suspicious irregular shaped suitcase.

There is nothing as sinister or gangster like about the name as it originates from the Arabic morfiyeh, which further translates to group or archipelago. In the Swahili language this turned into mahali pa afya, translating literally to “a healthy dwelling-place“.

As history unfolds and tells its tale the German occupants of Chole Island seem to have had problems with the pronunciations of all prior given names so then simplified things and Mafia was born out of all its predecessors.

Mafia Island is a lush slice of green with slithers of white sandy beaches, some of them out of reach to all unless you plan on travelling with your own boat. The waters are aqua marine turquoise with a labyrinth of mangrove lined inlets with sand banks to explore at one’s leisure. More about the activities that this Robinson Crusoe Island has to offer a little down the track as the story unfolds.

Getting to Mafia is really best from Dar-es-Salaam with two flights a day being the shortest way, taking roughly 30 minutes. One can also do a little Island hopping flying from Zanzibar if you want to really get away from it all; experience empty beaches for you to ramble along without so much as having to mention a single word to anyone for hours as was our experience.

The Mafia archipelago consists of one large island of nearly 400km² with many smaller ones dotted across the horizon that confuse the intrepid traveller as these many island appear to merge into one. Chole Island has a long and interesting history, with a unique eco lodge to match.

I will not dive into too many details as the updates are here merely to paint a picture and awaken a curious mind to what is out here in Tanzania. As already mentioned Mafia is somewhat overshadowed by Zanzibar which has been in the public eye for decades as a tourist destination to head to.

If you are among those travelers that avoid the crowds and beach boys trying to sell you trinkets that you do not want then put a circle around Mafia Island as a destination to consider.

Beaches and location

The key point to think about and ask yourselves I suppose is what are you looking for out of your island getaway. Arriving on the tiny air-strip of Mafia there are a few selections of accommodation and destinations to choose from, each of these have been rightly located for one reason or another?

Please remember to check out the sign as you walk through arrivals – “Waving and standing area” forgot to take a shot of it but it did bring a smile to my face.

Lua Cheia

If you are looking for the best white sand beaches then you may have to head to the very north of the island where Lua Cheia, the sister accommodation to long-established Kinasi, is tucked away under swaying palms.

The accommodation is a little different to what you would expect on an island getaway and is more in tune with the tented camps that you may have experienced on safari prior to your arrival to this Robinson Crusoe destination.

Service was simple with all staff when we visited coming from the island with most from the neighbouring village of Ras Bweni. This in itself can be an attraction as it gives you also chance to touch base with the locals and practise a little Ki-Swahili whilst the staff polish their English – a simple smile goes a long way and as with my preaching’s of survival in Tanzania stay flexible and all will be POA (meaning excellent in Ki-Swahili).

Do not expect silver service and you should leave with a story or two and a great relaxing mind purifying experience behind you. The food was wholesome and freshly prepared according to the catch of the day or what had been bought up with the re-supply. You are really cut off from everything with a stay at Lua Cheia as it is a bumpy two-hour ride by 4 x 4 vehicle to the Northwest side of the island.

Activities were being emplaced and explored upon our visit with the newly appointed lodge manager, a very relaxed Ozzy guy named Andrew. He seemed like he had found his place in life and was enjoying the daily challenges and discoveries.

We ventured out later afternoon for a jolly in the dual purpose game fishing boat come dive vessel. We had a great sunset motor out to the back of the nearest reef to hook into a 10 kg king-fish and had dolphin accompany us part of the way.

Our stay was far too short to really get into nothingness mode but recommended duration for Lua Cheia would be 3 – 4 nights at least in combination with another lodge on the island.


Another must and one I think we as a family enjoyed the most, was Butiama. The owners Maura and Moiz know about the hospitality business and made our stay everything we needed and more. You can be as busy as you want to be or simply hide-away at one of the adequate beach bungalows with generous lounging, chill hammock areas (my favorite place incidentally).

A friendly smiling waiter bringing you chilled drinks or a tasty lunch, upon a simple order being taken over breakfast. It was pure relaxation for sure with a great white beach directly out in front of the lodge. This was safe for kids to swim being very shallow and no massive tidal movements to speak about which is the one down fall to Zanzibar.

The lodge offers free-use of single and double kayaks with snorkelling gear for every shape and size of person. Sundowners were magical and although I managed to delete a full sequence of what looked like awesome photos, I put down my Majito and headed back to the same lazy palm to capture another melting moment in the nick of time.

Butiama also boast the best location and one would have to say facility for swimming with Whale Sharks!! The lodge has four specially designed snorkelling vessels that can whizz you out to the action, which in itself is exciting and wet!!

Our day was not favourably with choppy overcast conditions and we were a little early in the season to see them, best months being October and November. However a game fishing boat had spent some time with a group of these gently giants only the day before so we boldly went were many had been before to finally see a dorsal break the surface after we searched the oceans for a good hour.

It had been many years since my last encounter with Whale Sharks but it was as impressive as the first time when I jumped in to the clear waters off of Utila – Honduras where I was fortunate enough to work as a Dive Master. We were lucky enough to have five individuals cruising around with two of them being around 8 – 9 metres and three smaller ones coming in around 5 meters. We spent a good 40 mins hauling ourselves in and out of the thankfully well designed boats before heading back to the distant shore and the comforts and warm shower of Butiama.

Chole Mjini

Another destination that may or may not be for you but very much worth a mention is Chole Mjini. A unique eco lodge built amongst crumbling ruins and towering strangling figs. One could easily imagine that you had stumbled into a movie shoot from Indiana Jones and the lost city.

The accommodation is as original as it gets and stretches the boundaries of what is acceptable for a given price!! Chole is on the higher side of things for island accommodation and if you are a person who likes doors/windows and basic’s like running water then this is not for you.

However if you are a little daring and would like to experience Chole Mjini then we also feel that due to the concept and daringness of the lodges you will not be disappointed to spend at least x 2 – 3 nights there for the experience. The tree houses are built on stilts which fortunately do offer the ocean breeze through the windowless structures passing thankfully through the mossie net.

Toilet ventures are a safari in themselves with a walk down the stairs from your cabin to the squat type toilets. These also have a very precarious looking coconut wood seat that would not pass British safety standard just out of shear fear of disappearing into the darkness if the thing broke.

There is water in the cabin which is ladled out of a 20 litre bucket for washing ones face or cleaning of teeth and that would be about it as far as mod cons go. For us it was fine and a great experience although our 7-year-old was frightened of pirates coming in through the mangroves and we ended up with 3 in the bed and the little one said roll over roll over!!

If the season is right you can also witness the hatching of hundreds of sea turtles under the watchful eye of turtle watch. As for a beach unfortunately is almost nonexistent but the lodge as do all other accommodation in the island have excursions to sand island that appear like beached whales as the tide goes down. These make for romantic memorable castaway experiences, the snorkelling and time on your hands in combination, truly let the mind wander to a different place, time and dimension.

Alternative accommodation

The lodges featured above are highlighted for a reason as they all complement what Mafia is about in our eyes. There are several others that we would be happy to organise and book for you; this is not a biased account with the three mentioned lodges being in any way better than those not featured in this shout-out.

  • Mafia island lodge can be found in the Chole bay. Good value economical accommodation, the hotel itself is a little dated as built back in the 70’s as part of the government wildlife lodges. It has its own dive centre with dive packages within Chole bay Marine reserve and also to the outside reefs. There is a new beach bar which shortens the walk if wanting to get refreshment from the main building set back from the beach. Down fall as to this somehow ok beach is that it is adjacent to the fishing village and being a Muslim island if you are sensitive to religious beliefs there are many locals wandering up and down the beaches which could make you a little un-comfortable.
  • Pole Pole unfortunately we did not get chance to see it this time around but has always been a hot in demand lodge since I first came to Tanzania and one can only expect high standards and an enjoyable stay with time spent here. Pole Pole has just announced their new dhow featured swimming pool which would only enhance the experience of some nights spent here.
  • Ras Mbisi located on the West coast has an eco-friendly approach to things and again no time to visit it this time around so have no firsthand experience to offer but by all accounts it still offers good value beach-side accommodation away from it all.
  • Kinasi lodge – the sister lodge to Lua Cheia but a completely different experience altogether. Tastefully built with a African , Indian, Arab blend of design, under simple A-framed thatched roofs, neatly set out on the well manicured grounds that tear down toward the swimming pool. The beach is nothing much to write home about but it does have a little one, plus the activities of canoeing, wind surfing are complimentary to staying guest. Kinasi is defiantly more known for its big game fishing. If you think all the activities sound a little too strenuous there is also a very nice Spa run by a Thai couple. I had a very enjoyable 1 hour traditional Tai massage being creaked and cracked every which way. I had told the guy to take it easy on me as it was around 15 years ago when travelling in Northern Thailand that I had a traditional Thai massage to which I could not move my neck for around a week!!

For more information as to the best time of year to visit Mafia feel free to drop us a line on I’m sure we can design that beach island getaway with a difference, in fact I know we can.

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