You probably have three choices when it comes to getting around:
- Taking a taxi or hiring a driver. Can be a bit expensive and not that flexible.
- Dala-dala, which is what locals use as a public transport. This is a really cheap and adventurous affair. However, not flexible, safety is under question and since a lot of locals use it, they are almost always full and you can’t rely on catching them.
- Renting a car. Costs much cheaper than a taxi, gives you a lot of flexibility, but you need to possess some driving skills and not be afraid to navigate the local roads.
I’ve chosen renting a car in Zanzibar and will elaborate on my experience in this post.
Renting a car in Zanzibar
Choosing a rental car company took some effort for me. First, there are no global companies operating on Zanzibar like Hertz, Avis or Sixt, so you’ll have to deal with some you’ve never heard before of.
I’ve booked the car online through their website and was contacted over email really quickly. I’ve had to sign a contract, pay a 50% deposit online and send over scans of the driving licenses of all people who were going to drive the car.
Their representative was waiting for us just outside the terminal. The car he has brought was a little bit better than what we have booked (free upgrade!). There are practically no new cars out there, so a 10-years old Toyota Harrier we’ve had was kind of luxury. Kibabu’s guy explained us where to get the SIM card and fill up the gas, provided a free rough map of the island, collected the second 50% of the payment and a $100 deposit for the car, which was returned to us when we handed over the car back to him at the airport.
We had no issues with the car over the course of the trip!
Driving in Zanzibar
First of all, you’d need a local permit to drive in Zanzibar, the International Driver’s License is not valid! But don’t worry, the company you’d rent your car from should take care of the permit, which is essentially an A4 paper with your driving license’s data and it usually costs about $10 USD.
Driving in Zanzibar needs some time getting used to. Here are some of the challenges you need to brace yourself for:
- You drive on the left side of the road and cars obviously are right hand drive. So, unless you’re coming from a country with a British legacy, be prepared to constantly remind yourself of sticking to the left and I bet you’ll trigger the wipers at least a few times instead of the turning signal :).
- The roads are narrow and sometimes bumpy. However, most of the roads between towns are in quite a good shape.
- The traffic is chaotic, especially in Stone Town. There are no marked lanes and people just “go with the flow” most of the time.
- Streets are usually not marked and signs are scarce. You must rely on Google Maps and your intuition when finding a place :).
- Streets aren’t lit at night, so be extra careful. It is possible to drive after dark, but just go slowly and pay extra attention as in particular there are a lot of people walking on the road.
Most important, remember to drive pole-pole (slowly-slowly in Swahili). This is a rule #1 to avoid trouble and I guess it applies outside of Africa just as well :). The speed limits are marked really rarely. What I heard is that it is 40 km/h in the cities and 80 km/h outside, but the person who rented a car to us said that it is usually 60 km/h. I never saw a policemen with a radar though, so I guess just be careful and don’t go too much over 60 km/h.
Police in Zanzibar
Police is present on the roads quite often. We were stopped at every 5-th checkpoint or so. Sometimes we were just asked how are we doing and sometimes they wanted to see the driving license. Showing the local permit (A4 paper) worked, I didn’t even have to pull out my real license, but make sure you have it with you all the time.
In case you’re stopped, don’t worry, just smile and greet the policeman. If he asks for some documents, let them see what he is asking for. Nobody ever checked our passports and nobody asked for any bribes. We also had a phone number of the rental company and were advised to call them in case of any issues with police. Luckily, we didn’t need it after all.
Is it worth renting a car on Zanzibar?
My answer is a definite YES! Only having a car you’ll have flexibility to explore everything you want at the time you want. It takes some time to get used to driving, but people in Zanzibar are not aggressive and if you drive slowly and carefully you should not get into any trouble.
Check out the Full Guide to Zanzibar