Matthew Hardeman discovers an East African paradise on Tanzania's new and exclusive private island and marine reserve
Ten miles off the tropical coast of Mafia island in southern Tanzania, far in every sense from the the sprawling, malarial megapolis of Dar es Salaam, lies the little-known island of Thanda or Shungi Mbili - ‘two head shawls on the horizon’ in Swahili. An oceanic oasis, home to green and hawksbill turtles, endangered dugongs, and passing whale sharks, it offers something a bit different than your typical private island offering unbounded luxury to deep-pocketed solace-seekers.
The brainchild of billionaire Swedish philanthropists and entrepreneurs Christin and Dan Olofsson (they also own Thanda Game Reserve in South Africa), it can't be faulted for its ambition. The committed naturalists and conservationists have invested heavily in reducing the impact on the environment and maintaining an unspoilt habitat, taking pains to call it a private marine reserve – not just a private island. Off-grid and self-sufficient, sustainability is the focus here: all the energy is renewable, thanks to hidden solar panels. The result is arguably the most ambitious take on luxury and privacy in Africa, but undoubtedly a stroke of luck.
Tasked with finding the ideal private island off the continent’s east coast - the first and only of its kind - managing director Pierre Delvaux scoured the Seychelles, Madagáscar, and Mozambique for leads. Unsatisfied but undeterred, he finally turned to the Tanzanian coast, flying over what turned out to be the remote island archipelago of Njororo, Shungi Mbili and Mbarakuni. Another trip back to the island by boat confirmed what was seen in the air: eight hectares of uninhabited tropical paradise, protected by coral reefs and surrounded by open ocean, frequented only occasionally by local fishermen looking for shelter. After lengthy engagement with the authorities, the family eventually bought the island from the Tanzanian government, developing the island into what it today calls their own ‘discreet, sumptuous retreat and private playground’.
For US $10,000 per night, guests can enjoy Thanda as their own (minus the twelve weeks of the year the Olofssons are in residence), with full access to the villa and its facilities – the only accommodation and structure on the island, minus the staff quarters, hidden in dense brush around the back and the winding stretch of white shell and sand beach that lines its rim.
The result is a picture-perfect post card of a desert island, re-planted with indigenous flora and brush in an effort to replenish local vegetation. The staff are keen to keep it that way, regularly engaging with the local sea-faring community about sustainability (largely with an aim to putting an end to the ghastly history of dynamite fishing – a practice that could once be heard from the island’s shore until a 1km exclusion zone was established) and partner with the Tanzanian Marine Parks and local NGOs on regional marine conservation efforts. In just a short time, we are told, many fish species have returned to the coral snorkelling spots, and the reef is in full recovery.
For all the emphasis on nature, the family have hardly spared any effort looking after its human inhabitants: the large villa – the only one on the island – houses five bright, breezy and fully air-conditioned bedroom villa suites, which are fitted with plush king-sized beds and wooden furniture, leading directly through glass doors onto the white sand beach (further beds for additional children can be set up in the bedroom suites if needed). It’s also home to two additional ‘bandas’ – small, charming guesthouses built in traditional local style, each with a master king-sized bedroom on the first floor and a king-sized bedroom below, with the option of adding two extra single beds for children and extra guests.
All the while, the Olofssons’ team of at least eight full-time staff are on hand, including your own dedicated executive chef, hostess, housekeeper and boatman. David, our charming attendant and resident Idris Elba lookalike, is ever nearby so as to refresh our palettes and render woozy our minds with classic cocktails and in-house specials.
The spacious white wooden beach house offers an impressive array of amenities beyondthe sleek bathrooms with their walk-in and alfresco showers. There’s the huge indoor aquarium, a Steinway grand piano, extensive wine collection, a stargazer, and a cigar humidor in the open-plan living area that leads out to the wrap-around outdoor dining area, which boasts a 180° view of the ocean. Upstairs, there’s a library, replete with Hemingway novels and African adventure classics, and a children’s play area. Outside, the glass, rim-flow infinity pool is particularly spectacular at sunset, as the intense orange and purple light of the horizon blends into its surface.
Despite being off-grid and completely self-sufficient, high-flying Facebookers who simply can’t disconnect will be pleased to know that the villa nonetheless has surprisingly zippy Wi-Fi access, Bose surround sound systems, and even its own mobile phone reception technology. The island itself can be accessed either by a fast custom-built boat, or, of course, by helicopter (naturally, it has it’s own landing pad, some 45-minutes flying time from Dar es Salaam).
Looking around at features and furnishings surely to be found nowhere else in Africa, it’s obvious that this is a home – not some management-run hotel. The Olofssons’ exactingstandards are unmistakable. There’s certainly no sense of ‘making do’ with what little would have been available locally to build this place: the copper beach baths, the cocktail bar, an al fresco dining and barbecue area, the ‘breakfast boma’, the bonfire pits and the party pavilion tent and a stone pizza oven – amenities only an exacting UHNW could think to bring all the way out here, to this tiny dot off the coast of Africa with an almost surreal vision of luxury.
It’s hard to overstate the scale of ambitions on this tiny island. There’s an air-conditioned gym, a bird trail that is home to egrets and endangered reef herons, tennis court (which can even be lit up for evening play), beach volleyball, reef and sailing boats to take guests deep sea fishing, snorkeling, and scuba diving, jet-skis, kayaks, paddle-boards – not to mention wakeboarding, tubing, and water-skiing. Failing the waterboarding in spectacular fashion, I particularly enjoyed riding the jet-ski around thefull shoreline of the island, taking an impromptu swim with the harmless (if a tad skittish) reef sharks that swim along the island’s own coral reef, stretching for a kilometre along the island’s northeast shore.
Apart from the occasional dhow and their distinctive sails dotting the horizon, Thanda feels completely isolated – blissfully so. That’s not to say it doesn’t have neighbours, and there’s no shortage of things to do on some of the nearer islands, out of sight but still accessible in under an hour. Visit Chole, home to centuries-old Arab trading posts and jails (much of which still stands) and its famous flying foxes, walk through a maze of towering palm trees to find a local fishing village as groups of local children come running, beaming from ear to ear with endless fascination for iPhone selfies.
Mafia island, which recently had a small runway built, courtesy of the US State Department (another way to access Thanda,if transferring by boat), also has its own charm, seemingly caught in a time bubble, undeveloped and rural, yet blessed with pristine turquoise coastline, and some of the best diving and snorkelling in Africa. Going even further back in time, guests can even swim around what could be the ancient sunken city of Rhapta, only recently discovered, but believed to be some 2,000 years old.
Or, they can just relax, sunbathe, take coffee and cocktails, a champagne breakfast or a lobster lunch impeccably cooked by Thanda’s talented chefs on a remote sandbar, surrounded by a 360° view of the ocean. Wander the beach at night and marvel at the Milky Way’s full, luminous spectacle, and wonder at such a rare sense of peace.
Robinson Crusoe, eat your heart out.
Matthew Hardeman is Deputy Head of the Spear's Research Unit
Thanda Island’s private villa sleeps 10 adults (beds can be set up for additional children) and is priced at a flat rate of US$10,000 per night.
True Africa offers tailored itineraries and can organise flights within Tanzania and additional destination accommodation | +27 21 418 1515
Kenya Airways flies to Dar es Salaam via Nairobi daily from London Heathrow