— Just tell me a little bit about life on the island. How did it all start and how did you end up there?
We had no intention of ever living there or running a hotel, but it happened because the person who got us into it pulled out after we’d already raised money to start building a primary school and a little clinic. We had raised so many expectations and talked so much to people about what they want to do with their lives, we just didn’t feel that we could stop. So we were stuck, in a way.”
— Chole Mjini treehouse
— It was quite a long way building everything. What is the biggest reward for you?
We built the place entirely by hand with no electricity, no electrical tools. There are fantastic artisans who build boats, but in boats you don’t have any level surfaces. You don’t have parallel surfaces. You don’t need things to be perfectly upright. But for tree houses, you need all of these things. And the Swahili language doesn’t have words for them. In fact, there’s one word that describes everything that’s really geometric, at right angles, parallel, square, vertical, perpendicular, horizontal. The words is ‘sawa’. Unfortunately, ‘sawa’ is also the way that you would respond to say, ‘Okay, right.’ They can have a whole discussion with one word.”
— Chole Mjini
— Tell me about Chole Mjini itself, the different tree houses, the facilities.
The toilets are composting toilets because we can’t actually put a lot of dirty sewage water into the ground. The drinking water level is too close to the surface.
Look, I’m 57. I’m too old to be uncomfortable, so... we have extra-size mattresses that are sprung. We have percale sheets so that I can sleep like a baby, and I need a hot shower after I’ve been diving. Those are essentials for me — they are non-negotiable.”
— What sort of feedback do you get from the guests that stay with you?
We’ve never had a marketing budget before. We don’t go out and sell our product to wholesale distributers who then send people here based on their commission. We’ve always worked with just a few operators who really give out a lot of information and deal very closely and directly with their clients. So people get enough information from that kind of operator to make up their own mind whether they want to come or not.
People who tend to come to Chole Mjini are a little bit different. We like to think of them as travellers with money rather than tourists. Because they’re actually interested to eat local food, meet local people and see how local people live, rather than do what they want to do. These people love Chole Mjini. Less than 1% of our guests don’t like it.”
— Chole Mjini treehouse view
— What sort of food do you serve at Chole Mjini? What’s typical for Tanzania?
We’ve retained some traditional Chole dishes and actually, they’re the favourites on the menu. We’ve introduced things that are completely off the wall like Japanes Sashimi or Turkish mandarin and radish salad. The food’s relatively simple but it’s fresh. It gets cooked and we can’t store it until next meal. If we don’t eat it, the staff eats it. You can’t beat really fresh food, it tastes so good.”
— Chole Mjini treehouse
— Do people change while they stay at Chole Mjini? When you look at them when they arrive and once they leave...
We once had two Danish professors and their wives. They just looked so old, fragile and grey. We thought this is just not going to work. Well, they’ve been back three or four times. They just love it, they change completely. They leave bright pink and happy.
I’ve learnt a lot about how we tend to judge people and see them, and how wrong we can be.”