Day 330: Caves Found, Paradise Lost

The defunct Dolphin Bay Resort is now a perfect set for a horror film. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Glenn Simonelli

Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.

THERE'S a large sinkhole cave with a rubble trail that leads down to a pool of water so clear that for a moment I think it's dry. Higher up in the sinkhole, which is full of lush green plants, there is a small clearing with a blackened ash circle marking where some locals made lunch or dinner in the coolness bestowed by the cave. Tucked beneath a few large boulders are queen conch shells about the size of a child's fist, probably what was cooked up over the fire.

The coolness cut through the midday heat as soon as we began our descent.

It's a Sunday, a relaxed Sunday, and an interesting Sunday with the Boss Lady bubbling around the premise in a sky-blue sundress and a wide-brimmed sun hat.

This morning, a little fly buzzes into my sleeping face and then onto my arm and then back into my face. People say roosters are ideal for waking a person in the morning, perhaps they are ideal as there is something awakening, yet noninvasive about their morning crowing. A fly, however, is guaranteed to rouse even a heavy sleeper such as myself. I roll around in my sleeping bag on the balcony for a bit before giving up. Baby Dada is also awake in her sleeping bag on the balcony.

Flora had a bit of a romance with the young German fella Laura brought out with her last night, so the downstairs bedroom door with my change of clothes in it is closed. I cuddle up in the hammock to push through the final pages of Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.

“Mwanzi's going to show us how to make coconut oil,” Flora announces from the edge of the kitchen. Flora is a morning person, so it's no surprise that she's up. However, the German is still in the bedroom.

“Brilliant! Can I come?” I ask.

After five minutes of walking through the bush Mwanzi, Flora, Heather, and I arrive at Twiga, a little Rasta hostel with the classic signpost pointing in the direction of major world cities. The wooden sign for New York, where I'll be heading when Dice Travels is wrapped up. The sign, perfectly rectangular and slightly askew, doesn't point anywhere.

Though Twiga is the closest place with power, I've never been here.

“We can't tell anyone,” Heather says as we each start in on a plate of breakfast. It's a simple breakfast, but feels decadent. There's a triangle of egg whites, chapati, bread, fruits, and coffee. I help myself to another cup of instant coffee. I'm starting to think that the Americano I'm having at the Italian cafe is in fact instant coffee, which would explain why it's cheaper than an espresso.

Mwanzi hands Heather a thick joint before wandering off.

“I was doing so well today. I told myself I wasn't going to smoke this morning,” Heather says, taking a long drag.

“I'm pretty proud of myself. I've stopped smoking cigarettes here and am taking maybe just a few drags

at night,” Flora says, referring to smoking a sun-downer joint.

Heather gives a silly, slightly overwhelmed smile as the guy behind the bar passes her the joint. She takes the last hit from what's tweezered between her fingers.

It's a guilty pleasure sitting on stools at the wooden bar next to a pile of interesting books and in such good company. Opposite of us is a young, thin man stoned beyond comprehension. A guest asks him about fruit juice. He does his best to point toward the sign that sign that says “juice”.

“Yes, is it a mixed juice? Do you have it?” she asks.

He dumbly smiles at her and tries to nod, but isn't fooling anyone. He's got no idea what's being asked of him.

“Maybe try the man in the kitchen,” I suggest, pointing to a tin shack near the back of the sandy lot.

“I did already. He says that it's a milk day.”

“Cow juice it is then,” I say.

We start chipping chunks of pure white coconut meat away from hard brown husks with butter knifes in the kitchen. However, the girls quickly move us into the shade of a palm tree on the sandy ground outside.

There's a certain, tangible satisfaction that fills each of us when a large chunk of meat comes free from the shell.

“Ah! Look at this one,” I say, holding up the treasured hunk, to the appreciation murmurers from the girls, who are feeling the same sort of happiness when a big piece pops out of the shell.

“We're so spoiled,” Heather says as we come to terms with the fact that for our unskilled hands deshelling a coconut is a bit more work than expected.

Once the meats free, Mwanzi – who seems to know how to do nearly everything – instructs us to chop the sandy bits of flesh up into smaller pieces before rinsing them off in the sink.

The meat is dumped into a blender with the coconut water.

Heather and I slip out to the bar while Flora works with the blender, which is struggling.

“It's amazing that we all have so much in common when it comes to traveling. It's crazy that we're able to all sit here and jam about Thailand and Laos,” I muse, both Flora and Emilie have spent a significant amount of time in Southeast Asia.

“The power is out,” Flora calls from the kitchen.

It doesn't happen every Sunday, but some Sundays they turn the power off in the village, or maybe it's all of Zanzibar, it's hard to completely understand what Mwanzi is telling us.

“What do you mean? Go in there and do it manually! Let's stop being so spoiled. Think of all that plastic and the white man who made that plastic. We need to go without the luxury,” I say, teasing Heather, whose every other utterance seems to be on the verge of railing against the white man and the world he has created, so much to the point that she often doesn't even realize the hate slipping out between her lips.

She gives her big, beautiful smile, eyes shining as she continues the riff: “Yeah down with the white man and all the privilege.”

That said, neither of us considers moving from our stools.

I sip coffee and talk with Heather about the last few stanzas of one of her poems that we were critiquing a few days ago.

It's unknown how long it will take for the power to return. Maybe an hour, maybe several hours.

I ask Mwanzi, who is close friends with the guys at Twiga, if I can borrow a book one of their books.

With a new book in tow, we saunter in a single-file line along a low piece of foundation marking where someone's dream never got very far off the ground. The foundation takes a few angular turns then drops us off in the bush not so far from home.

Paul, the German with a vision called the Garden of Wonders, is home. He's come over to meet Laura to talk about how they can collaborate. There's a buzzing excitement in his eyes, like bees aware that winter has broken and that soon the first pollen dense blooms will be opening up to their hairy legs.

“Do you want to come see the Green Cave,” Laura asks us.

Yes. Yes, we do want to come see the cave. It's amazing how little exploring those of us at The House of Giggles have done in the region. Laura, who is more familiar with the lay of the land, if a bit disconnected from the reality of the project, is a treasure trove of little secrets. Not only are we going to visit some sweet water caves, but we're also going to steal some aloe vera plants from an abandoned luxury resort somewhere past Promised Land.

Gusts of wind keep blowing Laura's big sun hat off as we work our way through a grove of coconut trees and past a pair of soft-eyed cows grazing on bits of grass among the coral rag rubble.

The foliage becomes slightly more dense near the cave's entrance. It's a small cave the digs down under an overhanging chunk of bedrock.

“It looks like the water's run dry,” I say as we scramble a few meters down to where the cave mouth begins to close.

“No,” Laura says. “Look, it's just so clear.”

Her finger taps above the white pebble bottom of a pool and reality ripples. There is water. She leans forward and scoops some into her mouth.

“Hmmmm, still a bit salty,” she says, standing back up.

Around the corner, there are a few tiny, young stalagmites and stalactites.

“Has anyone explored deeper into the cave?” I ask as our small group slips around a corner of the mouth to a crawl space that none of us are prepared to squirm into.

A wrist-thick black piece of plastic tubing snakes out of the depth of the cave into the bush like an anaconda. Someone is already pulling water from the cave, perhaps exasperating the low water levels, but probably no more than we are with the well dug back at The House of Giggles.

“We haven't explored much here,” Laura says.

Paul, who got stung at the entrance of the cave, coos when Flora rubs a little salve on the sting when we get back to the house. We've paused in the heat for a quick moment before pushing past our place to Paul's plot of land.

What I see and what Paul sees are two very different landscapes. Many ragged bushes have been burnt or removed from the lot, leaving behind a moonscape. But what I see as a barren landscape is simply a canvas on which Paul's imagination has already begun sketching his dream.

“This is where we'll put in the outdoor cinema,” he says sweeping his hand across the land. “We'll also plant different kinds of spices. My mother's idea is to have a bridge across the entire stretch of land. This way, we can see above the bush. Over there, we'll build up even higher”

Paul's speaking in English for my sake, as everyone else is a native German speaker. Beads of sweat dribble down his reddened forehead. The intensity of the sun is getting the best of all of us.

“There has to be a break, so we can separate the pool from here. I want to be able to swim naked in the pool, so it's necessary,” he says.

Some serious work has begun on the swimming pool area, which is a white ditch about a meter deep with thick rubble walls on three sides. A pit in the middle is what is left of the demolition hammer's futile attempt to push beyond the bedrock.

Paul continues to paint his dream for us. The pool will mostly be covered and there will be a deep end so his son can jump through a window and into the water below.

“It's getting so hot,” Laura says, voicing all of our thoughts. “Maybe we should head back?”

“I've saved the best for last. We're almost to the cave,” Paul says.

We scramble down into the coolness created by the greenery and the water below. At the edge of the pool, Laura declares that she's going in, strips off her sundress and wades topless into the water. She squeals with delight as the cold water caresses her skin.

The uncovered part of the clear pool is the size of a large hot tube. However, the water is chilling – not ice cold, but it sends shivers through our bodies as Laurence, Flora, and I strip down to underwear or swimsuits and join Laura.

The tiny coral pebbles are soft against my feet as I press back toward where the water meets the rock wall of the cave.

The wall doesn't come straight down, but bends away from us, turning into a low ceiling in the water. Only a meter further into the water-filled cave, there is blackness.

Paul was surveying the land on Google Earth when he spotted two little black holes much deeper into the bush, then where we are now. He and his first mate explained to the village that they were headed out to explore, but were warned against it.

Three days in a row, the villagers chatted their ears off before they set out, making it impossible to reach the caves.

Finally, early one morning, the pair were able to slip out of town unnoticed. They arrived at the caves as the battery life on Paul's phone fell to one percent. They'd been using the GPS on it to navigate to the cave, but had no idea how to get back. It was already late in the evening.

Forced to turn back before exploring the cave, they didn't stumble back into the village until 9pm, three hours after sunset. Villagers had already been organized into search parties.

This wasn't one of those two caves, but the submerged, black mouth of this watery cave whispered words that filled my head with the images of what potential might be laying in its darkness. The cave could easily open back up. There was even the possibility of air pockets that would allow us to keep pushing into the system.

I take a deep breath and sink beneath the surface of the cool pool of water. My feet slide into the darkness, tentatively feeling the small loose rocks of the ceiling as I slip into the cave.

I quickly come back, take another breath and push even deeper into the cave. With no flashlight and no intentions of coming anywhere near my breath-holding limits, I continue to probe, feet first, deeper into the underwater cave.

Time slips by.

There's something exciting and comforting about being submerged in a cave with a single breath of air in your lungs.

I come back out.

“Does anyone have a waterproof flashlight?” I ask.

“Yeah, maybe we come back another time with the flashlight and do it properly,” Paul suggests, perhaps a bit nervous about seeing me disappear into the blackness.

“That would be ideal. Me and some friends use to explore sea caves in Phuket all the time,” I say, stretching the truth. I think I went with them only a handful of times and was never impressed with the safety measures taken as they explored the little islands in Phang Nga Bay.

We agree to come back Tuesday.

Cooled off from the water, we aren't bothered by heat as we walk back to The House of Giggles.

I'm giddy with excitement about the caves and the chance to explore them. Laura explains that one of the jobs she'd originally asked Megan to have someone take care of was exploring the area around the permaculture.

Megan's nearly ready to layout a beautiful spread of food for us when we return. The chit-chat subsides as the community area is filled with the sound of happy animals munching on cabbage. Everyone's jaws are working away on a lovely, cabbage heavy salad, like cows contentedly grazing in a pasture. After a family-style gorging, we all sit back to catch our breath.

Heather, Flora, and I join Laura in the car as we shove off to an abandoned resort.

Sitting shotgun, I'm a happy dog being brought along on a family car ride to the park on Sunday. There's a capricious happiness somewhere inside me as the soft leather seat of the seat rises up to meet every part of my back. My body relaxes for a moment in a way that it hasn't relaxed in a very long time.

Head out the window, I catch a gimps of myself in the mirror. My face has gone red on the nose and forehead, as well as on the cheeks. My hair, dry and thick with salt, stands on ends, splayed in every direction, while my facial hair is starting to thicken on my jaw and throat from not shaving since I arrived at the commune.

Laura denies having heard anything about the failing relations with Promised Land Lodge as we roll past the paradisaical resort.

Our SUV comes to a stop outside the gate to Dolphin Bay Resort. A single woman wrapped in colorful cloth sits in the shade below bright bougainvillea blossoms cresting a tall rock wall.

This resort is what it looks like when extravagant dreams come to fruition moments before going up in flames. The extraordinary costs of getting a place to this point make it hard not to search one's imagination for a phoenix-like return.

The dilapidated iron gates stand askew and closed.

Laura says something to the woman her and then opens the door of the gate for people, a smaller door nestled into the metal swinging doors. A man sits, half-asleep in a broken down guard house past the gate.

Laura tells him that we're looking around and going to take a few aloe vera plants.

Before us is what remains of the sprawling, landscaped estate of the Dolphin Bay Resort, 9,895 hectares of prime real estate with 22 spacious, 3-bedroom pool villas and a private beach.

It's a ghost town.

The grass is kept short by the occasional grazing beast and the thin soil, while large palm trees line the driveway to an open-aired pentagon lobby. A washing machine that scavengers decided to leave behind sits in the middle of the lobby entrance.

The resorted opened in 2009, boasting traditional Zanzibari design, with white walls, terracotta floors, and makuti thatched roofs.

A mattress has been spread out in the wide walkway of the lobby, connecting the games, room the sea bar, and the dining room. At the center of the pentagon stands a robust coconut palm reaching up toward the blue, cloud-filled sky.

A squatter has thrown a mattress down in the hallway, he ignores us as he rests. Through a window, behind a locked door are the dusty, but neatly folded, bedding for the resort.

Some furniture remains, while much seems to have been stolen.

Out back, the building opens on a bone-dry infinity pool perched on a coral rag cliff overlooking a private beach and the Indian Ocean.

Leaves and weeds have begun to encroach on the bright bougainvillea, prickly pear cacti, coconut palms and other flora originally woven into the luxury landscape.

Further along, the remnants of a pier stretch way out into the ocean, far enough that the end would still be accessible during low tide. With the tide out, the fallen pillars of the resort, their bases fat and rounded with cement, look like discarded lollipops just below the softest-tortoise waters.

One of the intricately carved, dark stained doors to the villa swings in when I push on it. The windows were probably broken for sport, the glass in piles inside the empty villa that was once equipped with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV, wireless internet, and delicately carved Zanzibari carved furniture.

“This is what it looks like when a business deal or land title goes wrong somewhere too far down the line in a developing nation,” I think.

I know in my heart of hearts that this beautiful dream is a lost cause. I've seen it before. On Phuket and the surrounding islands, there are pockets of shoreline and sections of jungle mountains that play home to these UFOs – unfinished objects, as they call them in Ghana.

Years ago, we asked an editor to spearhead a special report on such buildings on Phuket. For some reason, he never showed up with a story, perhaps an appropriate outcome given the subject matter.

Dolphin Bay Resort is owned by a group of Danish investors. According to their sales pitch, “The investor group has experienced difficulty in reaching an agreement on the future strategy of the resort. Also, the investors have realized that they do not have the sufficient skills, nor the time and energy, to manage and develop the resort to fulfill its full potential.”

That must have been a brutal realization after sinking millions and millions of dollars into the project.

Flora appears from among the decrepit villas.

“Think Laura is ready to go,” she says.

“Okay, I've got all the drone footage I need. We really should come back here and throw a party or something.

As Flora and I near the entrance, we spot Laura and Heather standing with a local man. He's offering a wry smile as he speaks in Swahili.

“Perhaps you can give me some money,” the man says in Swahili.

Laura bums a red 10,000 Shilling note of Flora who happens to be carrying money and pays the man.

The dada stand in a cluster. Heather holds a well-carved mancala board and a wooden tissue box.

An overgrown garden bursting with thick leaved aloe vera is at the entrance to a weedy parking area no far from the gate.

As I pack up the drone, the dadas begin to tug on the hefty plants.

Laura said we didn't need a shovel, as the thick roots run right on top of the soil into a mess of spiky leaves. However, the women are struggling to break the plants free. Heather steps back, as does Laura, as I crouch down and start yanking out the hefty succulents, their roots making a satisfying snapping sound as they come free.

“Nice to have a strong man,” Laura almost coos.

“Once you get the first one, the rest are easy; they want to be with their friends,” I say.

Even Flora gives up on the one she's working on, allowing me to rip it out for us. If I wasn't there, I'm sure they'd buckle down and get it done. However, I'm happy to be useful after having aimlessly wandered the premise.

I show a couple of squatters who are now lingering at the gate a picture of the Zanzibar Pentagon from above. Nervously – keenly aware that I've got 100 dollars folded up, but visible in my drone bag – I finish packing up Dorsey II and hop into our vehicle.

We all get out at Twiga.

“Can someone buy me a cold drink?” Laura asks, putting Flora – the only one with money – in the uncomfortable position of coughing up enough money to cover the 4,000 Shilling bill.

It's all small money, but I'm happy I'm not in the habit of carrying local currency with me. With only a few thousand Shilling left to supposedly carry me through the daily expenditures for the next week or so, I can't go throwing bills at little things like this. It's not until later that I learned that Flora also ended up covering the costs of a big truckload of sand that was delivered today – another 10,000 Shillings out of pocket with the promise of being paid back.

The power is back on at Twiga, which means we can to this morning's task of making coconut oil.

Heather and I linger in the shade, while Flora begins blending the coconut chunks with tap and coconut water.

She comes out of the thatch kitchen shack a few minutes later.

“It's overheated.”

I tinker with the little blender for a bit with no success.

However, once it's cooled down, I take over making the coconut milk. When it stops again, Mwanzi steps in to point out that there's probably too much in the blender for the poor little guy to smoothly run.

With less coconut and more water, I'm able to quickly make my way through the pile of meat we'd cut out this morning.

Mwanzi is lounging in a hammock after smoking a thick joint, but promises to come help us with the last steps of making coconut oil this evening.

Laura's about to leave for Stone Town when we arrive back at The House of Giggles, but then changes her mind to join an expedition to yet another cave. Though I love caves, I bow out of this group outing to go with Flora, Laurence, and Baby Dada to Sunset Beach instead. I missed a spectacular sunset yesterday, as well as my daily ocean swim, which I'm not prepared to do again.

“So you're coming to the party,” Laura asks.

“Yeah, I'd like to come for sure,” I say before waving her off.

Laura is celebrating her birthday in Stone Town on Saturday. It should be an interesting gathering of people.

High tide is coming later and later in the day. It's 5:30pm when we arrive at the beach, a local couple is sitting under a coconut tree in the rough sand spread out on the coral bedrock. A black SUV sits nearby.

The tide isn't even to the bottom step leading down the coral rag wall. A thick line of seaweed and algae runs down the coastline. Everyone but me is content sitting in the sand and waiting for the tide to come in a bit more.

“This is exactly why I don't like to bring my drone down here,” I tell Baby Dada, as Laurence and Flora chatter away in German. I don't want to feel vulnerable because of my stuff. I want to step into the ocean while harboring even the slightest fear that someone might run off with my dear Dorsey II.

“I'm telling you, it won't be as high as when the moon is new and full,” Flora says. “I've not seen it that high before.”

Despite my worries for Dorsey II, I push into the water, a turquoise, pool-like stillness that covers the first 500 meters from shore like a plate of glass until it gathers depths about where a small fishing boat is bobbing. It's warm, but not as hot as when I first visited the beach with Flora several weeks ago.

Then, I'm swimming. My arms swing around and around, catching handfuls of water before throwing them behind me. I consciously ensure that I'm kicking three times between each stroke as I practice breathing on both sides.

My forearms take on the golden hue of the setting sun. It's not a spectacular sunset and the ocean colors aren't popping enough to justify getting Dorsey out to film, but it feels good to be swimming.

I dive toward the bottom. Gardens of spiky urchins – ocean acacias – are black blurs in front of me as I glide over them. The salt water burns my eyes more than it did two days ago, I flinch as I come back to the surface. The diving is hard on my left ear. I can clear the pressure in it, but it seems that I'm never able to drain the water once I get out.

“Why do you always leave before the sunset?” Flora asks as I start grabbing my things in preparation for heading into town for some a six-pack of water.

“I guess I could stay,” I say. The only reason is because I'm an antsy person who just can't keep still long enough to watch the sun take its final bow. Yet for some reason have no issue sitting in a dark theater watching thousands of names scroll by during the ending credits of a movie.

“I'm not forcing you to stay.”

“I know. You're simply encouraging me.”

I settle down next to Baby Dada on her towel. A few minutes later, everyone wants to get back in the water for a swim.

The shallow water takes on a depth of colors at sunset. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli

As they swim out, the color of the azure water becomes more intense as if the saturation was bumped up several notches on Photoshop. Dorsey II takes to the air and the world below becomes majestic.

Once the memory card is full and she's begging me to let her come home before she falls out of the sky from lack of power, I pack her away.

I part with my fear.

A beach boy and his friend sit nearby me. The 20-year-old local has taken a shine to Flora over the last

“The drone is safe,” I tell myself as I wade back into the ocean.

Fat cumulus nimbus clouds cling to the horizon as the sun paints marmalade streaks across a stratus cloud capping the sky at such a distance that there is empty blue above it.

This is the sort of view worth waiting a few more minutes for.

The girls take in a sunset. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

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