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Fall in love with Pemba

Written by: Rachel Hamada
Photograph by: Bruce McKim
Boy with cloves, Pemba, Zanzibar

Pemba is the sleepy, green twin of Unguja island, the more populated and developed island of the Zanzibar archipelago. Pembans are known for being hard-working and helpful, and the island's rolling, forested hills make for an enchanting break. The island isn't for you if you like to party hard or be around lots of people, but if you like nature and talking to locals on their own terms, it's a perfect place for you.

It's such an unspoilt destination, Mambo thought long and hard about promoting it at all - but we figured the best thing was to ask Pembans their opinion. The general consensus was that tourism was necessary on a small scale for its economic benefits, but that large-scale package tourism would be unwelcome. So welcome to Pemba, enjoy, engage and tread lightly. And if that sounds too preachy don't worry, this island is fun!  

1. Go snorkelling off Misali island: Pemba's Misali island is the best place Mambo has been snorkelling on the Zanzibar archipelago. Stunning corals and colourful fish, plus few other visitors, make this a truly special spot. Wander inland to visit some of the caves and explore some of the island's alternate beaches. It's a day trip - easily made if you are staying at luxury pad Fundu Lagoon, but otherwise organisable from Mkoani. Jondeni Guest House or Panorama Hotel can organise a boat and crew for you at a fair price. When you snorkel, keep an eye on your location and don't go too far out, as tides can be strong.

Insider tip: Don't go if you have a crab phobia! During our lunchtime picnic, we were surrounded by hungry crabs - by the end there were 50 of them wanting a nibble.

2. Visit Chake Chake and Pemba's museum: Chake Chake is Pemba's largest town, and isn't particularly stunning - but it does boast a hospitable population and useful bits and pieces like banks and internet cafes, which can also be found in northern town of Wete. It's worth spending at least half a day here to get a feel for the place, and explore the small but interesting museum that details some recent archaeological finds on the island and maritime history.

Balloon Brothers, Pemba, Zanzibar

Insider tip: Grab a bite to eat and a drink at Balloon Brothers, near the museum. This cafe serves up lots of local streetfood-style snacks and drinks, from local soups and plantain chips to what we think might have been tamarind juice.

3. See Pemba's flying foxes up close: The Kidike sanctuary for flying foxes - gigantic fruit bats indigenous to Pemba - gives visitors a great opportunity to see these special creatures up close and personal. Close to the village of Ole, and run by Pemban archivist and Renaissance man Kombo Bakar, the centre can be visited as part of a day trip. There is a large population of flying foxes here because of a local burial site that meant colonies remained relatively undisturbed for decades. Proceeds from tourists go to community projects.

Pemban flying fox, Kidike, Pemba

Insider tip: Call Kidike in advance to make sure someone will be there, as it is a small community project - the number is +255 7774 72941. Or if you don't have time to visit this project and plan to stay in Wete anyway, Annex of Sharook (connected with Sharook Guest House) is right next to a flying fox colony.

4. Take your nose to visit the essential oil distillery: Pemba's essential oil factory, just outside Chake Chake (you can take a taxi but check your taxi driver knows where he is going and ideally will also help you purchase your entrance tickets), is a real gem. With an ambience best described as tropical-industrial, it produces oils from the island's natural riches, such as lemongrass, cinnamon and clove. A tour guide will walk you round the facility and show you how the oils are produced.

Insider tip: If you are buying oils to take home, bring some plastic bags to wrap them in tightly or your own bottles to decant the oils into, as the bottles provided can be a bit leaky.

5. Explore Vumawimbi beach and Ngezi forest: Vumawimbi beach is one of the most stunning stretches of white sand beach on the Zanzibar archipelago, and it's entirely free of hotels and tourism development. For now it remains a gloriously local beach, with most traffic children or oxcarts. Meanwhile, nearby Ngezi forest is a gigantic spread of indigenous rainforest, full of birds and wildlife - we saw a baby turtle in a small lake. Most tourists do a short one-hour tour in one corner of the place, but naturalists and walking enthusiasts can do a longer six-hour tour, which takes in much more of the forest's diversity – many of the birds you can see are endemic subspecies – or discuss tailored tour options with the rangers. Both trips can be done easily from Kervan Saray Beach Lodge, the Manta Resort or Verani Beach Hotel, or from hotels in Wete such as Sharook Guest House, Hill View Hotel or Pemba Crown Hotel.

Vumawimbi

Insider tip: Mosquitoes can be bad in Ngezi, especially in the morning, so take your repellent. Ranger Hayo is one of the best guides, you can contact him in advance on +255 773 560487.

6. Experience the island's spectacular diving: Diving off Unguja is good, but diving off Pemba island is genuinely world class. It's possible to see as many as 400 types of fish, and a huge array of pelagics from May to November in particular. Considering damage to coral reefs internationally from bleaching and El Nino, the reefs around Pemba are in great shape, and you'll almost never be competing with other divers, or indeed even see any. Particularly recommended is the diving at Uvinje, Njao and Fundo gaps, as well as around Misali island.

Insider tip: Currents can be fierce in Pemban waters compared to Unguja, and diving here is generally suited to more advanced divers. If in any doubt, take a refresher course or do some diving on Unguja first.

7. Witness a Pemban bullfight: Bullfighting in Pemba was an import from the Portuguese, but the local variant is much more civilised than its European counterpart. In this version, the cow is respected and paraded around the village, and the fight itself is a test of skill rather than a fight to the death. The tradition and ceremony surrounding the fight is as important as the main event.

Insider tip: You're unlikely to coincide with a fight out of good luck (though it does no harm to ask around), but you can ask for an authentic bullfight to be performed for you. The cost is $100 per group and some advance notice is required. Contact Kombo Bakar on +255 7774 72941 to book a fight.

8. Visit the island's archaeological sites: The island of Pemba is peppered with interesting and often little explored historical sites. One example is at Ras Mkumbuu, a spit to the west of the island. Here, the Qanbalu ruins feature a circa 10th century mosque and are what is left of arguably the oldest Muslim settlement in Africa. There are also said to be sunken ruins, possibly part of the same settlement, that have not yet been investigated. Another site is Mkama Ndume, named for an unpopular and autocratic king. Here the ruins of a 15th century palace can be explored, and the story is that a "jealous well" was built here with a dividing wall so that the king's two wives, who did not get on, could collect water without seeing one another. Chwaka ruins in the north is also worth a visit – here there are mosque ruins, graves and you can find pieces of pottery dating as far back as the 7th century. In the 9th century, Chwaka grew into a substantial trading town.

Insider tip: Don't expect much in terms of on-site interpretation of historical sites (or in fact any) - instead ask a local tour operator in Pemba if there is a guide who can come with you to explain the history of each site. Knowledge about the sites is sparse and often contested, but there is no doubt that some serious ghosts linger in these spots.

9. Find out about local voodoo: Pemba is the spiritual home of the witchdoctor - "mganga". Evelyn Waugh, visiting Pemba in the 1930s, reported: "Zanzibar and Pemba are the chief centres of black art on the whole coast, and novices come from as far as the Great Lakes to graduate here. Even from Haiti, it is said, witch doctors will occasionally come to probe the deepest mysteries of voodoo." For $120 a group can meet a local mganga and possibly even "physically see the evil spirit".

Insider tip: Tread lightly. Respect local beliefs, go with a guide who knows Pemba and how witchcraft is practised here. Don't try to get deeply into this subject on your own without knowing the context and the people. Again, contact Kombo Bakar, on +255 7774 72941. He also offers hunting trips with dogs, fishing trips with local fishermen and homestays.

10. Do nothing at all: Pemba is an exquisitely peaceful, fertile place with a slow, generous pace of life. Check in to some of its most beautiful isolated hotels, such as Pemba Eco Lodge or Fundu Lagoon, and just lounge. Take a Kindle, chat to staff, go for some gentle strolls, eat some fresh seafood. Relax.

Insider tip: Book a decent length of stay so you can unwind fully, but also remember that Pemba can be really soporific, so if you are inclined to cabin fever, consider spending some time also on the island of Unguja, or on the mainland.

Comments

Witch doctor

Kindly let me know who can guide me to get a good traditional doctor to solve a problem I have.
Philip

Pemba-licious!!

Each trip to Pemba is a treasured moment, even for us Zanzibaris. Spot on Mambo!

Fundo

You forgot to mention some parts like Mkandume ruins, Msikiti chooko and other historic part. You also forgot to mention picnics along virgin island near fundo

Thank you

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