Part of the Zanzibar Archipelago, Pemba lies between Unguja Island (known informally around the world as Zanzibar) and the Tanzania-Kenya border. Its Arabic name translates as the Green Island—an apt moniker considering its lush landscape of thickly vegetated hills. Interspersed with clove plantations, these hills are separated from the island’s secret coves and white sand beaches by a belt of dense mangrove forest; while the ocean itself is home to some of East Africa’s most pristine coral reefs.
With far fewer crowds and less tourist infrastructure than neighboring Zanzibar, it’s an off-the-beaten track getaway for those that want to experience authentic island life in addition to world-class scuba diving and fishing.
A History of Trade & Invasion
Pemba’s prehistory remains veiled in mystery, but it is likely that its first inhabitants arrived from the African mainland several thousand years ago. As early as 600 AD the island became a key stop on the Swahili Coast trade route. Traders from Arabia, India and China used its deep waters for safe anchorage when they stopped to stock up on spices, gold, ivory and eventually slaves, all transported to the archipelago from the continent’s interior. Pemba’s role as a center of trade reached its zenith between the 11th and 15th centuries.
At the dawn of the 16th century, it was invaded by Portuguese colonialists.
The Portuguese maintained control until the 17th century, when they were driven out by Omani Arabs. The Sultan of Muscat and Oman moved his capital from Muscat to Stone Town on neighboring Zanzibar Island in the early 19th century, and when the archipelago became a British protectorate in 1890 Pemba and its sister islands remained under the governance of the Omani sultan. In 1963, the protectorate was terminated and a few months later thousands were killed in a revolution against the sultan that resulted in the creation of the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba.
In 1964, the republic merged with mainland Tanganyika to become the United Republic of Tanzania.
Scuba Diving & Fishing
Today, Pemba is most famous not as a trade center but as one of the most rewarding dive destinations in Africa. Although the island is ringed by coral reef on all sides, the majority of its dive sites are located off the west coast where the land plunges hundreds of meters into the deep waters of the Pemba Channel. Dominated by pinnacles and magnificent submarine walls, the island’s underwater topography provides a natural habitat for all manner of sea creatures including turtles, reef sharks, Napoleon wrasse and big gamefish.
Strong current is as much a hallmark of Pemba diving as excellent visibility and as such it’s best for experienced divers. However, companies like Swahili Divers offer courses for all experience levels.
The proximity of the Pemba Channel also makes the island the ideal playground for deep sea fishermen. Several charters offer day trips and multi-day fishing safaris, giving you the opportunity to target six different billfish species including black, blue and striped marlin. Other popular gamefish frequently found in the nutrient-rich waters of the channel range from the big-fighting giant trevally to dogtooth and yellowfin tuna.
Beaches & Wildlife
Due to its protective mangrove forests, Pemba has fewer accessible beaches than Zanzibar. However, lodges and tour operators offer boat excursions to the coves that litter the island’s calmer east coast, where stretches of white or pink sand are devoid of tourists and washed by gin clear water. Vumawimbi Beach is probably Pemba’s most famous. It’s located in the extreme northwest of the island on the Kigomasha Peninsula and its secluded shores look like a postcard from paradise brought vividly to life.
Companies like Coral Tours also run day trips to Misali Island, an uninhabited haven off Pemba’s central west coast famous for its beautiful beaches, premium diving and shallow reefs perfect for snorkeling.
On land, wildlife enthusiasts should pay a visit to the Kidike Flying Fox Sanctuary, home to approximately 4,000 endemic Pemba flying foxes. With a wingspan of 5.3 feet (1.6 meters), this enormous fruit bat is particularly impressive when flying in tandem with hundreds of its roost-mates above the forest canopy. You can also see flying foxes on the walking trails of Ngezi Forest Reserve. This untouched tract of indigenous forest provides a safe harbor for red colobus monkeys, vervet monkeys and a host of bird species including the much sought-after, endemic Pemba scops owl.
All walks in the reserve must be accompanied by a local naturalist.
There are many ways to experience Pemba’s rich culture. Join a village tour to learn how rural communities cook, fish and manufacture the goods they need to survive; or visit the old fort and slave port of the capital, Chake Chake, on a city tour. Pemba’s biggest export is cloves and there are more than 3.5 million clove trees growing on the island’s spice farms. You can visit the farms or discover how the clove stems are turned into essential oil at the ZSTC Clove Oil Distillery.
Those with an interest in archaeology should visit one of the many sites left over from Pemba’s trade route past. The most comprehensive ruins are those at Ras Mkumbuu (including a mosque, tombs and houses from the 14th century) and Chwaka (home to the ruins of Haruni, a town that existed from the 11th to the 15th century). Perhaps most interesting of all is the Mkama Ndume ruins, a 15th-century palace that had the distinction of being the only known fortification on the Swahili Coast. To get the most out of your visit to any of these sites, make sure to stop first at the Pemba Museum in Chake Chake where displays about the island’s past help put them in context.
Where to Stay
Pemba’s secluded nature makes it an obvious destination for the luxury traveler, and there are a handful of exquisite lodges to choose from. These include Constance Aiyana, whose 30 minimalist villas invite the adjacent ocean into your private living space. The resort also has its own terrace restaurant, infinity pool and spa. Fundu Lagoon boasts a private dive center and a choice of 18 tented safari-style bungalows, some with direct beach access and a plunge pool. For the most unique accommodation option of all, book the Underwater Room at Manta Resort - a floating deck in the middle of the ocean with a submerged, glass-walled bedroom that overlooks the passing aquatic life.
If your budget doesn’t stretch to such extravagance, backpacker option Lala Lodge is a comfortable choice with good traveler reviews in the southern town of Mkoani.
How to Get There
The easiest way to get to Pemba is to fly in with a private aviation company like Coastal Aviation or Auric Air, both of which offer daily scheduled flights to Pemba Airport (PMA) near Chake Chake. You can fly to Pemba from Arusha, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, with the latter journey taking just 30 minutes. It is possible to travel between Zanzibar and Pemba on a ferry, although the safety of these vessels is disputable. The most reliable ferries are those operated by Azam Marine. If you decide to explore on your own once you’re there, use local minibuses or dala dalas to get around.
When to Go
Pemba’s proximity to the equator means that temperatures are relatively consistent year-round, averaging a tropical 80 F/26.5 C (although it can get much hotter). There are two rainy seasons: one lasting from November to December and the other from April to May. The April/May rains are so heavy that many lodges close down during this time. Generally speaking, the best time to travel is during the driest season (June to October). The visibility is best for diving, humidity is at its lowest and malaria-carrying mosquitoes are less numerous.
However, fishermen with a dream of catching billfish should aim to travel between September and March.