Pemba is well-known for having some of the best scuba diving in Africa. The island is surrounded by magnificent underwater walls and excellent topography, which provide a home for a variety of sea creatures such as turtles, reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, and big game fish.
While Zanzibar is known for being flat and sand-strewn, Pemba Island is known for its cloves and hillocks densely forested with fruit and spice trees. Traditional dhows dot the majority of the island’s coastline, and fishing is an important part of Pemba’s culture.
Part of the Zanzibar Archipelago, Pemba Island is a Tanzanian island located in the Indian Ocean off the Swahili Coast. The island spans 988 square kilometers (381 square miles) and is located approximately 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Unguja, the archipelago’s biggest island. Together with Mafia Island (south of Unguja), these islands comprise the Spice Islands on the Indian Ocean.
Pemba’s culture, like that of many other islands in the archipelago, has been influenced by Arab traders from Oman and the island’s original inhabitants who have lived there for centuries. Pemba is home to well-preserved ruins such as Qanbalu (a Muslim settlement dating back to the eighth century), as well as remnants of old voodoo rituals practiced by the island’s traditional witch doctors.
Moreover, the island has long been known as the “Green Island” due to its fertile soil, which supports crops such as coconut, bananas, and cassava. Because of its steep drop-offs, undisturbed marine life, and colorful coral reefs, Pemba is surrounded by warm, subtropical waters that are renowned for some of the best diving and snorkeling adventures in the entire archipelago. The island provides a more authentic island experience, despite having a tourism industry that is less developed than that of Zanzibar. This makes it ideal for those looking to capture the archipelago’s untapped nature.
Most parts of Pemba Island are difficult to reach since there is just one main tarmac road that runs through the island’s center. The best option to get to Pemba is on a scheduled charter airplane. Due to its location to the north of Zanzibar, Pemba Island is accessible from most East African airports through Zanzibar or Dar es Salaam. The most common route is Zanzibar-Pemba, which is operated by Coastal Air and Auric Air. It is a 30-minute flight from Zanzibar to Pemba and there are two daily flights from Zanzibar to Pemba: one at 8:00 am and another at 3:00 pm.
You can also travel from Zanzibar to Pemba via ferry, but the crossing is rough, and it can be unsafe. On the other hand, reliable ferries can be arranged with Zazm Marine. If you arrive at the airport or ferry port, your tour operator should organize a pick-up for you and this may be included or added to your travel package.
The best diving spots on the island are on the west coast, including Misali Island and areas off the Kigomasha Peninsula, the Fundu Gap, and the Njao Gap, all of which are part of the Pemba Channel Conservation Area. Most divers have prior experience, but some companies offer beginner courses and day trips. The majority of the year has excellent visibility, but you should avoid the rainy seasons (April to May, November to December).
Deep sea fishing is a popular half-day or full-day activity where you marlin, dorado, yellowfin tuna, and wahoo. Pemba is close to the Pemba Channel, which gives you a better chance of catching big fish that can be barbecued for dinner. The best time to fish is from mid-July to mid-April.
For history buffs, several fascinating archaeological sites on Pemba Island should not be missed. These include Ras Mkumbuu, which has a mosque, ancient tombs, and 14th-century houses; and Chakawa, which has the ruins of a town dating from the 11th to the 15th centuries.
One of the most interesting sites is the Mkama Nduma ruins. This 15th century is the only known fortification on the Swahili coast. Visit the Pemba Museum in Chake Chake to learn about the island’s history and immerse yourself in the local culture. The ruins of an old fort can also be found in the island’s main town, Chake Chake.
Located 2km east of the main road between Chake Chake and Wete, this sanctuary is home to a colony of over 4,000 Pemba flying foxes, a large bat that is indigenous to Pemba. Kidike Flying Fox Sanctuary is situated near Kangagani. The Pemba flying fox (Pteropus voeltzkowi) is a huge fruit bat with chestnut-red hair, a black face, and wings that have distinctive dog-like facial traits. Their ears are pointy and short too.
While visiting the Kidike Flying Fox Sanctuary, you can watch the bats from a small viewing platform. They hang upside down during the day and frequently take to the air, and are unaffected by locals. The Pemba flying fox’s diet includes fruits including mangoes, breadfruit, figs, flowers, and leaves. Interestingly, this creature may be the only animal on the island capable of dispersing bigger seeds, which are critical to the survival of the plants that generate them. Unlike insectivorous bats (Microchiroptera), this species uses eyesight to identify fruit rather than echolocation. Mating takes place between January and April, with births taking place between June and August.
Spices may no longer dominate Zanzibar’s economy; still, the island is home to various spice plantations dispersed over the island that offers exciting spice tours. Moreover, the spice tour business is not as extensive in Pemba as it is in Zanzibar; nonetheless, Pemba Island produces the bulk of spices sold from Tanzania. Furthermore, 70% of the world’s clove harvest is from Pemba.
Travelers are taken to smell and taste herbs, spices, and tropical fruits such as oranges, papaya, jackfruit, cassava, black pepper, clove, cinnamon, turmeric, clove, and ginger, among others, during this trip. The tour guides are kind, knowledgeable, and insightful and will accompany you you’re your guided walking tour of the spice plantations.
The spice tour is a half-day excursion that takes you over Wete’s historic road to Mtambwe village, where you can observe a variety of spices.
Located on Pemba Island’s northernmost tip is a peninsula covered by the Ngezi Rain Forest; the final remnants of a vast stretch of indigenous forest that formerly covered much of Pemba. Protected by a 1476-hectare reserve, the forest is a real double canopy, replete with vines that provide swings for noisy vervet monkeys. Ngezi Rain Forest is also a habitat for the Pemba Flying Fox, an island-specific bat. The woodland is a protected area in and of itself and on the east of the peninsula is Vumawimbi Beach features kilometers of white sand backed by a virgin forest. The ‘Pango ya Watoro,’ or ‘the fugitives’ cave, is located on the western side.
If you have time, you can also visit the “cultural zones,” which are hallowed sections of the forest that locals sweep and clean regularly to placate their ancestors. These “MIZIMU” holy sites are utilized for prayers, petitions, and sacrifices to the spirits of the deceased. The locals have identified five such places, all of which are located within the Ngezi Rain Forest.
Like Zanzibar, the dry season, which lasts from June to October, is the greatest time to visit Pemba. This also corresponds with Tanzania’s peak safari season, making the island a popular post-safari destination. Nonetheless, because of its consistent sunlight and mild weather, the island is ideal for visiting most of the year. However, the heavy rain season runs from April to May, during which many of the resorts are closed. These monsoons give the island its mangrove forests and swamps.
The smaller rainy season, on the other hand, lies between November and December. Visibility for diving during these seasons is much lower, although there are also fewer malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Pemba sits on the equator, so the average temperature is a balmy 26°C year-round.
There are very few hotels on Pemba island, so you will need to be extra keen when choosing your lodging. Most hotels provide scuba diving and deep-sea fishing excursions, but you should double-check their offerings before booking. It is critical to find a hotel that provides activities that interest you. The hotels also provide their activities and facilities. Also, the majority of the accommodations are secluded and located along the coast. Some of these include;
This is a luxury boutique hotel that specializes in barefoot luxury. The hotel has a private diving center and 18 safari-style tented bungalows, some with direct beach access and a plunge pool. Each bungalow offers stunning views of the Indian Ocean. The hotel boasts a spa, three bars, and an excellent restaurant, making it ideal for couples and honeymooners.
The Mantra Resort is one of the most opulent accommodations on the island. The Underwater Room, a floating deck in the middle of the ocean with a submerged, glass-walled bedroom offering breathtaking views of aquatic life, is its main attraction. Adventures such as sandbank excursions, deep sea fishing, local school trips, catch-and-release fishing, kayak safaris, and snorkeling are all organized by the lodge. Its dedicated diving center also provides diving instruction.
If your budget does not allow for this, Lala Lodge in Mkaoni’s southern town offers comfortable budget accommodation. The lodge is well-equipped and conveniently located next to the beach.
This is a large luxury hotel offering 30 minimalist villas on a private beach. The hotel has an infinity pool and spa, as well as more active activities like diving and golf on its 18-hole golf course. With a dedicated kids club, this resort is ideal for families, but it also hosts fantastic weddings and honeymoons.
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