Enshrouded in lush green forested hills, flanked by rocky inlets and dotted with mangrove swamps lies El Huthera, the Green Island as it was once called by Omani Sailors who sailed through the Zanzibar Archipelago for centuries. Once a critical trading hub between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, today Pemba Island lies far off the beaten track and makes for an incredibly romantic getaway. Maurice Schutgens and his fiancee went in search of its hidden gems.
The plane started descending before I felt we had properly got going. Hues of blue and teal erupted from the deep below. Skimming the tops of palm trees we came to a shuddering halt on the airstrip. Within a couple of minutes we had cleared through the formalities of Chake Chake Airport in the laidback capital. Salim, our driver, dressed in a traditional thawb, whisked us away to the far north of the island in his barely road-worthy chariot.
Pemba could not have been more of a contrast to the chaotic hustle and bustle of Unguja (what is popularly referred to as Zanzibar). Outside our window clove plantations and spice farms slid by in a blur – it was easy to see where the island got its name. Little over an hour later we stood with our feet in the sand gazing over the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, a breeze in our hair, not a care in the world. In the distance we could see Pemba’s main claim to fame floating 250m offshore – Manta Resorts’ Underwater Villa. At $1,800 a night it was just out of our budget range! While this trip was meant to be our pre-wedding honeymoon, lying enveloped in each other’s arms on the silky white sandy beaches devoid of tourists while feasting on fresh seafood and sipping bubbles simply wasn’t our style. Though you wouldn’t be blamed for doing just that. We had come to get under Pemba’s skin.
On the far northern tip of the island lies one of the most spectacular sandbanks in the world. There are plenty of ways to get to it, mostly through a set price tour, but we were determined to walk out to it at low tide. A 6km stroll? Why not. With the tide times firmly in our heads we set out along the rugged coastline, exposing the extensive seaweed farms being cultivated by Zanzibari women, submerged up to their waists. These red seaweed farms are the superfood of the future with the active ingredient, Carrageenan, used as a thickening agent in foods, cosmetics and medicines generating up to $8 million in revenue for Zanzibar per annum.
Wading out to the sandbank we carefully crossed the shallow reef, being sure to side-step the colossal red sea urchins (which looked positively painful). The aquamarine colours were incredible, and the sandbank was abandoned. It was a true Robinson Crusoe moment, made complete with a chilled bottle of Champagne I had smuggled along to celebrate my fiance’s birthday. But the moment simply could not last. As the high tide returned with a vengeance, slowly the sand below our feet surrendered back to the ocean. We had come prepared to make the long swim back but a passing dhow took mercy on us and we hitched a ride. Back on land we hiked up to the island’s highest point, the Kigomasha Peninsula Lighthouse which the keeper proudly (but questionably) proclaimed was the oldest in the world. Irrespective of age, the views were breathtaking, with dhows dancing in the wind offshore and the patchwork of seaweed farms scattered below.
The Pemba Channel, separating mainland Africa from Pemba Island, plummets to depths of over 2,000m before rising dramatically in an explosion of marine life in the shallows on the island’s west coast. Pemba offers some of the most spectacular diving on the continent and I was not about to skip it. As New Year’s day broke, my hangover all but forgotten, I jumped aboard a Swahili diving boat with the owner, Mike, a Lebanese national and quite the character, who runs a professional operation. As we headed out for Swiss Reef, a pod of spinner dolphins launched themselves out of the water throwing spray into the air ahead of our boat. It was a good omen, or so Mike said.
Dropping below the surface the waters were startlingly clear and the vibrant healthy reefs a sensory overload. We glided amongst the coral pinnacles to the edge of sharp precipices beyond which the big blue ocean began. A green sea turtle emerged from the shadows and silently slipped past us. These were magical scenes, played out on repeat, only for few to enjoy.
Ngezi Forest Reserve is the last remnant of indigineous tropical rainforest you’ll find in the Zanzibar Archipelago, and it is absolutely teeming with life. With the sun overhead, shards of light barely penetrated the dense canopy above, creating a light display on the foliage below. As we followed tiny paths in the undergrowth we listened carefully for the crash of colobus monkeys up high and the tell-tale swish of flying foxes overhead. Still, what we really were in search of were the famed Giant Coconut Crabs (Birgus latro), once described by Charles Darwin as monstrous and affectionately known as the Palm Thieves (for uh…well, their coconut stealing behaviour I suppose). Sadly we didn’t see as much as a single misplaced claw. Gradually we emerged onto Vumawimbi Beach, on the east of the island, shaking off the claustrophobia of the dense forest.
Today Pemba’s pace of life remains refreshingly languid. It will not remain so forever, of that I am confident, but right now, it still retains that charming island tranquility making it a great destination for a secluded getaway