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Pemba Island

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Pemba Island

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... is a very beautiful tropical landmass, covering 988 square kilometres and lying 60km off the Indian Ocean Coast of Tanzania, 40km to the north of Zanzibar Island and 150km north of Dar es Salaam.

Where Zanzibar is a low lying coral atoll, Pemba is a true island. The landscape is generally hilly, extremely fertile and verdant. It is largely covered by agriculture of various types, especially palm and clove plantations, with significant open areas of cassava and rice.

Pemba is a really sleepy backwater, which experiences only around 1% of the visitor traffic of nearby Zanzibar Island, truly is a world apart. It remains very much a rural economy, with the vast majority of the island's 362,000 people being dependent on small-scale agriculture and fishing.

Historically the mainstay of the island's economy has been the production of cloves and, although production is now very much in decline, during the main picking season every available surface seems to be laid with vast acres of sack cloth covered in aromatic cloves drying in the sun.

Perhaps the most alluring aspect of the island is its stunning marine environment. Much of the coastline plunges steeply into the deep blue Indian Ocean, especially on the eastern side, whilst on the western side broad coral lagoons are dotted with a network of beautiful small islands. Mucking around in boats in these waters and having picnics on these remote tropical islands is such a great experience, this is almost certainly our favourite area of the East African coast.

The diving around Pemba Island is as good as it gets. The area is best known for its big pelagic dives, huge drop-offs and strong drift currents ... elements which attract experienced divers from around the world. These waters are renowned for dolphins, turtles, mantas, sharks and whales. There are also plenty of easier coral-garden type dives for the less experienced.

Snorkelling here can also be quite extraordinary. For example in the marine reserve around the beautiful Mesali Island it is possible to wade directly from the white sand beach in up to your waist, stick your head under the water and just stand there watching a whole panoply of marine life pass by.

There is also some excellent kayaking in the area, notably exploring the networks of channels amongst the extensive mangrove forests that fringe some of the lagoons.

Pemba also offers plenty of opportunities for cultural interaction. Because of the low numbers of visitors, the people generally just get along with their own business, which makes the place so much more relaxed, authentic and interesting. There is very little crime and virtually no hassle.

The compact capital, Chake Chake, is a very interesting place to stroll around, with a number of buildings of historical interest and some fascinating markets. You may find that locals avert their gaze, but this is out of respect and is typical of the old Swahili Coast, make the effort to converse and the reception here should be as warm as you will find anywhere.

The island was first settled by Arabs and Persians in the tenth century, the Swahili people that you see today having arisen from the inter-marrying of these immigrants with the indigenous Bantu populations. The island contains a number of interesting historic ruins, the majority of which are relatively unimpressive on the ground, but which are still great fun to visit, providing you with an excuse to explore some real backwaters.

The villages on Pemba are equally interesting to visit, especially in the company of a local guide, who will be able to explain so much and enable you to interact so much more meaningfully with the local people. Our favourite is perhaps the small town of Wete in the north, which has a particularly interesting market.

Some of us here have very warm memories of travelling around the island accompanied by an almost constant chorus of "musungu, musungu", the kiSwahili for 'white person', the kids shout it out wherever you go. And if you happen to have blonde hair, then be prepared to spread terror amongst the youngsters, many of whom may genuinely think you are an evil spirit.

To the north of Pemba there are also some protected areas of indigenous forest, notably at Ngezi Forest in the north, which contain some interesting endemic species such as the Zanzibar colobus monkey and the Pemba flying fox. A guided walk through the forest is well worth doing.

The beaches on Pemba are very varied. Generally they are shallow and very tidal, so not ideal for swimming. But there are some very notable exceptions, especially on Mesali Island and towards the extreme north-west corner of the main island.

Despite being such an incredibly alluring place, the island has remarkably few accommodation facilities aimed at international visitors. The main reason for this is political, with commercial development being deliberately suppressed by the government on Zanzibar. Fortunately there's a handful of very interesting small lodges, but all of which are quite outdoorsy and pricey. There's a real dearth of accommodation in the lower and middle price ranges and nowhere offering higher levels of conventional comforts.

However one of the greatest joys of Pemba is the complete absence of large commercial hotel operators, there is no mass-market tourism here. Over the years we have talked to so many people who have planned to build, but it has always come to nothing, the island is simply not considered to be a safe enough place to invest.

There also seems to be an admirable reluctance on the part of the people of Pemba to prostitute themselves in the blind pursuit of a fast buck. All power to them.


When to visit ...

When it comes to deciding when to visit, the best times down on the coast are generally considered to be Jul/Oct and Dec/Mar, when there is usually slightly less rain and wind.

Read more about when to visit this area ...


How we like to include this area in trips ...

Pemba is a timeless dream of a place, one which we absolutely adore. We tend to recommend it most to more outdoorsy guests who are up for the various activities and who are keen to get off the beaten track.

The island can be easily accessed by air from Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam, from where there are connections throughout Tanzania.


Fundu Lagoon ... is a very high-end but rather cool and outdoorsy lodge in a remote location to the south-west of the island.

The Manta Resort ... is a rather less polished high-end lodge, but is in a really superb beach location on the northern tip of the island.

Kervan Saray Beach ... is a much simpler lodge, also in the remote north-west of the island, but with arguably the best dive operation on the island.


The majority of visitors stay for 4 to 7 nights here and often combined with nights on the islands of Zanzibar, Mafia or even the the fabulous Fanjove.

These beach areas are commonly combined with safari areas such as Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Ruaha and Selous, as well as treks on Mount Kilimanjaro, usually in trips of 10 to 21 nights.

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Lenny Franklin
Lenny Franklin, Senior Safari Consultant
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