Indian Ocean island of Pemba : A refreshing escape

20Mar 2019
The Guardian
Indian Ocean island of Pemba : A refreshing escape

ON a tufty volcanic island reachable only at low tide, under a little straw roof hidden behind some bushes, I was having a massage.

 Peace reigns on Pemba Island's beautiful beaches

ON a tufty volcanic island reachable only at low tide, under a little straw roof hidden behind some bushes, I was having a massage. I would walk across the sand, climbed a rickety ladder onto the island, which measures fewer than 10 metres across, and was now surrendering to complete relaxation.

This was aided by the absence of the artificial smells and gonging bells ubiquitous in so many luxury hotel spas; here, just a few metres into the Indian Ocean, the soundtrack was the soft pulse of the tide and the laughter of local children as they spent a break from school combing the sand below for seaweed, a cash crop along the Swahili coast. Their families sell it to the Chinese.

A few mornings earlier,  I would been in the heart of Zanzibar’s Stone Town, looking out over the beach from the seaside Park Hyatt, watching dozens of local men working out - running, swimming and doing pushups - while a few women looked on and another man pulled a little vervet monkey on a lead for its morning constitutional.

It was a bustling scene, and there was a sharp divide between the calm hotel and the lively beach, a distance emphasised by a high glass wall. Over the past 30 years, as Tanzania settled into its policy of economic liberalisation, Zanzibar has evolved: small guest houses have given way to larger chains on the archipelago’s main island; over the past decade, tourist numbers have doubled to 376,000.

While the island still has the stunning turquoise waters and white-sand beaches that make it so popular for winter sun seekers and post-safari beach holidays, more and more, if you sign up for one of those romantic sandbar excursions, where your guide will build you a sunshade of sticks and sheet, you’ll find that your patch of paradise lies just metres from another canoodling couple.

But about 80km to the north of Unguja Island (the official name for the Zanzibar archipelago’s main island), and just to the east of Tanzania’s border with Kenya, on the island of Pemba, peace reigns.

Roughly 2/3 the size of Unguja, Pemba has only three hotels and five guest houses to Unguja’s scores of accommodation options, and less than half the population - an estimated 400,000 to Unguja’s 900,000.While Unguja is the most popular of the islands, with many daily international flights, and nearby Mafia, with its whale sharks and hatching turtles, is one of the most celebrated diving spots in the Indian Ocean (though it’s rather less feted for its dearth of beaches), Pemba is the wild one.

Its Arabic name translates as “the green island”, and while its deep waters once hosted ships of Arab, Chinese and Indian traders, today this is a place of banana and coconut plantations separated by the occasional village.

Fishing and small-scale farming are the main economic drivers, and the tiny capital city, Chake-Chake, hosts the island’s airport and records temperatures which hover at around 30°C year-round.

Intrepid adventurers have always come here in small numbers: Pemba’s white sand beaches are ringed on all sides by coral reefs which offer some of east Africa’s best snorkelling and diving.

During the annual whale migration, in July and August, humpback whales have been sighted off the east coast. And yet, while the island’s charms are many, visitors are relatively few.

There’s the inconvenience of the half-hour flight from Zanzibar (it’s wise to break up your journey with a night or two in Zanzibar, for a dose of culture and a historic tour).

And there’s also the dearth of mid-range hotels on Pemba. But these combine to create an exclusive paradise that can serve as hideaway, springboard for adventure, or classic beach holiday without the hordes.

Here, you’ll find no merchants selling tourist clobber on the beach; you’ll see not a speck of the rubbish that lines mainland roads and beaches as you cycle or motor through quiet villages. For that matter, you’ll see no advertisements - just calm, rural life.

Driving from the airport to the island’s north-eastern coast, we passed through a series of small villages with people selling fruit on the roadside in front of their metal-roofed mud and cinder block homes. Children running alongside our SUV shouted “Mzungu!”, meaning “white person” with the same glee that a child in Britain might employ if she saw a visiting giraffe.

“It’s like Zanzibar was 40 years ago,” my driver observed. And that’s why you would choose Pemba over the Maldives, or Mauritius or even the Canaries: its particular sense of place, its escape from the built-up beaches of other winter sun spots.

As Bongo Flava hip-hop played on the radio, I left the bright villages and bumped through Ngezi, one of the last remaining areas of indigenous forest that once covered much of Pemba.

Streaking past us were dozens of vervet monkeys, who swing through the double canopy, but we failed to spot the flying fox known to live in the jungle. Finally, we emerged from this wilderness at the incongruously cultivated campus of Constance Aiyana.

Started eight years ago as a community project by a Mauritian artist, this intimate 30-villa property is awash in brightness.

Low white-washed buildings built with locally-sourced materials including limestone and coconut look out over blonde beach and turquoise sea. Bursts of colour come from the mature tropical gardens, where coconut trees mix with bougainvillea and a riot of grasses, dotted with the owner’s large sculptures, made of driftwood - parts of old dhows - and metal. It’s local life, artfully arranged.

Other glass sculptures, comical giant ceramic faces and red glazed roosters pop up periodically, to give a splendid character to the property.

This sets Aiyana firmly apart from the multitudes of grass-hut or safari-tent themed seaside resorts that line Tanzania’s mainland coast and Zanzibar’s main island.

This happy tension between the natural and cultivated continues as you advance into the property’s scattered buildings: each villa is unique, but features dramatic Zanzibari carved wooden doors and typically high ceilings, but also space for yoga in the bathroom.

The long turquoise coastline has nothing to mar it, save the crabs scampering across the sand, and the occasional early-morning cow, out to rake the beach. The villas are so spread out that privacy and tranquility reign; I overheard nothing for a week.

But the world is full of paradises - indeed, the Indian Ocean hosts quite a few of the most famous. Stunning beaches with food and design that reach international levels of comfort and anonymity are easy to find. But they so often lack character.

Aiyana is a locavore’s delight. The restaurant’s menu changes daily, but always features a local and a European dish, plus a vegetarian option, with a strong emphasis on seafood and health (baobab powder is available to sprinkle on your porridge or yoghurt in the morning; there are sugar-free puddings that teeter on the edge of being too virtuous), and everything from juices to pasta is made fresh, to order.

You might try cigale, the small local lobster, or kingfish Swahili stew, cooked with tomato and coconut milk, as most local curries are.

The wine list is largely South African, but with French bottles too, and there’s an impressive cocktail list, best consumed in the beach bar which the staff construct for guests to watch the sun set over mainland Tanzania. Dinners, too, tend to move about, lending pleasant novelty.

For ultimate remoteness, go to the mangroves. One day, three guides took a group of guests in a boat along the coastline, past endless empty beaches separated by brown volcanic outcroppings with lush growth on top.

As we motored along, one of our guides dragged fishing net with a small neon plastic squid in the hopes of catching a small fish; things happen slowly on Pemba, but there’s always a sense of industriousness, too. We were bound for mangroves, at the edge of which we’d snorkel.

Here the colour scheme changes from white, turquoise, and azure stripes to brown roots emerging from black water, a layer of green leaves disguising nests for green pigeons and obscuring the sky.

Another day I joined a trip to a sandbank, with more stops for snorkelling. You’re unlikely to see reef sharks or mantas or other big fish right off the beach at Aiyana, according to the hotel’s dive director. But the coral is very good quality, and you’ll see a world of small, colourful fish - and possibly dolphins.

The splendid isolation of Pemba is in its purest form on the sandbanks that come and go with the tides. You may find when you visit - as I did - that the only other human in your vicinity - a friendly, smiling young man - is wielding a self-hewn spear he’s using to try to catch a fish.

But these ephemeral spots of beauty won’t be empty forever. As the hotel stock grows, so will the traffic; go now, before it’s changed too much. 

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