The tropical air hits my senses as I step off the plane and onto the tarmac. Warm, dense, smoky, organic air that wraps itself around you like a woolen blanket on a 27-degree (C) day. This air feels almost colourful and somehow different than the Central American jungle aromata I’ve experienced. There is a tinge of jasmine and spice and human je ne sais quoi…
I complete the form and hand it to the immigration officer. “How do you like your President Trump?” is the first question I’m asked on African soil as I hand over my US passport. And so, the first interaction here is laced with humour; the local smiles are infectious and inviting. I’m travelling with my co-adventurer, Chris, the Calvin to my inner Hobbes, and we’ve just landed in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
And so begins my first foray onto this new and exotic continent. We board the 12-seater Cessna that will transport us from bustling Ugunja (the main island, to which we’ll return at the end of the trip for a day of sightseeing) to rustic and less-travelled Pemba, for a week of diving in its pristine waters 50km to the north. I’ve been incredibly busy these past weeks, and have had little time to do much more than find lodging. So what I know of where we’re headed is roughly this: Pemba is a volcanic island (unlike Ugunja, which was attached to the mainland at some point in its geological evolution); as such, Pemba is purported to be hillier and more lush than its sister-isles. These are fertile spice islands, known worldwide for their quality cloves. They also grow cardamom, star anise and cinnamon. The dive sites are reportedly pristine. Electricity is via generator. Internet is sporadic. There is no hot water. Local fauna includes the galago or bushbaby. All my senses (tentacles?) are on high alert.
C and I are the only foreigners on the small plane (I, more foreign than he in these parts, since Americans are not travelling abroad much these days, especially to predominantly Muslim destinations) and I am seated next to a petite older woman with perfect skin. She’s wearing traditional Islamic dress, the Abaya and headscarf, and mouths prayers to herself for the duration of the flight. We two are the only women on board and she and I smile and nod at each other in greeting. The men chat in Swahili and take selfies. This flight feels no different than any of the other small puddle-jumpers I’ve taken in far-flung locales over the years, save the outfits; the cobalt and turquoise of the water as we fly over reminds me of what awaits.
Eddie picks us up in his air-conditioned van, and with good humour tells us of his life on Pemba. He is one of 5 children from one of his father’s 4 wives. In the back seat, we do quick math and estimate 28 siblings. We’re not-so subtly reminded that we’re the anomaly in a culture accustomed to child brides and polygamy. Real Housewives of Pemba could be a thing, I think, as Eddie alludes to the modern challenges inherent to these old customs.
I can’t help but feel, as we pass scores of half-built, thatch-roofed mud houses during this ride to our destination, that we’re meant to find gratitude for the plenty we have that enables this adventure in a land of have-not. Houses half-built due to lack of resources, the building of which I could probably fund with my meagre pocket money. It’s a mixed feeling: a respect for those who can do so much with so little and shame (or maybe it’s guilt) for having relatively much and with it buying hedonistic thrill. I find comfort in the fact that my bag contains some gifts for a local school in Zanzibar, which I will deliver at the end of the trip.
We bump and bounce across subtly-paved roads, dodging chickens and scrawny cows, motos, bicycles and pedestrians as we wend our way through Pemba’s remote villages to Swahili Divers and Gecko Nature Lodge on the northwest side of the island. It’s remote, for a given value of remote in this place. The nearest village is called Makangale, about 5km away. The jungled countryside is a lush and vibrant rainbow of greens; the ground, in contrast, is dusty and dry. Rainy season looms in the not-too-distant future. We pass multiple dala dalas, the local mini-buses, piled-high with bodies and cargo; going where, I’m not clear, as larger villages give way to smaller and we enter a stretch of road that takes us through the Ngezi Forest Reserve, a protected swath of jungle at the north tip of the island. As if on cue, a band of Pemba vervet monkeys makes an appearance. We slow for a photo op, and they retreat into the trees after seeming to approve our passage. After over an hour of driving, we arrive at our destination; one of only a handful of guest houses and hotels on the entire island. Remote is an understatement. The air smells of jasmine, and the contented buzz of the honey bees in the trees resonates along with the sound of cicadas and birdsong to create something of a soundtrack to the already long day (and it’s still before noon).
We are greeted by a veritable United Nations… our hosts are Russian, French and Batswana. Staff is local. We later meet other guests from the UK and Ireland, Argentina and Denmark. You never know who you’ll meet in these sorts of places, and among our diving companions are an IT geek, an Argentinian telenovela star, a pediatrician, a kite surfing champ and a Richard Branson wanna-be.
The first day is for getting settled and acclimated to the place, as the term “Africa hot” is articulating its definition. After this, we quickly fall into the diver’s routine: Wake. Eat. Dive. Surface interval and snacks. Dive. Eat. Siesta. Play. Eat. Talk about the day’s dives. Crash; hard.
On our first day of diving, we head south to Njao Gap. This easily becomes one of my top 5 dives ever after the first 5 minutes of the first dive. And so goes the rest of the day. Unlike the diving we did in Thailand last year, these waters live up to their reputation as containing pristine and insanely vibrant reefs. Being hard-to-access has its benefits, namely thriving schools of fish and spectacularly healthy soft and hard corals.
Day 2 is Lighthouse Point. Less impressive because it is a more exposed dive site and therefore more susceptible to damage from storms and current. That’s not to say the dives weren’t amazing, just… already spoiled by Njao.
Day 3 blows both Njao and Lighthouse out of the proverbial (and crystal-clear) waters. At Fundu Gap, we’re carried away, quite literally, by the massive current. I am nonetheless mesmerised by this dive site, with its exquisite coral and teeming schools. The dive is not without its hazards, as I am bitten by a rogue clownfish protecting its den from the paparazzi. I’ve nicknamed him Cujo. And, although I’m ridiculed on the dive boat, I wear my battle scars well. The boat ride home treats us to a rainy season surprise; a downpour of the tropical torrent variety, soaking our already waterlogged bodies to the core.
Day 4 is back to Njao and then a final farewell at Fundu for Day 5, where the (even stronger) current whisks us across the wall at what felt like warp speed. Imagine sticking your head in a jacuzzi jet, trying to swim and simultaneously navigate its rollercoaster of current. Hearts racing, we surface, and glad to be back on the boat too…that last dive was harrowing at times.
Over the course of the week, we see impressive schools of surgeonfish, glassfish (cardinalfish), and butterfly fish, some little brownish-red ones I need to look up. We see tons of clownfish and anemonefish, plus my favourites from this region – the Moorish idol (think Gill in Finding Nemo), plus moray eels, spotted garden eels, trumpetfish, triggerfish, a very cool mantis shrimp, which I had never seen on a dive before, a dozen types of nudibranchs and the little goodies – fire gobies and a little orange and white cutie that looks like a drum of some sort and I can’t find it in a fish book. Of Nemo fame, we’ve seen the gang: Jacques (banded coral or cleaner shrimp), Peach (starfish), Deb (black and white damselfish), Bubbles (yellow tang), Bloat (puffer), Gurgle (fairy basslet) and of course Dory (blue tang), as Pemba is known to be home to over 400 fish species. My inner mermaid does backflips at each dive site.
Between lunch and dinner, which is eaten late here to accommodate sunset-watching, there are siestas on the deck and mini adventures. One afternoon we took bikes to nearby Ngezi Forest Reserve for a guided walk through the jungle. Our guide was most useful in pointing out the ginormous millipedes that he promised wouldn’t kill us. And the gracious great hornbills that took my breath away on first sight. Then he showed us the bats. Pemba is home to a species of giant bat called the Pemba flying fox that looks more like a cross between a Pomeranian and an accordion, only much larger. Luckily, they live high in the trees and don’t seem to have much interest in humans.
The locals, however, show a great deal of interest in us, greeting our foreign faces with shouts of “bye bye” – its origin indeterminate. We’ve learnt some local greetings, too: jambo (hello); asante (thank you); karibu (welcome); and we try to incorporate these as we ride through the village. The smiles, stares and waves follow us like we’re celebrities. There are simply No. Tourists. Here… Bliss.
Another afternoon, we kayak south to Njao gap, exploring the unspoiled coastline, hoping that this place remains as undeveloped as most of the other places one reads about in travel mags aren’t. We explore the rocky shores, finding limestone outcroppings teeming with crabs (the click-click of their claws on the volcanic rock sounds like a miniature tap dance recital) and a mangrove-lined lagoon rife with birdsong, paddling back to home base just as the sun begins to set over the Indian Ocean.
And so the African sun also sets on our last evening at the lodge. The next morning is an early wake-up call to catch a flight back to Zanzibar for a day in Stone Town, the island’s old capital.
[Part II: Stone Town: Spices. Ivory. Slaves.]
And read Chris’ interpretation of our trip here: Perfect Pemba.
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