Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic

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…

Onward.

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.

Pemba Pemba.

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.

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Njao Gap

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.

On finding Nemo…

As the tides turn on my first of two weeks here in Thailand, I reflect on a few days at sea and a few days on a Khao Lak beach, where 12 years ago the Tsunami hit and they still speak as reverently of it as if it were much more recent history, reminding me that however sad and devastating it seemed to me at 9000 miles away, I will never know what the images on the Internet could not convey.

The Andaman Sea in late March is like bath water. The air, like a warming sauna without one iota of that lovely dry heat. The fruit here comes pre-peeled and wrapped in plastic film and styrofoam, which is then wrapped in its own plastic bag(s). There are more nail and massage places, tailors and tourist shops than I’ve ever seen in 4 square blocks. Something like The Beach meets Fort Lauderdale at Spring Break. I’ve also managed to lose my sunglasses.

But we came to dive…

img_20160326_095351Most divers have a critter wish-list. That is, we part mer-humans make a small private wish each time we head into the water, hoping to encounter a whale shark or manta ray or ghost pipefish or seahorse or other such aquiline critter we have not as yet met. To this end, I spent 4 days this week aboard the June Hong Chian Lee, an old Chinese Junk that has been renovated as a liveaboard dive boat. And so, I spent the days in the company of divers from far and wide: from the UK and Sweden and France and Argentina and Finland and the Philippines and Switzerland… Each of us with our own personal quest to find Nemo or other critters on our respective lists.

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My fish checklist was rather easy to tick off this trip, as I’d never dived waters on this side of the planet. Nemo, check. Butterfly fish and triggerfish of all colours, shapes and sizes, check. Honeycomb moray, white-eyed moray, spotted moray, green moray, check, check, and check. Leopard shark, check. But there are some special critters that are simultaneously elusive and for their own reasons special to each diver… My list includes seahorses, ghost pipefish, manta rays, sea dragons, hammerheads and some others. So when Mick, our divemaster, pointed deep into a crevice on the Andaman’s famed Richelieu Rock dive site and I realised what he wanted me to see, the words that formed in my head were, “OMG, are those really….” [whispered in my head: Ghost Pipefish] Yes, indeed they were. It’s hard to convey underwater to your dive buddy that you’ve just seen a critter on your lifetime wish-list; a thing you’ve been diving for nearly 20 years in hopes of glimpsing. Yet, all he can see are your frenetic hand signals (none of which can adequately depict said ghost pipefish) and a very silly grin on your face (which causes perhaps some alarm, because one is not supposed to get narc’ed at 20 metres).

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Maintaining a sense of awe and wonder at the regular everyday marine life and general spectacle of the undersea world while at the same time experiencing a first glimpse of one’s bucket list critter(s) is the practice, really. It’s not hard to take for granted what we know and that with which we are comfortable. What’s hard is to see the precious magic in the everyday schools of yellow snappers or run-of-the-mill parrotfish or blue tangs and trevallis. As if being privileged to observe the underwater aquatic ballet isn’t magic spectacle enough.

20160326_234202And so, ghost pipefish seen but, alas, not photographed, we wade back into the (Andaman) sea to see what other wonders may make themselves known…

And on dry land, the mangoes are sweeter than nectar, the bananas equally so; the massaman curry does not disappoint, the sun sets like a ripe tangerine dunking itself in the Indian Ocean, and this mermaid trades fins for feet and embarks on the second half of her adventure.

Ayutthaya-ho!