Pemba and Mafia Islands: Zanzibar’s little secrets.
Those in the know take a detour round Zanzibar and head straight for Pemba and Mafia Islands, two gems in the Zanzibar archipelago that have all the tropical splendour of their well-known neighbour, but none of the crowds.
Just north of Zanzibar is Pemba Island, a short hop by air from Dar es Salaam. Pemba is called “The Green Island” and for good reason. Its perfect growing weather and rich soil produce a wealth of vegetation so it’s magnificent walking country. If ever you tire of walking through the lush, hilly rainforest that buzzes with birdsong and the rustling of monkeys then try wandering through the coconut plantations and little farms that grow cassava, banana, and mango as well as staples such as red beans and rice. Everything is awash with the aroma of spices like clove and cardamom that grow abundantly.
Underwater adventure playground
But most travellers don’t visit Pemba Island for its horticultural splendours. What makes Pemba a paradise is the underwater landscape and abundant marine life. It’s the ultimate playground for experienced and beginner divers alike. On the west coast, the sea mountains rise up dramatically in the Pemba Channel, creating spectacular dive walls and drop-offs. The marine topography has sculpted an undersea terrain that attracts a wide range of sea life; reef fish as well as pelagic fish like barracuda, tuna and giant grouper. The sea is usually a very comfortable 26 degrees and visibility is perfect.
There are many good, reputable dive schools and the west coast is best for all divers: chartered waters, accessibility and reef protection give a safer dive than the strong currents of the east coast.
Particular dive sites are especially worth a mention. At the Fundu Gap you can spot the gentle Napoleon wrasse as well as eagle rays. Other great dive spots include the Njao Island Gap and the Panza Wreck.
If you’d like to get up close to dolphins without being one of those annoying dolphin-bothering tourists, Pemba Island gives you great opportunities – schools of bottlenose and spinner dolphins regularly promenade the waters and what’s especially cheering is that the extremely rare Indian Ocean humpback dolphin has been spotted, too. And visits are on their terms – if Pemba dolphins take a fancy to you, then enjoy their company while you can.
If you’re not big on diving, Misali Island is a little tropical atoll just off Pemba. It’s part of a marine conservation area and has particularly good reef snorkelling as well as plenty of white sand beaches to chill out on.
Mafia Island is a virtually unknown (until now!) gem with healthy coral reefs set in a well-organised marine park. What’s unique about Mafia Island is the diversity of its landscape: we’re talking estuarine, marine, mangrove and coral reef ecosystems, all with rich, different characters and a wealth of flora and fauna.
Onshore, there’s plenty to do. Take a bumpy road trip (we say roads, but there are no busy thoroughfares anywhere on Mafia) through the picturesque landscape or if you prefer something less bumpy, a guided walk through the Mlola Forest is a perfect opportunity for game of spot-the-monkey before a picnic on a secluded beach. Head to Kilindoni town on Mafia’s southwest coast for its colourful, bustling market and when you’re done shopping, grab some lunch at the harbour where you can idle away the afternoon watching traditional wooden dhows sailing in and out of the harbour. But what some people think is best about Kilindoni town is what lies offshore.
For here are the feeding grounds of the whale shark, the largest fish in the world. These amazing gentle giants appear from November through to March and if you jump on a boat you’ll be able to snorkel and swim with these majestic, calm creatures, which can grow up to 18 metres long.
Once you’ve dried off, there’s no better end to the day than a sunset sail on one of those shows, too, where you can sit, listening to the creaking of the timbers and the gentle splashing of the waters as the first stars appear.
Pemba, Mafia and little Misali make up an unspoilt corner of the world, and we want it to stay that way so shhhh! you never heard about them, right? Let’s pretend that Zanzibar is Tanzania’s only tropical paradise…
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