Pemba Island: Paradise off the Beaten Path
Story by Shelly Pfeifer, photos by Troy Pfeifer
-more photos here -
“This is not good” I murmur as I look over the car seat in front of me and stare out the window ahead. My husband sitting next to me with his safari hat tilted on his head looks a little pale. As he finally acknowledges what I said he slowly nods his head in agreement. Only moments before, we had been traveling down the road through the small town of Chake Chake greedily looking forward to our dive vacation. Funny how things can change so quickly.
We had arrived on Pemba Island, Tanzania less then an hour ago along with fourteen of our fellow divers. Since the tiny island sees less then 1000 visitors a year, the local people were not used to dealing with sixteen foreigners all at once. Even though transportation to our dive resort had already been arranged by a travel agency, we still seemed to cause a logistical problem for the airport personnel. As we stood waiting for the men to stop arguing about who knows what regarding our luggage, we are aware of every person at the airport staring at our group. I think the only person that wasn’t staring at us was an old man sitting on the ground with his back against the wall, head slung forward causing his mouth to open with a small bit of drool trailing down his chin. If it wasn’t for the occasional twitch of his hand to swat away a fly I would have questioned whether or not he was alive. After much shouting, pointing and juggling around of us and our luggage, we are quickly stuffed us into three small minivans and off we go.
My husband and I and three other friends are in the last van to leave the airport. Our driver had a slow start so we quickly lose sight of the two vans traveling in front of us. As we are taking in the sights of the small town, Chake Chake, we initially think nothing of our driver pulling over to the side of the road and stopping. It is only when he jumps out and runs across the street that we start to stir with curiosity. When a completely different man jumps in behind the wheel (with a bottle of wine no less) do we really start to worry! My husband tries to ask the new guy what is going on. The driver only waves his hand at us as he guns the engine and tears off into the street. The five of us sit staring at each other with the same thoughts going through our mind “Did we just get kidnapped? Are we on our way to a slave labor camp? Are we going to end up on the news with someone demanding ransom?”
For the next 45 minutes or so, the five of us are frantically trying to communicate with our new driver. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but we still try. We are all very aware that we are the very definition of “strangers in a strange land”. The other two vans are nowhere in sight and the only help we see along the road are two skinny cows being led by a small boy dressed in a pair of shorts. Suddenly, up ahead we spot the two other vans with our friends. It is only then that we finally breathe again. We later came to find out there was no explanation for the change of drivers. They had no idea that something like that would freak us out so much.
Even though we were relieved to be safely together again as a group, our fearfulness reared its ugly head again when we start driving off the beaten path. And I don’t mean figuratively. Our caravan literally started driving along a double track path with weeds growing up the center. The roads only got worse the farther we traveled. Most times there was no sign of life on either side of the road. Other times, we could see small shacks with old women sticking their heads out the door. We were so far off the main path that our driver even got lost twice. My husband turns to me and says with a lopsided smile “He must not go to the slave labor camp often!” I try to laugh but it seems that all the nerves in my body are paralyzed and the only thing I can do is sit and stare straight ahead out the window.
After about thirty minutes of this we drive through a gate of some sort, flanked on the right side by a decrepit old guard shack with weeds and vines enveloping it. Above the path is a sign dangling by a sole chain with the faint letters that read “Manta Reef Resort”. The building ahead of us and the grounds surrounding the entrance was about as far from the adjective “resort” you can get. There is no driveway, the grounds are mangled with weeds and the single palm tree is about as tall as my 7 year old nephew. But to the credit of the building, it had a brightly colored red tiled roof, the walls were almost too white, and there were fluorescent colored fuscia flowers climbing the patio poles.
From the moment I stepped off the plane in the Chake Chake Airport my high hopes for the ultimate dive destination vacation only dwindled with each passing minute. As I looked at the front entrance of what was to be our home for the next seven days, my hopes had pretty much vanished.
We unloaded our luggage and as we enter the lodge we give a quick nod to the security guard with his AK-47 guarding the entrance. I decide to not even think about why he is here. Because my hopes have pretty much gone astray I am instantly surprised by how beautifully rustic the lobby is. Windows with no panes, darkly colored walls and floors, uniquely knotted wood used for beams and columns, and a cozy bar stocked with delicious drinks tucked in the corner. My second surprise was of the stunning African girl who quickly served us a refreshing glass of cold beer. My third and final surprise was of the view that awaited me at the back of the lodge. Thirty feet away from where I stood was the ultimate picture of heaven! Beckoning me was an expansive dining patio that overlooked a talcum powder beach that led into the bluest, clearest water that no words in the English language can describe. I’m not even going to waste my time trying to explain how beautiful the beach and water was. You’ll just have to take my word for it. Instantly all the fear and trepidation I had felt driving here melted away. I knew I had found paradise off the beaten path.
Our individual cabins were no less rustic yet very comfortable and huge. We could easily fit 40 people on the floor with their sleeping bags. One wall was completely missing. Instead it had a balcony that ran the length of the room and had a heavy tarp to unroll from its bindings if a gusty rain came in. In the bathroom, you could sit on the toilet and look through either the cracks in the floor or through the cracks in the wall and watch people walk by. Each morning we woke up, we gingerly walked around the room hoping we wouldn’t come across any islands residents that slithered into our room in the middle of the night. One couple in our group woke to find a black snake in their bathtub. After they took a shower with it, one watching it while the other one lathered up, they found out from the hotel staff that it was probably the poisonous Black Mamba snake. I’m all for rustic and adventure, but that pretty much crossed the line for me.
Our first morning here we came to find out that our group of 16 was the largest group the small resort had ever accommodated. The owner actually had to bring people in from nearby Kenya to help out with running the resort while we were guests there. Outside of the resort staff and the few guards that roamed the grounds, we saw three other people there and they left after our second day there. The rest of the time, the place was ours!
Our dive guide for the week was a French guy named Fabreze. He had the heaviest accent and was very difficult to understand. When it came to our dive briefings we all listened as close as we possibly could but still walked away with quizzical looks on our face. Upon our first meeting you could tell he was a little overwhelmed with having 16 people in his care for the week. But when he came to realize that over half of our group were either dive instructors or dive masters you could see the relief pass over his face. After that, he pretty much left us on our own. Which was fine because we couldn’t understand him anyways.
Our dive boat was the clumsiest boat we have ever seen. It was a piece of solid metal with a rotten piece of blue tarp over the top, rusting poles to hold it up and small steel benches for passengers to sit. There were no holding places for our scuba tanks so we laid them on the floor with our gear placed around them to keep from rolling around. The boat was definitely not made for diving but it suited our needs just fine.
The name of the resort didn’t get its name by accident. At one point there were Manta Rays that inhabited the waters off Pemba Island. But since the people of the island sustain itself by fishing, the Manta Rays have since been long gone. They have disappeared either by over fishing or because they got smart and decided to find a new home away from knifes and forks.
After getting over our initial disappointment of knowing we would not see Manta’s on our dives, we were quickly seduced by the 100’ visibility and the warm temperatures of the water. There was not much to see in the way of big marine life; no sharks or Volkswagen size groupers. But the marine life that lived on the coral and the coral itself was out of this world. The array of colors and species of nudibranchs and pillow starfish, hard and soft coral and the giant clams was unbelievable. Most times there was hardly any current so it was easy to hang out in one spot and see what small, mysterious creatures you could find. My husband quickly learned to swim in front of me because by the time he got to the giant clams with his camera, they were already closed from me poking them and watching them suck in their clam meat.
Our evenings were spent with our friends on the dining patio exchanging stories from the days diving as well as from past dive trips. Even though we had all experienced different dive destinations from around the world, we all came to the same conclusion: Pemba Island would definitely go down as one of the top, if not the top dive destination we have ever encountered, if not for the diving but for the adventure we went through to get there.