Seen from the air, the port town of Pemba sprawls across a peninsula that juts dramatically into the bright turquoise waters of Pemba Bay like a giant thumb. Pemba Bay is massive, the third largest natural bay in the world; fringed by golden sands, it seemed tranquil from the air. As our plane descended, the sails of small fishing boats could be seen cutting across the water. After a long journey, and an unplanned day trapped in the surprisingly cold Johannesburg, our first sight of Pemba was thrilling.
Stepping out of the air conditioned plane, Pemba’s tropical, languid heat took our breath away. Thanks to the combined incompetence of Virgin Atlantic and South African Airways, we didn’t have any bags to collect, so hopped into a taxi and headed into town. We decided to stay in a beach-side cabana on Wimbe Beach; fringed by palms, this beautiful white sand beach stretches along the peninsula for a couple of kilometres. There is a constant buzz of human activity around the beach: fishing in the shallows, selling fish and crafts, children playing. Sitting and watching the world go by is wonderful.
After driving through the ‘functional’ town centre, I was glad we were staying at the beach – Pemba town is quiet, relaxed and safe, but a visual treat it is not. Rather than being a destination in itself, Pemba has traditionally been a jumping off point for the spectacular tropical islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago. That is changing, as the beaches, extraordinary seafood and relaxed atmosphere attract an increasing number of domestic and foreign tourists.
Wimbe Beach feels fairly remote from the town, and the temptation not to move from the beach is almost overpowering. ‘Luckily’ we had to keep visiting town to try to discover where our lost baggage was – we abandoned hope when finally told they had been sent back to Johannesburg. This, it turned out, was a lie; we would eventually be reunited with our bags two weeks later while searching through a room full of lost luggage at Maputo Airport.
Pemba was founded in 1904 as Porto Amleia, after the Queen of Portugal – who I assume never visited this colonial backwater. It was a company town run by the Niassa Company, an Anglo-French operation granted the rights to run a huge swathe of Mozambique and its people. Something it did with relish, instituting a system of plantations and forced labour.
Taking the opportunity to have a look at some of the less visited areas of the town, we walked down to the ocean through Bairro de Paquitequete. This is one of the oldest communities in the area, an almost exclusively Muslim area populated by fishing families. It’s not the most salubrious area, and can feel a little sketchy, but it was fascinating to stroll through. When we reached the beach it was full of activity as people readied their boats for fishing or repaired nets.
We’d planned to walk around the headland and explore a little more, but stupidly we went just after midday and the fierce Mozambique sun soon forced us back to Wimbe Beach. Not learning from this experience, I managed to get mild sunstroke a couple of days later after going for a walk at sunrise. It turns out that sunstroke and malaria share a lot of similar symptoms, so I climbed onto the back of a motorbike and went to the local hospital. Sharing a bench with several women and their small children, I was given a rapid malaria test and sent away with a flea in my ear.
Actually, the doctor was very nice, the waiting times better than the NHS and the system for testing for malaria was second to none. I did offer to pay, but the doctor pointed out that the European Union supported the hospital financially so that it could offer free malaria services. I don’t imagine the EU had foolhardy tourists in mind when they funded the project, but I was very appreciative. Plus I’d provided plenty of entertainment for the collected women and children, who had clearly never seen an idiot before.
The days in Pemba flew by in haze of relaxation, sea food and the occasional dip in the water…