We have heard a whole mix of stories about Pemba. Some describe it as an amazing beach town with the best diving in Moz. Others have said it is a total shit hole. One couple told us to avoid the diving at all cost because they had to wade through human shit to get to the dive boat. This certainly piqued our interest – I mean how could we miss the chance to dive with shit! So we cruised into town with very low expectations.
We arrived after dark and were shocked at the size of Pemba. It was the biggest town we had seen since Maputo. We were expecting a small beach town but then learned that Pemba has been growing exponentially over the past 10 years. About 5 years ago the world’s largest natural gas stores were found offshore north of Pemba. This has drawn in Chinese, Russians, Italian and American companies. Locals have also flooded to Pemba with the hopes that they might be able to find a job. The result is what was once a pristine sleepy beach town has now become a dirty industrial center, with a very visible Chinese influence. Prices have shot up making visiting here much more expensive than it should be. I’ll be honest – it is one of those spots that you can clearly see has been “ruined.”
We had zero expectations but some curiosity about the reefs so we did two dives with Pieter at CI Divers. The rumors were true – the beaches are filthy and you do have to step over trash to get to the boat. However, we weren’t lucky enough to find any piles of shit.
Pemba sits on a large bay and all the reefs are found pretty close offshore. I was shocked that we could have even swum out to them. After all the long rough boat rides to get to the dive sites in southern Moz – this was a really nice treat! We dropped down to 80ft and found a beautiful coral wall. The reef stretched all the way up to 15 ft making it possible to stay under for 70 minutes or more. I couldn’t believe how clean and clear the water was after seeing the totally trashed beach. Just a short distance away, somehow the reefs have survived.
Of course, there were not that many fish. With so many locals fishing rampantly – you can’t expect much to survive. However, we did see some interesting things like brightly colored paper fish and a a weedy scorpion fish (which was new species for us!). I thought it was worth a dive or two but I wouldn’t have done much more. They were expensive dives too – $75 per dive.
Where to stay? We stayed our first night at Russel’s Place (also known as Pemba Magic) which had been recommended by numerous other travelers. We camped for about $12 but there was no proper campsite with water/plugs/ablutions so we weren’t too excited about the place. Also their wifi didn’t work. We checked out their dorms and chalets which were very overpriced for the quality.
So we decided to switch to staying at Pieter’s Place. His rooms are normally $80 a night which I thought was crazy! But he offered us a room for $40 which we reluctantly took – mainly due to convenience and the fact that he had the best wifi we’ve seen in Moz. We also thought he was just a really nice guy and felt bad that he basically has no business. He said 5 years ago the place used to be packed most of the year, but due to some security scares in the area, bad press and a slow down on the natural gas projects – tourism has come to a screeching halt. We liked the set up of CI divers. The workers do all your gear transport and set up making diving much less tiresome. There is a huge baobab tree in the center of the plot which has an awesome treehouse. They also have a restaurant, pool and bar.
We visited the Avani hotel down the road just to check it out. This is the first large chain hotel we have come across in Moz. It was huge and well done – however it was totally empty! Reception confirmed they did not have a single guest. It is just so sad to see these places that get built up on the good faith of tourism – and then can become doomed with the drop of a hat.
Where to Eat? We didn’t have any good meals while in Pemba so we can’t make any recommendations! There are numerous beach front restaurants that line Wimbe Beach and serve fresh seafood. We tried the Dolphin and were not very impressed. Russel’s Place is popular with locals who recommended asking for the hot rock (which isn’t on the menu).
Pemba sits on a very picturesque bay, has good reefs and the potential for beautiful beaches. If they could just clean up the beaches, clean up the town and stop overfishing so the marine life can recover – Pemba could really be a great tourist destination. However, I predict things to be mismanaged as the mining industry moves in and motives become all about money. I would not visit Pemba again and would not recommend going out of your way to visit. However, if you are in the area for some reason it is worth a visit and worth a dive. If you are traveling overland to the Quirimbas, you will also need to spend at least one night here.