Long, long ago, sailors from the South China Sea, the Malabar Coast and the Persian Gulf came to establish magnificent cities along this coastline. The wealth of these ports stemmed from their trade in gold, spices, ivory and slaves. Formerly the hubs of great sea-faring empires, they either slowly faded away or came to disastrous and untimely ends. In remote and forgotten places they lie waiting to be rediscovered. The island of Pemba lies to the north-east of Zanzibar. The easiest way to arrive is on the infrequent light aircraft leaving Dar es Salaam. Alternatively, you can take your chances on a trader's dhow from Zanzibar. The small town of Chake Chake in the centre of the island has two small guest houses.
At Ras Mkumbu, on the west of Pemba, are vine-draped ruins of stone houses and pillar tombs dating back around 1,200 years. The legend behind the settlement is that Ali ben Sultan of Shiraz in Persia had a dream in which a rat with iron jaws devoured the foundations of his house. Despite widespread ridicule he considered this a bad omen and sailed to Pemba to establish Ras Mkumbu. Easiest access to the site is by boat which can be informally chartered from the fishermen on the shoreline. Try to persuade your boatman to go on to the tiny Misali Island.
On the South-east of Pemba, at Pujini, are the overgrown and decaying remains of another settlement built by conquerors from the Maldives and thought to be at least 500 years old. Its unpleasant founder was called Mkame Ndume - which means "milker of men" - because he worked his subjects to death. Local people believe the ruins to be haunted and never go there. Borrow a bike from a friendly local to visit Pujini, but on no account tell them where you plan to go.
Mafia Island is far to the south of Pemba. Other than by chartering a light aircraft, the only way to get there is on the Canadian Spirit which sails from Dar es Salaam (when there are enough passengers or cargo). Places to stay and eat are few and far between. A good idea is to ask the locals for board, or pitch a tent on any beach and cook for yourself. Mafia is a favourite haunt of giant turtles, which use the secluded white coral sand beaches for laying their eggs.
On the edge of Mafia the old Arab city of Kisiwani is slowly slipping into the sea. Small dhows from the harbour at Kilwa Masoko will take you there. I was once told a story of how the townsfolk built a large ship. When it was completed they invited the people from Kua to a celebratory feast. During the festivities the Kisiwanis grabbed several Kua children and laid them on the sand to help roll the ship into the ocean.
Some years later the Kua got their revenge when they invited the Kisiwanis to a wedding feast in a special underground chamber. As the evening wore on the hosts slipped away one by one until only an old man was left entertaining the merry guests. Meanwhile, the doorway of the room was quietly bricked up, entombing all inside. The Kua then sent a message to the head of the Kisiwani stating that the account was now settled. Within a month Kisiwani began to sink into the sea.
Today, those who are brave enough can swim through the watery palaces of Kisiwani, hunting for treasure amongst the shipwrecks. By the way, the people of Kua did not get off lightly. During the 1820s, the cannibalistic Sakalava tribesmen arrived from Madagascar, sacked the city and scoffed the citizens.
Gareth LloydReuse content