The largest town on Pemba, its capital and its administrative centre is Chake Chake, located about halfway down the Western coast of the island at the head of a narrow creek.
The old town is set on a ridge, from where it is possible to look down through the early morning mists over the rusty tin roofs to the silted creek below, where only the occasional dhow now ventures when the tides will allow.
At the centre of town, there is a well-defined old quarter, with a traditional market place, fortress and rows of bazaar shops. There is also an SMZ hotel, identical to that in Mkoani. Although Chake Chake has probably been inhabited for as long as Stone Town, it has never really been a seat of political power and consequently has relatively few historic buildings. The prevailing atmosphere remains that of a relaxed and friendly provincial outpost rather than a bustling centre for commerce.
The old centre is bypassed by a traffic-free dual carriageway, similar to that at Mkoani and flanked by some interesting commercial buildings dating from the middle of the 20th century. On the outskirts of town is a new hospital, built by the European Community overseas aid programme and a few kilometres past the old centre a huge new sports stadium, which is home for the local football team.
Opposite the stadium is a couple of small guesthouses which, is presently the only accommodation in town, should be booked in advance.
The island’s only airport lies about 7km from town to the South East, which takes only light local traffic from Unguja and the mainland.
PEMBA ISLAND: Around Chake Chake: The Fortress
The oldest surviving building in the town is the Old Fortress, which is thought to date back at least to the eighteenth century and possibly as far back as the Portuguese occupation (1499 to 1698). Records dating back to the early 19th century describe the fortress as being rectangular in plan, with two square and two round towers at the corners, topped by thatched roofs. Round towers are typical of the Arab and Swahili architecture of the time, but the square towers are unusual and indicate possible Portuguese influence.
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The fortress stands by the gate of the main hospital in town, overlooking the creek. It is unfortunate that at the beginning of the 20th century the most part of the building was demolished to make way for the new hospital. The section that remains was used firstly as a prison and then as a police barracks until the 1950s. More recently it has been used as an extension to the hospital.
A separate battery is located on a small platform halfway down the hill to the creek and although the building has mostly gone, there are two cannons lying on the site.
The ruins of the ancient town of Ras Mkumbuu are located at the head of the peninsula to the North of Chake Chake creek. Sited just above the beach, the town must have commanded a wide panorama of the surrounding area and the sea out past Mesali Island to the mainland beyond.
The town of Ras Mkumbuu is referred to in Arabic writings as being one of the major trading cities on the East African coast from at least the 10th century (Yakut bin Abdulla al Rumi, an Arab geographer of the 13th century), although the ruins that occupy the site date from the 13th and 14th centuries. The remains tell of a substantial mosque, with an arched mirhab, minaret and a ceiling supported by 12 pillars and of 14 tombs, also pillared and many decorated with Chinese porcelain (a testament to the range of early trading networks). There are also remains of houses and wells. Excavations on the site revealed earlier remains below the surface, including those of a 10th-century mosque.
There is no road along the peninsula and most people visit the site by boat from Chake Chake, landing at the nearby fishing village and strolling up through the fields and palm trees to the ruins.
Whilst visiting Ras Mkumbuu by boat, it is just a short diversion to Mesali Island, allegedly a hideout of the legendary pirate Captain Kidd, who is said to have left buried treasure here in 1698. The island has an idyllic beach and is famed for the quality of its diving. It is claimed that 40 of the 60 coral genera are represented, along with around 240 different species of fish.
Recent attempts to develop the island as an exclusive tourist resort have been rejected and it is hoped that the island and surrounding reef will be made a marine park in the near future.