Sunday, March 29, 2020

Coastal Kenya

The Kenya Coast is, for convenience, divided into four regions. Apart from the town and port of Mombasa, these are the south coast which stretches from Mombasa to the Tanzania border; the north coast covering the beaches from Mombasa to Kilifi; Malindi and Watamu and the Lamu archipelago. Each of these areas has its own devotees, some returning year after year without sampling the competitors.

Mombasa

  • The South Coast
  • The North Coast
  • Watamu
  • Gede
  • Malindi
  • Lamu and the Lamu Archipelago
  • Excursions from the Coast

Mombasa

Mombasa is Kenya’s second largest town and its only sizeable port. It has a recorded history stretching back nearly 2000 years and was mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea a pilot’s guide to the Indian Ocean Written by one Diogenes, a Greek living in Egypt, around the end of the first century AD. Mombasa was again mentioned by Ptolemy in the second century but then remained in relative obscurity, despite the development of a series of city states by migrant Arabs, until the adventurers, traders and conquerors visited the town beginning with Vasco Da Gama in 1948. The colonisation of the coast by the Portuguese was a hit and miss affair with the invaders sometimes showing interest and sometimes the opposite. But it was also an era of strife between the Catholic Portuguese and the Muslim Arabs. Portuguese hegemony was finally extinguished with the capture of Fort Jesus by the Arabs in 1699 just over a hundred years after it was built. The next hundred years was a miserable record of petty wars between the minor sultans and of maladministration by the Omani Arabs based in Muscat. Trade, except in slaves, came to a halt until an army was sent, in 1822, by the Sultan of Oman to crush the warring states and re-establish commercial activity. Some form of Arab government existed in what became knwon as the coastal strip until the region was declared a British sphere of influence following the treaty of Berlin in 1885. The town of Mombasa is built on an island. Less than a century ago the builders of what was then called the Uganda railway attached the island to the mainland by a causeway. To the north a new toll bridge spans Tudor Creek, with views of the old harbour, linking the town with the north coast beach resorts. On the south side a frequent car and passenger ferry service plies across Kilindini Creek, close to the entrance to the modern port area with its multitude of wharfs and deep water berths, carrying tourists to the spendid beaches of the south coast. Mombasa town itself is a mystical mixture of ancient and modern with a cosmopolitan population blending Africa, Arabia, Asia and Europe. The people who live in this old but vibrant gateway to Kenya and Africa now number almost 600,000.

Fringing the dhow harbour is the old town, a maze of narrow streets and pedestrian lanes with quaint shuttered houses and open fronted shops. The smell of spices is always present. Dominating the entrance to the dhow harbour is Fort Jesus, which is open to visitors and which houses an interesting museum displaying antiquities from the length of the Kenya Coast. Also on display are finds from the Portuguese warship the Santa Antonio D’Atanna which sank near the fort in 1697 while attempting to raise the Arab seige. A wide array of African crafts and curios, together with some antiques, are available from shops and sidewalk vendors, but a shopping highlight is a visit to Biashara Street where the shops compete for the purchaser’s eye, and his pocket, with dazzling diplays of locally woven fabrics and prints. Visitors find a visit to the Kamba carvers village near the airport a worthwhile experience. Scores of carvers can be seen at work and one can follow the progress of a carving from log to the completed artistry. There is a shop selling the finished works. From Mombasa it is possible to make short excursions to many of the beach resorts or alternatively to seek the cool air of the Shimba Hills. There are several interesting archaeological sites nearby especially Jumba la Mtwana – the Slavemaster’s house – a well-maintained ruin with one of four mosques although virtually intact slipping imperceptibly into the ocean. To reach Jumba you cross Mtwapa Creek where there is a substantial aquarium with an underwater viewing tunnel displaying sharks, rays and other fascinations from the nearby ocean.

There is also a deep sea fishing centre catering too, for water skiers and gogglers. The world famous rehabilitation project at the Bamburi Cement Factory certainly merits a visit. Sterile quaries have been turned into a sublime oasis, covering 35 hectares, where wildlife and birds inhabit the forests, glades, pools and streams. The Bamburi Nature Trail is easily found and should not be missed if only as a wonderful example of reclamation of wasteland.

With its contrasting cultures and its easy pace, Mombasa is a town appreciated by most tourists, not necessarily as a final holiday destination but as a place to savour during a coast visit.

Accommodation:

Hotels on Mombasa Island

astle Hotel, 112 beds

Manor Hotel, 108 beds

Oceanic Hotel, 200 beds

Outrigger Hotel, 84 beds

The South Coast

Although all the beaches which lie to the south of Mombasa form part of the ‘south coast’, the phrase always conjures up Diani Beach about 40 km from Mombasa where the majority of the hotel and resort development is centred. The exceptions are Likoni, better known as Shelley Beach, just across from the Mombasa island ferry, Galu and Msambweni not far south of Diani and Shimoni close to the Tanzania border. The whole of the south coast is served by a good paved highway and there is a tarmac airstrip at Ukunda serving the Diani resort area. Diani Beach is 10 km long, a vast uninterrupted stretch of white sand lapped by an opal ocean. Many of the hotels along this beach nesstle in cleared beachfront areas of the Jadini forest – still the haunt of leopard and monkeys as well as a brilliance of forest birds. In addition to the hotels there are private houses, some available for renting, and several self catering ‘villages’. Most marine activities are available which include windsurfing, water skiing, scuba, goggling and deep sea fishing. Many hotels have their own marine sports centres but there are also independent ones to supply the needs of the more experienced marine addicts. Fishing (all along the Kenya coast) is year round except for May and June and perhaps July. The bill fish season is roughly November to April. The main centre for serious deep sea fishing is Shimoni 100 km from Mombasa quite close to the border. Shimoni is also the base for visits to the Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Parks and Reserves where Kenya’s most outstanding underwater world can be viewed. Back at Diani golf enthusiasts will be delighted with the splendid new course which will be fully operational in 1994. Diani has a selection of restaurants and night clubs offering top class food and entertainment.

All along the coast there are myriads of reef fishes to be seen with no more than a mask and snorkel and perhaps some flippers. The reef building corals, home to these innumerable fish are themselves the world’s most spectacular architects. It is now wonder that such amazing homes should attract such sensational tenants.

Accommodation:

Likoni:
Shelley Beach Hotel, 210 beds
Diani Beach
Indian Ocean Beach Hotel, 200 beds
Golden Beach, 304 beds
Diani Reef Grand Hotel, 604 beds
Leisure Lodge Club and Hotel, 226 beds
in club and 280 in hotel
Leopard Beach, 320 beds
Trade Winds, 206 beds
Two Fishes, 300 beds

Lagoon Reef, 228 beds
Diani Sea Lodge, 300 beds
Africana Sea Lodge, 332 beds
Jadini Beach, 344 beds
Safari Beach, 418 beds
Robinson Baobab, 300 beds
Nomads, 34 beds Shimoni:
Pemba Channel Fishing Club, 14 beds
Shimoni Reef Fishing Lodge, 20 beds

The North Coast

Long stretches of idyllic beaches, fringed with palms, screwpines, casuarinas and scented with oleanders and frangipani make the north coast, between Mombasa and Kilifi, a visitor’s paradise. Kilifi lies 70 km north of Mombasa’s new Nyali Bridge which links the island with the north coast. Nyali, on the mainland immediately after crossing the bridge, is a well established garden suburb for Kenya’s oldest metropolis. Elegant air-conditioned houses set in landscaped gardens are owned by the town’s elite. Turn right just after the bridge and not far beyond you come to the Moorish lines of the famous Tamarind restaurant overlooking the old dhow harbour. Becoming equally well-known is the Tamarind Dhow a floating restaurant serving classical seafood to the sounds of a celebrated African band. Beyond the restaurant the visitor reaches a promontory known as English Point, marked now by cement silos, which in the last century became the spot for the first ‘colony’ of liberated slaves established by the ‘English’. There is also a memorial to the celebrated missionary Ludwig von Krapf and his wife who reached Mombasa in 1844. She died just two months later, of malaria, with her infant child and their graves lie here. Nearby is the Agricultural Society of Kenya’s showground whose annual show is held every August.

The Nyali Estate also boasts an immaculate 18 hole golf course and squash and tennis courts all of which are available to visitors from nearby beach hotels. On the coast, towards the north end of the beach is Mamba Village, a crocodile farm, said to be the world’s largest, and an entertainment complex. A nearby attraction is the Bamburi Nature Trail, mentioned on page 56. Also nearby on the sea side of the main Malindi road is Kipepeo Aquarium which displays an astonishing number os Kenya’s tropical fish from the lagoons and reefs which fringe the entire coastline. After Nyali beach come Kenyatta and Bamburi beaches before Shanzu, a beach from which you can swim at all tides, is reached. There are many hotels along this stretch of coast (see list at end of this section and map) too many to describe in detail save to say that almost all are architecturally imaginative, some outstandingly so, and most have services and facilities which give them complete independence. One such impressive facility is the tennis complex at Severin Sea Lodge offering five floodlit courts of international standard. At Mtwapa Creek just north of Shanzu beach is Kenya Marineland where Kenya’s largest aquarium houses all the monsters from the deepest parts of the Indian Ocean and which can be viewed from a glass-sided underground tunnel. 7 km beyond Mtwapa is Kikambala Beach where there are three hotels and where the water is shallow enough at low tide to walk out to the fringing reef. These are the last beach hotels before Kilifi is reached.

Accommodation:

Likoni
North coast as far as Mtwapa Creek
Nyali Beach, 448 beds
Bamburi Beach, 276 beds
Fontana, 85 beds
Kenya Beach, 188 beds
Mombasa Beach, 340 beds
Reef, 338 beds
Giriama Beach, 184 beds
Piccolo Beach, 80 beds
Ocean View, 210 beds

Whitesands, 616 beds
Travellers Beach, 252 beds
Indiana Beach Cottages, 180 beds
Plaza, 176 beds
Neptune Beach, 156 beds
Severin Sea Lodge, 350 beds
Serena Beach, 332 beds
Intercontinental, 400 beds At Kikambala:
Whispering Palms, 210 beds
Le Soleil, 142 beds
Sun ‘n Sand, 304 beds

On to Kilifi

The beautiful Kilifi creek now spanned by a magnificent bridge gives way, on the north shore, to a long sandy beach where two recent hotels (Kilifi Bay and Baobab Lodge) begin the evolution to a resort.

Watamu

There are no further beach developments until you arrive at Watamu. The hotels at Watamu look over two beautiful inlets, Turtle Bay and Blue Lagoon, the former dotted with unnamed islets, one unmistakably the shape of a turtle. North from Kilifi the coast road has run virtually straight, until the turn off to Watamu, save for a gentle curve as the road skirts the wonderful bird sanctuary of Mida Creek. The creek is a broad expanse of tidal mudflats surrounded by a belt of mangrooves where three species of the eye-catching Bee-eater family enliven the dense green. From late March until early May the creek attracts vast numbers of migrating waders; little stints, greenshanks, whimbrels, curlews, terek sandpipers and many more, dressed in their breeding plumage in readiness for their arrival a little later in Europe. Beside the migrants there are numerous resident birds of special interest like the crab plover, sooty gulls and the osprey.

Near Mida creek is Kenya’s greatest archaeological heritage the ruined city of Gede (sometimes Gedi), lost city whose population inexplicably vanished in the 17th century. The outer wall of this lost city encloses an area of about 18 ha and a well-informed guess would put the population at around 2500. Many of the houses together with the Sultan’s palace have been excavated and partly restored; perhaps it is wandering in a lifeless city which, without fail, evokes mystery, suspense and melodrama as the visitor relives a past era. Even at high noon when the hot sun strikes down through the surrounding jungle the rustle of monkeys or the flutter of birds can make the heart leap. Few people linger in Gede’s ruined walkways as the sun’s shadows lengthen.

The initiated choose Watamu and the Marine Park where five hotels welcome the fisherman, the scuba diver, the water skier or those who just want to relax, sunbathe and feast on an entrancing seascape.

Turtle Bay is within the Marine Park and faces south west and from the beach the visitor looks down the 4 km sweep of the park. The Marine park is itself within a Marine Reserve whose boundary stretches three miles out to sea parallel to high water mark on the mainland. At the southern end of the Park, within a small reef which separates Mida Creek from the sea are some caves housing collection of very large groupers or giant rock cod. To find them you must search the tunnels which run under and through this little reef. The first sight may be their enormous, gaping mouths, fringed with tiny fish. A side view of these huge placid monsters shows that they are five to six feet long weighing several hundred pounds. They are alleged to be harmless!

Accommodation:

Blue Bay, 164 beds

Ocean Sports, 50 beds

Hemmingways, 102 beds

Turtle Bay, 211 beds

Malindi

Backtracking from Turtle Bay, and passing Gede, the main road is reached and brings you to Malindi 15 km distant. The town’s history is reputed to go back a thousand years but it can only be reliably dated to the 13th century by Arabic records and dated pottery shards. Many hotels serve the town whose main beach sweeps for 7 km round Malindi Bay. The long white sand beach to the south of the town is Silversands, once only occupied by private villas but now hosting a panorama of small, mostly Italian owned, hotels. A casino, night clubs, fascinating ancient mosques, a colourful market, a nine hole golf course and, of course, the renowned Malindi Marine National Park all add to the resort’s many attractions. So does the fish market and the fishing club from which stalwarts from all over the world set forth in search of giants to the sea. Kenya holds several world records for big game fish in the 30’s to enjoy his favourite sport. All fishing within the Malindi Marine National Park is forbidden. So is the extraction of shells, starfish and coral. It is the coral gardens in the middle of the park, seen by skin diving, snorkelling or peering through the hull of a glass bottomed boat, which is the fascination. Technicoloured fish of various sizes and impossible shapes swim in a dazzling array. Flutemouths, thornheads, halfbeaks, zebra and parrot fish, hawkfishes, lizard fishes, trigger fishes, porcupine fish, puffers and hundreds of others bejewel the reef. Octopus pulse away in fear, rays wriggle to conceal themselves under a coat of sand; these and many more marvels live in abundance and safety within the Park’s boundaries. On the north side of Malindi is an extensive salt pan system for evaporating sea water for salt; an eroded wasteland of sandstone cliffs and precipices, near Marafa, known as Hell’s Kitchen and a small Arabian Night’s town called Mambrui complete with its Islamic and Chinese relics. And beyond that Ngomeni, a small village and harbour at the entrance to Formosa Bay. This great bay sweeps in an expansive arc encompassing the wide delta of Kenya’s biggest river, the Tana. Near Ngomeni, and set on piles in the shallow waters of the bay is a rocket launching site where weather satellites are launched from time to time. All the coast line from Mambrui to Lamu is undeveloped, in tourist terms, although there are wonderful beaches, covers and seascapes.

Accommodation:

On or near Malindi Bay Mango Inn, 24 beds
Palm Tree Club, 32 beds
Bougainvillage, 160 beds
La Malindina, 30 beds
Eden Roc, 300 beds
Blue Marlin, 284 beds
Lawfords, 320 beds
Lady Cheetah, 22 beds

Near Mambrui Club Che Chale, 22 beds

On or near Silversands Jambo Village, 146 beds
Scorpio Billas, 40 beds
Coconut Village, 66 beds
Tropical Village, 112 beds
African Dream Village, 130 beds
Kilili Baharini, 40 beds
Silversands Villas, 84 beds
Kivulini Village, 72 beds
White Elephant, 70 beds
Driftwood Club, 66 beds

Lamu and the Lamu Archipelago

Lamu is a town, an island and an archipelago. If you visit you should try to visit all three. The archipelago is a chain of seven islands and a multitude of islets, separated from the mainland at its narrowest part by a channel just a few meters wide. The mainland and the inland sides of the islands are fringed by dense mangrove forests, while the seaward sides are protected by reefs and lined with dunes. Throughout the archipelago there are numerous historical sites; visible and tangible evidence of ten centuries of a colourful, and oftern violent, past. Most of these settlements are Arab in origin and started as small trading stations. As these small colonies grew they absorbed much from the local people and a distinct Afro-Arab culture emerged. This culture, which came to be known as Swahili, today dominates not only Lamu but the urban centres of Mombasa and Malindi and its language has become the principal lingua franca of East and Central Africa. The beach on Lamu island is 12 km of empty sands backing on to an ocean unprotected by a reef and therefore more lively and more powerful than you find elsewhere in Kenya. But no one comes to Lamu only for the beach. The town is now well known, a delightful anachronism carrying on its daily life as it has done for centuries so that the visitor has a science fiction experience of being transported back through time. Settlement dates back to the 14th century and by the 19th Lamu was a flourishing trading community. But labour emigration and a fall in value of its exports brought, in the early days of this century, an end to its heyday. There are still many manifestations of the elegant, refined life led by the richer folk in past eras. If you can be shown the interiors of some of the grander mansions, from the outside appearing both formidable and similar, you will find enormously intricate plasterwork unknown in the rest of Islam. The architecture is admirably suited to the climate – a series of open plan galleries almost always without doors, and interior courtyards open to the sky which ensure shade and calm against the tropical sun. The town is crowded with houses and people, the streets so narrow that you can shake hands with your neighbour in the house opposite. The main street, ndia kuu, is lined on either side with ships and workshops, each no more than a room stretching from the street to the living areas behind. Here you will find carpenters and herbalists, jewellers and grocers, coffee houses and cooks preparing the local equivalent of Turkish Delight called halva – stired in huge copper cauldrons, and even a factory, using Dickensian machines, which makes local spaghetti, known as tambi, and coconut oil used for cooking by the townsfolk and for sun tanning by visitors.

In the centre of the town stands the fort. Built for Omani invaders around 1812 it later became a prison and is now a cultural centre operated through the museum. The Lamu museum itself is on the waterfront, occupying a house once the home and office of colonial district commissioners. Before that it had housed Queen Victoria’s consul – one Captain Jack Haggard, brother of the more celebrated author of King Solomon’s Mines. This museum is a small gem, housing a collection of Swahili artifacts, jewellry and crafts unequally anywhere else. The two most important items in its collection are the siwa – ceremonial horns; one, made of ivory, belonged to a former sultan of Pate (an island in the archipelage) the other is from Lamu itself. As befits a maritime community the museum houses a collection of sea going vessels and marine tackle and there is a wonderful model of the rope sewn vessel known as mtepe. A 45 minute walk from the town (or 15 minutes walk by motor boat) brings you to the sleepy village of Shela. This is where the beach begins and the complexities of life end. Even the beach is simple, just a 12 km swathe of shinning sand lapped by a balmy sea.

To sail the archipelago is to discover. Beautiful beaches, glorious seascapes, ancient ruins, fishing and scuba refuges. For desert island lovers there are remote hideaways at Kiwaiyu and on Manda island which are the ultimate in getting away from it all. From these havens it is possible to visit the wildllife sanctuary at Dodori or the beautiful Kiunga Marine National Reserve.

Accommodation:

Lamu Town

Petleys Inn, 22 beds

Lamu Palace, 40 beds

Shela

Island Hotel, 34 beds

Peponi Hotel, 50 beds

Kipungani

Kipungani Sea Breezes, 24 beds

In the archipelago

Kiwaiyu Safari Village, 40 beds

Blue Safari Village, 30 beds

Excursions from the Coast

Although the glorious beaches along the Kenya coast have a powerful tranquilising effect almost every visitor will want to have a look at or participate in some of the attractions that lie over the horizon. Almost all the hotels have facilities for booking excursions but if not, such assistance is only a few metres away. The variety of one day or half day excursions is enormous. For those who prefer the sea there are visits to the reef and to the marine parks by local dug-out canoes or by glass bottomed boats and there are ‘dhow safaris’ out of Mombasa, Mtwapa and Shimoni. In Mombasa the Tamarind restaurant operates a dhow which floats gently through the old harbour whilst travellers are regaled with fine sea food and live African Music. Another dhow cruises the main harbour and visits the floating market. At Mtwapa you eat in lazy luxury whilst the dhow explores the mysteries of the creek. At Shimoni a fine dhow takes visitors to the Marine Park for scuba diving and snorkeling and calls at a charming seafood restaurant on the island of Wasini. Fishermen have many centres, often based in their own hotel, from which fully equipped deep sea fishing boats can be hired by the hour.

Visitors will want to make a visit to Mombasa, in particular to see Fort Jesus and to explore the old town. For those interested in history and archaeology there are expeditions to be made to Gede, near Malindi, and to a smaller but well preserved 16th century settlement – Jumba la Mtwana – near Mtwapa creek. Guests staying on the south coast or on the north coast beaches near to Mombasa may wish to make a day’s visit to Malindi where, in addition to visiting Gede en route, they can experience a full day’s adventure including a visit to an aviary or the falconry and watch traditional dancers in a typical (and genuine) village. There are also ‘bush tours’ generally taking a few hours spent in the lush hinterland meeting people in their villages and seeing their crafts, visiting a market, perhaps some dancing and generally getting a little insight into coastal Kenya’s daily life. A few hours spent at the Bamburi Nature Trail – see also page 56, is time well spent. Wildlife enthusiasts can visit the Shimba Hills National Resefve, a cool refuge from the beach where sable, buffalo and elephant can also be seen. It is possible to spend a night in a tree house hotel in the sanctuary and also to take escorted nature walks. It is also possible to make day excursions to Tsavo East National Park, a day which begins before dawn and one which is not everyone’s notion of how to observe wildlife. Less arduous are the one day air safaris to Tsavo West and Amboseli. Much in favour now are air excursions to the Masai Mara and Samburu, generally involving one or two nights in lodges or camps in those parks. Last, but not least, a favourite air excursion is to Lamu, Kenya’s romatic island time warp. This catalogue of excursions is not exhaustive but is intended to illustrate the variety of attractions which will enhance an already delightful destination. Wildlife safaris are not, of course, limited to excursions and many tour operators plan more lengthy safaris to the parks, some starting their safaris in Nairobi and terminating them in Mombasa.