Having made our way from Ethiopia to Rwanda taking in African cities, culture, and animals, it was time for us relax by the shore.
We flew from Kigali, Rwanda to Mombasa: Kenya’s second biggest city and major port town on the Indian Ocean. It was hot on the coast – we were sweating the moment we stepped off the plane – and we were pumped to make it to the beach.
Mombasa has a history dating back 400 years influenced by the Portuguese, Omani Arabs, and the British. Still standing is Fort Jesus, which this year was minted with UNESCO World Heritage status.
Initially built by the Portuguese in 1593 to defend the port, it was last used as a prison by the British before being declared a national monument in 1958. The fort has been preserved well – Portuguese artwork and British cannons remain on display.
Sarah pointed out that in over a month in Africa we had seen almost every native animal except for the crocodile. To remedy this we stopped by Mombasa’s Mamba Village, which bills itself as the largest crocodile farm in all of Africa.
We arrived at feeding time.
The highlight of the farm was the feeding of “Big Daddy”: a sixteen foot monster rumored to be over 100 years old and to have eaten a few people.
But Mombasa wasn’t what we were looking for.
It was crowded, traffic was atrocious, and we were constantly bothered by kids and touts vying for our services. There were nice beaches, but they were either not close by or restricted to guests at pricey resorts. So after hitting the city’s sites we decided to move on.
Although Kenya has beaches up and down its coastline – Lamu is the one most raved about.
Just two problems stood before us.
Our first and foremost concern was safety. In the last three months there have been two kidnappings and murders of foreigners in the Lamu region by Somalis affiliated with the terrorist organization Al-Shabaab. After the second incident, Kenya invaded Somaila where they remain, bogged down in military operations. Al-Shabaab had threatened to retaliate, and tourists now have been scared away.
But with the military now patrolling Lamu (including some American marines) it seemed safer than ever; we decided to take the risk and head north.
Which brings me to the second problem.
There were no paved roads leading to Lamu, and we were strongly advised to fly. “The road is pretty bad, you won’t like it,” said one man. Clearly he was unaware that we were hardcore travelers, I thought as we bought our bus tickets.
Five hours into the eight hour bus ride we still were wondering what he had been warned us about. Then we passed Melindi, turned onto a dirt road and began bouncing about. Every half hour we stopped at villages and more people packed in. Sarah was ok by the window, but I at the aisle became a human armrest for everyone rammed up against me with bags and elbows in my face. At one point I felt something move near my feet and looked down to see a live chicken.
A few hours and many bruises later we did arrive. Our bus dropped us off at the pier, and after stretching on solid ground, we took a small boat across to Lamu.
Even though we arrived during what’s normally the busiest season of the year, we snagged a massive three story, seven bed house for $25 a night.
The top floor had a huge master bedroom next to a living room full of couches and tables open to views of the sea.
We wanted to relax and we couldn’t have found a better place.
Lamu was the complete opposite of Mombasa, with no roads and only a handful of cars. Stone buildings were separated by narrow streets that were safe to walk on at all hours of the night.
Donkeys were everywhere – carrying goods, being ridden, or just tied up on the streets.
We quickly grew accustomed to the constant braying.
For a small town there were plenty of places to eat with reasonably priced seafood. But it would have been a shame to not utilize our large kitchen; we visited the local market for fresh ingredients.
The island is predominantly Muslim, due to its location on an Omani Arab trading route. There are mosques every few blocks and women walk around in the heat fully covered.
Kids in town were very happy.
They were always running around and screaming, bothering donkeys or stray cats, or swimming near the pier.
The waters surrounding Lamu were best explored by small wooden boats known as dhows. Sarah, I, and British traveler James joined captain Baji and first mate Adam for a full day of snorkeling, fishing, and sailing aboard a dhow creatively named “Lamu”.
We set off at 9 AM; an hour later Baji killed the motor and Adam, James, and I jumped in to snorkel. Adam bore a spear and net to catch us lunch. We watched with fascination as he picked his target, swam up behind it, and disappeared underwater to surface with an impaled fish.
After having caught several fish and one stingray, we pulled anchor and went to a small deserted island.
Sarah, James, and I walked along the shore while Baji and Adam were busy cooking.
Their food was delicious – the fish were accompanied by chapatis and freshly made salad. After lunch, we sprawled out on deck, Adam and Baji unfurled the dhow’s sail and we returned to Lamu without the sounds of the motor.
The next few days were had the same unchanging routine: wake, read, eat, lounge, sleep, repeat. One day we mixed it up by visiting a local movie theatre – really just a hut with chairs – which charged twenty cents to watch American and Bollywood films. Its concession stand sold no popcorn or soda, just cigarettes.
On our last day in Lamu we arranged for another trip on the “Lamu” – this time departing in the afternoon to return at night under the cover of stars. James was replaced by three Canadians, and our path took us in the opposite direction, towards Manda Island.
With no time for snorkeling, Adam had been sent to sea earlier and joined the boat with a bag full of fish. After docking at Manda, he and Baji again prepared us a spectacular meal as we watched the sun set over the horizon and on our seven week stay in Africa.