No longer a moto-taxi novice!

No longer a moto-taxi novice!
No longer a moto-taxi novice! It can be exhausting but it's great fun!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Visit to the Kenyan Coast

Malindi and Watamu.

Thursday 4 August - My first day turned out to be fairly cloudy with a rain shower in the evening. The hotel "African Pearl" is on the edge of town (about 10 minutes on foot) and is set in lovely gardens with a swimming pool. My room was in a side building facing the gardens and the pool called "The Big Five" rooms named after lion, rhino etc. All the walls inside and outside the hotel are decorated with quite nice murals depicting animals and Kenyan scenery.
Hotel African Pearl, Malindi.

I walked around Malindi market and craft market which was very interesting. I actually bought two pictures, which I managed to get for a good price - partly because I had not yet found the bank and had a limited amount of currency so could not even pay our first agreed price! The beach here is flat and boring with no natural features to make it more attractive. I had to shop for some essential stuff like tooth brush and tooth paste as my luggage had got lost en route. I had my dinner at the hotel, where the staff were very attentive and I enjoyed the meal.
View of Vasco da Gama's monument, Malindi

Friday 5 August. I called the airport and eventually went to collect  my luggage discovering that I had been mis-informed at Kigali airport and I should have transferred my luggage myself in Nairobi as I had to clear it through customs. One good outcome was that I found a good tuc-tuc driver so I booked my transfer to Watamu for Sunday. After a snack lunch I went to Malindi Museum. The education officer gave me full tour including the Portuguese Church and the Vasco da Gama tower which were a short walk away. It turned out he had been a teacher who had got fed up with school kids today and found a way out! It is interesting how developed the Swahili people were way back in the 17th century, trading all over the world long before we Europeans started interfering.  I walked back to my hotel, had a swim, a drink then set off by tuc-tuc to "The Old Man of the Sea" restaurant as it is highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. The restaurant was quite busy but the sea food was really good - I had kingfish with lovely sauce and rice, starter and dessert too. It was good to drink some decent red wine.
Fishermen off Malindi Coast
Saturday 6 August. I had booked boat visit to Malindi Marine Park and left the hotel by tuc-tuc to arrive at the park entrance for 10.00. The boat was full of Italians and a few other Italian speakers. They did not bother with me much. The water was very rough at the snorkeling stop - a bit above my ability! I saw pretty fish from the glass bottomed boat when bread was thrown over the side. Our stop at a beach coincided with cold wind and rain - I even had to put extra clothes on!
Boatman preparing kingfish fillets for the grill.
We moved on to a sand bank near the reef where other boats had anchored and set out grills in the shallow water. Our crew had already sliced up huge king fish ready to grill. We had a longish wait under the grey skies and in a cool breeze but the food was good - rice and sauce, lots of good fish then prawns then grilled half cray fish.
The charcoal grill standing on the sand bank.

Starfish picked from the sandbank.

 That was followed by bananas, pineapple, water melon and coconut. There was Coke or water to drink. There was a good atmosphere during the meal on boat - but all in Italian. I could vaguely follow but no-one wanted to speak English - quite  shock after Rwanda! On our way back a young man called Alison from Brazil, but working in Italy spoke to me first in English then in French, which he spoke better. The sun finally shone brightly as we sailed homewards arriving at low tide so we had a long walk across the beach at landing! Back to hotel for swim,in the pool, a  shower and a drink. Meal at the hotel, which was fairly quiet but relaxing.

Sunday 7 August. Leisurely start then an 11.30 transfer by tuc-tuc to Tembo Village about 35 minutes away. My driver, Ellison had brought his brother in his vehicle, as his boss, a Christian, does not allow him to use his tuc-tuc on Sunday, and he normally has a day off.
Tuc-tuc transfer to Watamu.

View of bay at Watamu.
Tembo Village is a lovely guest house - even nicer than the web site pictures suggested. I had a lovely roast chicken lunch after a swim. I walked to Watamu village centre and explored the beach area -lovely white sand but covered in brown seaweed, which is washed away in other months of the year. Watamu is very big hotel dominated but in a beautiful setting. It is completely over-run with Italians and there are pizzerias, gelateria etc everywhere! The locals even speak Italian to the tourists instead of English! Back at the guest house I had a swim then dinner- four courses! Really good food!  My room was beautifully decorated, very luxurious! The guest house was very quiet for the next day or so with only two other guests. It was a change to hear some German after all the Italian!

Monday 8 August. Looked for nearest beach, but found only coral cliffs with nice views but nowhere to walk. Found a different track heading to beach and two beach boys/fishermen showed me the way. Nice beach but also full of seaweed. Again big hotels dominate the shore and it is hard to get to the beach unless you are staying in one. I chatted to some fishermen for a long time then one showed me another path to the road along the edge of a hotel compound. After a rest and a swim at the guest house I set off to find the other bay nearby.  I walked into Watamu, found the bank with an cash machine, looked at the craft shops and the one supermarket. The beaches were again full of sea weed which disappears later in the year leaving the beaches famously "pristine". Lovely dinner again.

Lovely scenery but too much sea weed!

The pool at Tembo Village.

View from sun lounger at Tembo Village!

More sea weed! But look at the view!


Tuesday 9 August. Took tuc-tuc ride to Gede Ruins an old Arab and Swahili trading town, abandoned in 17 or 18 century and only rediscovered in 1920s. The ruins have been cleared and excavated and also conserved to a point, though the forest takeover is still there with huge Baobab trees and others growing over some of the walls. My guide, Andrew was informative and entertaining and took me around, accompanied by my tuc-tuc driver. There are artefacts from Spain, Venice, China as well as Arabic inscriptions on the walls. There are two mosques, 22 wells, now dry, and the remains of toilets with washing water in every building. It seems most likely that the city was abandoned when the wells ran dry. That may have been the result of a geological event which caused the Indian Ocean to recede bringing about a drop in the water table. It is very clear that the people who lived there were highly advanced and that the colonisers were mistaken in assuming all Africans were savages before the Europeans arrived.
Gede ruins - could be any site in Europe!

Gede ruins -stone buildings in 16th  century Africa!

The afternoon was a little showery but when it cleared up I headed for the Bio Ken snake farm, just a few minutes walk from Tembo Village. Not a big place, but quite a collection is snakes which are mainly used to milk venom which is sent to South Africa to manufacture anti-venom. The very expert guide talked about the various snakes on view and how they had come by them. Many resulted from emergency calls such as "help, a snake is eating my chickens" or" "there is a snake hiding in my car engine". The farm also keeps a stock of anti venom in case of local accidents. It was a bit scary to hear how many venomous snakes are around here and what the consequences of a bite could be! There were also other reptiles like tortoises, lizards and chameleons to see. Overall a worthwhile visit, though I resisted the invitations to hold various snakes for photos!

Wednesday 10 August. Morning started grey and showery so I stayed at the guest house until it was bright enough to have a swim. After a shower I set off to visit Mida Creek hailing a tuc-tuc near the guest house. It took about half an hour to get there - it is an inlet from the sea where a nature reserve has been set up with a board walk among the mangrove trees down to the water's edge. There were flamingos near the bird watching hide but not much else to see in the creek as the birds hide in the forest until low tide when they can look for food in the mud flats. Loads of special  snails and small violinist crabs, where the male has one big pink claw and one small one. My guide was very informative but not as outgoing as the comedian I had at Gede ruins!
The board walk at Mida Creek..

Flamingos at Mida Creek.

Me on the board walk.
 At the Mida Creek reception they told me about a local project run by A Rocha, the Christians for Conservation charity. A Rocha was where I had tried to book my stay but they were full. I learned that the guest house and research centre is the other side of Watamu so I asked my driver to call there on our way back. It was a bit of a detour but if was interesting to meet the director there and some of the staff and volunteers who gave me a very friendly welcome.  The house is about a minute from the ocean and as I left a group of British volunteers was off for a swim after their day helping improve the grounds of a local school. It is very clearly a Christian organisation so I'm not sure how I would have felt staying there and had no regrets as I returned to Tembo Village to find the two other guests had left and I had the whole place to myself - it must be a bit like being a millionaire, having a luxurious villa with pool and a staff of eight of more to look after me!!!

Breakfast time at Tembo Village.  The food was great!

Diamond Beach Village
Thursday 11 August.
Time to move on to my next guest house on Manda Island. I had booked Ellison's tuc-tuc for 10.30 so had plenty of time for a good breakfast and to pack my bags without rushing. The driver arrived on time and I found that once again he had come in another brother's tuc-tuc. Thieves had stolen all three wheels from his tuc-tuc in the night. Poor Ellison was faced with waiting perhaps a month for the insurance to pay up. We got to the airport a good hour before the scheduled take off only to be told there was a half hour delay. That soon became two hours then eventually almost five! I was wishing I had opted for the four-five hour bus journey! The flight was only 25 minutes once we got going and loading and unloading the small plane took only minutes. On arrival at Manda airport I was quickly located by a grizzled captain called Ali who led me about 150 metres to the dock, where a small fleet was waiting to take people to a variety of hotels on Manda or Lamu islands.
Getting ready to leave the airport at Lamu.

Sailing past Lamu heading for Manda Island and Diamond Beach

We sailed over towards Lamu getting a good view of the town then went along the calmer waters of the coast before crossing back to the other side where the long beach led up to Diamond Beach Village. Rachael the owner came down the beach to meet me and showed me to my banda. By now it was just beginning to get dark but there were lights around the village area and I saw staff busy with various jobs. My first evening was a little strange as I turned out to be the only guest (again!). The food was excellent - three courses- French onion soup, steamed fish with rice and vegetables, lime torte. The banda has solar lighting and also a hurricane lamp on the patio. The house boy prepares the bed with the mosquito net and insect repellent burners. There is a flush toilet and a sink and shower in a bathroom with open views of the flowering hedging shrubs.

My "banda" named "Melon"

Interior of banda.

Toilet and shower facilities with view of garden!

My favorite spot for a cool drink.


 Friday 12 August. I woke quite early after a reasonable night's sleep -just a bit cold with the sea breeze coming through gaps in the various woven materials of which the banda is built. I had a good breakfast ,followed by a longish walk along the beach. The sandy beach in both directions from Diamond Beach Village is clean and free of sea weed (a nice change after Watamu!). After about fifteen minutes I left behind the sand and continued across the coral rocks where the channel between the islands ends and the open Indian Ocean begins. There is a lot of jetsam among the rocks, both interesting natural things like coconut husks and shells, sea worn pieces of trees and bamboo, large seed pods and so on but also a lot of indestructible manufactured materials like plastic bottles, pieces of nylon rope, broken jerrycans and an incredible number of flip-flops in a wide range of colours and designs. It all invites some kind of sculptural intervention as the random groupings of pieces create some interesting assemblages, a few of which  I photographed. I went on to put together a few pieces with holes using a bamboo stick, which was fun! I may well go back and make something more substantial!

I hope the owner of this did not meet such a sticky end!

Flip-flops are almost as numerous as empty water bottles!

Not very inspired, but fun to make
Looking left from Diamond Beach Village.

..and looking right...

..and looking from the gardens!
 The beach and guest house had a few visitors, mainly French, some of whom have holiday houses there, some of whom have virtually settled there and like to use Diamond Beach as their local bar and restaurant for lunch and dinner, then relax on the virtually empty beach.  A few tourists take a boat across the channel from Shela or Lamu to enjoy the lovely beach and have a meal.

Saturday 13 August. I had arranged a boat to take me over to Lamu old town and set off about 09.30 to cross the channel between the islands of Manda and Lamu. The tide was low and the sea was calm as we sailed along the waterfront of Shela village, just opposite Diamond Beach. The sun was shining and the large waterside villas with gardens and private landings looked lovely. Shela is a rich ex-pats renovated old villas and town houses kind of place, which is up-market from Lamu. Our boat glided past many dhows and small boats and pulled in at the jetty in the middle of the waterfront of Lamu. As I stumbled out of the boat and up the steps I was taken in hand by a grizzled old-timer wearing a faded orange t-shirt proclaiming that he was an official Lamu tourist guide. His English was very good and although he wanted about £10 he seemed honest and he quickly proved he knew a lot about Lamu, taking me to places I either would never have found or else never dared enter. Mohammed introduced me into the shops and workshops of furniture makers, wooden door carvers, boat builders and a bakery where they were making a kind of Turkish delight. He told me that during Ramadan this is what people buy with a cup of coffee on the street to break their fast before they go home to eat the evening meal.
Building a new dhow.

Pieces are carved using an axe - no steel toe capped boots!

Approaching Lamu from Manda island.

We visited several small shops aimed at wealthy tourists and found some really interesting work in re-cycled art using the sort of things I had seen thrown up on the beach by the Indian Ocean tides. We went into several old town houses, now guest houses or hotels to look at the old Swahili features like the carved plaster niches used to display china. He led me up to the rooftops to see the views across the town and he showed me the town wells which are kept filled by the rain soaked up by the sand dunes behind the town. Manda island opposite, actually has no fresh water supply so all water beyond what is saved in the rainy season has to be brought in by small boats. That is why the buildings along the shore each side of Diamond Beach are all less than 8 years old. The place I am staying was the first on this shoreline about 10 years ago and others have come and gone in the meantime. Lamu town was built long before motorised transport so the town streets are narrow, often un-paved and the only transport is wheel barrows or dozens of patient grey donkeys carrying building blocks, sand, stones and jerrycans or just waiting or wandering around until the next load is piled on. Sometimes they trot quickly back to the jetty carrying their driver on their back. At the biggest festival in the Lamu calendar they have donkey races, dhow races and swimming races.
The vast majority of restaurants were closed because there are very few clients during Ramadan until the evening. However, Mohammed showed me a hotel on the sea front which served beer as well as food. I then took a rapid walk along to Shela, where I had arranged to meet the boatman from Diamond Beach, Kapala. Unfortunately the beach along which I had planned to walk was under the high tide and I had to take a sandy path behind the private villas at the foot of the huge sand dunes. I was glad when the track wandered back to the sea wall and the going was a lot easier. Kapala was waiting and we quickly landed back at Diamond Beach. The restaurant was a little busy in the evening but again I was the only guest staying the night.

Every evening brought a gorgeous sunset - an excuse to enjoy a "sundowner"!

Sunday 14 August. Lazy day on beach, attempted to fly my kite in the morning but the wind was too gusty and I just finished up with a huge tangle that kept me occupied for at least an hour. I later realised that during that hour I had not paid attention to the sun and had roasted my back!! In the evening Rachael had arranged a film and pizza night, using her laptop and a projector to show a French film "Le Grand Bleu".  Although it's a French classic I had not seen it so it was very enjoyable. There were about 30 people from round about or across from Shela and Lamu so it was a good night.  There is a real wood fired pizza oven and a chef who really makes excellent pizzas at Diamond Beach.

Monday 15 August. I arranged an afternoon sail by dhow to another Swahili ruins site so spent the morning exploring the area a little by going out the back door and wandering around the dusty tracks until I found the ocean. I came back along the very rocky shore, eventually finding myself on familiar territory from a previous walk - my little jetsam sculpture was still braving the wind and had not been knocked down. During a walk of about 2 hours I saw hardly anyone either inland or along the shore. It sometimes feels like real desert island stuff! The sail to Takwa ruins, around the island then inland through the mangroves, was great, as there was a gentle breeze, just enough to fill the sails and make the dhow lean over as sailing boats do.
My captain and crew for the trip.

Sailing into the Mangroves.

Takwa ruins - a mosque.
 The ruins were not especially interesting and the guide was not particularly good at his job, seeming more keen to get around quickly than to impart a lot of knowledge. The sail back was just as good with the addition of a setting sun, which was just going down as we landed in time for a Tusker beer before a pre-dinner shower. Still only me staying at Diamond Beach!
The full moon brought high tides just at sun set.

Tuesday 16 August. I booked a boat to take me across to Lamu so I could explore more on my own without a guide. I got a friendly welcome again from the guide, Mohammed, but after a chat he left me to my own devices. However, it wasn't long before a persistent young man wanted me to come and see his art, so I followed him along a narrow lane and into a shop next door to one I had visited on Saturday. He had  three small paintings I quite liked so haggled for a while before deciding he wanted a fair price but I didn't want to spend that much. Knowing how much work had gone into the paintings I really felt uncomfortable trying to beat him down to bargain basement levels and preferred to forget the pictures. After wandering a little longer I was tempted to buy a small version of a game often played in Africa with a board with little bowls carved in and seeds for playing. After my purchase I saw a couple of young boys playing on a full size board with marbles and stopped to watch and chat. A man came up and talked to me about the game and also about the street children he was teaching to paint in order for them to have a living. When he found out I was a teacher and interested in art he invited me to come to his room/studio to see his work. As we wandered into the narrow lanes many people greeted him and it was clear that he was well-known and respected. It turned out he had been a street orphan himself then grew up into a political dissident who got three years in jail for opposing corrupt politicians in demonstrations. Since he came out of prison he had decided to try to help street children by teaching them art and craft and getting them a basic education and enough to eat. He was busy applying for government recognition of his school while selling cards painted by himself and the children to tourists in order buy food for them. I hope I'm not just being naive but it is good to see another example of an African doing something to help his people and not just waiting for international aid. Ben, as he was called, was well up on African politics generally but was pessimistic that there would certainly be trouble next August when Kenya has its next election. What with Ramadan and the election Kenya will not be the destination of choice next August, which is a shame when there is so much to see and do.

View over the roof tops of Lamu.

An example of the Swahili plaster carving in an hotel.

Lamu market.

Looking down on the market from the Old Fort.

My next stop was also off the beaten track at a bead shop, where they also had a good selection of masks. I managed to get the price of a mask down to almost half, which was fun! After lunch and a beer my boatman took me back across to Diamond Beach, where I had a quiet afternoon on the beach. Once again I was the only guest but the chef cooked me a great three course dinner.

Wednesday 17 August.
Last day, day of departure but not the end by any means! Lamu was holding dhow races in the afternoon so I was invited to join some French people, who have a house near Diamond Beach, who were making up a group to follow the race in a friend's dhow. So I duly packed up in the morning, had a leisurely lunch then settled my bill. By then the dhow was waiting for me and my luggage on the beach. We sailed over to Shela to pick up cold beers and eventually set off just as the second wave of larger dhows was starting.

Our crew could not resist the challenge and we soon found ourselves speeding along, chasing the competitors until we all tried to get round the first buoy together. Our boat sneaked through after a near miss collision and for a while we were in with the leaders! It was really exciting, with a great atmosphere, much banter between the different crews and a lot of shouting and waving! We soon fell back especially as the rain began to fall briefly and the wind dropped. We got stuck on a sand bank, but soon got free as the crew jumped in the water to push helped by the outboard motor. The rain shower was brief and the wind soon blew us up to a good speed again. By now we were opposite Diamond Beach and a fast speed boat roared up to pick me and my bags off the dhow to head for the airport. We shot off across the water back to Diamond Beach at top speed - unbelievable - in order to collect other passengers for the airport. We soon roared off, not quite so fast, but fast enough and reached the airport jetty very quickly. What a last afternoon- dhow sailing, getting involved in the race and finally a speed boat trip to go for the plane!

The journey went according to plan though there was a scheduled but boring four hour wait at Malindi airport, where I had already spent five hours on my way to Lamu.  I arrived back at my Kigali guest house by 00.45 and my luggage had made it from Malindi to Kigali via Nairobi without getting lost!
I was lucky that my holiday improved day by day - the weather started grey and showery but became sunny and hot every day, with a nice fresh sea breeze.  My accommodation started well but just got better and better and Diamond Beach Village was positively idyllic both in terms of the peaceful beach location, the lovely room, the nearby town of Lamu, and the great service from the staff and the owner Rachael. My stay coincided with the full moon so there were really high tides in the afternoon which enhanced the beautiful sunsets.  The only small downside to Diamond Beach is the annoyance of sand flies which seem indifferent to repellent and undeterred by clothes and come out to bite in the evening.  After 11 months and only about five mossie bites in Rwanda it was quite a shock to find myself being bitten every evening in Kenya! A small cross to bear in exchange for an otherwise wonderful place, which even if it had a good number of visitors has beach and sea a-plenty and to spare!

Lamu boys use a rice sack and empty water bottles to make a fishing boat!

Donkeys are the main means of transport - no cars at all!

Although there are a few camels...

Washing a donkey in the harbour at low tide.

View of Diamond Beach Village from the sea during the dhow races.

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