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AFRICA > KENYA > Mombasa | Kenyan Coast

Where the Sun is Ever Faithful

Andrew Muigai

Copyright © Africa Point

T/T #1
Guide


Mombasa, the principal city at Kenya’s coast, is one of the oldest human settlements on the eastern seaboard of the African continent

Kenya’s 480 km coast is one of the principal attractions for visitors to the country. Every year, hundreds of thousands of sun-lovers find their way here. Many are returning pilgrims who truly know that the sun here is ever faithful. Unlike other beach destinations, the visitor is served with much more than just sun and sand but is delighted to discover ancient coastal forests and historical sites and a people with a fascinating history and culture. The casual visitor impressed by the tranquil beaches and gentle people will not suspect the colourful and eventful history of these realms.

For the tourist, the Kenyan coast can be seen as five regions. These are: the town and island of Mombasa; the south coast –stretching from Mombasa to the Tanzanian border 135 km away; the north coast- covering the beaches from Mombasa up to Kilifi, 60 km away; Malindi and Watamu about 130 km to the northeast of Mombasa and Lamu island and archipelago, 225 km further up from Malindi. Each of these regions has similarities in terms of history, culture, natural attractions and beach experience. But as sports fans will understand, it is the differences that matter to the dedicated fans of each region.

The gateway to the Kenyan coast is Mombasa. You get here by flying into its international airport or by taking the 520 km road journey from Nairobi, the common entry port for most visitors. If you demand the freedom of your own car, consider taking a rental car either in Nairobi on in Mombasa to help you get around. Review the options you have for Kenya Car Rental and Kenya Domestic Flights as you plan to get there.

Mombasa, the principal city at Kenya’s coast, is one of the oldest human settlements on the eastern seaboard of the African continent. Though it has without doubt been in existence for at least 700 years, it is mentioned in writings of Arab, Roman and Egyptian travelers dated as far back as 2,500 years ago. The Arabs came to trade and settle, starting from about the 8th century AD. With the push of the northeast monsoon, their dhows brought ironware, glassware, textiles, and took home rhino horn, ivory and slaves. Substantial settlements gradually developed and many traders settled and intermarried with local Africans. The Arabs also brought along the message of the Prophet and the Kenyan coast is even today predominantly Muslim.

Relative tranquility prevailed at the coastal towns until the Portuguese showed up at the end of the 15th century. The Portuguese were a substantial seafaring power of the day and were anxious to break the stranglehold of the Ottoman Empire on Indian Ocean trade. Vasco Da Gama opened the way for his compatriots when he made his way round the southern tip of Africa and up to eastern Africa in 1498. The Portuguese were not warmly received in Mombasa, but not so at Malindi. The local sultan offered his ready friendship and proved very useful to Da Gama by providing a pilot who knew how to get to India, his ultimate destination.

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, Mombasa saw plenty of war. For this reason, the city was nicknamed Mvita, which in Swahili translates as Isle of War. Fort Jesus, the permanent garrison whose construction was started by the Portuguese in 1593, changed masters 9 times before 1875. By the terror of war, the Portuguese sought to control the east African coast. As colonial overlords, the Portuguese were deficient in that they were mostly interested in plunder and trade and did not establish robust systems of administration. Another related difficulty they faced was that they were supplied from Goa in India. The student of military theory will recognize this as a classical case of “long supply lines”.

The Portuguese were finally driven out by the emerging power of Omani Arabs in 1729. The ascendancy of the Omani Arabs lasted until Britain, a leading super power at the time, appeared at the beginning of the 19th century. The British came in under the guise of a humanitarian mission: the suppression of the slave trade. The Omani Arabs were notorious slave traders. Christian missionaries put pressure on the British government to persuade the Omani Arabs to pursue other trade other than trafficking in humans. This is somewhat like the problem the Americans face today in South America with respect to the cocaine trade.

The British were actually successful in this, by using time honoured carrot and stick tactics. Under the resulting deal, the Omani Arabs whose headquarters was in Zanzibar were recognized as overlords over a 16 km strip along the Kenyan coast. The sultan was to be paid an annuity as compensation for resulting loss of revenue. This territory acquired the status of a British Protectorate until 1963 when the Sultan of Zanzibar ceded it to the newly independent Kenyan nation.

Mombasa is today a cosmopolitan metropolis reflecting the influence of Africans, Persians, Arabs, Turks, Indians, Portuguese and the British. The Old Town is a grid of narrow winding streets lined with houses built to coastal Swahili and Indian styles. Some of the houses have intricately carved doors similar to what you find in Zanzibar and Lamu. In the Old Town you will find Fort Jesus, the permanent garrison built by the hapless Portuguese. Fort Jesus, in addition to being an attraction itself, houses a museum exhibiting various artifacts reflecting the various cultures that have influenced the Kenyan coast. You will also see articles recovered from the ill-fated Portuguese warship Santo Antonio De Tanna, which sank in the siege of 1697 that lasted 1000 days.

In Mombasa you can take an all day dhow trip and relive the experience of the traders who sailed along the East African coast and as far as India and the Persian Gulf aboard these vessels for centuries. For the past few years, every November the Mombasa Carnival has been staged in the town. The Carnival is a lively street parade where you see incredibly adorned musicians and other artists from the Kenyan coast and other parts of the country. Street comedians, Swahili Taarab singers, Maasai warriors, brass bands and individual artists in outrageous costumes brave the November heat to march in the parade.

Visitors to the south coast usually head to Shelley, Tiwi, Diani, Msambweni and Shimoni. These are the beaches to the south of Mombasa, where hotel and resort development has taken place. To get to the south coast beaches you need to take the ferry at Likoni, the southern tip of Mombasa Island. If this does not suit you, take a flight to Diani airstrip. Diani beach, 40 km from Mombasa is the most developed beach at the south coast. This is the quintessential tropical paradise and here you will find a wide range of hotels, including an 18-hole golf resort. Though some of the other beaches are excellent, they have limited range of accommodation and attract fewer people.

Shimoni, 100 km from Mombasa is a centre for serious deep-sea fishing. It is also from Shimoni that you can visit the Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park. Here you will see the treasures of Kenya’s underwater world. At the marine park, the snorkeling experience is outstanding and on a lucky day you will swim with the dolphins. At Shimoni, there are a series of deep coastal caves stretching from the sea to deep inland. Arab slavers reportedly used these caves in the dark days of the slave trade. The slaves who perished here are remembered in Roger Whittaker’s song “Shimoni”.

At the south coast you have plenty of chances to indulge in some thrilling marine activity such as water skiing, wind surfing, scuba diving, goggling and deep-sea fishing. The Shimba Hills National Reserve, directly inland from Diani is a surprise and you have the opportunity to see some of the wildlife that Kenya is famed for. Though the wildlife is not as prolific as in the upcountry game parks, the beautiful rainforest and the spectacular Sheldrick Falls make it worth a visit. You can also spend the night here at Kenya’s only tree lodge at the coast, which has some water holes where elephants and other animals come for a drink.

The main attraction of the north coast is its beaches. Heading north from Mombasa these are: Nyali, Bamburi, Shanzu, Vipingo and Kikambala. Here you will find hotel and resort complexes to suit the taste of most beach holiday enthusiasts. From your north coast base, you may want to visit Mamba Village, reputed to be one of the worlds’ largest crocodile farms. Those interested in eco conservation projects must not miss Haller Park. The park is named after the Swiss agronomist who by sheer grit and vision transformed a huge abandoned cement quarry into a spectacular 7 sq km nature and animal sanctuary.

At Mtwapa, just beyond Shanzu beach, Kenya Marineland houses some very diverse marine life, which you view from a glass-sided underground tunnel. From the same point, you can take a dhow sailing trip that includes onboard entertainment - acrobatics, fire eating and local dancers. Just off the coast, spectacular coral reefs teem with numerous fish, sea turtles and dolphins. You have an opportunity for world-class diving here, including some serious wreck diving. Diving at the Kenyan coast is good year round, expect in the months of July and August when silting and high seas are a problem.

Malindi has a history going back at least 800 years. This is the only town along the east African coast where the Portuguese found friendship without the persuasion of arms. Vasco Da Gama erected a pillar to serve as a navigation aid that still stands. Today, the town is a particular favourite with Italian visitors. Most of the hotel and resort development are to the south of the town along the Silversands beachfront and nearer town around Malindi Bay. At Malindi Marine National Park, you can see some fascinating coral gardens by diving, snorkeling or from a glass bottomed boat.

Malindi is a respected centre for big game fishing and several world records have been set here. The writer Hemingway was here in the 1930s to enjoy one of his favourite macho sports. Watamu, 15 km further south, is a small beach development around the beautiful inlets of Turtle Bay and Blue Lagoon. Watamu too has its own Marine Park. At the edge of the park, you find a collection of caves housing a school of giant rock cod, some stretching the whole of 2 metres. Consider making an excursion to Gedi Ruins, one of Kenya archeological treasures. Gedi is estimated to have been founded in the 13th century but was mysteriously abandoned in the 17th century. Experts guess that marauding Galla tribesmen from up north did in the settlement.

Lamu has in recent years found favour with the international glitterati. The town has an ambience of mediaeval romance that attracts those who are offended by the burdens of our modern existence. Life in the island goes on almost like it did in the 14th century when the settlement was founded. Lamu has narrow streets and the town has only a single car for use by the top government official. Everybody else walks, takes a dhow or uses donkey taxis. If you come in by air you land at nearby Manda Island, from where you take a dhow or ferry. In this centre of Islamic culture, the men wear full-length whites and the women are shorn head to toe in black.

Shela is the main beach on the island and is just 15 minutes away by motorboat. You will find good rated accommodation at Lamu. There are also some very pricey hideaways in the neighboring islands of the archipelago favoured by the jet set. In the centre of the town, you find a fort built by invading Omani Arabs in the early 19th century that now serves as a cultural centre. Lamu museum is located at the seafront, in a house once occupied by Jack Haggard, Queen Victoria’s consul in this then important outpost. The museum is a repository of Swahili culture and on display are artifacts, dhows, jewelry and crafts.

At Mombasa and the Kenyan Coast you will find rated accommodation. Once you are there, you can take a break to view some of the wildlife that the country is famed for. From Mombasa, the nearest park reachable by road is Tsavo East, 4 hours away. Another good option is to fly to the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s top wildlife sanctuary and home to the big five: elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo. There are many Kenya safari options with Mombasa departures.

The Kenyan coast has a tropical climate and it is a hot and humid place. Temperatures year round vary between 22° C and 33° C. July and August are the coolest months. Light clothing is recommended, as even the evenings are usually warm. Short sleeve shirts, shorts and trousers for men and short sleeve blouses, slacks and skirts are sufficient. However, in this predominantly Muslim area, women need to dress modestly so as not to offend local sensibilities. But swimwear is perfectly acceptable at beaches and hotel premises.

If you enjoyed reading the above article then you will probably also enjoy Egypt by Andrew Muigai, and Tunisia, also in Africa, and our latest articles covering the Orinoco Delta, La Mata, Marbella and Beijing.



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