Coral reef

The Kenya coast

The next visit following our train journey ended up at Diani beach, south of Mombasa. We stayed at a tented camp right on the beach called Nomad’s Tented camp. The only place we could afford. It was only a weekend with little time and I found the tents at the camp too hot although the sea had a truly wonderful temperature for my taste.

I must confess that beaches are not my seen as I was soon sticky and full of sand as well as bored of too much resting! Sea food was good and this somehow compensated for the rest. As expected, however, Mabel loved it so I knew that we would come back often!

The coast of Kenya has been somehow separated from the mainland by the nyika, a Swahili word meaning bush or perhaps dry bush to explain better what you find over hundreds of kilometres between this area and the Kenya highlands to the west. Not surprisingly then, before the Lunatic Express was built, the coast looked east beyond the Indian Ocean and traded with the Arabs for slaves and ivory and with India for spices.

Luckily we managed to visit most of the areas south of Malindi as well as the island of Lamu further north. So it was that over the following years we discovered a new and different Kenya, tropical and hot with nice beaches of warm waters and with a hitherto unknown world for us: the coral reef.

What we knew at the time as the Kenya Coast Province was replaced in 2013 by four counties from north to south: Lamu, Tana River, Kilifi and Kwale. Irrespective of the political arrangement there are 1,420 km of Indian Ocean shores, enough to get lost.

We started from Mombasa, the most important town. It developed in an area where there was a gap in the reef barrier that enabled ships to anchor in deep waters. It still is the main harbour of the country known as Kilindini or “place of deep water”.

Mombasa is a colorful city where several races, cultures and religions coexist in apparent harmony in a warm and tropical environment. We only got a superficial knowledge of the place and drove under the four elephant tusks or Moi avenue, the city’s hallmark.

Moi avenue.

We visited its fascinating, smelly and noisy market and Fort Jesus, an imposing defense structure with 2.4m thick walls with “re-entrant” angles. The latter make every face protected by crossfire and very difficult to storm. Despite this, the fort changed hands repeatedly over time!

Mombasa’s Fort Jesus.
The sea from Fort Jesus.
Fort Jesus.

We also spent time at the old harbour where we were lucky to see still being used and where we saw a number of fishing boats as well as several dhows anchored there. It was during that occasion that we spotted Nawalilkher and Tusitiri (see:  https://bushsnob.com/2017/01/29/two-dhows/).

A dhow.

After that first approach to the south coast we learnt about the beauties of the northern coast so we decided to explore it and discovered the “local Airbnb” of those times in the shape of Kenya Villas that had a number of beach houses to rent at Watamu. This area became our base from the first time we stayed there as we greatly enjoyed it and visited it often getting to know the nicest houses.

One of the houses we rented at Watamu.

The arrangements were on a self-catering basis but most houses came with a cook and maids that pampered you, as usual. The best feature of staying there was the service of fresh sea produce that was delivered to your door everyday. Delicious fresh snapper fish, live crabs and lobsters at reasonable prices that allowed you to enjoy these delicacies, usually beyond us. Fish in coconut sauce and lobster thermidor were included in our home menu during those visits.

There was however a few hazards even if you did not get robbed as happened to a friend of us in one of these houses. Coconut falling sounds silly but to get hit by one of these weighing 1.4 kg falling from 20 metres can cause a major injury [1]. This was, all things considered, a risk worth taking as- if you survived and got the coconut, its juice was one of the most refreshing drinks I have drunk.

Apart from milk, coconut palms provide coastal communities with coconut shells for various utensils, oil, leaves for the makuti roofs in the shape of tiles, wood for housing and coconut flesh for eating either raw, dried or toasted.

While in Watamu, a small fishing town, we often traveled to Malindi, 23 km north, a town with a strong Italian influence where we had more shopping options. It was also attractive for its good pasta and pizzas and even -despite the heat- ice-creams. It was loaded with tourists, mostly from Italy that flew in charters directly to the coast, a practice that has now been reduced because of security concerns.

Malindi was where Vasco da Gama picked up his pilot to navigate with the monsoon winds to India. Both Malindi and Watamu offered lots of exotic food and local specialities such as halwa, a sticky and sweet dessert made of brown sugar, ghee (clarified butter), rose water, and cardamom sometimes garnished with pistachio, almond slithers and sometimes toasted sesame seeds that we always bought at the local markets, risking a severe increase in our calories count!

It was true that the beaches were great but the biggest discovery for us was the coral reef, one of the richest ecosystems of animal origin in the planet with thousands of colors and shapes. The Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve protected the coral gardens. Although some were further off into the ocean, there were coral gardens a few hundred metres from our rented house!

These were home to hundreds of coral and fish species and other life forms too many to describe. Although we never saw turtles, manta rays or whale sharks, they did exist there and proof of that is the manta ray that “flew” over a friend’s boat while he was fishing for the pot at the Watamu lagoon!

In addition, our friend Ken hobby was the coral reef fish and, for years, he towed his wife Betty on a car inner tube behind him as he swam along the reef in search of fish![3]. He was a very good source of information on what to look for and where.

These true gardens could be enjoyed by walking from the beach during the low tide, renting a glass-bottom boat from one of the hotels there, snorkeling or diving. Usually during most mornings the tide was low and this enabled us to explore the reef, either from the comfort of a glass-bottom boat or by the more energy-consuming snorkeling while swimming slowly over the reef.

Although there were a few fish to be avoided such as the stone, scorpion (lion) and jelly fish, the view compensated for the risk that was low if you were careful not to touch anything.

Immersed in this new world we lost all sense of time and space and often floated a long way from the coast and we had a laborious return although with no great risks as we had good life belts and there were no strong currents there. The problem was the sun as no sun block would keep you covered for such a long time!

We wore a t-shirt and a life jacket that took care of your back but not the legs and I paid the price the first time when in the afternoon post-snorkeling I could hardly walk as the back of my legs were badly burnt and in the evening I could not bend my legs. There it was when I learnt why people at the coast wear kikoys wrapped around their waist as this lessens your burns rubbing against tighter clothing.

We continued exploring the coral reef during every visit but during the periods of high tide, while Mabel enjoyed the sand, sea and sun I started to get bored, as usual in any beach. So, after a while of looking for entertainment I hatched the idea of windsurfing and, with my Muguga colleague Robin, we decided to buy one on a 50:50 basis and keep it at the coast with some friends of his.

Luckily the windsurfing equipment came with a manual so I studied it and immediately went for a try as it seemed simple. About four hours later I came back to the house bleeding from several cuts inflicted by the coral as well as a few bruises and loudly declared that I will offer my share of the artifact for sale from that day, not exactly in those words though.

Mabel kept quiet while I ranted freely and simply told me that my problem had an easy solution: to go for lessons at the nearby Turtle Bay hotel where there was bound to be someone teaching how to do windsurf! I must admit that out of pride I pretended to dismiss the idea but that same afternoon, while the tide was up and the wind blew, I walked to the hotel and booked an intensive course for the next day!

I was happy to see that the teaching was on a windsurf simulator on firm ground and that soon I was able to master the technique’s basics and then I was told to go back and attempt to stand on the table minus the sail so I spent time gettin on it and falling until I was too tired to go on.

The following day, as indicated, I went for my final lesson with my windsurfer and I was fitted with a new much smaller sail and then I saw some sea action. With a smaller sail things were easier and eventually I was ready to go around the turtle rock at the bay and return to be given the green light to sail on my own!

It was in this way that windsurfing entertained me from then on while Mabel enjoyed the beach in peace.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_by_coconut

[2]See: Bock, K. (1978). A guide to the common Reef Fishes of the Western Indian Ocean. Mcmillan Press Ltd., London & Basingstoke.

Born a whistle!

A well-known saying in Spanish goes something like “if you are born a whistle you will never be a cornet”. I am sure that there are many of these kinds of sayings that are applicable to the various walks of life. I am a whistle when it comes to sea fearing. However, as the family had the idea of a sea holiday, we travelled to Mozambique. The latter offers about 2,500 km of seacoast and beaches for all tastes.

Views of the sea and beaches around Vilankulos.

The road trip was good with the usual border hassle that added a dose of stress to my otherwise calm retired life. As usual the Zimbabwean side was very formal and rather time-consuming but with the pleasant manners that you almost take for granted in our “second” home.

Mozambique was something else! We had only crossed the border in and out of this country while being a UN employee and I did not have any issues apart from some queuing at peak times. Luckily this time there was no queuing, only confusion! We arrived at the border to be welcome by “helpers” to give them a name, all wearing identification badges. I noted that the badges were showing their plastic backs only while I was verbally overwhelmed in Portuguese and English about their offers for “help” and directions on how to perform the usual two steps: immigration and customs! I knew where this was leading!

Perhaps it was the proximity of the festive season as we were at the border before Christmas or perhaps this is always the case. I will find out in next visits but confusion took over, despite being aware of it. First it was a small piece of paper at the entrance gate where the car and occupants were to be recorded, about three words and a number. For some reason it took an inordinate amount of time and arguments between my self-appointed “helpers” and the official at the gate. Eventually I got the important paper and started to walk the plank towards the building to face the rest of the ordeal.

Not so. A lot of shouting behind me called my attention and I was informed that I had been given the paper of a lorry driver from the Democratic Republic of Congo! So, it was back to get the right one and resume the walk. We all had visas from Harare, except one of us who needed to get it in the border so the wait was longer than expected but acceptable. Finally we were ready to do customs. This required the filling of a form and I naively thought, driving off. Not to be. The need for a physical inspection of the vehicle was announced!

This was clearly what the “helpers” were waiting for. As the Customs official walked towards the vehicle, they advised me in hashed tone, on the various ways of handling this apparently difficult procedure. In addition, while the we approached the car, the word “Christmas” was repeated often by my “helper” entourage, now numbering five and growing.

We were two vehicles in this trip. Our friends did not require a visa so they had already been “helped” through the car check-up. We were about to open ours at the request of the Customs Officer when one of our friends came and whispered that he was asked for a USD 10 payment and that he had agreed and obtained Customs’ clearance and, more importantly, the key to freedom: the valuable gate pass. Assessing the situation surrounding us: utter confusion, a growing crowd of “helpers” and the already expectant Customs Officer, we had no option but to follow our friend’s arrangement and handed over our first Christmas present of the journey!

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Crossing the bridge over the Save river.

We shared a house with our friends in Vilankulos and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere while the younger members of the family were engaged in more muscle-demanding activities such as SCUBA diving and snorkeling.

Under severe peer pressure I consented to accompany them on a snorkeling trip to a well-known area of coral called “Two mile reef”. Trying to improve my snorkeling experience, I had acquired a floating aid in order to be able to save my energy for swimming in search of coral formations and other creatures rather than spending most of them on trying to stay afloat.

A selection of underwater finds. Pictures by Florencia de Castro, Mariana Terra and Julio A. de Castro.

I still had fresh in my mind an earlier experience at the same location when I got really exhausted and, eventually, seasick swimming in the rough sea! So I did not wish for a repeat! Luckily, the floating aid was a success and I did see some interesting coral formations and fish that I was not able to identify as I have decided that only terrestrial animals interest me in this life! Soon the tide changed and it was time to return; I was still swimming and could even climb on the boat unaided (I am not sure if this was me being fit or the ladder being lower but I prefer to think the former!).

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About to depart after a day spent snorkeling. The Washing Machine was yet to come!

A final word on the return trip. The passage between Two-mile reef and Bazaruto and Benguerra islands is infamously and justifiably known as the “Washing machine”. I can assure you that this was violent rock and rollish to put it mildly. The rest of the return trip was just choppy! Fortunately, we all survived -just- and got to land in relatively good shape. Once more I promised myself that this was “curtains” on seafaring for me. I did this fully aware that I have declared similar resolutions before only to forget and backslide, caught in a vicious peer pressure circle!

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Coconut harvesting, the preliminary of coconut splitting.

Swimming at the beach, walking and coconut opening occupied the rest of my life in Vilankulos and I was really busy working on a novel that I have had in my mind for years and still refuses to be born! I was pleased to make some progress that encourages me to go on writing for a few more years.

The trip back was uneventful, including the border crossing, and we managed to get to the Vumba mountainous area in Zimbabwe in good time. We stayed the night at one of the Inns there and, after a good breakfast and a walk in the garden observing insects and birds (what a relief!), we headed back home where a rather green garden was waiting for us.