Mombasa

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.

The Lunatic Express

Our first journey to Mombasa was not by car but by train. We took the train that run everyday leaving Nairobi at 19:00hs and arriving at Mombasa the following morning at 06:00hs. We were advised to buy First Class tickets as these gave you access to a sleeping coach.

The Ugandan railway was born in the late 19th century, when European countries were engaged in the “scramble for Africa” and the British were worried about German expansionism in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and French interests in Sudan. It was an imperative undertaking for Britain (to keep its interests in Egypt) to have access to the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria.

Connecting Britain’s territories on the Kenyan coast to the shore of lake Victoria in Uganda by rail was considered the solution. The project created such a clamour in the British Parliament that it ended up known as the “Lunatic Line”, a name given to it by Charles Miller, who wrote its history [1].

However it was Henry Labouchère, writer and politician, that in 1896 attacked the then Foreign Minister Curzon’s backing of the idea with a satirical poem that called the project “a lunatic line” [2]

A train on bridge of the Uganda Railway leading from Mombassa to Nairobi; insert in lower right-hand corner shows the train at Mau Summit. Credit: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

Despite dissidence the British government marched on with the plans, and sent Sir George Whitehouse to build the railway. Work on the one-metre gauge railway commenced in the port of Mombasa in May 1896 and thousands of workers were recruited from India to start construction on the railway and all the materials, from sleepers to steam engines, were brought from Britain.

Soon the Lunatic express ran into severe trouble such as the lack of water at Tatu and the man-eating lions that threatened to halt construction at Tsavo. However, five million pounds (today £ 660 million) and about 2,500 dead workers later, in 1901 the railway line arrived to Kisumu (then Port Florence) in the shores of Lake Victoria.

The building of the railway was an amazing feat of engineering that succeeded in joining the British protectorate of Mombasa to the colony of Uganda, uniting the disparate ethnic groups in between and consolidated a country today known as Kenya!

The train gained a “romantic” fame with the early settlers and visitors alike as migration to Kenya was promoted in Britain with the hope that the commercial traffic that this would create would pay back such a high investment.

A poster promoting the Uganda Railway. Picture taken by bushsnob from a copy of the poster acquired in Kenya at the tme of the journey.
Theodore Roosevelt and traveling companions mount the observation platform of the Uganda Railway. Credit: Wikimedia, Public domain.

Luckily, when we got to the Nairobi Railway Station with its grey arches and the Nairobi sign hardly legible, the railway’s cost was not remembered and the man-eaters were not interfering with the running of the train. We soon found our names written on cards attached to the outside of our carriage and we boarded.

Locomotive with fuel tanks in Kampala. Credit: Iwoelbern / Public domain.

The old brown-leather padded carriages were very clean and the seats comfortable. After settling in we waited for the train to move but before this happened, the in the Sleeping car assistant came to check our tickets and to ask us if we wished to have dinner at 21:30hs or at 22:30hs.

As we were feeling hungry we chose the first shift and a few minutes afterwards we heard the whistles of the Stationmaster and the loud horn of the train while we felt the pull of the locomotive and heard the steadily increasing chugging sound and then we were moving!

Slowly we moved through the station and then gradually away from it and, still slowly, through the outskirts where most people ignored us but some returned our greetings and some children shouted “muzungu!, muzungu!”[3] at us. Gradually it gathered some more speed and the the clickety-clackety sound of the wheels passing over the fish plates that join the rails started to become more frequent and we were on our way, faster now!

After a while it was time to move to the dining car and we were impressed by its neatness and luxury. The car was lined with brown-red leather and old fans gently turned moving the air inside the carriage.

Clearly dinner was a serious affair. Waiters, wearing fezzes and white gloves helped us to find our table and be seated at our reserved places. The first course of the three-course menu was immediately brought. It was a hot soup that would be followed by fish and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and potatoes. Dessert was fruit crumble with excellent custard sauce.

We declined the freshly brewed Kenya coffee offer for fear of not being able to sleep. All dishes and drinks were served on crockery embossed with the logo of the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation, which had been defunct since 1977 but that were still in use!

Dinner over, as new commensals were arriving, we left, satisfied with our meal. We arrived at our cabin to find it transformed into a bedroom with immaculate starched sheets and pillows monogrammed with the same East African Railways logo. The change was such that I went out to check if we were in the right cabin!

Mabel slept soundly but I had difficulties as my bed was placed across the track so to say and every time that the train changed speed I would roll backwards and forwards and I feared falling until its speed stabilized again. The whistle sound and the brakes’ hiss and screech when the train slowed down did not add to my comfort either!

So, although the train was great from the historical and glamour sides, it was not a sleep coach for me. Lucky Mabel woke up just before we entered Mombasa!

The early morning arrival in hot and sticky Mombasa, coming from the rather cold and cloudy Nairobi, was like a miracle that truly brought me back to the early days of the train. The station was like a beehive with people vying with each other to get our luggage and offering you tropical fruits and all sorts of other goods! It was clearly a station with special character.

Once outside the station, the light was unbelievable and we needed to spend sometime adjusting to it to be able to find our transport that would take us to our hotel where I could have a “morning siesta” to recover my lost sleep while Mabel enjoyed the Mombasa markets under the tropical heat.

Unfortunately, after our time in Kenya, the railways service from Nairobi and Mombasa gradually deteriorated [4] and started running increasing delays and it could take the train 24 hours to do the journey we did in less than 12. Often the train would breakdown in truly dark areas or, if lucky, you could be stranded at Voi or other stations until repairs could be carried out. Although it still had a romantic touch, it was wearing thinner and it was just a question of time until its final journey.

When a new train known as the “Madaraka Express” started to be built by the Chinese, the fate of the Lunatic Express was sealed and it has then been replaced for a train that now takes 4.5 hours to get to Mombasa.

The train started to operate in May 2017 but, as the Lunatic Express it has also been the target of severe criticism due to its high cost of £2.5 billion, Kenya’s most expensive infrastructure project since independence [5] and comparatively even more expensive that the Lunatic line!

We have no desire to take the new train but prefer to still remember that we were lucky to taste the last voyages of what was one of the classic trips the world had to offer.

Footnotes

[1] Miller, C. The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. Head of Zeus Editor. Kindle edition. Originally published by Futura; First Thus edition (1977).

[2]
What it will cost no words can express; 
What is its object no brain can suppose; 
Where it will start from no one can guess;
Where it is going to nobody knows;
What is the use of it none can conjecture;
What it will carry none can define... 
And in spite of George Curzon's superior lecture,
"It is clearly naught but a lunatic line."
See: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001241674/end-of-road-for-first-railway-that-defined-kenya-s-history

[3] White person in Ki-Swahili.

[4] For a recent (2016) description of the Lunatic express deterioration see https://www.1843magazine.com/features/the-lunatic-express

[5] The end of the lunatic express: https://www.emirates.com/zw/english/open-skies/6336316/the-lunatic-express-is-no-longer

Two dhows

Traveling to the warm Kenya coast was an attractive break from working inland in the cooler and often cold highlands. After trying a few options, the preferred choice was to rent a house for a few days at Watamu and, from there, to explore the surrounding area or to enjoy the beach for my wife and practice windsurfing for me. But that is another story.

Our first visit to the coast included staying at a rather hot camp in Diani beach that we did not repeat. During that visit we explored Mombasa and we got lasting impressions of its ocean and coastal area, particularly Fort Jesus and the old Mombasa harbour.

While at the Mombasa harbour, apart from the ubiquitous fishing boats we saw some larger vessels that seemed to be dedicated to cargo activities. It was also the first time that we saw (or learn of) dhows. These, rather elegant vessels anchored some distance away from the shore and surrounded by smaller boats that were busy offloading them during the cooler hours of the day.

boats-mombasa-harbour-8-16-03-pm-copy

The Kenya coast in the 80s.

To add to their rather romantic reputation, we also learnt that these sailing boats, with their main masts pointing forward and lanteen sails, would use the trade winds to commute between Africa and Asia with exotic cargo.

I found pictures of the dhows recently while looking for images to place in my Instagram page. As the photographs were originally taken as slides with a film camera and later on scanned by myself, I was checking them critically to decide on their quality for the intended use. It was during this process that I noted the names of the dhows: Nawalilkher and Tusitiri.

dow-mombasa

Nawalilkher in the 80s.

lamu-7-sepia

Tusitiri as we saw it in the 80s.

Curious, I Googled the names to see if, by any chance, they were still with us. To my surprise I not only found them but learnt that they seemed to be still in “active service” forty years after I took the pictures and probably quite a few more from the time they were built.

I then contacted the owners and they confirmed that the vessels were the same after looking at my photographs and I got some interesting information.

Nawalilkher is now a floating restaurant with the Tamarind Group and they call it “Nawali” for short. The dhow was refurbished to a five star cruising restaurant now moored at the Mombasa Tamarind jetty. The vessel can accommodate seventy commensals for dinner, leaving room for dancing on the night cruises. It sails everyday except Sunday for both the day and evening cruises. Unfortunately, the company would not let me use their pictures to illustrate this post and referred me to their web site for more information[1].

Tusitiri, nicely restored, is sailing as an exclusive floating lodge along the Indian Ocean coast, owned by the Enasoit Collection[2]. It is believed that it was bought by its present owners around 1995 in Lamu where she was also originally built. I was also assured that the dhow is being treasured by them and is very much loved as I can see by the way it is being kept. It mainly stays within the Lamu archipelago but it has gone as far as Mozambique and she is considered by its owners as “…without doubt the most beautiful dhow on the East African coast”.

vamizi2012_1115cr-copy

The restored Tusitiri sailing somewhere at the Kenya coast. Picture credit: The Enasoit Collection.

sea14_highres-copy

A great picture of the restored Tusitiri. Picture credit: The Enasoit Collection.

I must admit that I am quite pleased to have found the dhows again and clearly it is worthwhile to follow up certain things, as you never know where your search will take you.

 

[1] See: http://www.tamarind.co.ke/tamarind-dhow/

[2] See: http://www.enasoit.com/

 

Acknowledgements and credits

John and Lulu Clark, Managers of Tusitiri Dhow, The Enasoit Collection for the information and use of Tusitiri pictures. Pictures of Tusitiri by Robin Moore Photography and/or Stevie Mann Photography.

Akoko Vivian of Dhow & Rest Reservations of The Tamarind Group confirmed the identity of Nawalilkher and assisted me with useful information.