I heard that this small island off the coast of Kenya (and fairly close to Somalia) rivals Zanzibar for the title “Paradise on Earth.” Since I have not been to Zanzibar, I was not sure what to expect from Lamu either. However, I think even if I had had expectations upon embarking on our weekend getaway to the coast, they would have been exceeded…
The journey started at Nairobi’s Wilson airport /airstrip. This is where a lot of the small (emphasis on this) internal flights leave. My most recent trips have always been across borders and so I have become used to the nuisances when flying and thus was armed for liquid policies, long security checks etc… At Wilson, however, flying becomes a whole new experience. It started with the liquid policy. All of us, in our group of 10, were carrying at least 2 bottles of some beverage (as Lamu is a dry island), so we asked at the check in desk (where they asked you to identify your name, but did not require you to show a ticket or any identification) what their liquid policy was. They said they had one, which made us all very nervous. They said that if we put all our bottles in one bag then we could carry that bag through. Apparently this was the policy.
Then we proceeded through the non-existent security check – I think the security guard’s exact words were “are you carrying anything dangerous?” and a quick pat of my shoulders and I was through. At the airstrip, with the open air departure lounge, where we waited for our 12-seater plane, there was a duty free shop. The shop had a sign that you could only purchase goods if you held a ticket for an international flight. Given that there is one flight to Kilimanjaro every two days and all the rest are domestic flights, I am not sure how they make the big bucks.
The plane ride was much smoother than I had anticipated. In fact, I had been terrified before boarding the plane, as it has been a very long time since I had been on a plane that small. The security instructions consisted of our pilot turning to us and saying, “Please fasten your seatbelts.” Apparently the whole switching off your mobile phone is a lot of nonsense as we could very happily continue texting and searching the internet (for those with smart phones – which now includes ME 🙂 ) without a problem. Take off (and later landing) were relatively smooth, as was the flight. It just takes the plane a little bit longer to reach its cruising altitude, so all in all a positive experience. There is something slightly disconcerting, however, about being able to fully observe the every move of your one pilot – especially when he looks like he is falling asleep or confused about something.
Flying over Kenya’s very diverse and beautiful landscape also reminded me why people actually come here for holidays (it is definitely not because of Nairobi):
We arrived at Manda airstrip, which again is an airstrip next to a shack, that functions as an arrival and departure hall. Then we took our boat taxi from Manda Island across to where we were staying at Shela Beach on Lamu Island. Now, at this point I also have to mention that a really lovely friend organized the whole trip and we did not really know what awaited us in terms of accommodation etc… What we walked into was truly amazing. It turns out that it was in fact the holiday residence of the Peugeot family (i.e. the car owners). It was a five-bedroom villa with a beautiful pool that looked out on the sea (and apparently the only triangular pool in East Africa). There was a wonderful staff that literally attended to all our needs and a chef that made the most amazing Swahili meals three times a day (fresh fish, fresh seafood, coconut rice etc…):
In one of the bedrooms there was a copy of the August 2010 issue of Architectural Digest – and the villa was not only featured in an 8-page spread, it also made the front cover. It was really a taste of how the other side of the world live.
A large part of Lamu’s charm is the fact that it is very untouched. There are a few tourists and villa’s belonging to very rich people (e.g. the Peugeot family and the Prince of Monaco), but otherwise it is best described as sleepy. A friend and I decided to go to the beach before breakfast one morning. There was only one track of footprints in the sand but otherwise we had the whole stunning beach to ourselves.
You can walk to Lamu town from Shela beach during low tide, however, at high tide you have to take a boat taxi. Most boat taxis are named after a Prophet or other religious figure. Ours, however, had a much funkier name:
Lamu town is a very refreshing break from Nairobi as it has no cars. To get around the town’s very narrow streets, you have to either walk or use donkeys. I have never seen so many donkeys in one place and so they fascinated me. They are very cute, very serene and can carry unbelievable amounts on their backs. I decided I want to try and ride a donkey. I think my exact words, about a minute into the ride, were “I understand now why we ride horses.” They are not particularly comfortable animals and also it is sometimes frustrating as you feel that at the pace they are going, you could be walking faster. Its actually quite funny, as the things we complain about in Nairobi, i.e. traffic and matatus nearly running you over as pedestrians, play true in Lamu too – except with donkeys. You get donkey traffic jams and they will not give way to you either. But I would definitely take donkeys over matatus any day.
Another main feature of Lamu are the Dhows. These are boats with large triangular sails that seat about 10-15 people. On Saturday night, we took a 2.5 hour Dhow ride into the sunset. It was absolutely incredible. The sunset brought with it so many different colours in the sky (I am not a great photographer, but the scenery really just made it easy to take great pictures):
And then to top it all off, there was a full moon.
Yes, we were sitting on a boat sipping wine, with my friend strumming his guitar under the full moon and stars. Now if that isn’t a cliché…
So as you can tell by the length and detail of this blog post, it was a trip to paradise. I will definitely be going back and I hope it provides inspiration enough for you to come and visit me.
One last funny anecdote to finish off with: Lamu is an extremely safe place (another plus point over Nairobi) and you can walk around at night without a problem. It also means that doors to houses are usually open and people wander in and out. On our first day there we were all lounging by the pool when a woman walked in. She said that her name was “Batty” and that she was the local masseuse that could take care of our “stiffs.” On a pamphlet that she left us that listed her services, it said that she was an expert in a technique called “twisting.” Needless to say, none of us felt much like having a massage.
Note: For the full set of the 171 best photos of my trip to Lamu, please see my facebook profile.