Kenya's Swahili Coast


The coast of Kenya  with its history and intermingling of cultures is a most fascinating place, a place rich with history, intrigue, adventure, and nowadays one of those wonderful place to visit, to vacation.  The below section was written Chris Dickenson and I am thankful for his contribution.

KENYA’S COASTLINE faces the warm blue water of the Indian Ocean and extends for a distance of about 580kms, from the border with Tanzania in the South to Somalia in the North.

Much of the shoreline is covered by a continuous strip of magnificent white soft sand beach, protected by an unspoilt coral reef that has been compared in equal terms to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and the Red Sea Coral Reef. The beaches are backed with coconut palms, frangipani and casuarinas trees, interspersed with exotic mango and avocado trees, floral shrubs and bougainvillaea. Forests of mangroves to the far south create a beautiful ecological zone and huge baobab trees grow along the north coastal strip.

A short distance inland from the coast, the land is traversed by scores of streams and rivers that seasonally flow from the high ground, through jungles and narrow fertile plains to the sea.

Coastal History.

For thousands of years, merchants from India, the Eastern Mediterranean, Arabia and the Persian Gulf set up trading posts along the East African Coast, shipping gold, animal skins, elephant tusks, rhino horn, ambergris, fruits, salt and human cargoes of slaves and concubines. Payment was usually made in the form of bartering cotton cloth, silks, axes, knives, wheat, rice, and glass. Fine porcelain from China was also exchanged. 

These merchant traders eventually began to settle along the coastal strip and widespread intermarriage took place with the African inhabitants who had created the original coastal settlements. The people of the coastal strip became known as the Swahili People, because although they lacked a common heritage, a Bantu based language known as Kiswahili evolved as the means of communication between people of African, Arab, Persian, Portuguese and English origin, who at various times colonised the East African coast. Swahili is derived from the word sahils-awahils, the Arabic word for edge or coast. Over time powerful dynasties evolved and became established along the coast from Lamu Island to Zanzibar. The Great Omani Dynasty and the Mazrui Clan were particularly prominent and played a major part in the formation of the Swahili culture.

Today, the coastal hinterland people generally tend to belong to the Mijikenda tribal group that is believed to have originated in the 16th century and consists of 9 tribes – the Rabai, the Ribe, the Giriama, the Daruma, the Chongi, the Digo, the Jibana, the Kauma and the Kambe. The largest tribes are the Digo in the south and the Giriama in the north. However it is the Swahili culture and mixed heritage that dominates the coast region and the Swahili style is to welcome the new and the sophisticated. Swahili people are essentially Muslim and generally follow the tenets of Islam but in different ways.

As far back as 110AD there is record of a Greek trader who resided in Egypt named Diogenes having visited the EastKiswahili Coast of Kenya African Coast. In 1332, a Moroccan named Ibn Battuta stopped off at Mombasa and declared the people to be devout, chaste and virtuous. Another Arab visitor in about 1400 declared the place to be rather unruly. Then in 1497, the Portuguese explorer – Vasco da Gama visited the East African Coast and claimed it for the King of Portugal in whose hands it remained until 1586 when a Turkish Admiral named Ali Bey, ousted the Portuguese and again in 1589 with only reasonable success.

In 1591, the English tried to break the Portuguese monopoly of the East African Coastal Region but failed to do so. It was not until 1631, when a brigand named Yusuf bin Hassan who was also known as Don Geronimo, took possession of Mombasa and routed the Portuguese.  In 1697, a fighting ship named the Santo Antonio D’Atanna sank near the entrance to Mombasa harbour while trying to break the prolonged siege of Fort Jesus.  The bulk of the ship still remains nine fathoms deep in the harbour. Although the Portuguese regained some control, it was not to be for much longer and in 1729, they were finally driven from the coast by Arabs from Oman.

Mombasa and part of the coast was then administered by an aristocratic Omani family named Mazrui, who quickly claimed Mvita–the island of war (Mombasa) as their own and declared themselves to be independent of Oman; directly challenging the Al-Busa’id family who had only just seized power as rulers of Oman and embraced the East African coast as within the domain of Oman. This resulted in repeated attacks in the 1820’s by the Al-Busa’idi family on the Mazruis in an attempt to regain control of Mombasa and the Kenya Coast.

It was the Anglo – Omani Treaty of 1798 and a subsequent visit to Mombasa on 4th December 1823 by Captain William Wentworth Owen, who was charting the East African Coast for the British Admiralty that resulted in the beginnings of the abolition of slavery. Much against the wishes of the British Government, but at the request of the Mazrui Clan, Owen on his own account, extended British protection to Mombasa by annexing the island together with over four hundred and seventy km of coastline from the Sultan of Oman, Sa’id bin Sultan bin Ahmed, more commonly known as Seyyid Said; a grandson of the founder of the Al-Busa’id dynasty. Shortly afterwards, Owen sailed away leaving John James Reitz, his third lieutenant as the first Governor of British East Africa. Reitz died from malaria on 29th May 1824. One of Mombasa’s largest inner harbours is named in his memory.

Much to the relief of the British, Seyyid Said regained control in 1828, dislodged the Mazrui Clan and entered into further treaty relations with Great Britain. What remained of the Mazrui family dispersed to Takaungu near Kilifi in the north and Gazi in the south. The United States entered into a treaty with the Sultan in 1833 and opened an American Consulate in 1836.  The word Merikani, applied to the cotton fabric most widely sold in East Africa, is a tribute to the enterprise of the American trader. 1n 1840, the Great Omani Arab Ruler, Sa’id bin Sultan bin Ahmed moved his capital from Oman to Zanzibar and became the Sultan of Zanzibar.  He died in 1856.  Such was his enterprise and commercial skill that it could probably be said he established the first International ‘supermarket’ on the Island of Zanzibar. He even introduced a copper coinage to amplify the existing silver coinage of Maria Theresa dollars and Spanish crowns. Many other countries also signed commercial treaties and opened Consulates.

On 25th May, 1887, Sultan Bargash of Zanzibar granted to the British East Africa Association, a concession for fifty years, which delegated all the Sultans powers on the mainland from the River Umbe in the South to Kipini in the North. The Association had the right of levying taxes, collecting the customs, disposing of public funds, administering justice and government generally. The British East Africa Association concluded a further twenty one treaties with African tribes in the hinterland and with Sir William Mackinnon as its founder, became the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1888.

In 1895 the Proclamation of the British East Africa Protectorate took place and remained until 1920 when the Colony of Kenya was established to distinguish it from ex-German East Africa (now Tanzania). At midnight on 12th December 1963, the Union Flag was lowered and a new horizontal striped, black, red and green flag with a shield and crossed spears was raised.  Kenya had become an Independent Nation and a Republic.

Mombasa. (Pop 660,000)

Located closer to its southern border than its northern coastal extremity, Mombasa Island is Kenya’s oldest and second largest city.  The Island is approximately 16km² (6 sq miles) and is linked to the mainland by a road and a railway bridge to the northwest and a further road bridge to the north coast. A vehicular ferry links the island with the south coast at Likoni.

Mombasa has been a centre for international trade since time immemorial and ethnically, is probably more diverse than Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. The seasonal monsoon wind known as the Kazkazi blows down the coast from the north east between October and April, as it has done for thousands of years bringing trade into Mombasa.  Between May and September this monsoon wind then becomes the Kuzi, when it turns through 180° and blows back up the coast towards the Arabian Gulf.  The Kazkazi and the Kuzi winds were the key to the foreign exploitation of Kenya and the rest of East Africa for thousands of years. Mombasa’s oldest claim is that it is more than 2500 years old and is mentioned in Roman and Egyptian adventure stories.

Kilindini – Mombasa’s Port is one of the largest in all of Africa. Goods destined to and from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi and as far away as Zaire pass through the port.

Mombasa can prove to be a bit or a cultural shock at first. Originally named Manfasa in the early 12th century, it was once a great centre of trade and activity, now it is a rather run down shabby place, lacking in charm and has all the appearance of a somewhat forgotten city, with the infrastructure collapsing all around. The public water services and electric power all along the coast are in a parlous state and the telephone system is in danger of collapse, with most people having to depend on mobile phones. There are numerous souvenir shops selling curios and wood carvings although the Kamba Carvers Village close by the Airport is the best place to buy carvings. Biashara Street in particular has some excellent cloth merchants, tailors and dukas – small shops. However, as a tourist centre it has little to offer. It was once a thriving city serving the port, with wide clean streets and an excellent range of covered shops, bustling markets, grand hotels and cafes. It can only be hoped that the new President and Government can find a way to restore this old city to the grandeur it once was and the rewarding and satisfying place it was to live.

In most respects it is still principally a port in need of business and an industrial centre with a major oil refinery and sugar mill. However, the Old Town and Dhow Harbour are well worth visiting, with its ancient fort, narrow winding streets and alleyways, where some truly historic Swahili houses with carved wooden balconies and massive doors can be viewed. The Mandhry Mosque founded in 1570 has an impressive minaret and the Basheikh Mosque allegedly dates back to the 14th Century. The largest mosque is the Burhani Masjid for the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim Community. The Lord Shiva Hindu Temple has an interesting sculpture garden. Away from the old town is the intricate Jain Temple. This amazing building is decorated in pastel shades with beautiful figurines of deities and an exquisite ceiling with pictures depicting human life. It was built in 1963 for the followers of Jainism, a Hindu faith that is somehow closely related to Buddhism. The Holy Ghost Cathedral used to mark the centre of city.

Arab dhows on the Kenya coast range from the huge Jahazi vessels, with broad hulls and large triangular sails for ocean going duties, to the small kijahazi boats used as local fishing boats and to ferry people and goods ashore. Kenyan Jahazi dhows have large perpendicular bows and Zanzibari Dhows have sloping bows. Swahili Dhows also have wooden ‘eyes’ known as ito, to allow the boats to see obstacles below the water and protect them from evil spirits.  Today the main centre for the large dhows on the Kenya coast is around the Lamu Islands in the north. A number of Jahazi dhow owners operate luxury lunch and dinner cruises around Mombasa Harbour, the most famous being the Tamarind Dhow.

Fort Jesus dominates the entrance to the harbour and is a major tourist attraction. Designed by Joao Batista Cairato, an Italian architect and built by the Portuguese in 1593, the fort changed hands in battle no less than nine times between the early seventeenth century and 1875. During the time Kenya was a Colony and Protectorate under the British and until 1958, Fort Jesus was used as a prison. Today it is a museum that retains most of its original character as a classic European fortress of its age. Much of the old town is now given over to curio shops, jewellery outlets and emporiums.  The Mombasa Town Conservation Society is doing its level best to preserve the ancient Swahili architecture.

Mombasa is where Africa, the Arab world, Asia, the Far East and Europe come together as one predominant Swahili culture. Here you will see men dressed in white Kanzu gowns with kofia caps, flamboyant Arab robes or sarongesque kikois and women wearing brilliantly coloured kanga outfits or head to foot bui-buis. Western styles are popular too. Generally coastal people tend to dress smartly and take great pride in their appearance.

Mombasa is not an island resort and has no real beaches. Most visitors typically pass through the city on their way from the airport to the world class hotels and resorts that crowd the north and south coast beaches.

Travelling ‘up country’ by the overnight train from Mombasa can be an unforgettable experience.  It was at Mombasa where on the 11th December 1895; Sir John Whitehouse stepped ashore from the SS Ethiopia, to direct the building of a railway from the Indian Ocean to the shores of Lake Victoria. The first rail was laid at Mombasa Railway Station on 13th May 1896 and the railhead reached Port Florence (Kisumu) on Lake Victoria on 20th December 1901, having ascended the Great Rift Valley western wall and crested the Mau Summit at some 2700 metres (9000ft) above sea level, making it the highest metre gauge railway in the world.

Today the popular overnight train journey from Mombasa to Nairobi leaves at 7pm each evening, arriving the next day sometime between 8.30am and 11am. Another train departs from Nairobi for Mombasa at the same time. It is a great way to travel but not as luxurious and comfortable as it used to be, although you still need to reserve a compartment as far in advance as possible.

The Uganda Railway became the Kenya Uganda Railway, then East African Railways and Harbours (EAR&H), later to be renamed Kenya Railways. It has been one of Africa’s greatest achievements that opened up Kenya and Uganda to a world of trade and tourism.

The South Coast.

The Likoni vehicular ferry links Mombasa Island with the villages and gorgeous beaches along the southern coastal strip that stretches all the way down to the border with Tanzania. Most of the tourist hotels are located right on the beachfront from Shelly Beach just across the harbour entrance, via Tiwi and onto the world class resort hotels on the famous Diani Beach. Tiwi beach area remains quiet and tranquil with individual cottages and smaller hotels. It is far removed from the crowded beach at Diani, where most of the tourists from Europe congregate. The reef that protects the beach and runs almost the entire length of the coast is absolutely stunning. However, seaweed can be a problem between April and November.

Less than 20 minutes drive from the Likoni Ferry, just before the village of Tiwi, a road leads off to the right and snakes its way to the Shimba Hills National Reserve, one of Kenya’s best kept secrets. This 320 sq-km reserve covers a truly magnificent landscape some 500 – 700m above sea level. It consists of hilly scattered jungle and grassland and is home to the Masai giraffe, elephant, buffalo, the indigenous rare sable antelope, a healthy population of leopard, ostrich, bushbabies, monkeys, bats and an amazing abundance of birdlife around the Marere dam and Mwele Mdogo Hill.  The views from the Shimba Hills are quite breathtaking in almost every direction. Accommodation is available at a number of fine Game lodges and tented camps in the reserve. 

The local district town of Kwale sits about 5km before the entrance to the reserve and in the northwest corner is the 2400 hectare Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary, a remarkable success story in conservation and local cooperation, where most of the local people are shareholders. Here in the sanctuary, more than 150 of the largest elephants in Kenya roam along the valley of the Cha Shimba River. Huge baobab trees dominate the low lying areas where you will find warthog, leopard, monkeys and a large variety of flora and fauna. Thick forest covers the slopes of an enormous escarpment.

On rejoining the road to Tanzania you pass through the town of Ukunda, the main junction for the grand hotels and Diani Beaches. During the 1997 elections in Kenya, this sprawling town was a major centre of ethnic violence. The road to the left at Ukunda junction leads to the main beach area and shopping mall where the beach road runs north and south parallel to Diani beach. The Tourist Information Office is an excellent place to begin. The Staff are very friendly and helpful, especially when it comes to providing local information. All along this road are the huge tourist hotels and beach resorts. It is one continuous strip of shops, souvenir stalls, cafes, bars, restaurants and banks. Diani is also a large residential area with numerous houses and cottages all around.

When you have tired of the beach, the warm turquoise blue sea and the reef, one of the most worthwhile places to visit at Diani is the Colobus Trust.

First established in 1997 and funded by international volunteers, the trust has set up more than 25 rope ladders between the trees in order to protect and allow the small remaining number of Angolan black and white Colobus monkey to roam freely and cross the beach road safely above without being killed by tour buses, taxis and trucks.

South of the Diani coastal strip, the road meanders through beautiful woodland towards Gazi and Funzi Island, Shimoni and Wasini. Just off the coast, about 10 km south of Diani Beach and about 300m across a small bay from the tiny village of Kinondo is Chale Island.  This small forested island was until quite recently an uninhabited tropical beauty spot with supposedly therapeutic mud. The island now appears to have been acquired by a developer and most visitors come here on health retreats at the new resort. It was formally a Mijikenda kaya – sacred place, where sacrifices and ritual burials were carried out. The amazing biodiversity of the coastal woodland around Diani and Tiwi is in the main a result of hundreds of years of conservation by the Mijikenda.

Gazi is the next village along the main road south toward Funzi Island. It used to be the headquarters of Sheik Mbaruk bin Rashid, a fearsome local leader who was the principal figure behind the Mazrui rebellion against the British in 1895. Some of the Mazrui Clan fled here after being driven out of Mombasa by the Al Busa’idi family.  Rashids mansion is now a primary school but sadly, the building has been neglected. The beach settlement of Msambweni with its famous leprosarium is nearby. The beach here is almost always totally deserted and the tide goes out for miles. For some inexplicable reason, there is often a police checkpoint at the road junction to the beach.

About 35kms south of Diani is Funzi, a tiny mangrove island which is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel that can only be accessed at low tide. It is a popular place for tours to see river crocodiles in the Ramisi river inlet and dolphins which abound in this area.

Shimoni is an ancient fishing village, where fish auctions are still held every day. The area is also famous for its huge network of bat inhabited underground coral caves extending up to 20km, where it is widely believed slaves were imprisoned before being transported to the Persian Gulf, Europe and the Far East.  Roger Whittaker the famous singer wrote and recorded songs about his life in Kenya and the Shimoni caves.  There are also a number of interesting ruins and colonial graves around the village.

Tourism has definitely come to Shimoni, but only really as an access point to Wasini Island and the world famous Kisite Mpungute Marine National Park, described as a garden under the sea and one of the best marine reserves in the world. Here you can dive and snorkel to your hearts content and see the most colourful array of tropical fish and pristine corals. The park covers an area of over 28 sq km and humpback whales and dolphins spend time here between August and October. Deep Sea fishing in the Pemba Channel is a very popular sport outside of the park where world class competitions for blue marlin and tiger shark are held annually. Wasini Island, only 5km long and 1km across, is also home of the coral gardens, an unusual landscape of coral reefs where you can walk and admire the beautiful displays.

The marine life and the area around Shimoni may suffer if plans for a port go ahead. For some time, the Kenya Wildlife Service and international environmentalists have been protesting against a licence issued to a Canadian mining company to develop Shimoni as a commercial port for the export of titanium dioxide ore. The silt and pollution that is expected to be created by this operation could have a profound effect on the marine life in the area.

The southernmost town in Kenya is Vanga, a coastal fishing settlement that remains untouched by tourism. The town itself is only accessible from the Kenya/Tanzania border post at Lungalunga, via a spectacular 17km murram road through beautiful plantations, groves and forest. Vanga itself is built within the mangroves and has to be approached through the swamp which is often flooded at high tide. Apart from a small street, Vanga is rather isolated from the tourist industry and there is little or no local employment for the residents apart from the fishing cooperative.

The North Coast.

Just ten minutes or so from Mombasa City Centre, the North Coast is reached by crossing over the Nyali Bridge at Mombasa Harbour and the entrance to Port Tudor. This bridge replaced an old vehicular pontoon bridge that rose and fell with the tide and was once classified as the largest pontoon bridge in the world. As a kijana I used to regularly cycle across the bridge to play with friends in dug out canoes on Nyali beach.

The Freetown Bell, which in the 1880’s warned freed slaves of an impending attack by Arab and European slavers, once stood under an arch at the Nyali road junction with the Mtwapa road. The bell was removed in 1994 and its whereabouts are currently unknown. However, the bell tower still stands at the junction.

The first resort and residential area is Nyali, where the graves and memorial of Johan Ludwig Krapf and his family, one of the first missionaries to coastal Kenya in 1844, can be seen near St Peters Church overlooking Mombasa Island and the Dhow Harbour.

Nyali itself is more of a suburb of Mombasa, a beautifully laid out area with luxury houses and beach villas and some magnificent hotels, including the world famous Nyali Beach Hotel built in 1946.

A beautiful 18 hole golf course at the Nyali Golf and Country Club and a range of excellent restaurants and shopping facilities, make this area a particularly desirable place in which to live or spend a holiday. The Lobster Pot Restaurant at the Fisherman’s Leisure Inn is a firm favourite, especially for its Sunday Curry Lunch Buffet and the Tamarind, which overlooks the entrance to Mombasa Harbour is one of the finest restaurants in Kenya.

The road to Malindi and beyond starts from the Freretown Bell Site. If you are adventurous, a visit to the Bombolulu Craft Training Centre should be on your list. Started in 1969, it is a centre for over 260 disabled people, who work in five main craft shops and a cultural centre.

From Bombolulu, the tarred road quickly deteriorates with deep potholes – occasionally planted with flowering shrubs to warn motorists where the holes are!! Although this is the only main road to the beach hotels and the north coast, it is yet another sad example of the gradual destruction of the coastal infrastructure. Corruption is recognised as the root cause and maybe steps can be taken to change what has become a way of life in Kenya, otherwise the infrastructure will no longer be able to sustain the tourist business.

The cement works at Bamburi Township tends to dominate the area, but since an interesting variety of Nature Trails and a Wild Life Sanctuary have been built there; improvements to the surroundings have made a great difference. All along the coast, more than thirty large hotels fill up most of the available space for over 20km along Bamburi Beach and Shanzu Beach, right up to the bridge spanning Mtwapa Creek. At Shanzu beach the Serena Beach Hotel is a simply wonderful place to stay.  A really fine example of good development in this area is the Ngomongo Village, located in a disused quarry at Shanzu, where a collection of permanently occupied mock rural homesteads, representing the most colourful tribes of Kenya has been constructed. This is a lovely place to enjoy a day at Kenya’s only ‘theme park’ away from the persistent traders on the beach.

Sadly the rest of Shanzu away from the cosseted beach hotels consists of three rather seedy bars and a few shops, together with some small hotels used as pick-up joints by prostitutes.

The next major landmark on your journey along the north coast is Mtwapa, a small but neglected town just across the bridge over the beautiful Mtwapa Creek about 17kms north of Mombasa. Mtwapa is mainly a fishing village with a few hotels located further up the coast at Kikambala. There are a couple of good restaurants with fine views over Mtwapa Creek; the Moorings Restaurant serves good seafood, so too does the Aquamarine Restaurant at Kenya Marineland, where you can also take dhow tours along the coast. Mtwapa is also a base for some of the deep sea charter fishing companies.

The main road through Mtwapa is simply terrible, but from here on the hotel complexes peter out and the countryside is given over to tropical coastland and farmland.

A National Monument called Jumba la Mtwana (Mansion of the Slave or Slave Master’s House) can be found just 5km north of Mtwapa. Deserted for over 500 years, it was the centre of a wealthy Swahili community and a large slaving settlement, set among baobab trees and beautiful lawns above the beach. Why the village was deserted is still a mystery because the well water here was excellent. Four mosques were also built on the site, the Jumba mosque being the most impressive. The beach at Jumba la Mtwana is simply stunning, with peculiar pines growing in the sand.

Just 10km further along the road is the beautiful beach of Kikambala, where a number of old colonial beach cottages facing the sea are located and can only be reached 3km down a narrow bumpy dirt track. More recently, a couple of hotels were built at Majengo on the southern end of the beach near Mtwapa and one of them, the Paradise Beach Hotel, was blown apart in 2002 by an horrific terrorist bombing campaign, that also involved an attempt to shoot down a charter aircraft near Mombasa’s International Airport. This tragedy seriously affected tourism and employment in Kenya, particularly along the north and south coast near Mombasa.

I was just two years old when my parents moved to Kikambala in the mid 1940’s for a number of years. The beach is a magnificent expanse of soft white sand that slopes very gently to the sea. At low tide, the sea goes out for over a kilometre, revealing a wonderful coral reef with sandy bottom pools and a multitude of coloured tropical fish. It was in these beautiful warm waters where I first learned how to swim.

The land along the western side of the main road north of Kikambala is heavily forested for about 3km but then gives way to beautiful rolling hills with forests of baobab trees and then into huge sisal plantations, comprising thousands of acres of cactus like plants in straight lines in all directions. The small town of Vipingo is the local settlement and centre for the sisal trade. It is some 10km north of Kikambala. The undeveloped coast is more rugged here and the reef comes almost up to the shoreline making it ideal for snorkelling. A few self catering cottages scatter the shoreline.

About 10 km before the road reaches the bridge over Kilifi Creek, a small road off to the right leads to the enchanting village of Takaungu, where white washed traditional Swahili houses watch over the Curacao blue secluded Takaungu Creek, which disappears upstream into dense jungle. One of the areas finest restaurants is located in Takaungu as well as an exclusive hotel called Takaungu House. In the early 19th century, some of the remaining members of the ruling Mazrui Clan fled here when they were driven out of Mombasa by Seyyidd Said, the Sultan of Zanzibar.

A further 5km north is the district headquarters town of Kilifi, the market town of the Giriama tribal people. Kilifi is an ancient town that is split into two areas by the stunning Kilifi Creek with its turquoise blue water and shimmering green cliffs. On the south side of the creek stand the remains of the original old town known as Mnarani (or Manarani), which was occupied from the 14th to the 17th Century, when it was abandoned following sieges by invading tribes people from Somalia and failure of the water supply. The ruins are high on the bluff surrounded by baobab trees. Only part have been excavated.

The best preserved ruins are the Great Mosque and a group of carved tombs. Over what are believed to be the remaining ruins now stands the largest baobab tree on the Kenya coast. A large hole has been made in the side of the tree where local people leave offerings. During its occupation, the town was ruled from Mombasa. Today the exotic Mnarani Club Resort takes pride of place on the Mnarani side of Kilifi creek.

On the north side of the creek, Kilifi town is the hub of the local area. Kilifi is one of the jewels of the Kenya Coast, a hidden paradise that thankfully has been missed by the tourist industry. Here along the beach road you will find some of the most beautiful residences on the whole coast. It is home for artists, writers, adventurers and entrepreneurs as well as a large community of Kenya Citizens who have dairy farms and fruit farms here or have retired to the coast.  Many villas are available for rent and should be top of the list for anyone who wants to experience what life is really like on the Kenya Coast, away from the crowded hotels and beaches to the south.

The powder soft white sand beach is probably the best in all of Kenya, totally unspoilt and deserted. It does not suffer the same seaweed problems that can affect the beaches around Malindi and to the south. The coral reef can be reached on foot at low tide and has been compared with the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and the Red Sea Coral Reef.

Kilifi Creek is a major centre of activity. It is a large expanse of blue water spanned by a new bridge. Previously traffic across the creek was conveyed by chain ferry where the ferrymen used to sing and dance as they pulled vehicles and pedestrians across. Arrival on the opposite side of the creek was signalled by blowing through large conch shells that created a magical sound. The creek is famous for its international yachting marina and is a centre for Deep Sea Fishing Safaris and World Fishing Competitions. Waterskiing and sail boarding are also popular sports on the creek.

Kilifi town itself remains undeveloped and the roads are in a poor state due to years of neglect, there are encouraging signs that the local community and the new Government are working together to try and improve the infrastructure for the whole community, so that all can enjoy a better quality of life. Small local industries are springing up including a mining processing plant, as well as the Kenya Cashew Nut Trading Cooperative, where local cashew nut farmers can bring their produce.

Kilifi has retained that old charm of a bygone era and with so much to offer the traveller, it is hard to want to go any further. But actually, it has been said that this is where the real north coast of Kenya begins and Watamu, Malindi and Lamu lie ahead.

The cashew nut, dairy and tropical fruit farms north of Kilifi Township are soon replaced by the Arabuko Sokoki Forest of hardwoods and rubber trees. Suddenly you will see monkeys scrambling across the road and diving into the undergrowth. The forest covers an area of 420 km² and is the largest indigenous coastal forest in East Africa. It is home to the elusive Zanzibar Duiker, the golden rumped elephant Shrew, the Sokoki bush tailed Mongoose, the Golden Cat and the Brown Hyena. Yellow Baboons, Buffalo and Elephants abound.

The forest has been the subject of Kenya’s most energetic environmental campaign involving the Wildlife Service, Nature Conservation, Wildlife Charities and not least the local community. As a result, it is now home to over 250 species of birds and six globally threatened bird species, including the Amani Sunbird, the Spotted Ground Thrush, Clarke’s Weaver, the East Sokoke Akalat and the tiny 17cm Sokoki Scops Owl as well as a stunning variety of butterflies.

The Kipepo Butterfly Farm near the lost city of Gede is Kenya’s first working butterfly farm, exporting exotic butterfly pupae all across the world and linking local community income generation with the forest, by providing newly hatched larvae for the farmers to rear in the forest.    

Although not quite the Amazon Forest, a visit to the Arabuko Sokoki Forest and the Kipepo Butterfly Project is recommended. Watch out for the giant ‘Siafu’ ants!!

As you leave the forest to rejoin the main road, a dirt track at the crossroads leads you to Mida Creek. This famous creek is composed of mangrove forest and mudflats that support over 250 species of birds including the Osprey, African Fish Eagle and the Malachite Kingfisher. It is a truly superb site for birdwatchers and covers an area of around 32 km².

Continuing further along the main road towards Malindi, you soon reach the enigmatic ruined walled city of Gede (or Gedi) close to the junction with the road to Watamu. This 13th – 17th Century Swahili city remained hidden from the Portuguese colonists for over 200 years, despite being only 4km inland from Watamu and 15km from Malindi.

There are no records of Gede’s existence in any historical texts.

Within the walls of the ‘lost city’, a vast complex of palaces, mosques and houses was once the centre of a very wealthy people who traded with merchants from all over the world. During extensive excavations to uncover the ruins, Ming Chinese Porcelain, glass and glazed earthenware from Persia, ceramic dishes and cups as well as Arab jewellery and many other artefacts have been recovered. A complex sanitation system has been discovered; beautiful toilets and ornate wash basins have been revealed, together with ancient illustrations incised into the walls. Numerous tombs dating back to 1399 have been found intact.  Yet, the excavations have not given up the real secret of Gede. Why was the city abandoned to the forest in about the 17th Century and lost to the world until the 1920’s?  Could it have run out of water? That would seem unlikely as there are plenty of deep wells here. Maybe the water table dropped?  Could it have been due to attacks from cannibalistic Zimba people from an area thought to be near Malawi, or was it the warring Galla tribe from Sudan who caused Gede’s abandonment. No one knows?

Following the 4km straight road to Watamu Village, you eventually reach the seashore at Turtle Bay and turn right past a number of exclusive hotels facing a 7 km long white sandy beach. Turtle Bay is so named because several species of marine turtle lay their eggs on the beach between January and April each year. The road runs alongside the beach and leads to the Watamu Marine National Park. Established in 1968 and managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service, it is now one of the most spectacular marine parks in the world. Over 600 species of colourful fish in a truly superb coral garden make this a snorkelling paradise and can also be viewed from the glass bottom boats that take you there. There are also a number of undersea caves between Mida Creek and the reef, where some huge Grouper fish can be found.  The best time to visit the reserve is between October and March.

Watamu, once a sleepy fishing village, has grown considerably over the years and is now quite a busy tourist resort. Many people from the highlands of Kenya have chosen to retire to this area and have formed an association to cope with the tourist boom. The objective was to try and make sure the environment remained unspoilt and to undertake various projects with the local community, to ensure that fresh water and sewage systems are properly maintained and developed, the roads kept in good condition, building and repairing schools and local clinics, supporting the local Police and protecting the beach. The Watamu Association has been a major success and gone on from strength to strength.

Just north of Watamu Village on the beach road is the Bioken Laboratory and Snake Farm, internationally known for having the biggest collection of snakes in Africa that provides antivenin wherever it is needed.

The coast around Watamu is broken up by a number of separate coves and bays and a few small offshore islands, which can be reached on foot at low tide. The whole area that includes the Watamu Marine Reserve, Mida Creek, The Arabuko Sokoke Forest and Gede Ruins has been declared a UN Biosphere Reserve.


Just 25 km north of Watamu along the main road stands the ancient settlement of Malindi going back to about 860AD. Today, it is essentially two towns, a Swahili township and a town with a huge tourist and resident population of Italians and Germans. Malindi was originally a Swahili State and the city of Malindi was at its most active in the 14th Century as a major international trading port, with traders from all over the world calling here. One of the most famous being Cheng Ho, the Chinese trader, whose junks regularly visited this wealthy place.

On the 15th April 1498, everything changed when the Portuguese explorer - Vasco da Gama arrived at Malindi. He quickly established his position and in 1499 built a large pillar of coral on the most prominent rocks as a navigational aid, topping it off with a cross made from Lisbon Stone. This pillar is known as the Vasco da Gama Pillar. He is also reputed to have built the Portuguese Church nearby, which was visited by St Francis Xavier on his way to Goa in India. Both are preserved as monuments and still stand in all their glory.

Vasco da Gama was initially welcomed by the local inhabitants, who were mainly Arab Swahili people, but slowly the Portuguese began to dominate the coast and eventually in 1505, they took control and chose Malindi as the supply station for Portuguese ships. However without a proper harbour, Malindi was difficult to defend so in 1518, the Portuguese moved their supply station to Mozambique, until Fort Jesus was built at Mombasa; which had the best natural harbour on the whole East African Coast. Everything administratively was then moved to Mombasa and sadly Malindi began a couple of centuries of decline and poverty, until it was almost completely abandoned to the Galla people from Somalia in the 18th Century, who were in turn defeated by Masai tribes people in the middle of the 19th Century.

It was not until 1861 when the Sultan of Zanzibar resettled Malindi once more and the town was administered by Arab Governors. Almost instantly, it started to recover with wealth increasing steadily to 1890. In 1887, the Sultan of Zanzibar leased the Kenya Coastal strip from Vanga in the South to Kipini in the North to the British Government. The economy then slowly went into decline again until about 1906 when some European settlers arrived and began to plant and export rubber. Most of this came to an end after the 1st World War due to massive overproduction from Malaya.

Malindi saw the first shoots of tourism as early as the late 1920’s and 30’s, when the first hotels were built. It was deep sea fishing that attracted so many tourists to the area at that time and still does today, with world championships being held here each year. In addition it has also become a popular surfing resort during July and August. Over the last 50 years, Malindi has steadily grown to become a modern bustling town with offices and businesses and a huge number of hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and shopping malls. Today there are thousands of European residents and settlers and a mass tourist population that swells the population of the town for almost nine months of the year.

Malindi has come a long way since the first Arab and Far Eastern traders arrived on the Kenya Coast. It is a credit to the friendliness, charm and hospitality of the people that it has become one of Kenya’s most important tourist resorts where travellers return to year after year.

To the south east of the town a national marine park has been designated. Covering an area of some 6 km², the reef is a popular place for spotting whale sharks and mako sharks, although it is between 300m and 800m offshore.

Leaving Malindi on the Lamu Road North, the first major landmark is the Marafa Depression, where for thousands of years, wind and rain have eroded a huge ridge of sandstone into a stunning set of gorges ranging in colour from orange, pink to off white, this geological anomaly is also known as Hell’s Kitchen, Devil’s Kitchen or Nyari (the place broken by itself). It is only usually reached by organised tours or taxi from Malindi. Just a short distance further up the coast is the village of Ngomeni, In the bay not far from the village, there is a space rocket launch site, where weather satellites are launched from time to time

The road from Malindi to Garsen is an asphalt road built by the Chinese that traverses the Tana River delta, replacing the old road from Malindi to Garsen, one of the poorest regions in Kenya.

Garsen is a rather desolate place with little or nothing to recommend it. There is no electricity or other services apart from a Police Post that will provide you with an armed escort and a few dukas that stock basic items. A huge famine affected the Tana River Delta in 1998/1999 causing over 50% of the total livestock to be lost. The road from here on to Lamu is rough and bumpy, not really suitable or safe for the overland traveller. There have been many ‘hit and run’ accidents on the road as well as numerous attacks from gangs of ‘shifta’ (bandits). In fact, the road project was abandoned by the Chinese when they were building the causeway across the Tana River Delta, due to inadequate security. On one occasion shifta attacked a tourist bus and stole everything from the passengers including the clothes they were wearing at the time!!  Many people have been shot and attacks are fairly commonplace. If travelling with your own vehicle you will need to hire an armed escort and it will take a very long time to reach Lamu. The safest and most convenient way to get to Lamu is to fly there from Malindi.

Lamu and Beyond

The Lamu Archipelago consists of a cluster of hot desert islands that reach almost to the border with Somalia. It is one of the most important sources for knowledge about pre-colonial Africa.

Lamu Island is often described as the centre of Swahili civilization and culture and a place of timeless character. It is an academics delight and the whole region a source of confusion and controversy. 

Lamu has an amazing history. People have been coming here for over 2000 years or more. It was originally settled sometime between the 9th and 12th century however, the present town dates back to around the 14th century.

In 1505 the King of Lamu agreed to pay the Portuguese for protection and for the next 180 years the island was under Portuguese control until they were driven out by the Omanis.  Lamu then became a republic ruled over by an installed ‘yumbe’ council of elders. For the next 150 years, the island prospered in all respects, creating its own architectural style. The town is famous for its amazing architecture and stone houses with exquisite carved lintels and doors that still stand to this day, keeping the original town plan intact. During its century and a half of prosperity, Lamu became the leading centre for trade on the East African Coast, with a busy port, exporting ivory, tortoiseshell, timber, mangrove logs and thousands of slaves, who were transported to the Persian Gulf and Arabia, as well as to countries in Europe and India. Lamu Fort was built for the Omanis in about 1812 but not completed until 1821. From 1910 until 1984, it was used as a prison.

Such was the success of the rulers that they even defeated the ruler of the neighbouring island of Pate at the Battle of Shela in 1812, when he tried to take Lamu Island with help from the Mazrui family in Mombasa. The victory was short lived because the yumbe panicked and requested help from Seyyid Said, the Sultan of Oman who happily sent a garrison to occupy Lamu, then go on to defeat the Mazrui clan in Mombasa and take control of the East African Coast, moving his headquarters from Oman to Zanzibar. In 1873, the British forced Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar to close down all the slave markets and with the abolition of slavery, Lamu’s economy went into decline. It only began to recover in the early 1960’s when tourism first came to the island.

Lamu Island can only be reached by boat. There is an airstrip on Manda Island opposite the harbour where regular daily flights arrive and depart to and from Malindi. Apart from one old motor powered vehicle, the only other means of transport on the island is the donkey. The main form of transport between the other islands and along the coast is the traditional dhow.

Today there are a number of private rental homes and guest houses on Lamu Island tucked away in the alleyways of the old town behind the waterfront. Expensive hotels are located mainly on Shela Beach and Kipungani. The new wave of ‘residents’ and tourists to the Islands have created in an abundance of restaurants, coffee shops and a few bars, although, Lamu District is still almost totally Muslim.

Every year, to mark the birth of Muhammad, Lamu celebrates Maulidi, a week long Festival that draws in pilgrims from all over East Africa and the Indian Ocean and where the entire town is involved in processions and dances..

From a tourist perspective, a walk around Lamu Town is a truly memorable experience.

There are so many traditional Swahili homes to be seen and over recent years there has been a massive revival in Lamu woodcarving. The town has a couple of the most interesting small museums in Kenya with a well documented nautical section. Lamu is also famous for its citrus and tropical fruit farms that produce the sweet juicy grapefruit and the giant aromatic mango.  A rebuilt produce market in front of the fort has a huge array of fresh fruit, fish and shellfish. There is also a crab and lobster market close by. Meat is often stringy and not recommended. A major concern for the visitor to Lamu is the water supply. It is one place where it is quite common to catch hepatitis if you happen to drink the local water. When selecting a place to stay, it is important to confirm that there is a good clean 24 hr water supply first and then only to drink purified water from a sealed container.

Lamu has so much to offer the traveller and there can be no doubt, that the fact that the passage of the Antiquities and Monuments Act in 1983, the Lamu Conservation Plan in 1986 and that it was added to Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites in 2001, may all help to preserve this magnificent old town. Although Lamu is heavily dependant on tourism and foreigners are buying up the old stone houses, the island can preserve and maintain its cultural heritage if the community stands firm against urban development and does not deviate from its conservation plan.

The Island Archipelago

Pate Island is a two hour journey by boat from Lamu. It is a low lying island surrounded by mangroves, but contains some of the most historical ancient ruins in Kenya. Mosquitoes and flies are a serious menace and there is no fresh water or electricity on the island.  Nevertheless, the island is inhabited but very poor and a mere shadow of its former self. The Wa- pate people are entirely Muslim and reputedly not as friendly as the Swahili people from Lamu. There is no tourism to speak of.

Perhaps the only exciting thing about journeying to Pate from Lamu is to catch a rare glimpse of Elephants swimming from the mainland to the mangroves on Manda Island. This migration takes place sometime in March but not always on an annual basis. 

Faza, the biggest settlement on Pate was believed to have been founded in the early years of Islam and attracted many Arabian immigrants. The island flourished between the ninth and fifteenth century when the dispossessed Nabahani Arabs became the major rulers along the coast. The Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century and traded with the islanders; many stayed and intermarried with the local inhabitants. In the mid seventeenth century, after many disputes, the Portuguese withdrew. Pate underwent a complete rebirth during the eighteenth century but when the Nabahani King was defeated at Lamu, the local rulers were forced out and Pate no longer remained a City State.

Kiwayu Island is located in the far northeast corner of the Lamu Archipelago and has become the exclusive desert island hideaway for the rich and famous. It can take up to 36 hours to reach the island by dhow, so most visitors tend to arrive by air from Malindi or Manda airstrip.

The whole area is totally unspoilt and the coral reefs are claimed to be among the best in Kenya, but I would prefer the reef at Kilifi and the Marine Park at Watamu. If you are looking for something very private and ridiculously expensive, not really in keeping with the real Kenya, then the Safari Village at Kiwayu might be the answer.

Beyond Kiwayu island is the far north-eastern coastal region leading to the Somalian border at Dar es Salaam/Shakani where few travellers ever venture into. It has been the home of roaming Somali guerrillas and other bandits for many years and has been kept in isolation by the Kenya Government.

The Kenya Coast is a magical place and has some of the best beaches and reefs to be found anywhere in the world. There are few countries in the world today that can offer us as much beauty and diversity as Kenya.

Below you will find a little background about the Author of this page.  I am grateful for the contribution Chris has made here....jon

Chris Dickenson a child of Kenya.

Born and educated in Nairobi, Kenya, Chris has lived on the Kenya Coast, Nairobi, Nakuru, Moshi in Tanzania and Jinja in Ugan
da. He left Kenya in the early 1960's and although started out as an Engineer, he eventually carved a successful career as a Publisher and General Manager with a global academic and scientific publishing group. Chris has also written a number of technical handbooks for engineers and students.

Throughout this time, he has returned to Kenya on a number of occasions to visit friends and enjoy the wonderful sights and sounds of Kenya. His many interests include travel, the history and development of Kenya and a long standing love affair with classic motor sport.

Chris is married with two daughters and two grandsons. He has not quite retired and lives in Hampshire UK.


(Chris Dickerson has the copyright to the above page.  If you like to use any of the information, please contact Chris Dickerson via email.  © copyright 2004 Chris Dickerson)

If you are visiting Kenya, don't miss the Coast and  you might find Chris at this delightful place...take a look it is certainly a touch of paradise, just click on the picture and off to the Kenya Coast you go and you can rent a place at the beach while you are at it...jon


Mombasa Photo Album Fort Jesus

Mombasa in Pictures - Old Town

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