Lamu, an African beach destination

Getting to Lamu takes an eight-hour bus ride from the city of Mombasa, followed by 45 minutes on a ferry, but once the commuting ordeal is over you will realise it was well worth it

marc_casolani
Marc Casolani
2 December 2016, 8:11am
Have you ever wondered how wonderful it would be to be sprawled on a practically deserted sandy beach on a Caribbean Island, but then you realise it’s simply out of your budget. That’s a typical Monday morning for you. The great news is that not all of the world’s best beaches are in fancy resorts in the Caribbean and some destinations really are in any backpacker’s budget. The island of Lamu in Kenya is one such beach holiday destination. Lamu island is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is about 6,273 km2 in area.

Ok, so getting there was not the most comfortable of bus rides, I will admit – eight hours north of the city of Mombasa, only six of which are on a surfaced road. The bumpy dirt track which follows leaves you feeling like you’ve endured a two hour sand storm. On exiting the bus, it feels like you’ve just dug your way out of a sand dune, you then have to hop on a 45-minute ferry from the fishing village of Mokowe to the island of Lamu. 

Viewing the village from the sea at sunset is exquisite
Viewing the village from the sea at sunset is exquisite
That is when you realise that the commuting ordeal was well worth it. Viewing the village from the sea at sunset is exquisite, the beautiful colours gently reflecting off the white walls of the seaside colonial styled villas. As you hop off onto the quay a swarm of a dozen or so locals crowd you promising to find you the ‘perfect’ accommodation – winner gets a possible tip plus a commission from the place of accommodation. 

Most accommodation on this tiny island is generally homey and cheap... that is unless you go to Shela Village in the next bay which is a honeymoon getaway, lined with residences owned by some of Forbe’s rich list. 

Talk your way onto a dhow and your raw sailing adventure will begin
Talk your way onto a dhow and your raw sailing adventure will begin
If all this travelling has already exhausted you then fear not... there are easier, though a little more pricey ways to get there. Fly into the island of Manda which is across the channel of Lamu. However it is essential that you book way in advance as flights are almost always fully booked. 

If you’re on a really tight budget there is also the option of catching a dhow – a Kenyan raft-like structure with a sail that can’t really be classified as a sailing boat – from Mombasa to Lamu. It’s free as long as you help crew it though, and takes about two or three days to get there depending on the wind and dhows have been known to capsize and sink in rough seas. For thrill-seekers this may be just the ticket. Talk your way onto a dhow and your raw sailing adventure will begin... and possibly end, right there.

Transportation on the island is somewhat limited and consists of one ambulance from the 1950’s, one jeep and a dozen healthy herds of donkey. The population is mostly Muslim – as bohemian and care-free a group of Muslims, who respect their religion like any other Muslim in the world, that I have ever met. I had the opportunity to breakfast with them during the holy feast of Ramadan and also jumped in revelry alongside them as the crescent moon appeared to signal the end of this holy period. This was followed by days of feasting in which Lamu Town was one positive vibe of jamming and sharing. 

You will indeed need quite a bit of time to enjoy the region in tranquillity and in your own time
You will indeed need quite a bit of time to enjoy the region in tranquillity and in your own time
After spending a few days on this island, you’ll be surprised at the number of activities that are available and realise that you will indeed need quite a bit of time to enjoy the region in tranquillity and in your own time.  

I would recommend doing some diving on some of the outer reefs of the channel between Manda and Lamu islands. On Manda itself you’ll find mostly private beach bungalows and seaside mansions, however there is one resort that has some authentic, high quality rustic bungalows. You will also find historical ruins in the north of the island, ruins that date back to early Muslim settlements. Check out the impressive baobab trees surrounding the ruins. Though they are not common on the island, they date back around 1,000 years.

For anyone who loves the sea, and sailing boats in general, you must go on a dhow. Though making the journey from Mombasa to Lamu on one of these is not recommended, sailing around the safety of the island with a local crew is an experience not to be missed. These boats are made of carefully chosen wood, cotton and mangrove roots with huge cloths as sails and a trapeze made out of a plank of wood to keep the boat balanced and stop it from capsizing – unless you fall off the plank, where you will then be in for a full catapulted capsize. 

 Local sailors are mostly fishermen who can find their way across the ocean in the darkest of nights and can keep the boat steady in strong winds and high waves
Local sailors are mostly fishermen who can find their way across the ocean in the darkest of nights and can keep the boat steady in strong winds and high waves
Before you get put off this only happens when crews are made up totally of foreigners – local sailors know their boats and have some serious sailing skills. Local sailors are mostly fishermen who can find their way across the ocean in the darkest of nights and can keep the boat steady in strong winds and high waves. I would suggest renting out a dhow for a day to either go on a fishing trip, or a free roaming sail around the island. If time is pressing, just go for a sunrise or sunset sail.

Other water sports are common around the island particularly at Shela. Donkey riding is also good fun and twice a year you can witness some competitive races between the three main towns of Lamu. There are also six major dhow races per year, the most exciting and competitive for the locals would be the one on New Year’s Day.

The island is steeped in tradition with locals speaking four different languages as a result of the various ethnic groups
The island is steeped in tradition with locals speaking four different languages as a result of the various ethnic groups
The island is steeped in tradition with locals speaking four different languages as a result of the various ethnic groups that populate the island and different culinary and craft skills are passed on from generation to generation. The nightlife is also very popular in Lamu, where locals need very little reason for a celebration – much like the Maltese! One of the best nightlife spots would be a floating bar close to the mangrove forest of the Manda island.  

The people of ‘Lamu Tamu’ as they say, are generally a very positive and vibrant sort. They are friendly and caring, poor yet rich in their surroundings. However the small island mentality can tend to send some on a perilous journey through drugs or alcohol addiction which the locals have to deal with without proper rehabilitation facilities. All in all the people are very friendly and befriending a local family is quite easy, where if you are lucky you will be able to share fishing expeditions and dining experiences that will show you the true culture of Kenya. Lamu Tamu is definitely my pick for a taste of the Caribbean at more affordable prices.

Marc Casolani is a freelance photographer and a chronic traveler. Bitten by the travel bug...