Following Hemingway’s footsteps

WATAMU – THE ERSTWHILE STOMPING GROUND OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY AND TODAY A HUB OF MARINE CONSERVATION ACTIVITY

(Posted 21st March 2015)

Ernest Hemingway’s life and East Africa in general and Kenya in particular are closely linked and some of his award winning novels, later on turned in to equally award winning films, were surely inspired by visits to this part of the world. It is to Kenya where he came for his big game safaris and for big game fishing, spots which were then and continue to be today some of the deep sea fishing hotspots of the world.

Enter the last part of the 20th century when Watamu was even more laid back than Malindi in those days and when the bay was home to less than a handful of resorts, most of them specialized for clients coming to fish and expecting to have their boat charters organized by the resort.

The Seafarers Hotel in those days was largely a hangout and weekend or holiday getaway for the local crowds and never did make it into the big league of tour operators with charter operations into Mombasa though I remember tourists from the UK taking a fancy to it in the early 1980’s when British Airtours was for 2 ½ years allowed to fly from Gatwick to Mombasa before being axed by the Kenyan Department of Civil Aviation, leaving hotels to struggle for occupancy.

In 1988 was Seafarers, then sitting on a 23 acre plot, finally sold to a group of hospitality developers, closed down and completely remodeled before re-opening as a 5 star beach and fishing resort. Renamed ‘Hemingways’ was the resort quickly making inroads into the market and excellent food combined with Kenya’s renowned hospitality and some of the world’s richest fishing grounds to put the resort on the map of the big league. I recall visits to Seafarers just before it closed, to Hemingways soon after it re-opened and now, ahead of some major redevelopments, again a visit just before the resort shuts down for nearly 8 months to allow for construction to go ahead without impacting on clients. From the present 76 rooms and suites will the ‘all new’ Hemingways, when it reopens in December, then come back on line with the North Wing’s 26 rooms spruced up while the South Wing’s 50 rooms will have been turned into 18 apartments.

Just before my arrival did the season closing final major fishing tournament take place, this year with some 26 boats participating which came from as far as Dar es Salaam. Locals said the number of participants, while significantly down from the boom years of Kenya’s coast tourism, nevertheless showed some high level of resilience and that deep sea fishing remained a high profile activity, and one which brings in substantially more money per visiting tourist than those on package deals. The overnight tournament allowed those out at night to fish for broadbills and the bright moonlight must have made it special for those who had come to be part of one of Kenya’s great traditions.

(Some of the boats anchored off this magnificent beach where Hemingways’ is located and one of the prize catches seen off shore breaking through the surface)

Hemingways maintains three boats under its own flag but sub-charters when larger groups come to stay. However, boat charter operations are found not just in Watamu but along the coast from Malindi via Kilifi, Mombasa and all the way down to the Kenyan side of the Pemba channel, perhaps this year not as busy as they like to be but hanging in and waiting for better times to return.

Here, as in the hospitality business in general, is it evident that the draconian anti-travel advisories have taken a toll on the tourism industry and what a price it is that Kenya pays as Western countries play politics with the livelihood of people and the investments made by businesses.

Melinda Rees of Hemingways’ though preferred to stay upbeat about the future and focused on the positive side when she parted with some added information about the level of fishing visitors can come to expect at Hemingways’ in particular and in Watamu in general: ‘The main fishing season runs from November through March, in the Kaskazi season. Sailfish are the first to appear generally, in November and early December and we run the Sail University competition in early December. This is a combination competition and training session for anglers. The black and striped marlins start to appear in December and run through to the end of the season in March. The big Blue Marlins normally start to appear in February and run through March. In 2014 Roger Sutherland on Ol Jogi with skipper Stuart Simpson got Kenya’s second ever ‘grander’ a beautiful big Blue.

In general, Kenya does not get huge fish but we do get them all. We do also have good broadbill for those who want the challenge of fishing at night. There are three ‘Fantasy Slams’ in Kenya – in a 24 hour period, one each of sailfish, black, blue, striped marlin and broadbill. At present I believe there are less than 10 fantasy slams accredited in the world’, surely news which should make fishing aficionados sit up and take notice that Kenya is one of those countries they just have to put on their bucket list and come and fish the blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

(Agnes and Skipper Stuart take time from their busy schedule to share their expert knowledge)

The food at Hemingways was as delightful as I ever remembered and with Melinda gone to Ol Seki Hemingways in the Masai Mara just days earlier was Agnes standing in to provide hospitality and coordinate my visiting programme and did a fine job for that matter.

But there is of course more to Watamu than just 5 star rated resorts and deep sea fishing.

Evening sundowner sails with dhows on the nearby Mida Creek are popular with tourists and apparently some of the locals too and provide a perfect setting at the end of a day. The notorious ‘Dawa’ is offered when stepping on the dhow, made of Kenya Cane or if not available vodka, honey, crushed ice and lime and while the mood visibly improved among the wagenis after two or more of those high octane drinks, there is no telling of what waking up must have been like for those who overindulged.

Delicious finger food is served on board, from fresh oysters to deep fried calamari rings, grilled prawns and more and after full dark go all the lights out to drift on the water and enjoy the star studded sky above. On clear nights myriads of stars twinkle down at the star gazers and of course all major star formations can be identified with ease without even using a telescope.

(The dhow is about to set sail after casting off the lines and local fishermen seen looking for an evening catch)

There is more still to tell about Watamu, not just about their ‘WOW’ campaign, standing for Wonders of Watamu, a local marketing initiative triggered by Kenya’s e-marketing guru Damian Cook of e-Tourism Frontiers who is a long-time resident in Watamu, but also about conservation activities for which the area has become equally famous.

A number of conservation NGO’s are active in the area and there was just enough time to get acquainted with two of them, the African Billfish Foundation’s local office and the local turtle conservation trust.

(The Local Ocean Trust’s offices in Watamu with Casper and Fikiri taking this correspondent to the beach for a dual turtle release, both of the endangered Hawksbill species)

The ‘Local Ocean Trust’ has over the years helped to rescue and release over 12.000 turtles, including many of the most critically endangered species and provides educational and outreach services to the communities including the fishermen, many of whom now take advantage of getting paid a token when they hand in injured turtles or call the staff of the Trust to come and collect them. Veterinary care is provided for those brought to the centre, and in some cases has rehabilitation taken months before the turtles were fit to be released again. All turtles are measured and weighed and tags found are recorded while those without are tagged to ensure proper ID when seen again at some point in the future. Additionally were over 650 nests protected leading to the successful hatching of over 52.000 turtle babies which have a chance of growing to adulthood of only 1 in 1.000 hatchlings.

Founded in 2002 was the trust born out of a 1997 initiative of local residents who got increasingly concerned about the future of the turtle’s breeding grounds and the survival of the species. As a result was East Africa’s only turtle rehabilitation centre established in Watamu. Project Director Casper van de Geer was happy to outline the centre’s accomplishments over the years and while LOT’s main PDF file content would be too extensive to showcase here, can details be accessed via the centre’s website and other social media sites:

Email: info

Website: www.watamuturtles.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/localoceantrust

Twitter: @localoceantrust

Instagram: @localoceantrust

YouTube: Local Ocean Trust: Watamu Turtle Watch Channel

This is certainly a project which is worth supporting and information about financial and material donations can be obtained by writing to LOT via the email contact shown above. The trust also has a volunteer programme in place and again, details can be obtained by writing to them.

On to the African Billfish Foundation, which Kenya offices are also located in Watamu. The map below shows the distribution of the big game fish and from the website of the NGO can the years from 2004 until 2011 be seen, showing how changes occur over the years. Over the past 25 years were some 43.000 fish tagged while some 1.500 tags were successfully recovered, providing evidence of the huge distances these fish migrate, from Australia over the Arabian Gulf coast along the Eastern African seaboard and back. Tag and release is becoming increasingly more common form of big game fishing and has surely contributed to the conservation of certain species, allowing numbers to remain stable if not increase.

It was generally found that the expatriate community living in the Watamu area has taken a keen interest in such activities and many volunteer time and resources to promote conservation projects, not just the two mentioned but of other denominations too, like the preservation of mangrove forests to name just one more.

Discussions with expats and locals focused on the state of the tourism industry in the country in general and in Watamu in particular and there was consensus that Kenya is hard done by the prohibitive language of anti-travel advisories and has been singled out for some form of punishment though no one is really sure what for. ‘Watamu is really a peaceful backwater of Kenya. We are off the beaten track, there is just one road in and out from the main Mombasa to Malindi highway at Gedi. This provides added safety and while there is petty crime it would be most unusual to hear that something happened to the tourists here. We are less than half an hour drive from Malindi airport, we have fabulous beaches and some great resorts. Fishing is almost second to none here and apart from the main Kaskazi season there are always fish out there waiting to be caught. Mida creek is a gem and all this combined makes Watamu one of the best locations for a holiday, or to even own a vacation home. The locals are friendly and welcoming and what more can one wish for’ said one of the local residents during some conversation.

As described in a related article ‘Watamu WOW’ is it clear that the Kenya coast continues to be an attractive location for holidays, just at the beach, to fish or to volunteer at one of the many conservation or community projects promoted by local and international NGO’s.

Kenya’s presence at the recently concluded ITB 2013 focused on the destination’s traditional strengths while also adding new niche segments like golfing as a related article demonstrated. Deep sea fishing clearly is another such attraction which can bring in high spenders and help to raise the destination profile to the better, away from the package tourists to individuals and groups. Look up the tourist board’s website via www.magicalkenya.com for added information about the country.