A visit to Lamu – an enchanting island


(Posted 06th November 2020)

First published by OTGE

Written By Vik Chege and Nelly Mutave.

On just about every trip I’ve ever been on, I always find the time to ask myself “Am I wasting my time?” or “Will I have a good time?” and even after I’ve booked my flight or boat or car some part of me is still saying “maybe you should just save this money for your projects.” There are never any projects. Just the outer edges of a wish of a plan of one. So I start looking for signs that the trip will go well. The wheels of the plane deploy and I’m like maybe the plane will go down while we’re landing and my eulogy will be a giant mushroom cloud and hopefully, someone screaming “oh the humanity” just like at the Hindenburg. But we landed safely at Manda Bay Airport in Lamu so I had to switch my focus. There are cats at this airport. Lots of them. Is that good? The Egyptians thought cats were magic good luck. But this is East Africa. But the Nile goes through here and there so maybe it all connects. But maybe; but this, but that. Over and over until I thought there are cartoon lines of steam rising from my head I’d get a “sensory overload” message on my glasses. Don’t be like me. That’s the highway to never.

Un Jour – Manda Island

The first real sign that I was in for a great time was the slow dhow charging toward the pier I was standing on with my bags. I didn’t know what to make of the crew I was with so I was quiet. Also because of the rapid fire thoughts. Then the dhow comes into view and it’s easy to make out the figures of our crew because they were decked out in these bright clothes. The first thing that you do is take off your shoes when you get into the dhow. I was there about 4/5 days and I didn’t put them back on until I was getting back on the pier on my way to fly back to Nairobi. Makes sense.

The beach vibes mean that there’s lots of sand. The sand gets everywhere and there is always more of it. We each found a nice spot on this “bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside” dhow and just kind of plopped down. I think after I said hi to everyone I just wanted to feel that sea breeze. Felt like all my previous internal freak-outs were being rocked away by that magic boat. I don’t think we even noticed getting to land where our hotel was. No shoes still. Not on me, not on anyone. Maybe someone had sandals on. I really do not recall. I was that relaxed from the minute I set sail. We plopped our bags at an ocean front hotel that the crew had organized with such promising views that I was sure I’d be taking the bed out on the veranda from day 1. It doesn’t get cold and all you need is maybe a sheet.

  • View from our rooms

We were back on the water in minutes and while the conversation had picked up because we’d gotten to know each other just a tiny bit more, my brain was still somewhere floating on that ocean. The crew was cooking and our captain Swaleh was explaining things to us in this sing-song sort of lilt to his voice that just smacks a smile on your face to hear it. Just a heads-up, I won’t be mentioning how much time it took to get from place one to place two because I think I was like a man out of time for that whole trip. All I know is that the next minute we were making landfall at Manda Island. Weigh anchor, hoist the sails, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. Beach time.

Lamu is an archipelago with moderate to small islands. The thing is though, there’s so few people that every beach feels like a private beach. No one at least as far as the eye can see. And even when there IS someone, your first instinct is to let them have their space just because you want yours. The 6 or 7 of us on that beach (I wasn’t keeping track of the numbers either) just immediately started playing with the sand like little kids. Swim for a bit, chill for a bit, get sand in your shorts a bit, bury someone to the neck a bit. The music though. I don’t think any song would have ruined the vibe. Speakers in the sand and just hours of talking and play. The sun was really beating down on all of us really hard but I didn’t much notice or mind it.

We took a walk and found this charming residence with a staircase leading to the beach that just kind of calls you to take pictures at. Then suddenly I was back at the boat because lunch was ready. I’m a massive fan of seafood and the crew had managed to catch a white snapper that they grilled with rice and salad on the side. Perfect dish after all that messing around with the water. Then back to rocking on the boat with a pillow beneath your back and the sky just starting to get grey.

I’ve never in all my life seen such a beautiful sunset. At some point, it almost felt like it would never end. Literally, every picture I took, even the wobbly ones, looked like they could have made a postcard. There were all these other dhows in the water just rocking back and forth and the contrast between them and the darkening sky was more magic than I was ready for.

After the sun went down, the crew took us to the Floating Bar. Spoiler alert, it’s a bar and it floats. On our approach from the front; there were two dhows docked on either side. The huge masts on the sides plus the hut shape of the bar put me in the mind of some bull on the water that just raised its head. The place smelled like diesel and french-fries. You wouldn’t think those two would go together but there it worked. I’m, personally, not a huge fan of bars and clubs but this was a must-try. After they dropped us off, the crew pushed off again. I assume because they didn’t want to crowd the place with our dhow. We thought to play some games and someone had a Jenga board but this didn’t pan out. Pro-tip, if you want to do anything other than dance and jam to retro Kenyan music, then I’d recommend cards. Something that won’t require precision or for you to sit still.

The crew picked us up after a time and turns out they pushed off so they could make us dinner. Honestly, every little thing just seemed to fascinate me even if I had seen it happen before. I went upfront so I could get that breeze with my meal and the crew just gently motored us to the pier that connected to our hotel. I must have played some games before I fell asleep. Great day.

Deux Jour – Manda Toto Island

The day started with a bit of an errand. Turns out we’d left a speaker on the island from the day before. It really is a testament to how chilled out Lamu is that we just had to walk up to the place where we’d been taking pics and ask them “hey did you see an expensive piece of tech around here” and mirabile visu it was in our hands. I was really impressed to be honest. We got back to the hotel just as everyone else had finished getting ready and so we got on the boat again. We docked at this big-ish island that must have been owned by Bruce Wayne or someone because apparently one guy owns the whole thing. I say this because I’m guessing real estate must be pretty steep in Lamu just because the prices of everything we bought was just a tad bit higher than it would be in, say, Mombasa. That must also be because of access. I wasn’t worrying too much about it because the crew brought out snorkelling gear for us.

The only snorkeling I’ve ever done before was when I deep dive into novels. I wasn’t ready for the water to go into the spout thing and fill my mouth with lots of glugs. I’m not the best swimmer but it was really easy to get over the instinct to close your eyes with that gear across my face. The best time to take up the activity is between December and March. Maybe we were a little early but you can’t miss what you don’t know or something like that. My plan, and the plan for a lot of us, was to spend that whole day in the water. I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much time in the water. After we were good and tired, one of the crew took us on a long-ish walk around the place and gave us a little history lesson about Lamu which is how I found out about Batman.

Then we had to high-tail it back to the dhow because the tide was coming in (or maybe going out) so it was time to leave. They had us all set for lunch and I was necking that dish as fast as possible just so I’d have more time to chill out. After we’d been drifting a while and the sun was going down; we tied off at a pole in the middle of the water to have dinner. I recall something about coasting through the mangroves. There was a plan floating around that we should play some indoor games back at the hotel but I think everyone just kind of zoned out (Hi Mercy!).

Trois Jour – Deep Blue Seas

This was the day I was really waiting for because a lot of promises were made about water sports. I was winding down at this point. You can’t have too much of paradise but I was leaving the next day. I was finally getting into that relaxed coastal vibe so everything was happening in slo-mo. I was up at the crack before dawn because daybreak happens at about 5:30 am. I think Ess did a time-lapse. I was, I suppose it’s called frolicking, Cynje was in the shallows, Kasee and Ess were out in the deeper water and Nelly was making friends. We had a really slow (at least I was feeling slow) breakfast then more suggestions for water sports. There was a lady there offering henna tattoos and Anne got this wicked cool arm and leg combo. Really striking. We were taking a lot of time just getting in gear and then this guy shows up with these fish samosas that we’d binging on the whole trip and that just reset everything back to slow.

I think we only got our asses in gear once we heard that if we took too long the tide might affect our schedule. We got on this boat with a massive sail that says “Will you Marry me” and headed to a secluded place with a powerboat in tow. Or was it ahead of us? I think it’s a really smart move to have a sail-like that because that picturesque setting seems like the perfect place to propose. Only 4 people are allowed on a motorboat so we took turns doing the first thing. Donut surfing. Or doughnut rides? I think it depends. First, the donut is round but it doesn’t have a hole through the middle.

You lie flat on your stomach with one other person holding on to the handles and the captain revz the motor to adrenaline miles per hour and you just have to hang on for life. You’ve got to put on a life jacket because as misconstrued as you might think it, the goal is to have the boat go so fast and turn so sharply that you get kicked off. After a few of us had been on, Kasee and Karis thought it would be a good idea to dare the captain to try knock them off. Well, their hard-won confidence lasted all of 30 seconds. Maybe less. I’ve never seen such macho guys take an unwanted dip so many times. But I do recommend what they did. Dare your captain. Go on. I dare you.

After the doughnut rides, we tried out wakeboarding. Let me tell you right now that the picture of what it looked like when we were doing it versus what it was supposed to look like are so hilariously diverse they’ll make you cry out that seawater that you’ve been holding in. I thought I’d go first and I thought that I could do it because I can ice skate. Big mistake. The instructions were all like bend your knees, twist the board, don’t pull the rope, lean back, and try to remember everything I’ve said. It was all running like a list in one of those movies about math in my head.

I didn’t manage to do it once even though I got the most tries out of anyone. Just the slightest resistance from the motorboat pulling and I’d wipe out and wipe out and drink some seawater with the guy telling me “it’s okay, its medicine” until I was just about nauseous from the tall glass of “I told you so” that the devil on my shoulder kept whispering into my ear every time I couldn’t hack it. No one could hack it. The captain made it all look so easy. The frustration was real. After, while everyone else was having a go, I lay face down on the donut with seawater dripping from my nose in a literal stream watching everyone else try their hardest. I was straight up leaking.

We got back to land and got back onto our original dhow for lunch and mid-evening drift on the ocean. Getting back on land, my legs were killing me and everyone was telling me it was from the strain of trying to fight an entire ocean. I had a bit of a duck waddle. Water sports are murder on the hips.

Tres Jour Part II – Lamu Old Town

The plan for the rest of the day was to no secluded. The town is what you would call “bustling”. Lamu is quite something. It’s the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa and also a World Heritage site. This is a tag given to places that have “outstanding value to humanity”. The value here is hella obvious. There’s just some things here that you couldn’t find anywhere else. The first thing you notice is how narrow the streets are. In most places you honestly can’t walk side by side with anyone. It’s that tight. The word on these narrow streets is that there are only 3 cars on the entire island. One government car and two owned by someone with a farm. Getting around you either just leg it, get a bike, or go natural and ride a donkey.

I’m not kidding. The architecture also really packs a punch. Everywhere you look there’s these ornate doors (makes a quip about Door-a-the explorer). Massive wood beams that just tower above you and must be really hard to clean. Our first stop was to an outdoor food vendor selling octopus on skewers. I took two. There’s also the famous coastal deep fried potatoes served with tamarind. Delicious. Our guides took us round giving us little tips about all the 14th century buildings that are still thriving today. Apparently on the inside the houses can get cold because of the kind of porous stone they used to make them. There wasn’t any cement back then so they’d get the stones from the sea and roast them in a big fire then put them together. I don’t know if I’m explaining it right because I don’t think I fully got it. But that’s what they said.

My thighs were still burning from all the water stuff so we took a break at a little shawarma place and watched the chicken roll around on a spit until it was ready to serve. That was dinner. All I could see around me were exhausted faces laughing at everyone’s lame jokes in true bonding traveller fashion. When we got back on the boat to head back to the hotel I can honestly that in that one moment I was completely and utterly satisfied with the life I’d lived. At least the life that led me to the decision to go there.

Shela Sand Dunes

I wasn’t bummed on this day but it was weighing on me that I was leaving. We all decided to take a little walk to the dunes and get some of that sea breeze. The dunes are perfect for hiking btw if you don’t mind your feet sinking into the sand a little bit. If you do, you could just hug the coastline and have the water lap at your feet to cool them off. There were coconuts washing up on shore that kind of put me in the mind of shrunken heads. The trade winds weren’t strong but you could just feel them tugging at your loose clothes. I was supposed to leave after breakfast so after taking a walk I didn’t really do much. I wrote some stuff in the sand, took a picture of the horizon and stood at this one point where it felt like the rays were bearing down on me and also reflecting up from the sea to catch me from below. In that perfect moment; the phrase that comes to mind now is that the sun literally shines beneath us. Sigh.

Day last – Takwa Ruins (not-so-nervous Nelly edition)

The last day is usually different for everyone. Some live in oblivion while others try to go to the max. After catching the sunrise from Dunes of Shela, we had breakfast and our itinerary looked like going to Manda Jaluo, Takwa Ruins, Manda Beach for the last swim and catching the sunset.

Manda Jaluo is on the coastline of Manda Island. The mangroves are what you would call sun-burnished with leaves float like gold thread on the Indian Ocean. Karis called it “Our little Amazon.” Our guide points to the village settled by the Luo from the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya.

We were lucky enough to have experienced Takwa Ruins, which is part of the National Museums of Kenya. The place was opened just a week before our tour. Lucky break. Once you get off the boat it is a bit of a walk to the island. First, you have to walk along a walkway above the mangroves. Once that bit is done there’s another section of a slightly raised ‘bridge’ above a waterlogged area made of slender sticks. Conservation in this place is quite top notch. Quite an experience too! Who cares about history though? Definitely not everyone. Half the team could have cared less about the dilapidated structures of antiquity while some couldn’t take pictures fast enough. I’m pretty sure someone there wanted to get a notebook out while the guide was talking. Maybe that someone is me.

Takwa ruins are the remains of a thriving 15th and 16th-century Swahili trading town before it was abandoned in the seventeenth century. They abandoned it because of the salination of the once freshwater and endless fighting between the Takwa and Pate people.You got to leave Takwa when the tide is high. Otherwise, you are stuck there till the next day.The lunch was sumptuous, best we had! Who knew chapati would slurp with seasoned fish?

We went back to Manda Beach for a swim. This time, no phones to capture the amazing moments we had. We didn’t even plan that part. It just happened. More laughs, a little less swimming and a little more bonding, and a lot of reminiscing the previous night. I’m just throwing this out there guys; Amarula isn’t chocolate milk despite how gooey delicious they both look. Story for another day. And when Kristen Sarah said, there is an unspoken bond you create with people you travel with, we really felt that! Lamu looked like a far off destination to all of us and here we were normalizing luxury.

Sunset sail hit different this time. We had seen 5 of them but they’ve all got a different sort of charm. You really don’t need to overdo it though. Good vibes and a perfect mix, amazing humans and God’s masterpiece and off we were to Shela island.

Lamu had been good to us! You really have to go. Take my word for it. Take all my words. This is the serious me talking. You need to go and see it yourself. Forever engraved in our hearts. You could see we were all so fulfilled yet sad that reality was awaiting us. Guess that’s why they call it Lamu Tamu. Good News is that we will be going back December 10-14th, for yet another experiential trip. Join us!

Things to remember

“Arch your back!” – Ess

“This (ocean) water is so salty” – Unknown

“The whole of this is water?” – Nelly

“He’s putting the water in the bottle and it’s going in” – Mercy