Kenyan Coast

We left Lamu behind with mixed feelings. We had enjoyed our time there despite the noise and filth of the town, but the ‘incident’ had left us with a bad taste in our mouths and we were now headed to the Kenyan mainland coast.

As we waited for our plane, we scanned our phones searching for hotels and AirBnBs that were vacant, and close to our housesit, which was due to start in a weeks’ time. We settled on an apartment, overlooking the ocean. It looked spacious and airy and wasn’t too expensive. We booked and were told to make our way there and ask for ‘Queen’. The flight was uneventful, many people staying on board to head to Nairobi and we arrived at Mombasa airport, collected our bags and called an Uber. As we exited the airport and drove through Mombasa, the driver advised that as we were paying by credit card, he would take us to a particular spot in Mombasa, where we would pay through the Uber app, and then from that point to our destination he needed to be paid in cash, the same as what Uber would charge, because he would have to stop and get gas. He did not have any money and so our cash fare would pay for the gas to get us to our destination. Such are the daily trials of an Uber driver in Africa; hardly enough money to conduct business.  The drive through the city was hectic as expected, with many of the roads being repaired, and a new tunnel being built to cross to the mainland from the city, which was situated on an island. There was only one road out to the north east and the coast,  which continued on to Somalia, and we joined the snake of traffic heading north through the suburbs of Mombasa. There seemed to be fewer corrugated homes here, with concrete apartment blocks and large villas dotted along the coastline. We passed quite a few resorts, this area being the weekend getaway for the city dwellers of Nairobi.

We arrived at our apartment block which was just across the creek from where we would be housesitting, so we thought we would be able to scout out the area beforehand. Queen, a buxom, cheery Kenyan welcomed us enthusiastically. She was a vivacious character, laughing and talking non-stop about the wonderful apartment we had rented. The block would have been luxurious in its heyday, and as we had come to realize, nothing in Kenya was ever maintained, just allowed to fall into disrepair until it eventually had to be demolished or completely overhauled. She eagerly showed us around. The pool was huge, and overlooked the beach and the beautiful Indian Ocean. There was a small café/kitchen where we could order meals and have them brought to the apartment if needed, which was fortunate, as we didn’t have any supplies and would need to take a trip to the supermarket, which we  had passed on the way. The apartment was certainly spacious, had a huge veranda where we could sit and gaze out over the ocean, minimal furniture and a kitchen that was barely functional. No coffee machine, but it did have a kettle. Once again just enough cutlery to eat one meal. We unpacked and told Queen that we would need to go to the supermarket. She said she was going that way so would come with us. She also told us that the water was being ‘looked at’ as there seemed to be a drain blockage somewhere, but not to worry as they were working on it! It seemed like water and plumbing problems were following us around the country! A young girl was assigned to us to help with anything we needed, but after she had finished cleaning the kitchen we excused her and she left. We met Queen at the reception to go to the store and had assumed that as she said she was going that way, that she would be driving. She advised we had to call an Uber, and after a few minutes we all piled into a small car and set off on our shopping trip. Queen sat in the front, talking on her phone constantly until we reached the mall. We found Carrefour and started to gather our supplies, with Queen in tow, still on her phone. She followed us around, and the constant tattle of her voice began to grate on us. Shopping done, we saw a  coffee shop that looked like it had been dropped in the mall straight from the center of Paris and stopped for an amazing double cappuccino and decided this would be a regular place for us to visit. Another Uber drove us all back to the apartment, Queen still talking on her phone, and we ordered some food from the kitchen. We were tired after our hectic day and couldn’t face tackling the kitchen and dealing with the lack of equipment. We save that adventure until tomorrow. We sat on the veranda, listening to the rush of the ocean, sipping G&Ts and reflected on our journey so far. Many adventures, most of them amazing, some good, others downright frustrating; but what a trip! We turned on the A/C, which was great in the humid climate, and went to bed. The bed was hard, but comfy, the room cavernous and cool with white walls and tiled floors, and we drifted off to sleep feeling happy and safe.

The next morning we awoke and planned to explore the beach and venture into the kitchen to see if we could rustle up something for dinner that night. A trip to the bathroom alerted us that there was no water! I couldn’t believe it; everywhere we had been in Kenya, the water was always a problem; either cold, no pressure, dirty, contaminated, or just none at all! We called Queen and she immediately had someone on it! Not being able to wash or shower,  we decided to explore the beach and pool area, but on reaching the steps to the beach we found it to be high tide and would have to wait a few hours before the beach revealed itself and we could take a wander and explore. We strolled around the resort, the pool was closed for cleaning, read a little, checked email and news on our phones and after a couple of hours checked on the water situation. Queen advised that the plumbers were there, but had not fixed the problem. She advised that if the problem was not rectified by 12 noon, then she would move us to another apartment in another block. We asked to see pictures…we didn’t want to agree to go into another apartment without some information.  She sent us pictures, assured us it was an ‘amazing’ apartment and that we were ‘gonna love it!’ It wasn’t on the beach, but it was within walking distance to a local beach and some resorts.  It looked okay, and we prepared ourselves to pack for a third time in as many days. This was beginning to get old!

The water was not forthcoming so, once again, we packed and once again we called an Uber and set off with Netty, the house girl, to our new accommodations. It turned out that the block was about half a mile from the supermarket we had visited and the coffee shop we had enjoyed, so that was a plus. The apartment itself was once again, huge. Many windows, 4 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms, living room, kitchen and a small balcony. Unfortunately it was on the first floor, overlooking the guardhouse and front gate, no view of the ocean, just the dusty road outside and the building site next door. The kitchen was huge, but the cooker was very small, as was the fridge and many of the cupboard doors were warped and falling off. We checked the water – it was running! The bathroom was huge, again with an enormous jaccuzzi bathtub which I’m sure would never be used as there was never enough water to fill it. We unpacked again, and moved a few things around so we could enjoy the breeze coming off the ocean and onto the balcony. There was AC in the bedroom again so we were grateful for that. We showered and cleaned our teeth and felt human once more. Netty was once again assigned to us to help with anything we needed, but we didn’t feel comfortable with her hanging around to assist at every move, so we just agreed that she could come into the apartment once a day to clean and do dishes.

We spent the next week walking to the beach and exploring the area. We found a nice, local café on the beach; really a wooden hut with pretty blue rattan chairs stuck in the sand with a canopy for shade hanging above us. The coffee was very good and we would sit and sip away, watching the fishermen out on the reef collecting the days’ catch, observing the women who walked along the beach with buckets of watermelon and bottles of water elegantly balanced on their heads, others sitting on plastic buckets waiting for the fishermen to come in with their catch, which they would then clean and gut and the women would take away in their buckets to sell to local restaurants, cafes and shops. We walked further down the beach and spotted a couple of resorts that we would visit in the coming days, enjoying a cocktail high on the cliff edge watching the kite surfers speeding along the clear turquoise waters in the strong, steady wind. We found a nice restaurant further up the coast, and took a tuk tuk there for lunch. The salad and fish were very well presented and it was right on the beach. We could order a carafe of wine and we sat for a very long lunch, watching the ocean and the beach activities. We visited this restaurant several times, each time enjoying the food, scenery and comings and goings of the local beach hawkers. There were camels sitting down on their knobbly knees, chewing the cud, waiting for the next customer. Unfortunately there weren’t many and each time we ventured onto the beach we were accosted by boat captains eager to take us out to the reef, hawkers of ornaments and carvings, sellers of sarongs and beachwear and anyone else who was desperate to make a dollar or two for the day.  We did take a trip on a glass bottomed boat one day, out to the reef. Marcel swam with the fishes along the coral reef, much of it dead, but there was a wide variety of fish. The reef is a Marine Park, but I doubt there’s a lot of money assigned to it to make an impact on the conservation of the coral. After the swim the young captain took us to the sand bank which was about a mile offshore and we walked across the sand and explored the many rock pools, spotting moray eels, sea urchins, small fish, elegant lacy starfish and James the captain found a beautiful red starfish. If I had not held this and felt the tentacles beneath moving on my hand I would have said it was fake, made of pale pottery and painted on the edges with bright red paint. It looked unreal, but it definitely was a beautiful specimen. Standing close to the crashing, thundering waves as they hit the reef and sandbank was a thrilling experience. The noise of the surf, the expanse of the ocean and the vastness of the brilliant gentian sky was breathtaking in the golden sunlight of the afternoon. Soon it was time to go and the boat met us at a sandy spot, just in time, as the incoming tide washed over the reef and the sand.  As we headed towards the shore, I looked back, the sand and rock pools now drowned by the powerful swell of the ocean. These guys timed it to the very last wave.

We decided to go to Mtwapa, the town where we would be housesitting, to explore the area and see if we could get our bearings before we arrived there. We had become used to using the small tuk tuks for transport. They were three wheeler vehicles, with a small engine and steered like a motorbike. They had windshields and were covered and usually only carried two people. We enjoyed taking these, they were open, sometimes a little scary as the other traffic tended to cut them off at every opportunity, but the drivers were adept at swerving and they really only traveled at about 35 miles an hour. We took a tuk tuk to a small café in the town, and then walked the streets to see what was about. Our first impression of the town was ‘chaos’. There were trucks, buses, matatus, tuk tuks, cars, boda bodas, lorries, all jostling for a position on the main road, waiting for the next fare. We turned off into the town and found the café, had a cup of disappointingly weak coffee and then proceeded to walk back through the town to the main road. Once again, no paths, dust and rubble, although the road was tarmacked. All the stores were again small and dark, selling everything you could ever need. Cereals were advertised alongside fabrics, spices alongside gas bottles, clothes alongside vegetables. Again our senses were on high alert, dodging the potholes, traffic, goods and wares set out in front of the stores, people, goats and trash. This street was to become our local shopping area during our housesit.  We came to the main road and we were immediately bombarded by guys wanting to take us to Mombasa by matatu, or the boda bodas and tuk tuks offering the best price to go to Nyali. We commandeered one of the tuk tuks to take us to the small shopping mall just north of the town as we wanted to see what it had to offer. However, when we arrived there we learned that the supermarket had been closed for some months. With no other stores that were of interest to us, we asked the driver if he could take us to the nearest beach, thinking we could explore and find a place to eat. He said it was quite far, but he could take us. It didn’t look too far on Google maps, so off we went. It wasn’t that it was far, it was all on unmarked, unpaved roads. It was off-roading on a moped! We crashed and jolted across rocky roads with small wooden shacks dotted here an there, tiny kiosk shops servicing the local township, derelict areas where goats and chickens roamed and trash piles that seemed to crop up unexpectedly around corners. Eventually, when we thought we were almost there, the driver pulled over to a small wooden hut and asked a couple of children the way to the beach. They obviously knew where it was but couldn’t articulate to him how to get there, so one of them, the eldest, who was probably only 7 years’ old, jumped in the tuk tuk with us and showed him the way. We arrived at the coast, high on a cliff top, and the driver escorted us to a set of very old steep, stone, steps which led to a small sandy beach. He advised that this beach was called Vingazini Beach (Beach of many steps). He advised that we could walk up the beach, as long as the tide was out. The young boy had run off and we paid the driver, thanking him for the ride. Had we known how arduous it was for him to get us here, we would not have asked him and I wondered if his tuk tuk would make the journey back without losing a part. But here we were, safely at the destination we had asked for and so he left. While tentatively navigating the steps and picking our way through rock pools along the beach while the tide was out, we both secretly wondered where the heck we were going, and how would we get back? When was the tide due in? We wandered, explored some of the rock pools, looked out at the frothy reef and after a while we turned a corner and saw a larger longer beach stretching out before us. We were hopeful there was a café close by, now ready for lunch and a loo! We came upon a few thatched roofs with tables underneath and a larger covered area with chairs and tables and were pleased to see that this was a restaurant. We ventured back up the beach and a young Kenyan lady greeted us. Her polo shirt stated that this was the Monsoon Restaurant. Jackpot! We had read about this restaurant online, and its rave reviews and it was on our list to visit when we started the housesit. Earlier than we had anticipated our visit to this restaurant was well worth the unexpected journey. We spent a lovely two hours eating the freshest and best cooked seafood we had had since being in Kenya. Grilled jumbo prawns for me and grilled red snapper for marcel, sharing octopus salad for starters and a tiramisu for desert. A bottle of wine washed it down nicely and as we sat looking out across the ocean, we saw the tide turning.

We paid the bill, probably the most expensive meal we had had, but still not overpriced, and really good food. There was no internet available so we couldn’t call an Uber, the tide was coming in so we couldn’t walk back along the beach; not that we would want to go back the way we came! So we headed inland through the Jumba ruins, where there was a wedding in progress, in the hope of finding a tuk tuk or calling an Uber. We were in luck! There was a tuk tuk just outside the ruins, and the driver was very happy to take us back to Nyali, the 10 kilometers being a good fare for him. It was only when we were almost halfway home, and realizing that he had been taking several calls on his phone during the journey, that we thought he might have been part of the wedding party and maybe this was the bride or groom calling him to get is arse back there, the wedding almost over! Not sure, but he certainly gunned it to our apartment.

As we took our daily walks along the beaches, we would come across holiday resorts that were closed down due to COVID. It was haunting to see the deterioration of these places after only almost one year of no business, no customers and therefore no maintenance. Sometimes it felt like we were walking on the beach after an apocalyptic event. Sometimes a ghostly figure would be standing against the crumbling pillars of a balcony, once graced by flowerpots and the rich and famous. These figures were dressed in rags, probably camping out in these empty shells, the stone structure offering better shelter than the jerrybuilt corrugated huts called home. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were seeing Kenya in the time of COVID and that in normal times perhaps it wasn’t as unkempt, derelict and desperate as we were seeing it now.

We kept ourselves busy with shopping, walking the beach, reading, writing and the days flew by. Soon we were packing again to start our housesit. Queen, always around, sitting in the parking lot which I suggested was her office, watching the comings and goings of the residents in the block, said a loud and hearty goodbye and hoped we’d be back. Bags loaded in the Uber, a tuk tuk not suitable for all our baggage, we waved to all the staff we had come to know over the week and looked forward to our new digs and the last leg of our amazing journey!

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