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No Cars in Lamu

Describing my experience - a three-day stay in the town of Lamu in the Lamu Archipelago off the south-east coast of Kenya. It's an ancient Swahili bastion that has so far survived the onslaught of modern life.

sunny 25 °C



Even the plane ride from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport to the small airstrip on Manda Island, the getting off point for Lamu is a throwback in time. The plane is a rather ancient twin propeller Beechcraft with only 19 seats, no onboard services, no cabin staff and you can clearly see both the pilots doing their stuff from take-off to landing – the most exciting being when they maneuver for landing and the landing strip seems to sway from side to side thru the cockpit windscreen. Eventually when the plane stops, with one propeller still running, close to the rudimentary airport the co-pilot climbs out of his seat, lowers the door-cum-gangway and announces, “Lamu”.

And thus began an enchanting three days at one of the last bastions of ethnic Swahili towns on Kenya’s south east coast. Lamu town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest town on Lamu Island which in turn is the largest island of the archipelago by the same name in Kenya. We arrived there after a rather hectic week at three of Kenya’s wild life game sanctuaries hoping to wind down and at the same time savor Kenya’s oldest living town’s promises of tradition, market places, dhows, lack of cars, walks thru narrow lanes, Swahili architecture and of course, fresh sea food. We were not disappointed.

Since there are no cars in Lamu, you have to walk 3 minutes from the airstrip to Manda’s jetty and from there get into a dhow for the short sail across the channel to Lamu Island. On the other side Frank was waiting for us as, thanks to high tide, the dhow docked right in front of his hotel – LAMU HOUSE HOTEL – a lovingly restored place by combining two old Swahili houses. Both houses have been renovated and adapted for western-style living, yet at the same time preserve all the charm of traditional Swahili architecture and are designed to satisfy the needs of clients and travelers that choose to stay in the historic centre of Lamu for their business or holiday. After Marianne, Frank’s partner, explained some more about their hotel she showed us to our room. It had a spacious bedroom with a four-poster and a large balcony with arched openings that overlooked the swimming pool. The flooring, walls and ceiling were of limestone with the ceiling embedded with large mangrove poles. And surprisingly for a coastal town in September, only a ceiling fan was enough to satisfy our cooling needs. Since it was already late afternoon, all we did that day was to walk along the channel promenade past the Lamu Museum, the District Commissioner’s office to loosen up after the hour long flight from Nairobi and the long ride from Amboseli National Park before that. The hustle bustle near the main jetty, the dhows coming in after a day’s outing and lowering their mainsails, the donkeys baying in protest at their loads and the children playing with abandon was a great curtain raiser for the more detailed exploration of Lamu’s inner delights that we had planned the next day. Dinner was at the hotel’s rather charming restaurant perched high enough above the promenade to look directly onto the channel. The night’s boat traffic and the blinking navigational lights of the buoys provide a quiet backdrop to a sumptuous meal of fresh sea food.
We were somewhat apprehensive the next day when we began our walk thru Lamu wondering whether the humidity and the sun would prevent us from enjoying it as much as we would have liked. However, the narrow lanes and the closely built buildings with walls of coral-rock blocks close together ensured that the weather remained quite tolerable. Frank had organized the services of Mahmood, a local guide, and with him we dived into Lamu’s insides.

Lamu has a rich and colorful history. The town was one of the original string of Swahili settlements that stretched from Somalia to Mozambique. It remained a thriving port town through the turbulent Portuguese invasions and later the Omani domination of the 17th century. Lamu had a slave-based economy until the turn of the 20th century. When slavery was abolished in 1907 the economy of the island suffered greatly. Only recently has the influx of tourist dollars revitalized the town’s growth.

The town itself appears frozen in time even now, although at places you can see a few buildings that have been bought and renovated by affluent Europeans as private residences. In deference to the tourists there are also a lot of shops selling stuff that tourists normally purchase. The narrow, winding streets accommodate only pedestrian or donkey traffic. The population of Lamu remains almost exclusively Muslim. Men still wear full length robes known as khanzus with kofia caps while women cover themselves in the hijaab common in other Islamic cultures. When we took photos we had to be careful not to include women in hijaab in our frames in order not to offend them. Although now quite far and few between, buildings with the traditional coral-rock material still do exist and to us they made a very pretty sight. Another aspect that was particularly attractive was the numerous styles of heavy and ornamental wooden doors with elaborately carved frames. Finally I would be failing if I didn’t point out the buildings sporting wooden balconies some of which overhung the lanes below – definitely a throwback to the days in India when these were common in Chandni Chowk in Delhi or Girgaum in Mumbai.

Just as we thought we had seen all there was to see in the narrow lane that we were walking thru suddenly opened into a large town square bang opposite the fort. As it was the day before the last day of Ramadaan, the square, that doubled as a market place was full of people of every sort engaged in everything from selling to lounging around and chatting. It was fascinating to see how the women using just a knife were able to produce thin strips ‘noodles’ out of papayas and shred spinach to such a fine degree. The fort itself does not offer much to see and is best admired from outside. There is a 500 shilling fee to go in but there is nothing but local government offices inside. It was built in the early 19th century by the Omanis when they dominated the region to protect themselves from the locals. On the way back to the hotel from the fort we dropped by at the Lamu Museum where a few more details of Swahili culture, tradition and the way of life is on display. The District Commissioner’s Office is next door – parked outside was the only car permitted on Lamu Island.

In the afternoon we went by dhow to the island of Manda to see the Takwa ruins. The route was thru thick mangrove channels that cut the island into many slices. It was a great experience to be powered solely by wind and to see how Fareed, the dhow owner, manipulated the rudder and the sail as the wind changed speed and direction. As the dhow sliced thru the water, it banked steeply from time to time and brought back memories of being capsized when I was attempting to learn sailing. But Fareed was a much better sailor that I was and we safely arrived at the mangrove pole bridge that served as a jetty for the ruins. There is not much to see at Takwa but the use coral-rock as a building material and how it is prepared can be seen. We also admired the giant Baobab trees that were growing amidst the ruins. The story is that Takwa was never a large place and it was set up around 1500 and abandoned around 1700 because the drinking water turned brackish.

Shela is Lamu’s richer cousin and is located at the southern tip of the island. A motor boat can take you from Lamu to Shela in 5 mins while a dhow with a sail will take a little longer. You can even walk along the channel to Shela from Lamu and we saw many people do that when during our trip. While Lamu retains the rustic charm to a large extent Shela has been almost completely taken over by foreigners who have restored several old buildings that are now chic boutique hotels. Consequently accommodation and food is significantly expensive. All the same it is a worthwhile trip if only for the great views of the town from the dhow as you approach it and also the way some of the buildings have been reconstituted into hotels. A walk thru the lanes is also recommended but there are some steep slopes to negotiate. The upside is the view of the Indian Ocean and the channel and a unique white-washed mosque with a tapering tower as a minaret. Peponi’s serves some good food and drinks and if you have the time we recommend that you try it out too.

By the time we got back to Lamu House Hotel there was just enough time to have a quick lunch head across the channel to the airport for our flight back to Nairobi. Although there was an x-ray machine and a walk-thru metal detector, security check was, “Hope you haven’t got any knives, etc in your hand luggage?”! Laid back security for a laid back vacation – the way it should be.

Lamu is perhaps not a place that you would go to all the way from India but it is a great option to combine with a safari holiday. It’s not too far away and there are several daily flights daily from Nairobi and Mombasa. It would be ideal to end your safari at a park near Mombasa and then take one of the flights from there. Driving or travel by road is not recommended.

I don’t want to end this on a pessimistic note but I read on my return to India that the Chinese are planning to build a port at Lamu to transport oil from the Southern Sudan region to China. I hope that this project will be located in an area away from Lamu town and also protect the pristine nature of the region. In any case, I hope to one day to return to Lamu before it changes for good.

Photos - http://www.flickr.com/photos/nileshkorgaokar/sets/72157625163387160/

Fact File

Time Zone – GMT +2

International Dialing Code - +254

Exchange Rate – 1 US$ = 80 Kenyan Shillings (approximately)

Getting There – Kenya Airways www.kenya-airways.com/home/ operates daily from Mumbai to Nairobi. From any other city, Emirates (www.emirates.com/in) is a good choice as they operate from several Indian cities and have daily connections to Nairobi. From Nairobi to Lamu and back there are several options – 540 Aviation (www.fly540.com), Safari Link (www.flysafarilink.com), Air Kenya (www.flysafarilink.com/). While 540 Aviation and Safari Link operate from Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Air Kenya operates from Wilson airport. From Mombasa to Lamu Mombasa Air Safari (www.mombasaairsafari.com) is the only option.

When to Go – May to Jul are the months when most rainfall occurs. For a detailed matrix on temperatures in Lamu visit http://www.climate-zone.com/climate/kenya/celsius/lamu.htm

Visas – Indians require a visa PRIOR to travel. The Kenyan High Commission in New Delhi located at E-66 VASANT MARG, NEW DELHI, 10057, issues visas for a fee of approximately ` 1500. No interview is required and it is best to apply for the visa thru a reputed travel agent even if you are located in Delhi. Website - http://kenyamission-delhi.com/ (doesn’t always work!)

Yellow Fever Vaccination – As with any travel to Africa Yellow Fever vaccination is also required and must be submitted along with the visa application. This vaccination is available only at some selected government hospitals or facilities. Try googling “yellow fever vaccination <city>” or ask your local doctor.

Accommodation – We stayed at the Lamu House Hotel (http://www.lamuhouse.com/) and found it entirely satisfactory in terms of location, accessibility, comfort and food. There are other hotels, hostels and lodges and they can be found on the internet. The Lamu House’s advantage is that it is located on the channel promenade and is more open than some of the others that are located inside the town and consequently lack space and views. If you decide to stay at Shela then the Peopni Hotel (http://www.peponi-lamu.com/) is recommended amongst the others that are also available. Keep in mind that accommodation in Shela is likely to be more expensive than Lamu town. Talk directly to the hotels for rates or if you’re combining your holiday with a safari tour, then ask your safari tour operator to negotiate a combined rate for you.

Food – Normally Breakfast should be included in your room rent. For other meals we recommend that you ask the restaurant what is the “catch of the day” and go for it in the way you prefer it to be prepared. Chicken and Lamb are got from Nairobi and sea food would be the preferred option. For vegetarians it’s likely to be a bit difficult but ask the chef or the restaurant manager for options.

What to Do/See – A walk thru Lamu’s inner streets with a knowledgeable English speaking guide is a must. Take time to stop and appreciate the entrances with their ornate doors to the older residences that still exist as well as the renovated buildings now being used as private residences by Europeans. Notice how some of the newer buildings have tried to give the appearance of coral-rock walls by using it only as an outer layer. Stop by at the Town Square in front of the Fort for a breather and then interact with the people who have set up shop. Observe the way the women use the knife to slice papayas and shred spinach. Our last day happened to be Eid and we were fortunate to also be witness a dhow race right in front of our hotel. It is also possible to go snorkeling in the channel from December to April when North East Trade winds bring in the calm and clear waters. Dhow trips with a group of like minded people to appreciate the sunset or to dine together can also be organized. Some hotels can also organize deep-sea fishing or simply fishing from a dhow.

Posted by nilesh 06:15 Archived in Kenya Tagged kenya lamu shela lamu_town lamu_island swahili shela_town island_holiday east_africa Comments (0)

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