It is advised to fly from the Kenyan city of Malindi when travelling to Lamu Island but with the Land Cruiser we had borrowed from a friend for our cross-country journey it seemed that driving was inevitable. Researching possible safe places to park before flying proved to be futile and we were not comfortable entrusting our friend’s car to the “safety” of the outdoor airport parking lot at Malindi Airport. We understood the safety concerns of driving due to Lamu’s close proximity to the Somalian border and, the chance of encountering bandits or corrupt police on our route was a possibility.
It was a quick and beautiful drive from Funzi Keys Resort on the southeastern coast of Kenya up to the city of Mombasa where Mohammed of Jundan Hotel offered us a room for the night.
Somewhat nervous the next day, (I’d give it a 7/10) we set out early on what we knew could be a precarious adventure. The ride was easy and pleasant to Malindi and we stopped at a store to buy the ingredients for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a familiar comfort to what in my mind could be our last meal. I should point out that this likelihood was incredibly low but I recalled reading over the years about occasional violence on ex-pats in Kenya and so this possibility was definitely on my mind. While we ate we talked a bit about our driving strategy, what we would do if we were stopped at police/military roadblocks, potentially requiring bribes to pass through and how to react if armed bandits stopped the car. I stressed the importance to Matt of not reacting if the bandits were to attack me; easier said than done I know.
Luck was on our side and very little occurred. There were several roadblocks and most of the time we were able to drive through with no problem. When we were stopped the police preferred to speak to me and with my limited Swahili, learned during my visit to Kenya in 1994, I was able to charm our way through. I was once again reminded that in many countries being mixed race often assists me. First, I’d greet in Swahili and we would be greeted in the same. They’d continue in Swahili and we’d laugh as I began speaking English; it definitely eased any potential tension we might have come across.
There were two instances of note. We were told to pull off the road at a police roadblock while en route to Lamu Island and I reminded Matt to keep the car on and turn facing the highway, perfect for a quick escape if necessary, (remembering a show I once saw). Our hearts raced but we quickly realized that we weren’t actually pulled off the road but were in fact waved through. Sometimes nerves can get the best of you! The other was on our return from Lamu when the phone number of a policeman we had befriended came to our aid. He gave it to us suggesting we keep in touch as we travelled and advised us to let no one get into a car, police/military included. We were able to get out of a tricky situation when an armed policeman asked to get into our car at a roadblock and became unhappy when I repeatedly said “no”. Upon the mention of our Kenyan policeman friend we were good to leave.
The last time I had been to Lamu Island was in 1994 and I remember United Nations’ planes flying overhead dropping supplies into Somalia. Little did I know that a movie I was to enjoy later in life, Black Hawk Down, told the story of what I was in some part witnessing in Lamu at that time.
What I remember of my time in 1994 were magical moments with American and Kenyan friends spent at a Unesco World Heritage Site, the oldest Swahili settlement on the east coast of Kenya and an island so far removed from modern-day life that camels and donkeys were the main methods of transportation. We would explore the narrow alleyways, twisting and turning throughout Lamu Old Town and I suffered in the heat as a Muslim family took me into their home, asking me to try on their daughter’s hijab – one where only my eyes were visible. I almost fainted from the heat but it was an interesting experience to say the least. I vowed that one day I would return to Lamu with someone I loved and I have at last crossed that off my bucket list.
While in Lamu Island last October we stayed at an unforgettable hotel, Lamu House, a favourite of the many I have stayed in across the globe. Built along the riverbank it is perfectly situated, close to the center of Lamu Town. I will never forget our time there and if I could architecturally replicate it as my home I surely would. Luxuriously appointed, its design esthetic is spectacular, every corner a surprise whether it be a hidden room, plunge pool, or a magnificent work of ethnic art and carpentry. Like many Lamu homes it was built with a large courtyard filling the inside with natural light, but, at Lamu House this courtyard is a step above with a pool and a deck surrounded by a library, hammock and seating area. Hopefully the photos in my Lamu House post effectively illustrate the accolades it deserves.
The highlights were innumerable during our five days in Lamu. Sailing on a traditional dhow to Lamu House’s relaxing beach club on Manda Island, the hotel itself, working as the sun went down on our private terrace and having our arms decorated with traditional henna painting.
Navigating our way through Lamu Old Town, on our way to market square provided us with endless photo opportunities. Children posed at every chance they got, their happiness shining through their smiles and eyes.
Young boys hoop rolling through the narrow passageways, men pushing through on donkeys and sweet Ruby, a baby monkey I played with in a local shop.
The sweet smell of freshly pressed sugar cane juice permeated the air of the market square and from where we sat watching Lamu life was our simple pleasure of the day.
Trudging our way through low tide mangrove swamp water to a beach where turtles return each year to lay their eggs was incredible. Yet, another item crossed off my bucket list. These magnificent creatures return annually to the same beach where they were born; some swimming from as far away as Madagascar. With unbridled glee we watched baby turtles hatch and safely guided them to the sea protecting them from the clutches of sand crabs waiting for them at the water’s edge. That day I am proud to say we successfully assisted eighty-two baby turtles into the Indian Ocean.
Back in the 1990s Kenya was a popular destination, particularly for safaris, but the beautiful country I once knew fell into serious decline. It has taken some time to climb back and many commendable strides have been made.
We met some of the warmest people in Kenya who helped us on our journey, a pastor looking for his cow in the lion country of the Masai Mara who helped us with our flat tire. There was the policeman who guided us safely, the Torriani family of Funzi Keys who inspired us and the owners of Lamu House whose luxurious accommodations were an unforgettable treat at the end of our trip.
Most importantly, a man we can now call a friend, Mr. James Landon. James and I met at a party in Toronto over 7 years ago and only talked for about half an hour. We became casual Facebook acquaintances and a comment of mine on Facebook led to us staying at a home his company owns in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Furthermore he offered us his Land Cruiser to drive across the country. I shouldn’t be surprised of his incredibly gracious spirit because he is based in Zimbabwe where he is a pilot for the social aid organization Sky Relief. His generosity will never be forgotten and I hope we once again cross paths, wherever that may be.
Kenya is back in business and flying on Ethiopian Airlines‘ eleven-hour direct flight from Toronto to Addis Ababa and the one-hour connecting flight to Nairobi made it easy! If you’re going on a Masai Mara safari, a must do, I’d definitely take advantage of the charter flight arranged by the camps. I also recommend commercial flights when flying to Mombasa and Lamu.
We were sad to say goodbye to such spectacular memories, a luxurious vacation we will never forget in thanks to the generosity of Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp, Funzi Keys and Lamu House. Next, we were off to Paris. Vive La France!
LIFE IS SHORT SO LIVE IT!