If you’re thinking of exploring Kenya’s famous Indian Ocean coastline aboard an ocean-going dhow, you won’t be the first to do so. The earliest report of such a trip was written in the 1st century and describes how the triangular lateen sails of these hardy ships harnessed the soft breath of the monsoon winds to waft them south from Arabia and into the ‘Lands of Zinj’.
Two thousand years later, they do so still.
Meanwhile, in the simple seafront shipyards, where the sails are still stitched by hand and the hulls embellished with the ageless talisman of the ‘evil eye’, the ancient art of shipbuilding continues unchanged since biblical times. Noah’s ark, it seems, was a dhow; King Solomon’s apes and peacocks were shipped by dhow: so were the frankincense and myrrh offered by the three kings to the infant Jesus. Even the leopards, eunuchs, lions and ‘singing boys’ beloved by the Romans – all were carried by dhow.
As a historical odyssey, this 250-kilometre coastal journey is unrivalled. It begins in the lyrically beautiful Lamu Archipelago where you can visit Manda, one of Africa’s earliest trading centres. Built in the 9th century, Manda was famed for its import of Islamic pottery and Chinese porcelain. Drifting on to the ancient harbour of Lamu, you can disembark to wander the winding lanes of the Old Town. Donkeys are the only form of transport here and the air rings to the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to their prayers. As evening falls, you can take a camel safari up into the vast sweep of sand dunes behind the town and watch the sun go down over the blind-eyed cannons still staring out to sea.
Journeying south, either by dhow or by more modern means, in bustling Malindi you can walk to the stark white tower built to celebrate the arrival in 1498 of the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da-Gama. Just outside the idyllic coastal hideaway of Watamu, you can explore the ruins of the 13th century town of Gede. A place of mystery, it is reputedly haunted by the ghosts of those who were forced to flee the shelter of its walls in the face of attack from cannibalistic hordes.