Indian Ocean Blues
Mombasa is everything that Nairobi is not. At nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, Nairobi’s air is champagne clear and every breath seems to fill you with energy. In Mombasa you’re enveloped in a warm, humid, sometimes spice-scented blanket; and the temptation to lie down and luxuriate in it is overwhelming. In Nairobi everyone seems to be rushing to get somewhere or do something. In Mombasa nobody rushes. And everyone seems languidly content to remain exactly where they are. In Nairobi, the call of the wilderness is strong: there’s an underlying urge to get out and get on with the safari. In Mombasa, the Indian Ocean rules supreme. Its impossibly clear, warm, blue waters; silver sands and waving palms encircle the island. And the only call is that of the beach; or the blessed shade of the coconut palm.
Mombasa beaches… and beyond
Protected by its own barrier reef, the Kenyan coastline rolls serenely north of Mombasa via the endless beaches of Bamburi, into the quaintly pretty Kilifi Creek, and on up to the lazy languor of Watamu, Malindi and Lamu. To the south, it swings through the magnificent crescent of Diani Beach and on down to the Tanzanian border. For much of its journey, the Kenyan coastline is backed only by waving coconut palms. Occasionally it is punctuated by the bustle and brilliance of hotels, beach bars, camels and skittering kite surfers; sometimes by the coral-grey ruins of an ancient Swahili settlement; sometimes by a buttress of bulbous baobab trees; sometimes by a deserted mosque. Behind the southern beaches, though, rise the elephant patrolled woodlands of the Shimba Hills: behind the northern beaches the red-dust reaches of Tsavo East National Park. But above all, the Indian Ocean coastline is a journey: from past to present and from holiday paradise to pristine wilderness.
Swahili cuisine prevails on the coast, a glorious mix of spices, coconut, tamarind, fresh chopped herbs and chilli. Easily Mombasa’s most famous restaurant is The Tamarind, which excels in fish and runs The Tamarind Dhow, a Swahili sailing ship that tours the harbour for lunch and dinner (all meals and cocktails on board). Best ‘on-the-street food’ includes freshly cooked samosas and cassava crisps fried in old oil drums outside Fort Jesus, best eaten hot with fresh lime juice and a sprinkling of chilli powder.
A century ago…
This is what Mombasa harbour would have looked like when Dr and Mrs Boedeker arrived in 1896. She was a member of the British aristocracy, he was a Parsee from India, and they had left England to escape the condemnation of what was then considered a ‘scandalous marriage’. She was beautiful, he was a brilliant doctor and they had fallen deeply in love. Now they planned to make a life ‘somewhere in Africa.’ Her luggage contained velvet gowns, ostrich-feather trimmed hats and exquisite lace; he carried a plough. It took them six weeks, but they walked from Mombasa to Nairobi. When they arrived, having traversed nearly 500 kms of wilderness alive with lions, elephants and every other form of wildlife, their clothes were ripped to pieces and they were coated head to foot in heavy red dust. The Boedekers did, however, make a life for themselves in Kenya where she raised the family, always impeccably dressed, and he practiced as a doctor, sometimes using a railway carriage as an operating theatre.
Mombasa must see
Heading the hit list is the magnificent 16th century Fort Jesus, a red-streaked Portuguese bastion that broods, blind-eyed over the harbour and boasts a hauntingly tragic and bloody history. Next up is a walk around the Old Town, which echoes that of Lamu and Zanzibar. Dating from the 13th century it’s a place of winding streets, magnificent carved doors, delicate filigree balconies and dimly lit emporiums. There are also six magnificent mosques to be admired before taking a wander around the Old Dhow Harbour, where numerous traditional dhows bob on their anchors and sleek white cats prowl (the old fish market stands next door and is still functioning).