After an unexpected 48 hour flight delay in Bamako, my boyfriend and I finally made it to Lamu, Kenya on Monday afternoon. When our prop plane touched down at the tiny airstrip on Manda island, I was overwhelmed with relief to have at last arrived at the final destination of our Africa trip.
From the airstrip we piled into a small boat and off we went careening across the channel between Manda and Lamu. We sped towards Lamu Town, then took a sharp turn to the left and continued up along the beach to the smaller town of Shela.
We left the boat at a landing in Shela and followed Balala, one of the staff at our hotel, through some small streets to the Baitil Aman Guesthouse. Lamu island is the oldest settlement in Kenya and is known for having donkeys, not cars, for transportation. As such, all of the dirt roads in the towns are scarcely wider than two people across. First settled by Arabs and later by Africans, walking through Lamu’s towns gives one the impression of being in an enchanted labyrinth as opposed to a modern town.
As soon as we arrived at the guesthouse we were greeted by friendly staff and welcomed with a tall glass of fresh tropical fruit juice. The hotel was set in a historic house, complete with antiques and beautiful wood and metal detailing. It was paradise compared with our previous hotel in Bamako. It was paradise, period.
Our room at the Baitil Aman Guesthouse was on the top floor. We climbed several flights of stairs in the open-air interior courtyard and reached our room, which was enormous. Our bed stood on one side, swaddled comfortably in a breezy white mosquito net, while on the other stood a small day bed. There were windows all along two sides, letting in a wonderful breeze.
The first thing we did after settling in was douse ourselves in sunscreen and head to the beach. One of the reasons we chose to stay in Shela, the smaller of the two main towns on Lamu island, is that it is adjacent to a seven kilometer stretch of pristine sand, complete with dunes, warm sea water, and beautiful views of Manda island across the channel.
After three days of quasi-imprisonment in Mali, we were overjoyed at the opportunity to walk along wide stretch of open sand. We spent several hours meandering beside the waves, stopping occasionally to dip our feet and discovering the likes of sand crabs and cuttlefish.
When we got back from the beach, we stopped at the Peponi, a hotel on the waterfront that is known for being one of the few places on the predominantly Muslim island where one can procure alcohol. Savoring our first glass of wine in days, we sat above the beach for another couple of hours watching the boats go by.
Back at the hotel, we settled into the rooftop restaurant’s soft pillows for a dinner under the stars. Figuring we owed ourselves a good meal after being on the Bamako Diet for three days, we ordered a feast of lobster and crab.
My dish, the Spicy and Hot Crab, was not only the best crab I’ve ever had, but also the biggest. There was more meat on the bright orange crustacean than I’ve ever found on any crab before. My boyfriend’s lobster was equally delicious, and while we would have loved to enjoy some nice wine with our meal, the fresh passion fruit juice wasn’t a bad alternative.
The next morning we ate breakfast in one of the hotel’s historic rooms on the ground floor. The French toast and omelet were as delicious as our dinner from the previous evening, and we left the hotel in serotonin-induced good spirits.
Our plan for the morning was to walk to Lamu Town, the main city on the island. The walk was around four kilometers, and was all along the waterfront. We took it easy on the way there, stopping several times to watch the thousands of tiny one-armed crabs running amok on the beach.
When we arrived in Lamu Town we immediately felt justified in our decision to stay in Shela. While the latter has its share of persistent touts, Lamu Town was overrun with locals selling everything from dhow trips to guided tours of the area.
We ducked down a side street to get away from the hawkers on the waterfront, and found ourselves in a tiny alley similar to those in Shela. There were shops selling everything from handicrafts to vegetables, small hotels and guesthouses with catch-of-the-day specials on their chalkboard menus, and hundreds of donkeys staring doe-eyed into the distance.
We passed the Lamu Fort museum, where the ticket taker entrepreneurially offered to moonlight as our tour guide. Moving on, we came across an indoor meat market that my boyfriend checked out while my inner vegetarian and I mulled around the produce market outside. Further along, we wandered through several more streets until we found ourselves back on the waterfront.
Not feeling the need to spend more time in Lamu Town, we walked back to Shela, stopping again to hang out with the crabs and passing by slow-moving dhows on one side and slow-moving donkeys on the other.
By the time we got back to Shela we were ready for a swim. We headed to the beach, where the water was the perfect escape from the hot sun. After swimming for an hour, we found a spot in the shade to relax for the rest of the afternoon.
We once again headed to the Peponi for sundowners, and at sunset we negotiated with a local for a dhow cruise through the channel. We hopped in the boat and enjoyed an hour and a half of sailing along Lamu island and back along Manda.
As we sailed, our guide pointed out various mansions built by the likes of French movie stars, Lebanese paparazzi, Kofi Annan, the Prince of Hanover, and a Canadian NGO worker (his was actually a tent).
He told us about the island, how he grew up farming on Lamu and Manda, and about where most of the visitors to the island came from. Above all, our guide amused us with his excellent ability to imitate the accents of all of the English-speaking peoples of the world, including Cockney and Californian.
After watching a beautiful sunset from the dhow, we returned to Shela. Back at the hotel I discovered that, despite smothering myself repeatedly in purportedly everything-proof SPF 30, I had gotten terribly sunburned that afternoon.
I drowned my sunburn sorrows in a glass of fresh passion fruit juice as we sat down for another excellent dinner on the roof of the Baitil Aman Guesthouse. My boyfriend had the grilled jumbo prawns and I had a great vegetable curry with coconut rice. We couldn’t resist the temptation to indulge in apple cinnamon crepes for dessert, and we weren’t disappointed.
The following morning was our last in Lamu. We woke up early and ate breakfast in the hotel’s beautiful garden, enjoying fresh fruit and omelets while watching the butterflies float by. We then put on our first clean clothes in five days and headed to the beach for a final walk before our flight from Lamu to Nairobi.
Once again the beach was beautiful. Yielding treasures like perfectly formed nautilus shells, a stately looking camel, and a giant white crab, it entertained us for an hour as we took in the last of Lamu.
Back at the Baitil Aman, we packed our bags, paid our surprisingly low bill (they didn’t even charge us for doing laundry), and hopped on a boat to go back to the airport on Manda island.
Despite an hour delay, our flight back to Nairobi was smooth and we arrived at 4pm with seven and a half hours to kill before our flight to London. We spent some time at an outdoor restaurant in Unit 1 of the Nairobi airport, then checked in for our flight and headed to the BA lounge. Depressingly, there was no Champagne and only vin du table available on the wine front.
After five and a half hours in the stuffy lounge we finally boarded our flight back to London. Since there was no award ticket availability in other classes when we booked, we ended up booking ourselves in First.
Initially I was upset at having to spend 20,000 extra miles for the flight, but after seventeen days away from home, a crazy delay in the middle of the trip, and an interminably long layover in Nairobi, I couldn’t have been happier to head to the nose of the 777, put on my BA PJ’s, sip my Champagne (finally!), and settle in for the flight from Nairobi to London.
After several more glasses of Champagne (and some Claret), I slept like a rock. Nine and a half hours later, my boyfriend and I got off the plane, cleared customs, and headed to the BA arrivals lounge to treat ourselves to breakfast in the Concorde Room. As with our departure meal two and a half weeks before, we tucked into eggs Benedict and the FT, the perfect bookends for our trip to Africa.
Then, at long last, we braved the cold and made our way back home to Hampstead, where we started the process of re-acclimating ourselves to London. While we’re sad that our Africa trip is over and miss Lamu already, we are happy to be home and excited for a big weekend of seeing friends and remembering what rain looks like.