I am running late. Ethiopian Airlines flight ET801 from Addis-Ababa to Nairobi went from “delayed” to evaporation. I miss a vital connection. Now, barring further screw-ups, I will have a mere 30 minutes to make it from the airport to the wedding.
In a moment of madness I accepted an invitation to my nephew’s wedding. It is to be held on an unnamed beach near remote Lamu Island off Kenya’s northeast coast. My sister has rented a mansion with no street address or phone number. When the groom’s cell phone falls into a swimming pool, all means of communication are lost. I am on my own.
I anxiously search the Air Kenya 12-seater Cessna Caravan for a stray wedding guest and spot a stressed young woman, white-knuckling a silk dress in a drycleaner’s bag. Things are looking up.
The plane drops down over a thin strip of the Indian Ocean before landing at tiny Manda Island airport — Gateway to the Lamu Archipelago.
After a quick change in the washroom, I follow my new best friend and her husband to the dock into a waiting panga. Luckily a European wedding is a big deal here and we are soon barefooting it over a perfect white sand beach, in lockstep with the minister, onto makeshift pews.
The Lamu Archipelago, a collection of sandbar islands, has a history going back to the 14th century. Lamu town, Kenya’s oldest continuously populated community, provided a convenient port for Arab slave and spice traders. Ruling Portuguese, followed by Omanis, helped to expand local bloodlines. The population remains largely Muslim.
Hippies were the first tourists to be drawn to miles of pristine empty white sand beaches, the oh so warm azure sea and a cheap cool lifestyle, followed by backpackers.
Elitists came later — A few of them anyway. A couple of miles along the beach in Shela village, some of the world’s rich and famous, such as Ralph Lauren, built stunning villas which are often available for rent when owners are absent. My sister has found one. The Greenwell House comes fully furnished and fully staffed — including an armed guard. Spitting distance from the bride and groom’s temporary residence which belongs to Princess Caroline of Monaco.
“Who is Mary Greenwell?” I ask naively. Turns out she is the make-up artist who changes ordinary women into stars with a few strokes of the mascara brush. Think Kate Moss, Lady Di, Vogue Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, Vanity Fair. I reassess my wrinkles in the bathroom mirror.
It’s a simple life. “Do we want to dine in?” In which case Benny, the kindly chap who serves breakfast every morning, will shop for the cook. “Would lobster fit the bill?” Laundry? No problem. It can be discreetly dealt with by William, who launders the sheets and towels on a daily basis. What’s an extra pair of Y-Fronts and a few t-shirts?
I awake to the muezzin’s morning call to prayer and a cacophony of braying donkeys outside my glassless lattice-work window. After breakfast I take a few steps to the beach for a swim and return friendly nods and “jambos” (hellos) to locals busy setting up fruit stalls and T-shirt displays along the alleys.
There are no roads on the island. Goods and people are moved on donkeys — There are reputedly 2,000 on an island of 25,000 people — or in dhows (traditional locally-built sail boats). Rich tourists can, of course, rent speedboats.
In 2001 UNESCO judged Lamu town, where most of the staff opt for cheaper digs, to be the best preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa and awarded it Unesco World Heritage status.
I set out on the one-hour walk along a narrow seaside path shared with donkey trains transporting sand, coral stone, cooking oil and people.
I share friendly “jambos” with women in burquas, men in colourful kikoys (sarongs) and cheeky schoolboys wearing purple uniforms and white kofias (Muslim caps).
The downtown waterfront is straight from biblical times. Porters wade out to beached dhows, and return with baskets of spices, bags of cement, mangrove logs — all under the eagle eyes of a fierce lady in a black chador who keeps track with a pen and notepad.
Yellow containers of cooking oil are tightly arranged along the road like soldiers on parade. Donkeys and their owners line-up in the shade waiting for a delivery job.
The commercial area is a block away from the seafront. Lanes are barely wide enough for two bicycles or two donkeys to pass. Behind the carved doors everything you need is available: from bananas to bandannas; silver to gold; hammers to fridges — though the town generator has a less than stellar reputation.
Shop owners are generally found sitting or sleeping at huge paper filled wooden desks beside the door. A good spot to greet customers and to grab non-payers.
The central square is the town’s focal point. A place to chill out with friends on a bench under the Acacia tree. Political rallies are held here. The museum showcasing Swahili history is next door to the Internet cafe. Try some fruit salad from a vendor whose cigarette ash looks ready to fall into the mix but mind the droppings left behind by wandering goats and donkeys.
To be fair Lamu town is more than a bit run down. Garbage and open sewers don’t help but there is still a gritty African charm to the place. There is also a good supply of simple, reasonably-priced guesthouses, hotels and restaurants.
It’s a good way from swimmable beaches and Chinese interests have plans for building a serious port here but the village of Shela is a dreamer’s paradise that you will never want to leave. After a couple of sundowners at Peponi Hotel’s congenial waterfront bar, favoured by the likes of Paul Allen, Jerry Hall and Sting, you will soon be planning your own dream wedding here.
If you go:
Getting there: There are regular flights with Safari Link and Air Kenya from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport that land on Manda Island. A panga (small open boat) will ferry you to your chosen destination.
Where to stay: For a gritty experience, Lamu town is well supplied with accommodation to suit all price ranges.
In Shela: Peponi Hotel with an excellent restaurant and happening bar has been around for 45 years (peponi-lamu.com).
Houses to rent: www.swahilisands.com – off-season group rates make this an affordable option.
Author’s note: This is a great place to begin or end a safari in Kenya’s Masai-Mara.
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