East African Adventure: Mombasa, Kenya

In December 2012, my fiance and I embarked on a mini adventure of a lifetime. We had been invited to stay with his family in Mombasa, Kenya for two weeks over New Year’s Eve, and I was beyond excited. I couldn’t wait to see the city where he had grown up – I’d heard so much about the all-embracing humidity, the thick groves of palm trees, the monkeys that would visit the garden, and the pristine white sands of Diani Beach.

Mombasa, Kenya
Mombasa, Kenya

It was quite an adventure simply getting there – we flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg, then Joburg to Addis Ababa, then from Addis to Dar es Salaam, and finally Dar es Salaam to Mombasa. I was incredibly fortunate to have business class tickets for one of the flights, as my father had spare air miles for Ethiopian Airways, and I waved good bye to Marco as I went to take up my seat in the front on our Joburg to Addis flight. We flew all night, so there wasn’t much to do besides entertain ourselves with movies.

Flying in style! Red wine, snacks, and the starter meal.
Flying in style! Red wine, snacks, movies, and the starter meal.

Business class was simply amazing!  I spent a few very pleasant hours watching movies with some red wine, and the food was divine. I was incredibly fortunate to fly business class in one of the Ethiopian Boeing 787 Dream Liners before they were recalled – such a pity, as they are truly amazing planes. Instead of window shutters, they have electric window polarizers!

We were utterly exhausted when we boarded our final flight, Dar es Salaam to Mombasa. It was a small propeller plane, and I admit I was a bit scared! We landed without incident, and suddenly my fatigue drained away. We had arrived!

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The humid air was like a playful slap in the face – visceral, refreshing, and a bit of a shock. I walked down the airplane steps slowly, breathing deeply. It was sunrise, and the sky was a mixture of peach, violet, and streaked with pink. We entered the airport terminal with a huge amount of Italian tourists, and waited for what seemed like AGES in the heat (no air conditioning in Mombasa airport, only curious birds).

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In the queue to enter Mombasa. South Africans don’t need a visa when visiting for less than 30 days!

Our taxi driver was waiting for us, and greeted us warmly. We started the long car ride to Diani Beach, with the windows rolled down and the noises and smells of the awakening town filling the car. Closing my eyes now I can still see the strange tropical trees in all shades of green, the houses built in part with lumps of coral, and I can smell the burning tires, the sickly sweet tropical flowers, the fuel of the numerous cars, motorcycles and tuk-tuks speeding around.

People were out and about, on their way to work – walking, cycling, boarding the ferry, etc. Animals milled around – goats, chickens, stray dogs, and the odd rat scurrying out of the road. The vibrancy of Mombasa is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s an organic being -present, raw, real, and it sucks you in. Crossing the water by ferry, we looked on in amazement as hundreds of people packed onto the decks above, standing shoulder to shoulder, patient on their morning commute.

We finally reached our accommodation – a villa rented by Marco’s family, right by the sea. We bade our taxi driver farewell and walked into paradise.

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I was utterly overwhelmed by the lush vegetation, the fabulous buildings, and the warm welcome from Marco’s family. I instantly felt at home, and the long and tiring journey became a distant memory. The Rabbiosis were off to the beach, so we had very quick showers, changed, and joined them.

Kenya 2012

The beach was only 5 minutes walk away, with powdery white sand and the most unbelievably clear water. I sat in the water in a happy bubble, watching Marco’s cousins (the little ones) splash around, enjoying the utterly pristine environment.

Red-knobbed starfish
Red-knobbed starfish
Bliss.
Bliss.

The next few days were a delightful blur, as we rested, relaxed, and spent time together. We sunned ourselves by the pool, had long lunches and dinners together, walked along the beach, and let “Mombasa-brain” take over – that slightly fuzzy, sedated feeling of happiness and lethargy that comes over you after spending a few days in Mombasa.

View from the lookout.
View from the lookout.
Play time!
Play time!

Then, before we knew it, New Year’s Eve had arrived! We had a great dinner, and then went off to party at a nearby hotel with family friends. Everyone ended up in the pool, and we ushered 2013 in with a bang.

The next day, we went shopping. This was quite an experience, especially as bartering is standard practice in Kenya. This is how it works: you approach a shop (usually an outdoor structure with goods laid out inside), greet the craftsmen/sellers, and browse. As you go, you choose items you like, and these are taken to the “office”. The end price is always negotiated as a combined deal, and often other items can be bartered (for example, Marco was offered a piece of art in exchange for his shirt).

The trick is to show minimal interest at first, otherwise the price goes up. We had great fun negotiating, arguing, and finally settling a price for the items we wanted.

If you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for, ask the vendors if they can source what you want, and then return the next day. They are eager to please and will gladly find what you want if you’re serious about buying.

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Bartering etiquette:

  • For low deals, never accept the original price.
  • Ask for 50% of the price, and if the vendor does not show willingness to negotiate, don’t be afraid to walk away.
  • You can generally get 30% of the price, if you barter correctly.
  • Always be friendly, engage in banter, and talk to the artists if possible (they often have their workshops on the premises, and you can watch them creating their goods).
  • Inspect many goods, and choose your favourites for a “group deal”.
  • Bartering is fun, but the artists also need to make a living, so don’t insult them with very low asking prices. They will very often mention feeding their children or supporting a family – which is true.
  • Don’t get bullied into buying, but also don’t feign interest and then buy nothing.
The purchases of the day!
The purchases of the day!
Deciding on a price - after each price is discarded, the sand is swept clean and the next deal begins.
Deciding on a price – after each deal is disagreed upon, the sand is swept clean and the next deal begins.

Popular goods to buy include: kikoys (garments worn as skirts, or used as beach towels, etc), carved and painted wooden masks, wooden statues, soapstone carvings, car tire sandals, and Masai trinkets.

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The next day (or one of the days – time is of no matter in Mombasa!) we headed down to Almanara Luxury Resort to watch Marco’s cousins kite surf and wind surf. Almanara is located on Diani Beach, and it’s a fabulous place to hire water sports equipment, and have a drink or ice-cream right on the beach.

This stretch of coastline (from Diani Beach to Galu Beach) is fantastic for wind sports, as the wind picks up in the afternoons, offering perfect conditions. You can go out over the reefs, and learn to windsurf in the shallows.

The water is incredibly warm, and it’s soothing to swim in the gentle waves. Beware of sea grass patches though, as they can conceal massive black urchins! So I’d recommend sticking to the sandy parts, and watching your step every now and again. You can spend hours in the sea, and it’s perfect for cooling down on hot days.

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Almanara sunbeds, beachside
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You can pay for a camel ride across the beach, if that tickles your fancy.

Mombasa is also simply teeming with animals! We found lots of wild and wonderful critters on our adventures:

Some shy endangered Colobus monkeys.
Some shy endangered Colobus monkeys.
Crabs, crabs everywhere! You'll see them day and night on the beaches. If you're quick enough, you can catch one for a closer look.
Crabs, crabs everywhere! You’ll see them day and night on the beaches. If you’re quick enough, you can catch one for a closer look.
This is a legitimate danger. Honestly.
This is a legitimate danger. Honestly.

There are many great restaurants and bars on the main road near Diani beach. Here are some to look out for:

Nomad at the Sands – Beach bar, great pizza, and really good ice-cream.

Forty Thieves – Beach bar (literally on the beach), and be sure to see the nearby Ali Barbour’s Cave Restaurant!

Almanara Sails – Luxury beach-side dining, pricey but 100% worth it.

 

As you stroll along the beach, you’re sure to be approached by “beach boys” – young locals who offer to take you out snorkelling or to see the reefs. It might be a bit strange to be approached by strangers on the beach, but they are salesmen, not con-men, so be friendly for great deals. We did a group outing, and it was simply amazing. Most boats have glass bottoms, so you can view the corals and fish below, and you can also go snorkelling and watch the guides feed fish. You are literally swarmed by the most amazing tropical fish!

Traditional wooden dhow boat out fishing.
Traditional wooden dhow boat out fishing.
Kite surfer out over the reef.
Kite surfer out over the reef.

 

Our amazing guide! He was so knowledgeable, and entertaining for the kids (and adults!) too.
Our amazing guide! He was so knowledgeable, and entertaining for the kids (and adults!) too.

We inevitably met more critters during our exploration, and we even tried out some local transport – the matatus, or mini-bus taxis.

Taking a matatu is easy - there are no set bus stops, so wave at the driver when you see him coming. Have change on hand, and see what the locals are paying to avoid getting ripped off. Knock on the side of the matatu to signal to the driver that you want to get off. Easy ;)
Taking a matatu is easy – there are no set bus stops, so wave at the driver when you see him coming. Have change on hand, and see what the locals are paying to avoid getting ripped off. Knock on the side of the matatu to signal to the driver that you want to get off. Easy 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the most amazing two weeks, we had to leave. Goodbyes were tough, but before we knew it, we were in Mombasa Town, surrounded by the chaotic traffic and bustling life.

Kenya will always hold a special place in my heart. I leave you with some of my favourite photos from Mombasa, as I feel they capture my love for this slice of paradise.

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