kenya: mombasa

Mombasa - initially an afterthought to the holiday - was a much need piece of R&R to buffer the intensity of the two safaris and provide a much needed reality check with life inside vs. outside the tourist trails. The trip to and from the hotel was to behold. For up to two hours you are traveling through the most impoverished 'towns' and dwellings. Rotten meat hangs from roadside shacks, the flies from which catch in the headlamps of the numerous and unorderly local mini buses: "matatu." Each matutu is uniquely designed with everything from local cultural symbols to Celtic Football logos, with "go faster" neon lights and leopardskin patterned seat covers. Regardless of their design, each seems to have its loyal users for whom it's never too much trouble to pick up, detour for, or load luggage, fridges and other obscure items though the windows for. The majority of matutus belt out Western Rave music or pound out local anthems, each competing with the next in a friendly rivalry which enlivens the darkest and desolate of towns. Regardless of the time of day or night you take the journey (we did it four times in the course of a week) children will wander the 'streets' and wave as you pass, and the intense contrast of the white eyes of elderly locals sitting aside the road will glitter and reflect candlelight from the shrines lighting the way. The bartering and selling continues and life basically goes on: for in Africa, the night is a celebration to be savoured.

Any tourists staying on the Northern coast of Mombasa are required to take the ferry from the mainland - an evil necessity that, depending on your arrival time, has the potential to add an extra hour to your journey. The worst of these journeys has to be during the Mombasa "rush hour:" a fallacy in itself as there never seems to be a 'best' or quiet time of the day to travel.

The tourist and cargo service of the ferry provides the commercial revenue to permit the scores of locals each day to travel for free. This is little luxury for them as they stand sweltering in over 100 degree heat among the exhaust fumes of the vehicle deck. It was never made apparent why, in Kenya, vehicle engines are never turned off when parked or stationary - a particular bugbear of mine in a country where the environmental impact of commercialism and tourism will soon be more than apparent.

Sitting in our minibus aside the 'suited' and 'booted' who are making their commute to work and back, we found ourselves sandwiched between an eclectic mix of Coca Cola lorries, farm vehicles, wooden carts and beggars. Unable to escape the intense suffocation of the heat, you have little choice but to open your windows to allow a little light air into the vehicle. Seizing the moment, local craftsmen will use this opportunity to demonstrate their entrepreneurial (or is it survival!?) instinct to sell tourists trinkets through the windows whilst, simultaneously, bottles of Fanta are thrust to the drivers for much needed replenishment for the next half of the journey.

Heading from the mainland to the North Coast and towards Diani you cannot help but notice a significant decrease in pace, frantic activity and noise. With each kilometre you travel, fewer townships are evident, the flora increases in diversity and size, and the roads become quieter. Surprisingly, the roads are of good quality and, if you are traveling under the cover of darkness there's literally nothing to see other than flickering candlelight from the occasional store or dwelling. This can be your cue for a precious few minutes shut eye.

Finding myself falling asleep just outside Mombasa and then being awoken at Diani was almost unsettling. My last sight had been a deserted house, the occupants of which were huddled around a shrine in darkness, and I had awoken to 6 + storey hotels awash with lights, music, positively dripping in "family friendly" ergonomics. It was everything that Africa was not - and should never be! Praying silently that this was not our hotel, I was as relieved as Ali to find we had another half an hour to go until we reached our final destination of the Indian Ocean Beach Club.

Somewhat off the beaten track and a good - and more than comfortable-distance from the 'commercial centre' of Diani - we found ourselves at the gate to our hotel which, admittedly, was fabulous and we were embarrassingly spoiled rotten and treated like kings and queens for the 6 days duration (2 nights prior to Tsavo and 3 upon return). To describe the modest splendour of the hotel - magnified by our previous safari experiences and our knowledge of life outside the guarded hotel perimeter - seems unnecessary, for wherever you stay on the main tourist trails in Africa you'll never cease to be bowled over by the welcome you'll receive or the unparalleled service. But what made the holiday was not the bougainvillea around the door of our bungalow, the lizards gracing our every step or even the stunning 'postcard' sea views from our bedroom bay window, but it was an appreciation of where we were, how lucky and how privileged we are. Not wishing to sound like we are sitting in our ivory towers, this last point requires expansion:

As we sat on the bench swing each evening watching the moon rise over the Indian Ocean, toasting Africa with a glass of champagne, we'd reflect on who we are, what our life is and will become, and what wonders lie outside our closeted and sheltered Western regime, realising the world is so large and life is so short to not seize it by both hands when you have the opportunity. After all, why wait for tomorrow when the world as your oyster is on this evenings menu?

Whilst serenading us at dinner on our third night, the saxophonist sang the Kenya Coast Song - my all time favourite song. First heard at the equator on the way to Nakuru I was in shock that the words 'Hakuna Mata' were real. A fear that I may forget the song was dismissed upon arrival at Indian Ocean where the song is heard echoing throughout the hotel at countless times of the day and night. Sung by locals with voices to make your heart break and even mixed over Black Box's "Ride on Time" the song never loses its appeal and evokes everything that is Kenya. At our evening meal upon our return from Tsavo, the saxophonist joked about South Africa in the song - barely welcoming the nation into Kenya's hospitality. Intended as friendly rivalry the song had deeper undertones, but you can see why. Upon talking with locals on the beach we entered conversations about how Kenyans are still suffering from the after effects of the Mombasa Embassy bombing. The locals are seemingly struggling to rebuff a guide book reputation that has them marked as a persistent and harassing presence, when really they would be delighted to spend the morning showing you sea cucumbers on the beach in exchange for a pen to send to their nieces and nephews in Nairobi who are starting school.

In contrast to Kenya, South Africa commands higher tourism rates and a higher profile internationally. With the benefit of visiting both, I can say that drawing a comparison between the two countries could not be easier. It's Kenya that commands your emotions, that gets under your skin and drives a passion for humanity and the simple things in life. But I cannot deny that without an initial visit to South Africa I would not have my passion for Africa and the desire to visit time and time again.