kenya: mombasa

(The itinerary for the second week was 2 nights in Mombasa, then 2 nights away in Tsavo on safari, before returning to Mombasa for 3 nights. Here, the two Mombasa segments are merged.)

Mombasa lay far to the east, on the other side of Kenya from the Mara. A long (around six hours) minibus journey back to Nairobi was followed by a rather ridiculously over-secure check-in and waiting process - after four personal/baggage checks, British Airways passengers were permitted to sit in a 16-seat "lounge" - where toilet and catering facilities were outside, and you had to go through a personal security check every time you wanted to enter/exit the "lounge". Several hours later this felt very un-African and very Western. While it's perhaps an inevitability stemming from the various bombings over the past few years, many Westerners are - and perhaps always have been - very aware that this is just life. If a bomb goes off, that's just what happens. You can't evade it, you can't check for it - the enemy is always two steps ahead. Stepping out of the very real and unpredictable African nature reserves into formality and rigidity felt saddening, despite the benefits. That is no praise of terror or terrorists, but it must be recognised that terror is not quashed by metal detectors and spot searches; it is quashed by removing that which incites it. Becoming more Western is exactly the opposite of what is required.

This doesn't seem to have happened outside the airport. Dangerously assembled wooden stalls adorn the side of every street, with swarms of flies circling the hunks of meat which become less appetising as the road continues. People are everywhere; matatus are everywhere; the bustle is chaotic but charming, and seemingly ever friendly. An hour later it seems odd to be on the beach in a secure and guarded palace, the Indian Ocean Beach Club.

The club is tranquil and dispersed, consisting of little bungalows and larger family cottages. We had "upgraded" (£3 per day!) to a sea-facing bungalow, which was just fabulous. A huge bed looking out through patio doors onto the sea, with a cubby-hole window seat with cushions perfectly for relaxing and reading on. The open bathroom and Moorish architecture felt a million miles away from the rest of Kenya, yet still subtle and comforting. Bearing in mind that this was the one holiday we'd been looking forward to all year, after an ecstatic and challenging week with the animals we were immensely grateful for the opportunity to relax, be it only for two nights.

We had arrived at the tail end of dinner, just after 9pm, and after airplane snack and exhaustion, weren't sure whether we were ready for a full meal. It seemed though that they'd kept the kitchen and waiters on that little extra, and we could never decline such a gesture. Just as well - we dined more or less alone in a wonderful open-shuttered room - one that regretfully, the smokers got to use most of the time; non-smokers were shunted into a less attractive annexe - and were treated to a marvellous many course meal with champagne. It was an ideal time to reflect, to wrap up, and to pay homage to the incredible things we had seen, experienced, and considered.

It was also one of the few times in Africa where I haven't felt anxious and uncomfortable in spending money on 'lavish' goods such as fine wine and champagne. There was such a sense of service and happiness in the staff that one felt, for one reason or another, that there was benefit coming through from the purchase of such goods, and that without this boost to the economy, things might not be so happy. That's a very simplistic way of looking at economics and doesn't scale upwards at all, but for this small group of very kind, very patient staff, we were happy to go overboard.

Indeed it was perpetually troubling that, while throughout the holiday there was an assumption that every person involved in your travels, no matter how big or small, would receive a desirable tip in cash, the Indian Ocean preferred to operate on a bill-the-room basis. Combined with the warnings about undesirables on the beach, we locked up all our valuables and cash, meaning it was impossible to tip the people who really deserved it. Of course, we could just have changed more cheques into cash and be done with it, and that's our failing, but already strapped for cash and with the intention of being safer using credit cards for understood purchases and saving cash for emergencies, it was disappointing to have no mechanism to reward the people who made the difference.

We returned to our room, complete with remote control air-conditioning and chilled down with a glass of champagne. It seemed as though this was the only opportunity we'd had to really reflect and consider what had happened. And so we spent the next 24 hours doing just that - relaxing and thinking, preparing ourselves for the next stage of the journey, reviewing where we'd been and what we'd seen, contextualising it with the seemingly inconsequential happenings that take up most of our lives back home. A swinging seat on the veranda outside the bar while the moon rose from the sea horizon was to become a permanent fixture, a memorable place of peace and beauty in the midst of a world determined to self-implode.

And the fragility of this place too was clear - one of the hotels restaurants, which hung rather precariously over the sea, had been destroyed by bad weather earlier in the year. They were rebuilding it slowly but surely; given that the devastation of the December 2004 earthquake/tsunami also hit the Somali and Kenyan region, it may not have been worthwhile. (watch video - external site)

We spent these days relaxing in the room, around the pool or under the palm trees. We tried scuba diving again in the pool, but declined a proper excursion again; neither of us felt comfortable enough in those alien surroundings to be able to enjoy the marine world fully - instead we resolved to pursue a longer training course some other time, to acclimatise and grow more confident with the equipment and the changes in behaviour. In the light of the past two weeks, perhaps we could also apply the same mantra to life.

Kindly, the hotel allowed us to leave our belongings in the same room while we went on safari in Tsavo - a simple allowance but one which felt like a real luxury. Come the end of day two there, we were refreshed and eager to get back on the trail; come the end of our second sojourn to Mombasa, alas it was time to return home.