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.

(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.