Lamu: Where time stands still

By Andrew Meldrum

Tourism has made little intrusion on the unspoiled beauty of the Kenyan isle of Lamu, writes Andrew Meldrum.

A traditional Swahili dhow. Photo / Thinkstock
A traditional Swahili dhow. Photo / Thinkstock

Walking along a deserted sandy beach I see a fisherman hauling in the sails of his graceful dhow. He drifts over and shows me his catch. Soon I am carrying some squid that will make a splendid curry for dinner.

As I pass traditional Swahili townhouses, I look past richly carved teak doors to see cool courtyards inside. I am greeted by people I have met in the past few days. Even better, I encounter no cars, because there are none on the island. I cannot imagine a more dreamily exotic destination than Kenya's Lamu Island.

For years friends have encouraged me to go to Lamu, regaling me with descriptions of great beaches, gorgeous architecture, spicy seafood and friendly people.

"It is a place out of time," says a traveller who has gone to Lamu three times in the past two years. "You will love it. But hurry, because it won't remain perfect for much longer."

The island is certainly off the beaten track. From Nairobi we fly to Malindi, on the mainland's Indian Ocean coast. Then there is a short flight to the tiny thatched airport on Manda Island.

Then my wife and I take a boat across turquoise waters and the shapes of the 200-year-old fort, the minarets, and the lime-washed villas become larger. Finally we alight, walk along old paving stones and have our bags loaded on donkeys that trot off to our guesthouse. We are on Lamu.

Immediately I begin slowing down to the island's languid, gracious, pedestrian pace. I switch off my mobile phone and my laptop remains in its bag.

Much of Lamu's rich atmosphere comes from the absence of cars. Well, actually there are two: one for the district administrator and one that serves as an ambulance for the donkey sanctuary. Donkeys are used to carry bags, deliver goods and transport quarried coral blocks. At night many roam free or shelter in courtyards. In the morning they find their way to their owners, who then feed them.

Residents and tourists alike walk along the same cobbled streets and alleys. People smile and exchange Swahili greetings.

I discover the charming Swahili architecture of tightly-packed townhouses made of coral blocks with balconies, courtyards and roof terraces designed to catch the cooling breezes. I find bustling markets and shops selling colourful kangas and kikois, the distinctively striped rectangles of cloth that women and men wear as wraparounds.

On one stroll, I come to the turreted sultan's fort, built in 1808. The central square in front of it is a hive of selling, bartering, greetings, discussions and community activities that resembles a set from Pirates of the Caribbean.

The island has two parts: Lamu town and Shela. Many visitors choose to stay in Lamu town to be near the port, the fort and markets. We opt for Shela, a few kilometres away, which is smaller and closer to the beaches. There are many small hotels in both places that offer accommodation ranging from backpacker lodges to expensive exclusivity.

There are also many delightful guesthouses and houses to rent. There are not yet any major hotel chains.

We rented Papaya House. Although new, it is true to Swahili design and decoration. The house came with a cook who provided superb meals from provisions we bought at the market.

Fishermen came daily to our kitchen door and we were spoiled for choice - prawns, crabs, squid, oysters, calamari and deep-water fish.

Papaya, avocados, limes, mangoes, bananas and pineapples were blended into refreshing drinks.

Because Lamu is overwhelmingly Muslim, it is advisable to bring your own wine and spirits. We brought bottles of rum and triple sec, which we mixed with mango, lime and ginger to make a deliciously potent Swahili daiquiri.

One night we were enjoying a full moon from our roof terrace and heard drums nearby. We decided to explore and came across a wedding party. It was women-only, and my wife and a few other women visitors were invited to join in.

Inside was a wild mix of old and young, who, I was told, threw off their bui-bui (head-to-toe black robes) to reveal leopard-print outfits, black lace and lots of cleavage.

I stayed outside and chatted with the men. I was invited to attend the "stick dance" the next evening, a traditional Swahili marriage event. The whole town of Shela, it seemed, had gathered in a square for the dance, in which the men challenged each other with long sticks as drums throbbed.

Shortly after dark came the men's wedding gathering. My newfound Swahili friends lent me a djellaba (kaftan) and cap.

We sat cross-legged as ushers brought scented oil, which each man dabbed on his neck, beard and wrists. It was a bewitching mixture redolent of sandalwood and frankincense. Then came incense in an elaborate holder and we waved the fragrant smoke on to our robes.

There was a brief speech and prayers. The ushers brought each of us a plate of meat kebabs, gooey cardamom sweets and thick, thick coffee.

The young groom made an appearance and, as we ate, the fathers negotiated the conditions of the marriage. I felt privileged to be there.

Wedding celebrations aside, the most prominent meeting place in Shela is the Peponi, the town's most glamorous hotel (guests have included Naomi Campbell and Robert de Niro), where people gather for tea or beer and to watch the activities on the beach.

Next door is the Beach House, where Monaco's Princess Caroline stays. It sleeps 10 in style and can be rented by the week. With such high-profile visitors and a booming tourism trade, there is much construction as families restore old houses and build new guesthouses.

"Tourism has largely been a positive force for historical preservation," said Athman H Athman, curator of Lamu Museums.

"Forty per cent of our structures need to be restored as soon as possible. We need investment in streets, water and drainage systems. The tourism is making that possible."

But not all the tourism has been beneficial. Some wealthy foreigners and Kenyan politicians have built huge houses in the dunes, the island's main water catchment area. Courts have ruled that they must be pulled down.

Walking through the winding streets and alleys, I admire the carved doors and balconies. Every day I find new squares, fountains and meeting places.

One of my favourite discoveries is the Yoga House, or Fatuma's Tower. The historic villa was restored in 1998 by Briton Gillies Turle, who leads yoga classes there twice a day.

I enjoy stretching, breathing and meditating while admiring the arches and intricate plaster-work. I hear the cooling breeze rustle through the palms and the gentle surf beyond.

By the time our holiday ends, we know the way through the winding alleys to the ferry dock. People wave goodbye and invite us to come again.

We resolve to return, soon, to experience a special, historic part of Africa.

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