Nyali: Towering, lengthy bridge that boasts a super rich history

The new Nyali Bridge in Mombasa County. It is built only a few metres from the old Nyali Bridge.[Kelvin Karani, Standard]
The giant pillars made of impregnable stones, sitting on a coral base covered by green moss-like jelly belie a glorious past. This is all that remains of the once promising hub.

Behind these truncated pillars, a whitewashed wall with graffiti chalked by an idle youth philosophically sums up the fortunes of what was once billed as the greatest feat of bridge architecture in East Africa.

The uninspiring ‘penmanship’ on the irregular perimetre beach wall reads, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is not gone.” This sounds like an epitaph on the tombstone of what was then the world’s longest floating bridge.

The desolation is crowned by the abandoned ship, which litter this beach, giving it an appearance of a junk yard. Some of these vessels will never kiss the waters of the Indian Ocean again.

They reflect a testament once penned by an ancient Swahili writer, Mayuka, who warned that whoever played with Nyali Kuu in order to make innovations would be smashed in the legs so that he could never again undertake a faraway journey.

But some of the vessels like ‘Ocean Stroom,” which are lying in state, have not yet given up the ghost and are being coaxed back into sailing by some artisans who are busy repairing them.

The tomorrow, promised by the graffiti on the wall, belongs to MV Taisir, the brand-new fibre boat assembled at this graveyard of the dead and the living boats.

The cacophony of the hammering atop MV Taisir is occasionally drowned by the squeals of a gang of boys who are happily swimming in the shallow waters, cooling off the oppressive afternoon heat wave hopeful that their good days are yet to come.

It is almost inconceivable that 87 years ago, a huge crowd stood on both sides of the Nyali creek, to witness the then colonial governor Joseph Byrne officially commission the bridge.

The idea of constructing a bridge to connect Mombasa to Nyali and beyond had been conceived in 1926, according to Jan Hemming in the book, Nyali Beach Hotel: The first 50 years.

This was after a settler, KH Rodwell formed Nyali Limited which approached a group of financiers in Britain to fund the bridge and invest in real estate development.

The opening of the bridge brought new tidings to Nyali where Smith Mackenzie and Company Limited had earlier unsuccessfully tried sisal farming.

One of the main reasons for the dismal performance of sisal by Smith and Mackenzie was lack of labour as movement of workers to Nyali from the island was very problematic.

The company had come to East Africa in 1877 and had tentacles in almost all spheres of life in the region and was instrumental in establishment of coffee farming in Dagoretti in Nairobi.

This is the same company that had been acting as the commercial and general agents for the Imperial British East Africa Company, and had offered similar services to British India Company. It had also recruited porters for explorer Henry Morton Stanley when he set out to explore and trace the origin of the Congo River.

Nyali lLimited pioneers under the chairmanship of Colonel RN Greenwood believed that Mombasa would become one of the most important ports south of Sahara in future.

At the time of its completion, it was a bridge like no other for it had taken 4,000 tonnes of steel and was 1,300 feet long.

What was even more intriguing was the trust the engineers had on Africans then for they ensured that the bulk of the work was executed by locals who were later hired to maintain it.

This wonder instantly linked Mombasa Island and the mainland in the north and created a pathway where people could easily cross over from Mombasa to Kisauni without necessarily using boats or a ferry.

By then, there was no link between Mombasa Island and the north mainland, except a motorised pontoon ferry. A pontoon is defined as a flat-bottomed boat or hollow metal cylinder used to support a temporary bridge or floating landing stage.

And as he opened the bridge on August 8, 1931, Byrne, said, “the whole scheme envisioned by your company in which this fine bridge plays but a part indicated your belief in the future of Mombasa and in the future of Kenya and Uganda.”

The governor adde: “I do most heartily admire your determination to carry on in spite of the depression so as to be ready to take advantage of the tide of prosperity when it begins to rise again as it surely will.”

Byrne was talking of depression before the war but the worst was to come. After World War II which ended in 1945, the global economy was so depressed that the colonial government could no longer afford to send its employees to London for long leave every three years as had been the tradition.

Instead the government employees were forced by circumstances to develop a passion for Kenyan mountain forests, rivers and beaches.

After the war, the government offered assistance to investors adventurous enough to start hotels at the coast so that they could cater for civil servants and soldiers who could no longer go for holiday in Britain.

The railway administrators, for instance, sent circulars to hoteliers in Nairobi inviting them to buy land in Mombasa with promises that they would be partly reserved for its officials.

Some of the pioneers who embraced the spirit were Mr and Mrs Pat O’Hara, who converted their private house to establish Palm Beach Hotel in 1934, which is described by some as the first Malindi hotel.

At the same time, the Trench family led by John Carberry set out Black Rock, which has since been renamed Eden Rock.

These were the days when any settler who could build semi-permanent makuti structures with rope beds and provide a gramophone attracted tourists willing to spend Sh1 per day, as one Mombasa photographer Coutinho discovered.

In 1940, Mrs Stocker and her daughters also converted their private house in Bamburi into a beach resort and called it White Sands.

Ironically, while Nyali and Mombasa have astronomically grown, making them the most sought-after properties in Kenya, the bridge where it all started is no more. The pontoon too is long gone.

Its role has been taken over by the magnificent Nyali bridge, which hosts two lanes of traffic - towards Malindi from Mombasa and vice versa.

There have been attempts by the government, which destroyed the bridge in the 1980s to build a new one, but these have been dogged by controversy that is now subject of a protracted legal tussle over the ownership of land where the State wants to erect it.

An incomplete two-storey building, made of concrete blocks and coral stones is being constructed right in the water as if its engineers are trying to float it where the world’s longest floating bridge once discharged its cargo.

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