“Welcome to Lamu Old Town, where we have two streets, five cars and 2,500 donkeys.” That is Hamsa’s opening line when he takes visitors on a tour of the town on Lamu Island. And it always draws the intended gasps of astonishment, he says.
You do not need convincing about the donkeys – they are to Old Town what boda bodas are to most towns. And because they lack any sort of toilet training, it is difficult to miss the smell of their presence.
But nothing can detract from the charm of this two-street Unesco World Heritage site. The centuries-old coral stone buildings with their inner courtyards and intricate doors; the bustle of young men offloading food and drinks from boats coming in from all parts of the country; the boisterous conversations of the locals; and even the sport of dodging donkey droppings have the kind of appeal that make you want to move in.
And then there is the expanse of the Indian Ocean, the quaint curio shops, and the kiosks selling a variety of sea food and perfectly spiced Swahili dishes.
There is little that is fancy about food outlets – the furniture is largely plastic – but their meals and ocean views from well-positioned balconies and verandahs more than make up for any aesthetic shortcomings.
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You can get a heaping plate of pilau for Sh150, or go exotic with crab or lobster from around Sh1,200. Fresh juices, and you should really try the tamarind (ukwaju) or sugarcane, cost Sh50 for about 250 millilitres, or Sh100 for half a litre.
There is not much street food. It would be difficult to set up shop, anyway, as the streets are narrow, and in a lot of the places where a trader has the hope of finding space, he or she would have to overpower the smell from open drainages to draw passers-by’s interest.
Therefore, a lot of what is sold street-side is packaged – the home-made chutneys, mabuyu (flavoured baobab seeds) and groundnuts. A few women have set up grocery piles on the doorsteps of a few houses, though the town has a designated fruit market.
But when you get to the Lamu Fort, a two-storey defensive structure built in the 1800s, there is a square outside it that seems massive after walking along narrow streets. It looks like an elders’ square – the benches arranged below the large tree at the centre are occupied by wise-looking men holding walking sticks.
The atmosphere is animated, but controlled. No one shouts unnecessarily, yet no one appears quiet. There is a constant hum of sound, and despite so many people being seated, there is still so much to observe, from the young men who approach the bench with respect, to the women who throw furtive glances and walk on by. By the way, entry into the fort, and a number of other historical sites around the county, is free after you pay Sh100 for a ticket to enter the memorable Lamu Museum.
If you are looking for a quick snack, you can buy a generous serving of fried cassava at a respectable Sh30 at the square, or get madafu, the water from unripe coconuts – which may be an acquired taste – at about Sh25 to cool down after battling coastal heat.
Kenya has plenty of towns set in landscapes of incredible beauty – but nothing combines history, architecture and heritage quite like Old Town. Its Unesco designation is a result of its being “the oldest and best preserved example of Swahili settlement in East Africa”.
Online chatter has it that everyone in Old Town knows everyone else. It is not entirely untrue. Visitors stand out – you cannot quite duplicate the unique style or gait of the locals. And the town is small enough that new faces are difficult to miss. New donkeys, however? Maybe they would go unnoticed. The islands in the Lamu archipelago – which describes the cluster of islands that make up the county – that appeal to tourists have a more serene air about them. Commercial flights to the county, for instance, arrive at Manda Island. The British government lifted a travel ban to the island last month.
Skyward Express has started flights to the Island from its hub at Wilson Airport. Skyward Express is the only airline that flies from Wilson Airport to Mombasa. Other flights from Wilson only go to Diani. It will also be the first airline to fly direct from Mombasa to Lamu, currently one has to travel by road from Mombasa to Malindi to get a flight to Lamu.
One end of it has the airport, the other has the breathtaking The Majlis Resort. The luxury resort is difficult to miss, especially at night when it lights up. It has 25 deluxe rooms and suites spread out across three villas that offer incredible views of the ocean. And it had visitors in plenty.
One manager at the resort said they had good bookings right through to mid-April, whispering conspiratorially that “Mombasa and Malindi are not seeing these kinds of numbers”.