Watamu's timeless allure

Remains of an important worship centre for Muslims in a bygone era (right). [File, Standard]

The unrelenting waves crashed against the rocky outcrops on the edge of the Indian Ocean at regular intervals.

Above us, palm fronds heaved in the wind, acting like giant air conditioners that dissipated the humid air in all directions. 

In the dimly-lit court below, another battle was raging, amplified by giant speakers. It is the epic adventure in Taika Waikiki’s Thor: Love and Thunder. Thor, the god of thunder character played by Chris Hemsworth, is fighting alongside his newfound friends, Guardians of the Galaxy. He has serious battles with Gorr, the scary-looking antagonist god butcher. Then there are the witty antics of Korg, the durable warrior with a rock-like body that disintegrates but can survive with the face detached. 

I was in my pre-teens the last time I watched a movie under the stars.

Such evenings are slowly turning Watamu, the once laidback enclave along Kenya’s north coast into a visitor’s paradise. As one of the timeless gems along the coast, Watamu’s lustre goes beyond the sandy beaches.

It does not matter how many times one has been to this corner of Africa, some facets keep showing up with each visit. 

A few friends and I had paid a visit to Watamu at the beginning of October, this time to the farthest corner aptly known as Temple Point. This being my first time to visit this part of Watamu, I did not know what to expect.

I had heard of Temple Point before and expected some elaborate place of worship. That was not to be.

True, there was a ‘temple’, or what remains of an important worship centre for Muslims in a bygone era. Like the ‘Wailing Wall’ of Jerusalem’s ancient temple, the one in Watamu is only but a fraction of what must have been an important structure.

Dew of the Sea dhow in Watamu. [File, Standard]

The concave remnant of the temple, our local guide told us, was meant to amplify the speaker’s voice in an era where sound equipment was not even a faint rumour. And like its nearby cousin at Gede Ruins, the last time someone stood here to speak may have been over 600 years ago.

But Temple Point is not all about dead history. In fact, the ancient structure shares the grounds with a modern hospitality outlet by the same name, and whose baraza served as our movie theatre.

During the day, however, whiling one’s time on hotel grounds works for some while others use such locations as pit stops during local excursions. I belong to the latter.

It is not possible to visit Watamu and fail to get on a boat to the nearby marine park. It is one of those ‘must do’ in Watamu and a dive to view the rich aquatic life around the coral reef was irresistible to some in my group.

Led by resident expert divers, these took to the water with ease, snorkeling and savouring the sights, or so we could tell.

The rest of us were happy to watch from the comfort of the boat. I have never claimed to be an expert swimmer and the least I could do was ‘hug’ the boat and lap the waters with the goggles for the obligatory ‘we-were-here-too’ photo. 

There is more to Watamu though. The nearby Mida Creek contains one of the most protected mangrove forests in the world, consisting of nine species of the tree. Together with 11 seagrass and 33 seaweed species, the mangroves trap sediments that boost coral reefs and providing sustenance to aquatic life.

In the era of climate change, the mangroves are an important carbon sink and contribute to a habitable planet. 

In addition, the mangroves have become a refuge for bird species making Mida Creek a recognised International Bird Area. Migrating birds, mainly from Europe, break their journeys here and take some rest, especially during the cold winter months.

Mangroves at Watamu. [File, Standard]

According to the local Watamu Marine Association, 65 species of aquatic birds have been documented within the creek, both residents and migrants.

During winter, the association states, the creek provides a safe haven and wintering area for Palaearctic (a bird-rich region consisting of Europe, Africa north of Sahara and Asia north of Himalayas) migrant waders. More than 6,000 waders have been recorded on Mida Creek alone with the mangroves providing important nesting places.

As evening approached, it was time to join hordes of other revellers at Lichthaus Bar. This is perhaps the best location in Watamu to watch the setting sun over the creek. As I came to learn, watching the sun set is a ceremony, complete with specially-curated music to accompany the view. 

The small eatery serves simple yet delicious meals. 

Be it a boat ride to the marine park or the mangroves, a movie under the stars, or a lazy evening on a hammock, Watamu never disappoints.