John, the noiseless steward, materialized on the balcony to tell us that Ahmed was waiting for us downstairs. Smiling from beneath his enormous straw hat, he said, “I knew you wouldn’t come because of the rain, but I also knew it would stop so I came to get you.” We followed him to the waterfront and clambered into the dhow. Mohammed, he told us, had taken off at 5 AM with a repeat European customer on a fishing excursion. Given Mohammed’s luck the previous day, I could see why the customer might want him along.
We sailed rapidly across the channel to Manda Island, past a Luo village of stonecutters. Ahmed told us to watch them stack the big stones in their arms. Each stone weighed close to 10 kilos. They stacked them 10-11 high and carried them balanced with one arm stretched up and three fingers resting on the top of the pile. The stacks were transferred smoothly to the boats waiting to take them to Lamu and beyond. The way they tossed the stones onto the stacks screamed nonchalance.
An eagle watched as Ahmed furled the sail and started the outboard motor to take us into the narrow channels in the mangroves leading to the Takwa ruins. The swamp closed in around us, the tangled roots of the mangroves forming an impassable labyrinth on both sides. By the time we reached the landing, the channel was scarcely wide enough for two boats. I caught my foot on the anchor while scrambling out of the dhow. Fortunately, it was a dull section of the iron and only left a bruise.
Just as we started our tour of the ruins of this 16th century Swahili settlement, a hornet dive-bombed the bloke and stung him between the eyes. Within 20 minutes, the left side of his face has swollen to the extent that he could barely see out of his left eye. I tried to enjoy the tour of Takwa, whose occupants were the ancestors of the current residents of Lamu Island. They were forced to move when the wells on Manda went saline. It was difficult to concentrate as I helplessly watched the bloke’s face puff up, having foolishly left my portable pharmacy in our room because this excursion was to be so short. I managed to learn a little about the layout (mosque, cistern, well, madrassa, gates) and to be impressed by the size of the baobob trees but not much else.
Miscellaneous crumbly bits of wall
Madrassa (school) classroom
Liz & baobob
At the end of the tour, we tipped our guide and got back in the boat. Ahmed advised the bloke apply sunscreen to the sting. It didn’t help, of course, but it was kind of him to try. He regaled us with tales of his fishing exploits to take our minds off of it. Thrilling tales of sharks twice the length of his boat, and octopi trying to stick their tentacles up his nose to suffocate him when he was lobster-diving, and of having to swim to shore naked when his boat capsized and the long clothes he had to wear as a youngster threatened to drown him. He showed us the ugly black scar where a sting ray’s dart had gone through his foot. He captivated us so much that we grossly overpaid him for the journey. None of us minded.
The mundane business of settling the hotel bill and packing awaited when we returned to the balcony. The bloke swallowed antihistamine tablets and ibuprofen and eventually began to look slightly less as if he’d been in a fight. Duncan and Liz made a heroic final quest to find homemade samosas, which we consumed with relish. At 1:30 PM, laden with bags, we traipsed back to the waterfront for our last boat journey to the Manda airstrip. We said goodbye to our guides and “fixers”, who magically appeared on the docks all at once. Abdul/FBI, Abdullah Ali, Ahmed, John and a couple of captains whose names I didn’t catch waved madly from the shore as the rain started up again.
Our motorboat journey passed without incident, until we docked. The bloke, who seemed to be cursed that day, cut open his toe on the rough stone steps. Consequently, his arrival at the security counter was greeted with surprise and alarm. “What happened to your foot?” one officer exclaimed. “What happened to your face?” cried another. Woefully, the bloke pointed at Duncan. For a split second they looked worried, then burst out laughing. The bloke admitted the truth about the causes of his wounds as they handed him a tissue to staunch his bleeding foot. They searched our bags and waved us into the “gate”. This consisted of a desk (the check-in counter) and a set of bunches covered by a crude timber roof.
We boarded the Dash-8 for Malindi and Nairobi under the stern gaze of the fearsome Wendy, who bade us remain in our seats with our seatbelts fastened and forbade us from smoking. Scarcely anyone moved a muscle on either leg of the flight and only one woman dared to use the toilet, which was next to Wendy’s seat. For two hours she surveyed us with a mixture of queenly superiority and schoolmistress severity. Everyone filed silently off the plane at Jomo Kenyatta airport and practically ran to baggage claim.
We were picked up by Kennedy, a friend of George and Anne’s who ran an informal taxi service. Actually, he sent us home with James, one of his comrades. James waited patiently for us to pick up the keys from the neighbours and drop off our bags before taking us to the legendary restaurant Carnivore. In the times before hunting restrictions, Carnivore served whatever game meat it could buy from hunters. “If it moves, spit it and roast it,” was their philosophy. Though it can no longer serve the more exotic meats for which it became famous, it still has one set menu. You eat as much meat on a stick as you can stuff into yourself until you surrender by laying down the little flag atop your tower of sauces. The offerings start out fairly standard: pork sausage, pork ribs, beef sausage, chicken breast, beef, roast lamb. They gradually become more unusual: ostrich meatballs, crocodile, ox liver, ox heart...and ox balls. The latter two were new to me, but not the rest. Ox heart is definitely preferable. All the meat is perfectly done - moist and juicy - and the portions are well judged - small slivers of each request, with frequent offerings of all.
Er, colonial chic, anyone?
Not sure we’re ready for this...
We surrendered when Duncan couldn’t fit anything else into his capable stomach and had dessert. I ordered coffee and potent lime sorbet. We phoned Kennedy to pick us up. He expressed surprise at how early it was and marveled that we’d given up so quickly. He obligingly drove us home to collect my debit card, then to the ATM 300 metres away and back home again to drop off the debit card. This sounds ridiculous, but we’d been told not to walk around with our cards at night. It’s one thing to be robbed immediately and relieved of your cash. It’s quite another to be held for several days and forced to withdraw the maximum daily limit until your card is locked out.
Kennedy assured us he will pick us up at 7:10 AM to return to Nairobi airport for our flight home. We popped around the corner to George and Anne’s local, where we’d watched the Holland-Brazil match. We consumed a few Tuskers, but we only lasted two rounds before the prospect of a hot shower and bed lured us home. For all its perks, the Msafini hotel dispensed no hot water and the drains in the showers didn’t work well. I washed my hair. It was bliss.
On top of his two injuries, for which he had to take double doses of antihistamines and ibuprofen, the bloke also had a dodgy stomach. He took an Imodium and was asleep in five minutes, undisturbed by my rustling and the “help” I received from the kittens while packing our stuff. By the time I set my alarm and fell into bed, it was past midnight.