Experience the world with us

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Coming To Kenya

A new direct flight from Jo’burg to Mombasa is making a gorgeous beach playground more easily accessible to South Africans – and gorgeous it certainly is, writes MA Farquharson

DHOW TOWN: After lunch, tourists are ferried from Wasini Island to their dhow for the return to the mainland

 A WEEKEND in Kenya and my heart has succumbed to darkness: suddenly, blue-light convoys aren’t such a blot on the fabric of society. When 1time’s inaugural flight touched down at the Moi International Airport, to mark this historic occasion, two fire engines sprayed the plane as it taxied towards the terminal; a group of traditional dancers sang welcoming songs; PR and tourism types formed a gift-laden honour guard for us on the tarmac; and we were given drinks served in hollowed-out coconuts, which had been decorated with flowers and little umbrellas. Not to mention that Kenya’s press was on hand, the minister of tourism gave a speech of welcome. The tourist police preceded the convoy of buses taking us to our resorts. The police car howled and flashed its way through Mombasa, onto the ferry from the island, and along the 40km south to our destination in Diani Beach, on Kenya’s southern coast. According to our guide, the tourist police are called whenever batches of holiday-makers arrive, but he was reticent about whether they got quite the blue-light treatment we did. Although trucks, cars, tuk-tuks, minibuses, pedestrians, handcarts, motorbikes and bicycles were squeezed off the road as we sailed by, there was some moral comfort to be gained from the fact that we were travelling at the speed limit, or maybe even a bit below it. Then I saw my room at the hotel — and the archetypal white beach and breath-taking turquoise sea. It was time to down some water, lather on the sunblock, prepare to swim and, on the way out, close the window (to prevent the vervet monkeys from breaking in). Our group was scattered among three adjoining hotels operated by the PlanhotelGroup, which will offer holiday packages in partnership with 1time — an arrangement that is already working well in Zanzibar, the airline’s other EastAfrican destination. The hotels consist of units set amid well-tended lawns and gardens — spot the staff picking the flowers that will later end up on your bed — and boast things like bars and pools and dining halls.

Sandies Neptune Paradise Village
It’s perfect for holiday-makers who simply want to blob, or maybe move a step or 20 to swim and snorkel, or take part in the activities organised by the hotel, such as water aerobics or archery. If that’s too physical, relax in the shade and people-watch: the painful-looking brick-red sunburn; the snug Speedo worn by many of the overweight male holidaymakers from Europe; and the one behaviour I’d heard of but never seen: the wraps or towels sent into action at dawn, or maybe earlier, to mark out a specific lounger for the day. On the first morning after our arrival, our party was treated to a marathon day of sailing in a dhow around Wasini Island, which is only a few kilometres north of the Tanzanian border. But first we had to board a bus and drive for about an hour to the jetty: although the Kenyan government says it plans to invest a fortune in infrastructure, the roads are too narrow at the moment for the traffic they carry, and the potholes don’t help. Once on the jetty, we were parcelled out on dhows, which look us to a marine reserve where we could snorkel or scuba dive along a reef. It was a long, long, trip, but beautiful, and most of us descended into a hypnotic trance as the day wore on and we sleepily consumed lovely little sesame-seed balls, fruit, water and cool drinks, and chatted and gazed out over the ocean while the engine putted along. Sadly, conditions weren’t right for sailing. According to the tour operator, we should have spent at least 90 minutes diving, but because we’d started late, we only managed 50, but they were well worth it. The salty water makes diving down a bit of an effort, but the colours, the fish and the coral — which burst into life whenever the sun came out — were astonishing. Unfortunately it was overcast and the water was a bit turbulent, so visibility wasn’t of the excellence which Kenya hands assured me was the norm.
Diamonds Neptune Palm Beach
Once the schools of bottoms, preceded by yellow snorkel tubes, were back on board the dhows, it was off to Wasini Island for a relaxed lunch at a restaurant called Charlie Claw’s, which offers freshly caught fish, giant crabs and local delicacies, such as cooked slices of fresh coconut. I would have loved to stay longer on the island: the tiny bit we saw seemed peaceful and cool, and drowsing on one of the cots under the trees would have been bliss. But, again, our tardiness cut short the trip: instead of dozing, visiting the nearby village, or exploring a coral garden which is only covered by spring tides, it was back to the mainland and then onto the bus to the hotel. We took a long time travelling to our various destinations — a total of about seven hours, excluding the snorkelling and lunch. But as long as you don’t get seasick or stung by jellyfish, as happened to several members of our group, you’ll probably love the trip. One woman apparently dislocated her shoulder while being transferred from a skiff to the dhow, but she got to try out the speedy, excellent and relatively cheap medical attention on offer at a clinic near the resort, where she was diagnosed with only a torn muscle. There are a number of outings you can either organise through the hotel or by yourself — and there are internet connections available if you want to do some research. But a shamefaced word of warning: get the hotel concierge to negotiate the price if you hire a taxi. My skills were so bad we paid about double the price to go to Mombasa and back that a group of more experienced travellers got the hotel to arrange. In Mombasa, one Chrispus Amrono, who said he was a trainee tourist guide, offered to show us around Fort Jesus — for free, as part of his apprenticeship.

LOOMING LARGE: The entrance to Fort Jesus on the island of Mombasa

The fort is the city’s main tourist attraction; a gigantic stronghold built by the Portuguese in the16th century and declared a Unesco World Heritage Site last year. Depending on which guidebook you read, the Portuguese were besieged there for anywhere between 12 and 33 months by Omani Arabs. When the 15 or so survivors finally surrendered they were executed and the Portuguese presence in this part of the world faded away. Photographs can’t convey how monumental the fort is. And only if I were Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the romantic poet, would I be able to transmit the charm of the slowly decaying walls and the romantic impressions created by the Ming pottery on display from the days when the Chinese traded with East Africa. Across from the fort is what remains of the “old town” which, though small, is reminiscent of Arab souks. A walk into the narrow streets immediately washes away the stresses of the Western-style city only a few steps away. So, would I go again? The four hour direct flight is a good re on to consider holidaying on Kenya’s coast. You need time to properly laze around the pool, enjoy the loungers under the coconut trees, or snorkel for hours in the sea. But what make the country special are the ordinary Kenyans, those who clean rooms, drive taxis, man dhows or stand behind hotel reception desks for hours and never lose their tempers.
Sandies Neptune Paradise Village
Resort owners can “package” beaches and food and luxury rooms, but this wouldn’t mean much without the Kenyans. You can’t “design” such a great sense of humour, or “conceptualise” the politeness and helpfulness displayed by the many locals we came in contact with. I can’t comment on those trying to scratch a living outside the bubble of the tourist resorts, the people we saw from the windows of our air-conditioned buses. Presumably, as one does in South Africa, tourists should simply close their eyes to the poverty and hope their money will eventually help improve the lives of ordinary people.  

MA Farquharson was hosted by 1time and the Planhotel Diamonds Neptune Palm Beach hotel in Diani.

Text & some pictures by MA FARQUHARSON
Taken from the Sunday Times Travel, Sunday Times, March 11 2012. Page 16 & 17
juan nel juan nel juan nel juan nel juan nel juan nel juan nel juan nel

No comments: