Dhow in the Indian Ocean near Mombasa, Kenya

Mombasa – Faded Gem of Kenya’s East Coast

While Kenya may be better known for its amazing national parks, the Mombasa region along the Indian Ocean is well worth a visit too…

After our amazing adventures on Mount Kenya, we spent a night in Nairobi and boarded a Chinese built and run train to Mombasa early next morning. I did not know exactly what to expect beyond the standard tropes – white, palm-fringed sandy beaches, trinket sellers and all-inclusive resorts that cater mainly to foreign tourists… Well, all those were unsurprisingly present, but this southern part of Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, surrounding the port city of Mombasa, has quite a lot more to offer, whether you are into old towns, spice markets, or peculiar historical monuments…

A typical postcard-worthy photo of the coast close to Mombasa – calm seas reflecting the palms lined along the soft, sandy beach, and the ever-present dhow, of course

Beaches, Dhows and Creatures

Yes, the beaches are there, they are long, sandy, and very picturesque and beautiful. Due to large tidal movements of the waterline, they are almost always covered with dried seagrass. They are at least in the areas we visited, very clean with regard to human waste. The waters of the Indian Ocean are expectedly painted in all shades of turquoise, green and azure, and are very warm as well – you will not find much respite from the blasting African Sun there.

Lone Maasai tribesman, or at least a person posing as one, wandering the seagrass covered beach during the low tide

The water is generally extremely shallow, and if you go in looking for a swim, be prepared for a really long walk. We wandered in once during low tide and gave up walking after about half a kilometre, since the water failed to reach above our knees by then. A word of caution – although the bottom is sandy and soft, there are razor-sharp clams hidden in the slit and they can cut you quite badly – it would be smart to wear something on your feet should you wade in.

While the low tide does not provide many opportunities for swimming, it more than makes up for it for those interested in birdwatching and photography. The many shallow pools created by the retreating water trap small fish and other shallows’ dwellers, providing ample lunch opportunities for birds, big and small alike. We saw many egrets feasting on the small creatures left stranded in the now exposed seagrass beds.

This old dhow is left stranded during the low tide, like a Sun-bleached fossilised skeleton of some long extinct giant sea creature

Another ubiquitous sight all along the coast are the many dhows in all stages of repair. Dhow is a generic name for sailing vessels used in the regions of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Regardless of the shape they are in, they are all extremely photogenic. At the extreme end of the low tide, most dhows get stranded on the suddenly dried out seabed. Some of the older ones appear almost fossilised against the backdrop of the deep blue Equatorial sky – Mombasa lies some 4 degrees south of the Equator.

Having said that, you should always remember that you are in an Equatorial zone and that, apart from the aforementioned birds, there are many other creatures sharing the environment with you, whether you are wading through the shallows, or taking a nap in the luxury of your room. Monkeys do seem ever-present and always are entertaining and mischievous, but if you are an arachnophobe, well, the news is not that great. There are spiders aplenty all over the place, and some are big, really big. Having said that, while we encountered many, we never really got in close contact with any. They tend to mind their own business, often high up amongst the branches and are actually very interesting to observe, should you have a stomach for that.

Yet another dhow, its outline reflected in the mirror-like surface of the shallow waters of the Indian Ocean, with the approaching storm-front as a backdrop

There are many small birds everywhere as well. Most hotels have a number of water features and they are always occupied by numerous small flyers of all colours and textures. I am honestly not sure if they were brought there by the management, or simply dropped by and never left – the food is plentiful, there are no predators in sight, so why leave after all? While you may have to brave the Indian Ocean waters in order to see larger birds, you may spend days within the confines of your hotel’s grounds and never get tired of discovering new, amazing critters.

Spice Market, Old Town and Fort Jesus

However, you really should not spend all your time within your accommodation’s premises. It is very easy to get a cab to Mombasa and your hotel may well offer that excursion too. Beware though – depending on your haggling skills, you may get exactly the same experience for a mere fraction of the price should you skip the hotel’s offer and arrange it yourself – taxies and tuk-tuks are almost always to be found just outside the hotel’s gates.

One of the many weird and eclectic views of Mombasa – while many buildings appear unfinished, none of them were uninhabited. Coastal erosion also seemed to have taken its toll on the urban dwellings in this area

We decided to go to Mombasa one day and take a look at the Spice Market, the Old Town and the Fort Jesus. As our hotel was north of the city, we came across the Spice Market the first. It is an amazing, vibrant and bustling location, although it may appear intimidating if you are not used to this kind of thing – it reminded me a lot of the Sucupira Market in Cape Verde. In no time at all you will find yourself lost amongst its haphazard stalls and overwhelmed by countless smells, colours and noises.

While the picture can do justice to the abundance of colours and shapes on offer in the Spice Market, you can only imagine the onslaught of smells and noises which was actually very enjoyable

We enjoyed purchasing a bunch of different spices and fruits and every vendor was more than happy to try and engage us in conversation, always starting with the unavoidable: “Where are you from?” 🙂 Fun part aside, the Spice Market actually has a much darker past. It was once a slave market and apparently one can still find notes by former slaves etched into its walls in several locations. We did not find out about it until after we left and thus cannot confirm it, but are ultimately happier for it as we only carried the good memories away.

We bought a number of spices from this vendor and can wholeheartedly recommend his lemon pepper mixture for salads – it was super fragrant and tasty

We drove into the Old Town next and not a moment after we left our car were we accosted by a self professed guide who simply attached himself to us and offered a non-stop litany of facts and figures about the streets, houses, street signs and just about everything we laid our eyes on. He was actually good company and his stories were always engaging and entertaining, if possibly not very historically accurate at all. He also took us down side streets and showed us some sights we otherwise definitely would not have stumbled upon. He seemed very happy with the “tip” we gave him at the end of the tour, so it ultimately worked out well for everybody involved.

Our guide, here saying hello after we tipped him for his services – we actually enjoyed his company quite a lot

You will notice one thing in no time at all – the Old Town of Mombasa is in a very bad state of repair. Quite a few houses are literally just shells of their former glory – their wooden entrails long rotten and collapsed, and the Sun-blasted and rain-soaked walls overgrown with creepers that naturally flourish in this warm and humid climate. The Old Town is populated by a mixture of local, Arab and Asian settlers, whose economic situation is rather unenviable, and so the habited dwellings are unfortunately in a very shabby state as well.

One of the first houses we encountered upon entry to the Old Town. The house itself is remarkable not only for being a very picturesque ruin, but for another amazing and surprising detail, well… see for yourself

While most houses are in dire need of repair, and the narrow alleys more often than not covered in trash and rubble, there is one feature that is synonymous for the Mombasa Old Town – its doors. Whether old and weathered, or newly restored, adorning some governmental office or a tourist related coffee house or a souvenir shop, they are all magnificent. The quality of wood, metal decorations, and incredibly intricate carvings are all a testament to a much different time, back in the 19th century, when the Swahili sultanate controlled all the ports on the East African coast and the plentiful riches beyond. In line with their Islamic traditions, the inner courtyards of most villas, for this is what most of these now dilapidated buildings were, were not open to the public eye, and the doors were one of the few outlets left to the owners to showcase their riches and power. One could really spend hours just trying to spot all the amazing details so painstakingly carved into the exotic wood that, with lesser or greater success, withstood the test of time so far.

Our tour of the Old Town also led us past a few landmark buildings, all long removed from their heyday years. The former Post Office was one of these, its role having changed over the years. Originally, it was the main communication point for the Indians brought in for the Kenya-Uganda railway construction at the turn of the 20th century. Later, it went through a stint as an immigration office during the First World War. Today, it is in a half-settled, half-ruined state, a backdrop for the neighbourhood kids’ games. Also in the Old Town, you can find the oldest mosque in Kenya – the Mandhry Mosque, built in 1507.

The old Post Office building, erected in 1899, mainly to serve the Indian railway builders at the time. It now seems half-settled, half a ruin, just like many other houses in the Old Town

We walked down to the waterline of the Old Port – once a hectic hotbed for the most important trade lines on the West African coast. One can only imagine the vast amounts of spices, exotic wood, and unfortunately also ivory and slaves going eastwards from its docks and jetties. As its importance increased and trade volume grew, especially with the introduction of the railway, the Port became a victim of its own success and the decision was made to relocate the sea traffic to the Kilindini Harbour in the west. Thus, the few vessels that now utilise its waters are a pale remainder of the former might of the Mombasa Port.

These three ships are now but a pale remainder of the former glory of the Old Port, lying sheltered under the watchful eye of the Fort Jesus – all the major commercial traffic is now taking place in the new port in the Kilindini Harbour

By the time we reached the Fort Jesus, we were already too late to enter, and so I cannot say much about its interior. However, our guide strongly recommended that we don’t waste money and time going in in any case, as there was nothing much to see inside – just empty facilities and barren walls. I am not absolutely sure if he wanted to help us save money in order to increase his “fee”, or if that was genuine advice. Nevertheless, a few glimpses into the fort did not appear very inspiring.

Football is truly the most popular sport and these kids are able to play their game in the shadow of the once very impressive Fort Jesus

And so our tour of Mombasa and its sights came to an end. I left with very conflicting feelings. The entire place, the Old Town in particular, seemed to have been caught in that unenviable spot between what-once-was and what-may-be. Between pride and poverty, might and uncertainty. It is unsure of its own identity, and torn between its former opulence, painfully witnessed through the present-day ruins, colonial scars and the neo-colonial inroads, that of China in particular. While I am not sure I would go out of my way to revisit Mombasa during my next visit to Kenya, should you get a chance, do take a few hours to do it – it is an eye-opening experience in any case.