The Kenya coast always surprises first-timers: it’s totally unlike the rest of Kenya – you almost feel you’ve arrived in another country.
Most people expect the tropical extravaganza of beautiful palm-lined beaches, coral reefs and turquoise sea which attracts the bikini-clad brigades. But not everybody knows it’s a predominantly Islamic culture with a totally separate history to the rest of Kenya, stretching back to the late fifteenth century when the first Portuguese explorers sailed up, and after two bloody centuries were finally driven out by the Arabs in 1729.
Over a hundred years later came the early missionaries and explorers, followed by the British who eventually succeeded in abolishing slavery and building the famous railway inland. But it is the Arab influence that remains in evidence in many aspects of coastal culture and language (notably Kiswahili, Kenya’s lingua franca).
Mombasa is actually built an island which means its roads, heavily lined with buildings, aren’t destined for any expansion to ease the rapidly increasing volume of traffic. Everything moves at a slower, sleepier pace here anyway, and newcomers are wise if they quickly adjust to this and cease to be in a hurry – ever!
West of the island is industrial area and the airport, connected by a bridge. To the north Nyali bridge connects Mombasa to what is referred to as “the north coast” (although all Kenya’s coast is actually on the east of the country). Just north of Mombasa is the up-market suburb of Nyali. A little further north is Shanzu, and further north again is Mtwapa creek. This is a busy part of the coast with a north-bound road running parallel to the beaches, chock-a-block with tourist hotels, restaurants and shopping centres, until you cross Mtwapa bridge, where the surroundings becomes less built up until you reach Malindi, 80 miles north of Mombasa.
Driving from Mombasa to Mtwapa can take anything from twenty minutes to several hours depending on Mombasa’s unpredictable traffic jams which can be caused by anything from an accident or break down, to police checks. It is only a 300-mile drive from Nairobi: but don’t imagine anything like European or American roads and the preferable option is probably to fly as the cost is fairly minimal at around $100 each way.
If you the brave the drive, the roads are rough, dusty diversions alternating with a moonscape of broken tarmac and potholes. Add to this the terrors of the alternative Kenyan driving styles further peaking your stress levels as you creep along at a maximum of 20 mph – if the road hasn’t been blocked by an accident. Sometimes, you can whistle along faster, not looking too closely at the expansive scenery because you need to focus on avoiding those thundering buses and trucks whose drivers have their own codes of road discourtesy (something to do with size = power). Your overall journey is likely to take 8 hours on a good day.
That’s one up on the overnight train which used to take at least 13 hours if it didn't break down. The “Lunatic Line” with its romantic associations (Out of Africa aside) has finally been replaced by a Chinese built modern version and the journey now only takes four and a half hours.
So (as mentioned above) flying from Nairobi to Moi International Airport often makes sense. Once there you still have the challenge of getting into town (or beyond). Nairobi driving is alarming but in Mombasa it stretches one’s vocabulary of expletives to new limits. The necessary skills for driving in Mombasa (aggression and eyes in every part of your head) should be acquired pronto. In the meantime fearless local taxi drivers (or navigators of the open, 3-wheeled affairs called tuk-tuks) can perform manoeuvres you never dreamed of and rocket your adrenalin to awesome heights.
Meanwhile to the south of Mombasa the Likoni Ferry connects the island to what is called “the south coast.” Kenya’s South coast also has lovely beaches (including the famous Diani beach) but is generally felt to be sleepier (apart from Diani). Those who live on the south coast fiercely defend it as “better” than the north coast although notably few commute to work in Mombasa: the ferry service, which usually runs between one and three ferries, can involve a hot, sticky wait of anything between a few minutes (if you are unusually lucky) and hours. And few ferries run late at night so you need to time it right if you’re returning from sampling Mombasa’s vibrant night life.
Additional hazards and the good bits
Add to this the humid heat of Mombasa by day and infestations of malaria-bearing mosquitoes invading your space by night. I forgot to mention the poisonous snakes who also inhabit this lush paradise, and the two months when the changing monsoon brings torrential rain (May/June) causing all hotels to baton down their hatches and tourists to flee. However there are plenty of ex-pats who survive all this, enjoying the coast’s great fishing, diving, kite-surfing, other water sports non-water sports. There are fishing, golf, social and even a theatre club to join, not to mention all the great restaurants and places to entertain the kids at weekends from crocodile farms to water parks.
There are also good hospitals (including the excellent Aga Khan Hospital) and shopping malls (mainly on the north coast) and of course so many great beaches you’re spoiled for choice. It’s little wonder really that those who live on the coast absolutely love it. Its mix of locals, ex-pats who’ve stayed on, new-arrivals and tourists, makes Kenya’s coast an excitingly diverse and cosmopolitan place to live.