Africa is one of the most raw and wild places on earth and with that comes a horrible internet connection. After 100 days exploring the continent, we had fallen behind on so many blogs and emails it was time to just find a quiet, beautiful place to catch up…enter Lamu Island. Surrounded by the Indian Ocean and built on coral rock, this 14th-century Swahili village is a world unto itself. Narrow winding streets, crumbling spice trade mansions, bustling markets, coconut groves, and not a car to be found…Lamu was our muse and refuge for one unforgettable week.
Similar to Ibo Island, everything from cargo to travelers, arrives on Lamu by traditional dhow boats. There aren’t too many tourists that come to Lamu so when a boat docks, the chief tourist officer Zewa comes to greet new guests like us.
Zewa offered to show us a few hotels but we knew we needed a home for our extended stay, something with a kitchen, ocean view, and WiFi. He guided us through the maze of streets, as our mouths hung agape peering into gorgeous 18th-century homes and down bougainvillea-covered alleyways, catching glimpses of Swahili life.
Aside from the town’s stunning architecture and devoutly Muslim community, the donkeys are one of the most striking things about Lamu. Instead of cars or trucks for transport, Lamu’s 3,000+ donkeys troll the narrow streets serving as taxis, lawnmowers, garbage disposals, shopping carts, to brick haulers. After waiting out a few mule traffic jams and visiting a few obligatory hotels, Zewa led us to our dream home: Wildebeest Apartments.
Originally built in the 17th-century, this four-story home was converted into apartments for artists in residence. Owner and textile designer Jony Waite was out of town so we got to rent her personal creative space. Filled with paintings, bespoke furniture, vintage books, and fabrics made by the Waite herself, this place had the most incredible energy about it–much less a charming kitchen and balcony with panoramic views.
Each day we would walk to the produce and fish markets to peruse the day’s offerings and brainstorm recipes. Living on the road without a fridge or stove, we rarely get the chance to cook so this was our chance to get culinary again.
Rice is a Lamu staple so we thought we would give it a whirl. Little did we know it requires a coconut grater the size of an ottoman with a huge wooden arm tipped with a 5 inch saw tooth blade. Thankfully, the Wildebeest house manager Kahindi was there to save the day with his own personal “mbuzi.” Together we made fresh coconut rice and red snapper with mango avocado salsa.
After a few days of cranking out blogs it was time to see a little nightlife. Each full moon, the locals organize a jam session on a neighboring Manda Island. We hopped on one of the departing dhow boats and watched the moon-rise over the ocean and then drummed Marley songs until a few hours before the sun came up.
To continue our island exploration, we took a 30 minute low-tide stroll to Shella Beach. The town was formed about 190 years ago when numerous tsunamis forced the residents from the nearby Manda Island to search for higher ground. In recent years, it has become a chic spot for tourists looking to splash out on the northern Kenyan coast.
For our final night in town, we went for a special meal at Ali Hippie’s house. This guy and his family have been hosting travelers for dinner and original Lamu Reggae music for over 30 years. Eating crab curry in his living room and jamming with the family, beat any restaurant experience we could have had.
Though we got the chance to go the Lamu museum and take an official tour of town, we loved learning about this village by just joining the daily hustle and bustle. Lamu is special place and one we were proud to call home, even if only for little while.