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Lights of Mombasa

Mombasa, Kenya

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If you've never been to Africa before one of the first things you'll notice when you get off the plane is the light. All the colors seem brighter, bolder, and more vivid - it's as if someone had turned up the volume. If you've flown into Mombasa you'll also quickly become aware of the steamy humidity. This means that its prime mosquito territory - make sure you sort out anti-malarial medication well in advance.

Mombasa is East Africa's most important port, Kenya's second city and the coastal capital. Nairobians come here to escape the frenetic pace of life in the capital. Mombasa has a long history as a trading port and even today the people making money in the city are all involved in the import-export business in one form or another. The less specific they are about their business dealings, the shadier they tend to be!

Although Christianity predominates throughout most of Kenya, Islam is an important religion on the coast. Muslims have been coming to the east coast of Kenya from all over the Islamic world for centuries and they're well integrated into Kenyan society. Mombasa also has a sizeable Indian population, so Hinduism is also important. Westerners might be surprised at how well these ethnically diverse groups rub along with each other and with the different indigenous Kenyan tribes.

Do wander round Mombasa itself - keep an eye out for the massive, intricately carved doors and doorframes characteristic of Swahili houses - these used to be a symbol of financial status. You also can't fail to notice the many 'matatu' these are gaudily painted, often ancient VW minibuses with mega-decibel sound systems. This off-beat bus service is how the locals get around. Matatus have a slogan emblazoned on the front and rear. The artwork's often very colorful - it's important advertising - while words provide a clue to the recklessness of the crew. You can go almost anywhere by matatu - if you want to put your life in the hands of a driver who probably hasn't slept for days and will take the cratered Kenyan roads at breakneck speed. Matatus are never officially ‘full’ so collecting the fares requires considerable gymnastic skill on the part of the conductor who'll have to cling to the outside as the bus gets more crowded.

The star attraction in Mombasa is the Portuguese-built Fort Jesus. The ingenious angular configuration of the walls made it impossible for would-be attackers to lay siege to one wall without becoming sitting ducks for defenders in one of the other walls. Construction began in 1593, but such was the competition over this part of the coast that it changed hands nine times between 1631 and 1875. There's a museum over what used to be the barracks for the garrison and the range of exhibits reflects the breadth of influences on coastal culture: Chinese, Indian, Portuguese and Persian.

The real attractions around Mombasa are the white sand beaches, the warm clear waters and the coral reefs. Don’t worry about winding up as lunch for Jaws - the reef protects you from sharks when you swim. The best beach is probably Tiwi but Diani is also good. Snorkelling and diving trips are easy to organise through your hotel.

It's worth making some day trips from Mombasa. Watamu, which has a marine national park, is a good place to go for diving and snorkelling on the coral reef. It used to be a mellow little fishing village and still retains much of that atmosphere in spite of the increasing number of tourists. The famous Gedi ruins which are only a few kilometers away. This Arab-Swahili town dates from the 13th century but abandoned in the 17th or 18th century, perhaps because the sea receded or because the people were forced to flee invading tribes. Forest took over and the town wasn't rediscovered until the 1920s. Even if you're not interested in archaeology you'll be awed by this ancient site where large colourful butterflies flutter through the ghostly ruins and lizards sun themselves on the stones.

Mombasa's not as good for souvenirs as you might expect, but kangas - patterned wraparound skirts, sometimes with a Swahili proverb printed on them - are cheaper in Mombasa than anywhere else in Kenya and great style on the beach.

When it comes to eating out many of the best places are ethnic Chinese and Indian restaurants, but if you want to sample coastal Swahili dishes made with coconut go to Recoda Restaurant on Nyeri Street in the Old Town. Just one word of warning - it's a Muslim restaurant so there's no alcohol and it's closed until sunset during Ramadan.

Mombasa's a great place to experience the natural beauty of the African coastline alongside the tumult and bustle of modern urban life and shows there's much more to Africa than big game safaris.