Lights of Mombasa
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
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.