Sunset was early in Lamu, and as the sun dipped below the horizon, the town began to take on a completely different ambience. As the heat of the day subsided, the locals began to emerge from their houses to shop and eat. Incense and spice burned around us – their smoke swirling aroud us in the warm sea breeze. Radios blurted out an incomprehensible mix of English and Swahili, and a couple of bars with TVs attracted groups of men huddled around the flickering screens.
Shadows stretched across the ground, and the narrow alleys became darkened by the tall buildings above it. Lanterns were lit and randomly illuminated patches of light onto the path floor and walls. It felt more Robin Hood Prince of Thieves rather than Indian ocean. With little light to illuminate the surrounds, it was difficult to make out our peoples’ faces, and at times rather unsettling given that we had long ago lost our bearings. However we trusted in the safety of the crowds and followed the waves of people from one alley to the next. It was an unusual but fascinating feeling of unease and excitement.
Suddenly a bearded face approached us and asked if we needed direction. “Is there a good place to eat?” we asked hopefully. He smiled back and took us on a wild goose chase, leading us down a labyrinth of alleyways. We had no idea where we were going or whether we had stupidly walked into a mugging situation. Thankfully we eventually stopped off at the front of a rooftop restaurant. We handed him a few pennies as thanks and felt relieved to see the illuminated dining area at the top of the stairs. We climbed up and sat perched at the top of the building – an open plan room overlooking the tops of the building roofs. A warm and humid breeze blew through as we sat back and enjoyed a candle lit grilled fish supper. By some minor miracle, and after careful guidance from the restaurant owner, we somehow managed to find our way back to our B&B that night.
The next morning, it was as if we had awoken to a different place once more. The long dark shadows and the slightly sinister ambience of last night was replaced by buoyant market stalls fanning out in all directions along the alleys. Life went on as usual, with the ever-present donkeys pulling carts clumsily along the dusty pathways. We decided to stretch our legs out and veered towards the north part of the island of Sheila – where a famed 12km stretch of golden sand lay. As we walked up, we were accompanied by the gliding dhows that were tracking the shore parallel to us.
The following morning we decided to book onto a dhow tour. There was little shade on these romantically built vessels. The hull was built with thick dark planks of wood, and the head of the boat was colourfully decorated with an array of patterns. Up above, a 20 foot cream-coloured sail stood inflated with the sea breeze. As our captain untied the rope at the harbour, we moved away silently and glided through the waves with a faint washing sound at the head of the boat as it made its way through the minor swell of the sea. We moved on through the tangled mangroves just off shore, and also tried our hand at some line fishing. After a relatively successful catch, we erected the sail and moved on towards a desert island for lunch.
We clambered onshore and dragged our ice box of fish and other fruit and vegetables. We gathered a pile of small twigs and branches, and laid them out on the sand floor underneath the flickering shade of some palm trees. We sat back on the soft sand, legs stretched out, whilst our captain went about gutting and grilling the fish. We tucked into the fish excitedly, pulling apart the delicate white flesh with our fingers. The chargrilled taste of the fish, and the curried spices on the skin complemented each other perfectly. It was a culinary masterclass.
Despite only spending a week on the island, we quickly got into an enjoyable and relaxing routine. Our days would usually consist of a fresh fruit breakfast followed by a long hour’s walk along the seafront up to the northern area called Shela, where there were a scattering of some exclusive western owned villas, and the well known high-end but laid-back hotel bar Peponi’s. As the sun rose high in the sky, that was our cue to seek some refuge. We would head to the shaded rooftop area back at our B&B and lay back in our cushioned loungers, taking in the breathtaking views across the rooftops and out to a sparkling sea. The late afternoon brought with it a refreshing cool, and we would make our way to a deserted stretch of beach, cooling off in the open waters.
Food was a major part of our enjoyment in Lamu. Of all the delicious food we had, there was one meal that I will forever remember – a seafood experience ranking up there with the best sushi in Japan. That first evening and on the recommendation of our B&B host, we came across a beautiful oasis amongst the hussle and bussle of the market – immaculately clean and with an almost boutique feeling in the property, that we had not come across elsewhere. Inside a small fountain let out a delicate rippling of water. A staircase spiralled around the bright white courtyard, with lanterns dotted on each step, flickering provocatively in the breeze. At the top was a private illuminated dining area, without a roof and looking up to a canvas of sparkling stars. Around us, we could see the top of the white stone washed buildings gleaming in the moonlight. Carpets had been laid out, and large opulent cushions provided our seating around low deep brown wooden tables. The plates and cutlery were simple yet tasteful. The entire property exuded low-key taste and opulence.
The short fish menu listed a stand out candidate of curried lobster and grilled vegetables. The succulent white flesh of the lobster was melt-in-your-mouth, and more than a match to the spectacular setting around us. The price for a whole lobster? A ridiculously cheap $15. We had discovered a gem. As I sat back cool and contented, I reflected on what had been a fascinating week in Lamu. It’s difficult to beat the combination of beautiful climate, long deserted beaches and fascinating local culture – but that is exactly we had found. This is what travel’s all about, I thought rather smugly.