Sunday, July 21

On The Isles of Lamu

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I love being in Lamu. Hopping out of the Airkenya aircraft and on to the dhow to sail us to Lamu Stone Town on the famed island of Lamu, l’m looking forward to a week of island- hopping.

In a few minutes, l’m knocking the handsome door of Subira House that overlooks the 18th century Lamu Fort. Subira House was built at the same time as Lamu Fort. It belonged to the liwali or governor of Lamu.


Lamu Town on the island of Lamu in the Lamu archipelago boasts of being the oldest Swahili town that has been continuously lived in since the 13th century. Its history is rich and colourful as a super-rich trading island, a powerful sultanate and an important port, frequented by merchants from the distant lands of the Far East and Arabia and much later the Europeans.

Many a sea-sailing merchant set up home on the islands of the archipelago giving rise to the Swahili culture. The stone houses reflected the grandeur of their wealth until the end of the Sultanate and the beginning of European rule in the 19th century.

With the golden days of the sultanate over, the grand homes lost their lustre until the arrival of European visitors from the 1970s onwards who bought many a crumbling house to turn into exquisite homes.

Subira House

Subira House is listed as Grade 1 because of the careful restoration of the historical Swahili house has been a labour of love for Christina and Paul Aarts.

Subira is the only house in Lamu with a dome at the entrance reflecting Omani architecture. It boasted 12 of the finest wooden carved doors, some by Mohamed Abubaker Kijumwa, who is hailed as the Socrates of Lamu. Born in Lamu in 1855, he was a self-taught man of exceptional talent — a philosopher, historian, artist, woodcarver, calligrapher and scholar besides other titles. One of his lasting contributions to Lamu was the setting up of the wood carving industry. Prior to that, doors were shipped in from Zanzibar or India. Lamu developed its unique style of door carving in the late 1800s. Kijumwa’s wooden carved door also features on the German Post Office in Lamu.


The turtles are hatching. It takes a few minutes to grab our things and find a local dhow to sail us across Lamu Channel and on to Manda Island. It’s low tide, exposing the roots of the mangrove trees lining the narrow creek. We climb up a narrow path through a glade of acacias to reach the homesteads of LaMCoT’s turtle guardians who guide us down the dune that opens up to a vast ocean merging into the sky. Above the high water mark, the Orma ranger helps unearth the turtle nest wearing surgical gloves so as not to imprint his human mark on the newly hatched.

And the little turtles begin to flip out of their sandy nest with their flippers. The Green turtles –the size of my palm – make a dash for the ocean and vanish into the crashing waves. Only the female will return to this beach to lay her eggs because female turtles are genetically programmed to do so – it’s one of nature’s marvels.

Marine turtles have outlived the dinosaur but are now critically endangered across the globe. Out of every 1000 hatched, only one makes it to adult hood. Their life is fraught with all sorts of dangers including the beaches being cleared for ‘development’.

Since 1997, the LaMaCoT has recorded 91,669 successfully hatched baby turtles out of the 101,447 which translates to a successful hatching rate of 90.4 – with the rate of poaching reduced by 90 per cent.

Sailing to the Isles

In between sunny days spent on the beach at Shela, hiking on its dunes and wandering into Lamu Stone Town, we set sail for Pate Island. Sparkling white sand bars appear in the low tide. It’s an endless blue planet and suddenly a pod of dolphins slips in and out of the water in front of the boat.

Landing at Pate, we walk to the centuries-old Yumbe Palace and then on to the upper village – Pate Juu – through the narrow lanes and houses built of coral rag with new extensions in brick and cement. According to literature, Arabs settled here from 7th century on. The Indians and the Chinese sailed in with their trading dhows and junks. There were shipwrecks – some settled and married the local women. Strolling through the town, it’s interesting to see the descendants who call themselves Bajuni.

By the 18th century, Pate was a thriving trading metropolis where silks were woven, goldsmiths made intricate jewellery and carpenters carved beautiful furniture including the musical siwa – two of which are in Lamu museum. The art of fine living was at its height with music and poetry written in the Kiamu dialect of Swahili in the royal palace of Yumbe. Mwana Kupona, Lamu’s famous poetess of the 19th century hailed from here. In-fighting between the sultanates saw the fall of Pate – with the famous battle of Shela where the ruler of Pate who was aligned to the Omanis in Mombasa misjudged the tide that left the army high and dry to be slaughtered by the Lamu folk. We reach the lower end of Pate by the mangrove-lined creek with a few dhows anchored and children splashing around. Walking back, we reach the ‘Portuguese’ part and back to our waiting boat before the tide goes out.

Our destination is Manda Island where we’re staying at Diamond Beach Village to be as close to the sea and sand as possible. The Robinson Crusoe inspired abode is luxuriously simple. The next few days are spent swimming and soaking in the sun with an afternoon spent at Takwa – a 16th century sultanate abandon two centuries later.

In the full moon and the water calm, the dhow glides silently through the channel as we feast on the foods from the sea for in the morn we must board the flight home. And we still didn’t get to do everything we planned like deep sea diving and spending days in the remote Kiunga Marine National Reserve with its colour-filled coral life. Next time.

Fact File
To stay at Subira House – and Diamond Beach Keep updated on LaMCoT’s turtle project: For island excursions book through Subira and Diamond Beach. Fly AIRKENYA to Lamu – it’s only an hour’s flight from Nairobi.


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