Kenya's perfect white beaches, lapped by the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, are glorious - but there's more to see in Malindi than sand
Look at any travel poster for Kenya, and it will generally show either some exotic wildlife promoting the ever-popular safari holidays or a glorious white-sand beach with glistening turquoise waters. The beaches are undeniably beautiful. But I’m someone who quickly gets bored of sitting under a palm tree, so I was curious as to what else Kenya’s northern coast could offer.
I based myself at the town of Malindi, a couple of hours' hot, dusty and bumpy ride from Mombasa. The African Pearl Hotel was a welcome sight after the journey, and certainly lived up to its name. With a nice pool, well-kept gardens and excellent food, it was also an easy walk to the town centre and the beach.
Malindi is pleasant enough, although fairly typical of central African towns. The streets are a little shabby, and there is a fair bit of rubbish about. Children follow you everywhere, hoping for a handout of sweets or loose change, and everything has a slightly faded look, caused by the unavoidable coatings of red dust from the roads. But, hey, this is Africa - if you don’t like it, don’t come! Me? I love it, and the whole place gave me a welcome feeling that only Africa does. Time goes at a pace where it doesn’t really matter. Dinnertime is when you are hungry, and the next bus is always due… when it gets here!
I was surprised to learn that Malindi was once an important town, and has a long and impressive history. It has been a noted settlement since the 14th century, and was equal in status to Mombasa. In the early 15th century it was visited by Chinese explorers, and the then-King of Malindi sent back a giraffe and a zebra as a gift, thus beginning trade between the two nations. A later king also opened up trade routes with Europe, following the visit of Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama.
The local ‘guide’ (in reality the brother of the gate-guard at my hotel) who informed me of these facts – all genuine; I checked – then took me to see a tiny square whitewashed building at the southern end of the beach road. It was a church, built by the Portuguese in the early part of the 16th century, which is said to be the first Christian church in Africa.
Another monument to the Portuguese influence here is the Vasco da Gama Cross, situated on a small rocky headland reached by a path from the beach road. The stone cross, which is the only original part that remains, was bought from Lisbon in 1499.
Malindi’s long trading heritage is also linked with the Arab nations to the north. I was surprised to find no fewer than 12 mosques in the town, and the largest – the very impressive Juma’s Mosque – is built on the land once occupied by the slave market. Next to it is the large tower of a pillar tomb, belonging to a 15th-century sheikh.
Even without the historic attachments, the town is an interesting place to explore. I always head for the local markets (where the inhabitants go to shop, not the one designed to capture unsuspecting tourists!). Here, I watched in amazement as a small workshop in the dirt had a group of people cutting up old car tyres, and using the parts to make shoes. The tread of the tyre is used for the sole, and when I purchased a pair for a few pence, the constantly-smiling old man told me they had a 50,000-mile guarantee! I have to say, I found them surprisingly comfortable, and have worn them on many subsequent trips to hot climes.
The beach, of course, is the main attraction of both this resort and, indeed, the whole coastal region. For much of the length of the coastline, the perfect white-sand beaches are protected by a huge coral reef. This means much gentler seas, and for the most part deters the unwanted attention of sharks and the like. It also means there are some wonderful sights to be had just off the shore. Malindi has it’s own Marine National Park, which links up with the one at Watamu, a few miles down the coast.
The Watamu National Park is unusual, since it includes the rivers and mangrove swamps inland as well as the area out to sea. I couldn’t resist the chance of a boat trip, and was pleased to discover that the KWS Office hires glass-bottomed boats at a fairly reasonable price. I can’t recommend highly enough a relaxing day visiting both the wonderful wildlife of the mangrove swamps, and then going snorkelling on the coral reef. The reefs are very strictly policed, though, so don’t be tempted to bring any coral back with you, because they do check. Besides which, it ruins the reef for future generations.
If you are into the wildlife, then there is a small ‘Crocodile Paradise’ a couple of miles south of the town. It is all very false, however, and more akin to a cheap zoo. I didn’t stay long, and instead headed on to Gedi, where an entire ancient ruined city lies amid a dense forest that is slowly devouring it. Many important finds have been made here, but it was its strange mystical atmosphere that so enthralled me. Who lived here? What happened to them? How did a city of this size just die out?
Malindi is a great place to relax for a beach holiday. It has a surprising amount of things to do, good restaurants (the Old Man & the Sea on Mama Ngina Road, for example, has superb seafood and overlooks the beach) and, above all, a wonderfully warm and friendly population to welcome you. I can’t wait to return, and I would recommend it to anyone.