Subscribe      List an Event or Business      Invite a Writer      Write for WN      Writers      Other Locations

Lamu Island

Home > Nairobi > Adventure | Museums | Places of Interest | Travel
by Roz Glazebrook (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer living in Brisbane. I love bushwalking, kayaking, wildlife, history and travel.
Published August 22nd 2022
Dhow under sail
Dhow under sail


A friend recently posted some photos on Facebook of a café she and her husband were eating at on a Greek Island. There were cats everywhere It reminded me of a café I visited many years ago on an Island off the coast of Africa called Lamu.

Market place on Lamu
Market place on Lamu


We had been in Africa for five weeks in 1985. During that time we had hired a four-wheel drive car in Nairobi for two weeks and visited all the game parks camping out with the wild animals. We also spent time climbing Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro.

To recover from wild animals, high mountains and altitude sickness, we headed for the coast. The Kenyan coast has long, white sandy beaches, and contains lots of archeological treasures and interesting history. Mombasa is more than 2000 years old and has a cosmopolitan mixture of people from Europe, Arabia, Asia and Africa.

A Lamu house
A Lamu house


Further up the coast is the fascinating Island of Lamu, which I will never forget. After a few days in Mombasa, we travelled up the coast to the beautiful town of Malindi. After a couple of days there, we caught a taxi from Malinda to the airport and caught a plane to Lamu. I remember we were the only passengers on the plane and it was scary as it only had one engine and we went through a ferocious storm. After arriving at the airport, we went to the wharf where we caught a boat across to Lamu Island.

Boat on Lamu
Boat on Lamu


It didn't take long after we got off the boat before we were offered accommodation on the Island. The Rainbow Guest House was cheap, which suited our lean budget. The beds were on the roof, but it was clean and comfortable. We booked a double room for 50 Kenyan shillings a night.

Rainbow Guest House
Rainbow Guest House


Lamu has been called the Katmandu of Africa because it has an interesting Indian, Arabic and African culture mix. It was founded in the 12th century and is the oldest continually inhabited settlement in Kenya. Back in the 1980s, it was a popular place for backpackers to visit. There are no cars on the island. It had incredibly narrow streets, where airy tall, stone buildings appeared to prop each other up.

Lamu cafe
Lamu cafe


Over a thousand years, Omani, Yemeni, Indian, Portuguese and Victorian British influences have all left their mark on Lamu Island, in the architecture, language and the very essence of the place. The modern world has had little visible impact on this historic town. After settling in, we went out for lunch at one of the local cafes with a couple of other backpackers we had met up with on Mt Kenya. I had curried fish, which turned out to be a very bad mistake.

I started feeling nauseated as we walked back from the beach and ended up vomiting and having diarrhoea all night. It was awful as it was coming out both ends at the same time. I had to spend my time in the toilet with a bowl to vomit into. I had awful cramps in my intestines. It was the worst case of gastroenteritis I've ever had in my life. None of the others got sick, so it must have been the fish. They all had something else to eat. I was a bit worried when I noticed the café owner shooing the cats off the tables with a tea towel before we sat down, but I don't think the cats were the problem, otherwise, we would have all got ill.

After three days, I was still very weak but felt well enough to start exploring the Island. I managed to walk to the main beach on the Island, which was absolutely beautiful with long white sand fringing the warm Indian Ocean. Lamu is mostly Muslim and we could hear the call to prayers from the mosques at regular intervals. We visited the museum on Lamu, which was very interesting.

One day we went on a Dhow ride to Manda Island. We visited the Takwa ruins which is an ancient Arab town dating back to the 10th century. It was a very interesting place. Our boatmen told us a lot about the history of the ruins and showed us the Mosque, bathroom and toilet and grave of a Sheik, which had a phallic symbol on top. The ruins are an ancient Swahili town that is believed to have prospered from the 15th to 17th centuries with a population of 2000 to 3000 people.

Streets of Lamu
Streets of Lamu


It was abandoned in favour of the town of Shela on Lamu, probably because salt water contaminated most of the town's supplies of fresh water.

Takwa ruins
Takwa ruins


The ruins consist of the remains of a wall that surrounded the town, about 100 houses, a mosque and a tomb dated from 1683. The houses face north towards Mecca. The town owed its origins in the 9th and 10th centuries to trade with the Persian Gulf. The chief trading commodity was probably elephant ivory. From the earliest period, the inhabitants of Manda were building with burnt square brick and stone and set with a lime mortar.

Takwa ruins
Takwa ruins


I loved sailing on a Dhow, even though I was still a bit queasy from my gastro and was a bit concerned I might need to use a toilet. I managed okay and it was a highlight of my trip.

Sailing across to Takwa ruins on Manda Island
Sailing across to Takwa ruins on Manda Island


The cats of Lamu are very interesting. They are very distinctive with big ears that stand straight up, long legs, a slim body, a long neck and a small head. Because they have been isolated on the Island, some people think they may be the closest living representatives of the wild breed that the Egyptians first domesticated 4000 years ago. Unfortunately, I didn't get a photo of one, but they were very regal and reminded me of Sphinxes.

There were lots of donkeys wandering around the streets of Lamu, and we saw them licking the tables in the marketplace.

Donkeys in market place
Donkeys in market place


On our last day, we got up early to catch the boat across to the mainland where we caught a bus back to Malindi. It was a very long, bumpy ride. Gilbert, one of the African men at the guesthouse gave John a farewell gift of a beautifully carved cow horn.

Years later after I got home I read about an Australian woman who was visiting Lamu and was raped on her first day there. I remember reading about her first-person experience in the Sydney Morning Herald. I also read about a woman kidnapped from Manda Island by Somali pirates from her home there who died after she didn't receive her medications for cancer and heart problems. The 66-year-old French woman Marie Dedieu was held in Somali's Kismayu region in 2011. It is so sad these things have happened in such a beautiful place, which must have affected the safety of tourists to the area.

More Takwa ruins
More Takwa ruins


I did warn my friend of the potential of disease from the cats on the Greek Island, but thinking back I was the only one to get sick at that café so it was probably the fish I ate rather than the cats that caused my illness. Lamu is on UNESCO's World Heritage List as "the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa", the crumbling architecture lining many of Lamu's cramped laneways dates back to the 14th century, when the town was established along a major Arab trading route.

Takwa ruins
Takwa ruins


Even though it has been thirty-seven years since I was there, I have never forgotten my memorable trip to Lamu with its beautiful people and fascinating history. It is a Swahili island paradise of warm, deep-blue water, golden sands and ancient, narrow streets where donkeys and cats rule.
Help us improve  Click here if you liked this article  16
Share: email  facebook  twitter
Why? A fascinating place to visit
When: Anytime
Where: Lamu Island off the coast of East Africa
Cost: Travel costs to Africa and transport and accommodation on Lamu
Your Comment
Popular Articles
12
Categories