28.06.2010 - 04.07.2010 0 °C
Now I will describe some of our experiences whilst we were staying in Shimoni, a small fishing town located on the southern coast of Kenya. We had heard about Shimoni from Rob whom Chris had met in England in April. We were still hoping to find a place where we could snorkel as, so far, it had been impossible because of the condition of the sea at this time of year. It’s the rainy season here, which means the rivers pour lots of sediment into the sea. In addition, the sea is often rough, so, where it is relatively shallow, it churns up the sediments on the seafloor. These two factors combine to make visibility in the water too poor to see very much.
We had initially thought we would pitch our tent in the Kenya Wildlife Service campsite, but when we saw the site, we decided that it was not very workable (even though we would have had a large tortoise as a neighbour!). As we walked back along the street toward the town centre, we noticed Betty’s Camp and decided to check it out. Edward, the manager, greeted us and invited us to see rooms. As it was out-of-season, no other guests were staying there, and we were able to get a room for a much-reduced price. We ended up taking a room which was basically an open-air balcony overlooking the ocean and providing a great view of Wasini, an island lying parallel to the coastline on the other side of a channel some 500 m wide. We were really delighted with our room and have included a photo so you can see it too.
Our airy room
Betty’s camp even had a very clean swimming pool which we much enjoyed using. We were the only guests. Our meals were served to us by Raphael, a Samburu (we had visited a Samburu village near the start of our Turkana trip). Raphael was tall, proud and very gently spoken, and wore purple finger-nail polish (young Samburu men often dress in the most amazing clothes and adornments!). He told us that he had dressed as a moran for few years.
Edward, Chris and Raphael
Our first day we visited a very small beach (the size mainly influenced by the fact that we went at high tide), and we loved swimming in the warm ocean water. The next day we arranged with Saidi, who owned a small boat, to go across to Wasini Island for some snorkeling just off a jetty. We were not disappointed! The seafloor was really gorgeous with a huge variety of corals that we had not seen before. Also, there were many very colourful fish that were new to us. We felt greatly privileged to be able to experience all of this. We spent close to two hours swimming around with Mohammed, our guide. He looked after us well, floating along close to us, pushing a life ring. The crazy thing was that he had no mask or snorkel so he was hung out with us for all that time. He had patience, but was shivering cold when we eventually got back in the boat (we were nice and warm, though).
Our next stop was for lunch at the Wasini Hotel. The meal was amazing and we ended up having lunch there for the next three days. It included crab, red snapper and sea asparagus which is exposed at low tide in various places along the shore. Our table was decorated with bouganvillia and other beautiful flowers, and - of course - we had the most gorgeous view of the sea which was an amazing turquoise colour.
We also visited what was known as "the coral garden", an area of old, dead coral mounds with, in places, mangrove trees growing thickly between the mounds. The first time we saw it there was no water at all and I wondered if it ever became immersed. The next time we visited was as the tide was coming in, and we watched the whole area fill up in less than 30 minutes. In most places, it was at least 2 feet deep and in some, more than 4 feet. I was completely enchanted! The women of Wasini Island have developed the coral garden by building wooden walkways - they charge a small admission fee which helps support the island community. We met the woman who was taking the fees for our visit - she ended up coming back in the boat with us when we returned to Shimoni that evening.
Over the next two days, we were part of a couple of failed attempts to go to the highly regarded Kisite National Marine Park. We had heard that the fish and corals in this park are numerous, colourful and large. We had talked to many men about being taken to the park and finally settled on one named Rashidi who seemed both honest and concerned about safety, which I like when we are sailing on the ocean. Despite our careful choice, Rashidi, at the last minute, told us he had another commitment that he needed to take care of, so he introduced us to another Mohammed who would be the captain of our boat. I took an instant dislike to this man. He had a very strong macho energy about him and I felt I couldn’t trust him but - what to do? So there we were on this boat with about 18 other passengers. We started out trip in quite calm water but then began to head out to sea, in a direction that did not make sense to us. We thought he was looking for dolphins, but when the sea started to get quite rough, we headed back toward one end of Wasini Island. I was a bit suspicious about the way the engine sounded and thought that maybe they were running out of fuel. Sure enough, when we got back to near the island, Mohammed announced that they were out of fuel and that we needed to wait for someone to bring more. Half an hour went by before a boat arrived with the extra fuel. Mohammed then announced that we would be heading back for lunch which meant we would be going in completely the opposite direction to the one we needed to go to the marine park. Despite everyone’s objection, Mohammed and his crew headed for the restaurant. We all knew that, by the time lunch was over, low tide would be past so going to Kisite would be pointless as the water there would be too deep for us to be able to see the fish and corals very clearly. Everyone was very frustrated as we realized that the crew had no intention of taking us to Kisite.
A sailing dhow
When Rashidi found out what happened, he told us we could go the next day without paying, and that he would for sure be the captain. Our second trip was a completely different experience from the first, and we felt much more confident throughout. The water was rough as we went toward the park, and several people became seasick. Other passengers knew of a man who had died whilst snorkeling the week before, so they were pretty uncomfortable in the rough water. The long and short of this second attempt was that quite a few people insisted on turning back when we were two-thirds or more of the way to our destination. Strike 2!
I had seen a large boat, the Monsoon, come to pick up passengers at the Shimoni jetty every morning, so I decided to see if it went to Kisite and, if so, whether we could go too. Amazingly, we were told we could - for just over $100 for both of us. The trip was wonderful, and I felt much more confident in this larger boat, though the sea was really quite rough again.
The snorkeling was really amazing. Some of the fish we saw were huge, as were the corals. I felt that we were getting an experience that we might have had were we scuba diving - but we were just snorkeling! The highlight came when we arrived at our second snorkel site and saw that dolphins were there. Several other smaller boats similar to those we had been in the days before were already there, and the dolphins seemed to be entertaining each of them. We dove into the water and, sure enough, we were swimming with the dolphins! It was an other-worldly experience - something that I have wanted to do for such a long time. I was just feet away from these majestic, streamlined beings. We had several "visitations" and then they disappeared into the blue. When I got back into the boat, I had tears of joy running down my face. I never thought I would have this experience, let alone in such a natural way.
We decided to take the trip again the next day as it felt too special to leave without seeing Kisite once more. I wanted to really take in the beauty of this underwater paradise. I knew that we would not likely see dolphins again as this is very hit or miss. The water this second day at the Marine Park was choppier than before, but this did not take away from our experiences of seeing an electric ray, several different kinds of moray eels and an octopus to name just a few of the amazing creatures and scenes that met our eyes. But the day also held its own very special treat. A turtle! We were told by our guide that was a hawksbill turtle. Not only did we see it, but for a while I was swimming less than a foot away from this beautiful creature. It was not at all shy so we were able to be with him or her for a few minutes. This was another very wonderful experience - one that made the day seem very special indeed.
Back in Shimoni, we readied ourselves to leave very quickly as we wanted to get to Tanga that evening, and it was a bit of a crazy trip. We had snuck in our snorkeling at Kisite hoping that we would be able to make it to Tanga. We started our joureny on “piki-pikis” (motor bikes). Each of us was on the back of a bike with a local person driving. Our packs were tied precariously on the luggage rack behind us. The road was deeply rutted, thick loose sand in many places, damp sand in others. How the locals put up with it, I have no idea. They are much too patient!
We got to the main Mombasa-Tanga road after traveling 15 kms on the sandy road. We left the piki-pikis and hopped onto a matatu, basically a minivan which takes about 14 passengers plus whatever else they can fit in. It was an incredlbly uncomfortable ride but we got to the border town okay. There we hired some men with bicycles to take our packs while we walked alongside the bicycles to the border. We got through easily and then continued on our way by catching a small bus to Tanga. We arrived there after dark. Our first task was to find a room to stay in. We first checked the best option mentioned in the Lonely Planet, but it was full. When asking locals for other options, Chris met a young man named Selim who works for Tayodea, a community organization that does local hikes. We knew Toydea well from our trek in the Usambaras in May. Selim very kindly showed us the way to another hotel that cost a whole $8 a night. The best thing was that he knew which bus we had to catch early the next morning to get to Dar Es Salaam from where we would take a train or bus to southwestern Tanzania. Selim had other people he was seeing off on a bus even earlier that next morning so, once he had done that, he came to take us to the station. There we were on our bus at 6 am in the morning! We felt blessed by our meeting with Selim, as otherwise our travel could have been much more complicated and slower. Over and over again on our trip we found these guardian angels who showed us the way. It was an amazing experience.
We arrived in Dar Es Salaam about one in the afternoon, much later than we had anticipated. We gave up hope of catching the train as we knew it departed at two, but when we found out that the bus that we hoped to catch to Mbeya was no longer running because that particular busline had gone out of business, we decided to take a taxi to the train station just in case the train's departure had been delayed. Basically we were trying to avoid the bus station in Dar as it has a reputation of being a nightmare, especially for foreign tourists. Sadly we discovered that we had just missed the train, so had no alternative but to go to the bus station. As soon as we arrived there - and as we had experienced elsewhere in Tanzania - we were mobbed by local guys telling us what we should do and that they should take us to a busline office to get our tickets. It was pretty overwhelming, though, with time, we learned to just walk away until we were able to make a decision about what to do. We wanted to just get out of Dar as it is known as a place where you can be robbed very easily. The guys at the station were adamant that we could not get out of town that day, then catch an express bus next day from somewhere else along the road to Mbeya (we later found out that all of them were lying to us in almost everything they told us!). We ended up having to stay in Dar despite my not wanting to, after we had bought two seemingly expensive tickets. An apparently very helpful young man named Emanuel had helped Chris buy the tickets, then took us to a nearby hotel, newly built, which was clean and comfortable. The next morning, he showed up to take us back to the station. I was suspicious about the whole thing, but what to do? When we got to the station, the bus that we had tickets for was not there. Emmanuel told us it had broken down and tried to put us on a much smaller bus. We refused this and found a larger, more comfortable bus that would be going to Mbeya. We managed to get on the bus, but soon were told that we could not have the seats we wanted. Instead we had to sit in the half of the bus that had three adjoining bench-style seats (rather than the two-seat benches we had paid for), each of which was incredibly skinny. Our seatmate was not a small man, so we were all very cramped and uncomfortable for the entire fourteen-hour trip. I was not a happy camper! To add to our dissatisfaction, we learned that we had been charged twice as much money for the ticket as we should have been (I wonder if that bus really had broken down or if it was some excuse to put us on a much cheaper bus .....). We were really fed up with some of the run around we had been given in Tanzania. We had not experienced this in Kenya.
A few hours into the 14-hour trip, the bus stopped at the side of the road and the almost everyone got off and peed behind nearby bushes. I must say I was too shy as I was the only white woman on the bus. Later I discovered that the women find a place by themselves to pee so likely the next time I might be more comfortable with relieving myself in this way. Our next stop was pretty much the halfway point on the journey. There, we had time either to buy food or to pee - there was no time for both! I don’t think we would have eaten anyway, judging by the food we saw other passengers eating!
After arriving at Mbeya and surviving our mobbing at the bus-station, we quite quickly found a hotel to stay in even though it was a bit dingy. The highlight there was meeting a Dutch couple who, some thirty years ago, had spent three years in the area as volunteers. It was great to talk to them and hear about their experiences and about just how much they loved that region. They told us that the road we intended to take the next day made for a gorgeous journey and, as it turned out, it really was! As with so many other places we have seen on our Africa trip, it is another place to come back to when we have more time.
Our intention was to get to Chulumba in Malawi in time to catch the “Ilala”, the ferry that, on a week-long round trip, runs essentially the whole length of Lake Malawi. Our crossing the border from Tanzania to Malawi involved quite a few different forms of transport, including bicycles to carry our backpacks. Neither Chris nor I was brave enough to get a ride on a bike!
Everything went smoothly at the Malawi border other than the fact that the ATM was out of order so we had no Malawi money other than some that we had traded for our Tanzanian shillings. Little did we know that money was going to be quite a hassle for most of the time we were in Malawi. There are not very many ATMs in the country and this was our only way to get money!
On entering Malawi, we instantly felt huge relief as we had not found Tanzania an easy country to travel in. We never knew when we were being given misinformation, and we were almost constantly hassled whenever we were in town, especially at bus stations. Malawi felt like a place in which we could relax. We met a Canadian couple at the border, and shared a taxi with them as far as Chulumba. I will carry on with our journey in our next blog.