In 1883 Captain Jack Haggard, brother of novelist H.Rider Haggard, and recently appointed as Britain’s first ever Vice Consul in Lamu wrote to his family in England:
“If it ever falls to your lot to live in a second Lamu, you will know what perfect peace and quiet is, and happiness too beyond any I have before experienced. It is too good to last. I have no cares, no troubles, no anxieties, plenty to do, a good climate, good health, a kindly population well disposed towards me. The few inconveniences do not counterbalance all these blessings, and I am grateful, but it is too good to last…”
Very happily, and quite contrary to Captain Haggard’s expectations, Lamu’s many blessings have lasted and endured – the peace and quiet, the happy isolation and the kindly population that he so enjoyed are still very much intact more than 130 years later. Indeed the island often seems to have been frozen in time about 100 years ago – and remains largely undisturbed by the cares of the 20th Century, much less the 21st.
Lamu is just 8 miles long and under 4 miles wide (less than 13 x 6 kilometres) and there are still no cars on the little island (well one or two if you count the District Commissioner’s Land Rover and the occasional tractor) and no real roads to drive them on, and almost all transport is still by sailing dhow or motorboat, donkey or foot.
Lamu is not a place that much believes much in progress – or indeed in haste of any kind – life is lived at a leisurely pace, and its physical appearance and character have changed very little in centuries. The historic layout of the Old Town remains intact – the same maze of narrow, shady streets – most only wide enough to accommodate a fully-laden donkey – the same coral stone houses and mosques, the same ancient sailing dhows and fishing boats at anchor in the port.
The population and culture of Lamu remain very largely Muslim. With more than thirty mosques, the island echoes to the muezzins’ call to prayer five times a day. Men often wear full-length kanzu robes and hand-embroidered kofia caps, and women often wrap themselves in an all-enveloping black buibui. Male visitors are usually very welcome to enter a mosque, as long as they do so in bare feet and with their legs covered by long trousers or a kickoy.
“The true allure of the town is its otherworldly atmosphere – the look of the alleyways is Arab, the faces are African, the pungent perfume of spice and curry is Indian. The mansions of Omani ivory traders loom like citadels, their doors carved with exquisite ornamental detail and studded with defensive brass spikes. Even the animals have a fairy tale quality – the alley cats resembling those in Egyptian hieroglyphics.”
Wall Street Journal
Remote and self-contained Lamu may be, but it has always been a sophisticated, tolerant and hospitable place. Lamu’s distinctive Swahili culture is the result of an intermingling over the centuries of many different influences – African, Arabian, Indian, Persian, European and more – brought to Lamu by merchants, travellers, colonisers and conquerors. Such influences show themselves to this day in Lamu’s religious and social traditions, architecture, furniture, cookery and many other aspects of daily life.
“Where do European jet-setters and grubby backpackers collide? Only on the island of Lamu. With its rich and raffish history as an Arab trading port, its idyllic beaches and its downright bizarre mix of characters, Lamu may just be Africa’s most exotic hideout.”
From Vasco da Gama to Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi to Mick Jagger, through the centuries Lamu has always attracted the curious, the celebrated and the cosmopolitan. And in recent years the island has gained a reputation as something of a low-key hideaway for European royalty and international celebrities. Certainly Lamu has always attracted and inspired the spiritual, the creative and the artistic – and the island hosts regular international gatherings of writers, artists, actors and film makers – along with popular and well-attended festivals of yoga and painting every year.
Just a few of the many other sights, tastes and experiences that make Lamu so special – the first captivating glimpse of town and island across the channel from the airport jetty on neighbouring Manda Island – a sight that never fails to lift the spirits of even the weariest traveller.
Lamu’s famous cats – whose sleek bodies and elfin faces hint at their Egyptian ancestry. The busy, animated street life when the town comes alive in the late afternoon after a long siesta. Wonderful seafood – succulent prawns, lobster, crab, snapper and tuna fish – all cooked in distinctive Lamu style with coconut and Indian Ocean spices. Mouth-watering fruits – Lamu’s sweet mangos are renowned all along the Kenyan coast.
Sunset cruises – sailing the Lamu Channel in a traditional lateen dhow, watching the moon rise in the East above Manda Island. The balmy climate – warm tropical days and humid nights cooled by the sea breeze. The magic of the huge, starry equatorial night sky – the Milky Way often seems close enough to touch. And most importantly of all – the time and space to slow down and let go with family and friends. In a world that is increasingly homogenized and harried, Lamu makes a wonderfully authentic and unhurried retreat.
Another of the many pleasures of spending time in Lamu is exploring the byways of the historic Old Town, wandering the narrow streets and alleyways and meeting the charming and sometimes highly eccentric inhabitants. There is good shopping for colourful kikoys and kangas, local crafts and more along the town’s main street, one block back from the seafront. Enjoy browsing for Swahili antiques, traditional carved furniture, silver jewellery and other souvenirs – and remember to bargain hard.
“It is at nightfall that Lamu Town becomes even more magical, as shop-owners light up their counters with candles or lanterns, and people bustle about the narrow lanes or sit in the dark chatting in chairs outside their houses, the men wearing white Muslim caps, the children skipping past.”
Lamu’s waterfront is lined with local cafes and restaurants – at little places such as Bush Gardens, Hapa Hapa, Seafront Café and The Olympic you can enjoy delicious juices and milkshakes along with fish and chips or more traditional Swahili fare. More sophisticated places to eat include Lamu House Hotel and Whispers Coffee Shop and the pizzas at Lamu Palace Hotel are good. Lamu’s version of Turkish Delight is the delicious, sticky, sweet and fragrant dessert known as halwa – it is well worth seeking out the shop where it is made in ‘downtown’ Langoni beyond the Town Square. An orginal place to have a drink is the notorious Floating Bar which is moored in the middle of the channel between Lamu and Shela.
Sleepy yet sophisticated, Shela Village is probably the most relaxing and seductive place you will every visit. Sitting two miles south of Lamu Town, where the channel meets the ocean, Shela has a languid, undisturbed atmosphere all its own. Only a generation ago Shela was being described as something of a ghost town, but in the past decade numerous ravishing holiday homes and guest houses have been built along the village’s pretty waterfront and jumble of narrow sandy streets.
Centre of Shela social life is the near-legendary Peponi Hotel – no one should miss out on a drink in the bar (do try the house cocktail the ‘Old Pal’), lunch in its pretty courtyard garden or dinner in the elegant dining room. Beyond Peponi the island’s main beach stretches almost as far as the eye can see – miles and miles of empty white sand facing the Indian Ocean backed by magnificent dunes.
“The eight-mile crescent of Lamu Beach runs south from the Swahili village of Shela. The dawn walk along the water’s edge to breakfast at Kizingo Lodge is a rare chance to explore a virgin Indian Ocean beachscape. Translucent pink crabs scuttle into the sea, sand dollars litter the beach like confetti and birdsong drifts from the dunes beyond.”
‘The World’s Best Beaches’ DAILY TELEGRAPH
Most visitors to Shela are lulled into a sense of blissful indolence, content to stroll along the beach, browse in one of the village’s attractive boutiques – Aman and Ali Lamu are highly recommended – enjoy a drink or two at Peponi, or simply to subside on a shady rooftop with a book and enjoy the rhythms of the day. For the more energetic, deep-sea fishing, scuba-diving, sea-kayaking, windsurfing and water-skiing are all available. For the less energetic, a sunset dhow cruise around the channel – perhaps with another drink or two and a basket of delicious bitings – should not be missed.
Lamu’s History and Culture
Lamu Town was established before the fourteenth century, but the island had already been settled long before, and travellers from Arabia and around the Indian Ocean have known of Lamu for 2000 years. In 1505 a Portuguese warship arrived at the island, and Lamu’s rulers agreed to pay cash tributes to the Portuguese in return for their not sacking in the island. Portuguese dominance of Lamu continued for 180 years, threatened only briefly by a Turkish fleet. Throughout this period the Portuguese based themselves largely on Pate Island – about 10 miles north of Lamu.
Through the centuries, merchants and travellers from Arabia arrived and settled in Lamu and other towns along the East African coast, creating a network of Swahili city states that stretched the length of the East African coast – from Mogadishu in the north to Mozambique Island in the south – and including Pate, Malindi, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Kilwa. These ports became the gateways for external trade with Africa – exporting slaves, ivory, tortoiseshell, animal hides, ambergris and other precious commodities to Arabia, Europe and across the Indian Ocean.
“The voyage to Lamu unfolds like an opium dream – the mysterious buildings of the island’s main town rise like a mirage on the horizon – a jumble of ancient whitewashed mansions, mosques, palm trees and bougainvillea, all presided over by the stone turrets of an Omani fortress. Stepping ashore is like entering Pasolini’s Arabian nights – Lamu town is a medieval labyrinth so perfectly intact that it was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 2001 and it looks as if little has changed here since Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama drifted past en route to India more than 500 years ago.”
Wall Street Journal
Lamu’s ‘Golden Age’ began at the end of the seventeenth century. The Portuguese had by then been ousted by the Omani Arabs, and Lamu prospered and flourished for the next 150 years. Ruled by the Yumbe council of elders, Lamu was controlled only loosely by the Omanis.
Lamu became the dominant port on the East Africa coast and a centre of religious education, poetry, politics, arts and crafts – as well as the trade which made it rich. It was during this period of prosperity that most of Lamu’s magnificent stone mansions and townhouses were built by its wealthier inhabitants. The town’s unique Swahili Architecture is one of its most enduring legacies.
Lamu was often in competition and conflict with other East African port cities, and in 1812 the island was attacked by a force led by the Mazrui Arabs of Pate and Mombasa. Rather to their surprise, the Lamu forces defeated the invaders at the Battle of Shela, and the Lamu Yumbe, fearing bloody reprisals, asked the Sultan of Oman for protection.
The Omanis sailed South with a force of mercenary troops from Baluchistan, and from their new base in Lamu proceeded to dominate the entire East African coast, eventually moving the headquarters of the Sultanate from Oman to Zanzibar. With the abolition of the slave trade, and the growing dominance of Mombasa and Zanzibar, Lamu went into a steep decline at the end of the 19th century, and remained almost frozen in time for the next hundred years.
Visitors should not miss a visit to the Lamu Museum, which is filled with historical artefacts and insights into the history, culture and archaeology of the region. Lamu Fort dominates the town square, and was built by the Omanis as a garrison in the early 19th century. Used as a prison for many years, it now houses a library, the town’s conservation department and hosts regular photographic and ethnographic exhibitions. Lavish Swahili wedding parties often take place in the courtyard of the fort, and female visitors are usually very welcome to attend.
The German Post Office Museum is probably of most interest to keen philatelists and historians of Lamu’s colonial past. The Swahili House Museum is a recreation of a traditional small coral stone house built in the early 18th Century and is filled with traditional furniture and decorative plasterwork. Lamu’s grand Riyadah Mosque was built in the late 19th Century by Islamic scholar Habib Swaleh and is the focus for Lamu’s annual Maulidi Celebrations. These commemorate the birth of the Prophet Mohamed, attracting pilgrims from all over East Africa and the wider Islamic World.
Lamu has been called the ‘Donkey Capital of Africa’ – there are more than 6000 of the animals on the island (and a human population of around 25,000). Donkeys are an important means of transport for both people and goods around the town and the island – and any which are taken ill are treated at The Donkey Sanctuary on the seafront in Lamu Town.
Riotous donkey and dhow races take place during Lamu’s popular annual Swahili Cultural Festival which celebrates every aspect of the Swahili way of life – including concerts of taarab music from Mombasa and Zanzibar, demonstrations of traditional arts, crafts, dances and cooking – plus films and talks on Swahili history and civilisation.
Around the Archipelago
Matandoni and Kipungani are the only other settlements on Lamu Island – both are sleepy fishing and farming villages on the island’s west coast. Beyond Kipungani and close to the southern tip of the island are two remote and relaxing beachfront lodges – Kipungani Explorer and Kizingo, and a low-key, eco-friendly development of luxurious beach houses and kabanas Kizingoni Beach.
Manda Island is Lamu’s nearest neighbour – its dense, bushy interior quite different to Lamu’s more open landscape. Manda is known for its wonderful bird life and attracts wildlife from the mainland too – it is home to variety of animals, from monkeys, antelopes and anteaters to a herd of buffalo and even the occasional elephant and lion. At Ras Kitau, Manda’s long sandy beach looks across the channel to Shela and is a popular place to swim and sunbathe. Diamond Beach Village has an excellent pizzeria and beach bar and is a lovely place to stay and unwind. Drinks and meals are often also available at Lamu House Beach Club (check with Lamu House Hotel) and The Majlis is a stylish Italian-owned hotel with restaurant and bar.
The ocean-facing beach on the eastern shore of Manda is often the site of baby turtle hatchings and Lamu Marine Conservation Trust, based at Peponi in Shela, is involved in turtle protection and other local conservation projects.
Manda is also home to the beautiful Takwa Ruins – the ancient remains of a Swahili town deserted in the 17th Century – accessed along a tiny channel through the mangroves which fringe much of the island. The ruins are highly atmospheric, particularly in the late afternoon light and make a memorable dhow-excursion from Lamu or Shela. On the ocean side of Manda, through the narrow Mkanda channel (‘the belt’), pretty little Manda Toto (‘baby Manda’) Island is a nice place to swim, snorkel and picnic. Nearby is the lovely Manda Bay lodge.
A few miles north of Manda lies fascinating Pate Island – remote, inaccessible and archaic even by Lamu standards. A trip to Pate is a worthwhile adventure and gives an insight into how life was lived in the archipelago in centuries past. Once an important town in its own right and rival to Lamu, Pate Town was founded in the early days of Islam and settled by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. On its outskirts are the Nabahani Ruins – the remains of an ancient Arab Town abandoned in the early 19th Century. Pate’s livelihood now relies on fishing and the cultivation of tobacco and bananas.
At Siyu, in the centre of Pate Island, once an important centre for Islamic scholarship, silk weaving and other crafts, there is an impressive Omani Fort, recently restored by the National Museums of Kenya, and some interesting domed tombs. Close to the South East coast of the island lie the extensive Shanga Ruins. The sleepy villages of Faza and Kisingitini on the island’s North coast are local centres of dhow-building and lobster fishing.
Further north still is the Robinson Crusoe-style desert island of Kiwayu – a long thin sliver of empty beach and deserted sand dunes. It is home to the utterly laid-back and hedonistic Mike’s Camp and Kai House – there can be few more remote and romantic places to stay on the whole coast of Africa.
Self Catering – renting a house on a ‘self-catering’ basis doesn’t mean you have to do any work in the kitchen – in fact quite the contrary as all our houses come with chefs and helpful staff who will take the strain out of cooking and shopping. Simply discuss what and when you want to eat with chef and staff – they will prepare, cook and serve your meals as required.
The staff can do the local shopping for you, keeping a careful record of their purchases, and fishermen will be pleased to deliver freshly caught fish and seafood straight to your door. At most houses shopping can be done for guests before they arrive – simply send down a shopping list via text message and funds via mpesa.
Food shopping – wonderful fresh fish and seafood are always available, as are a wide variety of delicious fruits and vegetables. A morning visit to the bustling market in Lamu Town is recommended – pulses, grains, rice, herbs and spices are also sold there, along with eggs, flour and other staples of Swahili cooking.
There are several small supermarkets in Lamu Town and Shela selling spaghetti and pasta, olive oil, a small selection of cheeses and other packaged foods. Good chicken and goat are always available – but if you are looking for fillet steak or other prime cuts it is best to bring them from Nairobi, along with speciality cheeses, charcuterie and other items from the deli counter. Bacon and other pork products are not available in Lamu.
Alcoholic drinks – these are widely, if discreetly, available and there are several licensed bars and restaurants around the islands. The drinks shop at the Administration Police Canteen on the southern outskirts of Lamu Town has a reasonably wide selection of wines and spirits – but if you are looking for vintage wines or esoteric brands it is best to bring them with you.
Cultural – while Lamu is a tolerant, friendly and welcoming place, the islands are still in large part home to a conservative Muslim society. Visitors should dress with reasonable modesty – in particular when visiting Lamu Town – and wearing of swimsuits should be confined to beach or pool.
Medical – there is a public hospital on Lamu and several private medical clinics but facilities and treatment do not compare to Nairobi or Mombasa. We recommend visitors have appropriate medical insurance and subscribe to the good-value medical evacuation services provided by Amref Flying Doctors. Malaria and other communicable diseases can be present on the coast and in other parts of East Africa and we recommend you take your doctor’s advice as to prevention and prophylaxis before travel.