North out of Malindi, the road to Lamu sets off as a tarmac highway, crosses the Sabaki (Galana) River and passes one or two resort developments and the anachronistic little seaside town of MAMBRUI, with its pretty mosque, semi-ruined pillar tomb and the unusual spectacle of cows on the beach. The idyllic kitesurfing base of Che Shale is further up the coast on the south side of the Ras Ngomeni peninsula. About 60km north of Malindi, you leave the shambas and scattered homesteads behind and enter the bush of the Tana Delta, with the road arrowing straight across the flat, gentle landscape, brown and arid, or grey-green and swampy, depending on the season.
The former ferry-crossing town of Garsen has been sidelined by the tarmac New Garsen Causeway, which sweeps over the Tana River 7km to the south of the flyblown town before petering out into a dirt track after you reach Witu. If you want to break your journey, Garsen has a KCB bank with an ATM and, in season, some of the best and cheapest mangoes in Kenya.
Between the river and the end of the trip, the scenery can pall, but if you’re on the bus, the journey is always enlivened by the other passengers and by stops at various small Tana delta towns and villages. Occasional flashes of colour – the sky-blue cloaks of Orma herders or the red, black and white of shawled Somali women – break up the journey, along with wonderful birdlife and some big game, too: especially giraffe and antelope (notably waterbuck), and even the odd elephant if you look hard enough. The road passes right through the recently created Kipini sanctuary.
Note that parts of this area were severely affected by ethnic violence in 2012 (see Trouble in the delta), and some governments were warning travellers to avoid it.
Trouble in the delta
Trouble in the delta
Despite progress at the micro level with initiatives like those of Delta Dunes Lodge and the Lower Tana Delta Trust, the threats to the Tana Delta region seem to be accumulating (see wtanariverdelta.org). After the failure of a highly damaging irrigation and rice-growing project in the 1990s, the latest, environmentally disastrous, idea is a gigantic biofuel project, that would carpet more than 200 square kilometres of bush and flood land with sugar-cane plantations for cheap ethanol – plans that may not be entirely prevented by the delta being recently put under international protection as Kenya’s sixth Ramsar Site – a wetlands area of global importance. Competition for scarce resources is also pitching communities against each other: in 2012, more than 100 people from the pastoralist Orma and farming Pokomo communities were killed in alternate raids on each other’s villages, sparked by disputes over water and grazing rights. Travel advisories warned against visiting the region, though no foreign visitors were affected.