Diani Beach ought to fulfil most dreams about the archetypal palm-fringed beach. The sand is soft and brilliantly white; the sea is turquoise and usually crystal-clear; the reef is a safe thirty-minute swim or a ten-minute boat ride away; and, arching overhead, the coconut palms create pools of cool shade and keep up a perpetual slow sway as the breeze rustles through their fronds. While competition for space always threatens to mar Diani’s paradisal qualities, the 2008 downturn in tourism knocked out some of the hotels, while the droves of hustlers, or “beach boys”, dwindled to a few relatively easily brushed-off diehards. Security has been tightened up, with askaris posted all the way along the beach outside every property, and tight security at hotel entrances.
Running 300m behind the beach and separated from it by bush, the Diani Beach road feels – in the high season – like Kenya’s number-one strip. Fortunately, forest and scrubby bush separate the road from the shore, although more of the Diani Forest disappears every year as one new plot after another is cleared.
For a walk, or a jog, head south along the Diani Beach road, which has more shade than the northern stretch. Towards the end of the tarmac surface are some wonderful patches of jungle, comprising the dwindling Jadini or more correctly Diani Forest (“Jadini”, disappointingly, turns out to be an embellished acronym made from the initials of members of a white settler family who once owned most of the land around here). There’s the almost obligatory snake park, but if you’d like to search for some animals in the wild rather than support this venture, then several of the tracks leading off inland will take you straight into magnificent areas of hardwood forest, alive with birds and butterflies, and rocking with vervet and colobus monkeys. The most impressive stands of forest are the isolated kayas, or sacred groves, of which there are at least three along the Diani Beach road: Kaya Diani, on the north side of the Leisure Lodge golf course (easy to drive or walk to the edge of the forest, and several trees have plaques proclaiming the grove’s status); Kaya Ukunda, west of the entrance to Diani Sea Lodge; and Kaya Kinondo, south of Pinewood Beach Resort. Kinondo is the first kaya to be officially opened to visitors (see p.000).
Beach boys and safety
Beach boys and safety
Spending some peaceful time on the beach can sometimes seem virtually impossible because of the hustlers plying their wares, their camel rides, their boat trips, or just themselves. Fortunately, the problem has abated in recent years, but a few beach-boy pesterers, in theory all licensed in some way, still hang on. People have different ways of dealing with them. Ignoring their greetings is considered rude, and may well not deter them. One solution is to strike up a friendship of sorts with one beach boy, to buy at least something, or to go on a boat trip. Once you have a friend, and have done some business, you should find you can then use the beach with fewer hassles from the others. It’s not so easy for single women, but the principle for most situations still applies – don’t fight it. There is no need, incidentally, to feel physically threatened on the beach. Every hotel has its askaris (security guards) posted along the boundary between the hotel plot and the beach, and they usually stay alert to the slightest sign of trouble – which is rare indeed.
If you’re a birdwatcher, Diani’s hotel gardens offer spectacular entertainment, though the status of the Diani forest’s threatened species is uncertain. Look out for southern banded snake-eagle, spotted ground-thrush, plain-backed sunbird and Fischer’s turaco, all of which have been seen here, though the spotted ground-thrush not since the 1980s.
You’re unlikely to come across snakes. Whether harmless green tree snakes, egg-eating snakes or pythons (the commonest species), or more rarely venomous mambas, those that get anywhere near the hotels tend to be bludgeoned to death by enthusiastic askaris who also use their sling shots to keep the local monkeys on the run.
The Diani Beach forest used to be the haunt of leopards, but they haven’t been seen in this part of the coast for decades now. Venture into the woods at night, however, preferably with a guide, and you will see eyes in the dark – usually those of bushbabies.
The most iconic of Diani’s wildlife are its rare Angolan colobus monkeys. Of the other monkeys, baboons are most common, and can be quite aggressive. Their adopted diet of hotel leftovers means they’ve multiplied greatly, and are not afraid of humans, so keep your distance. Overly tame Sykes’ monkeys are also becoming a nuisance: don’t leave things on your hotel balcony.
Visiting Kaya Kinondo
Visiting Kaya Kinondo
Kenya’s first kaya or Mijikenda sacred forest to open to visitors is the Digo tribe’s Kaya Kinondo, behind Kinondo Beach, at the southern end of Diani Beach. Kaya Kinondo was first inhabited by the Digo in 1560 and abandoned as a village site in 1880.
There’s an interpretation centre by the entrance which is well worth spending fifteen minutes looking around before you set off on your forest walk. To enter the forest itself, you visit with a Digo guide from the centre (no independent wanderings allowed), wrapped in a kaniki (indigo-dyed calico sarong) that you will be loaned. Photography is encouraged (except at the grave sites near the centre), but you are expected to show deep respect for the impressive forest environment – which means no running around and no kissing and cuddling. Behave as if in a church or mosque and you won’t go far wrong. As soon as you leave the sunlight and enter the cathedral-like gloom of the understorey, a hush tends to fall on proceedings, as you concentrate on stepping over the buttress roots of forest giants and avoiding contact with trailing creepers or ant-covered surfaces.
There’s a more light-hearted side to the experience, in any case, as tree-hugging (transmit all your cares and fears to the tree) and stories of “herbal Viagra”, aphrodisiac essences and cures for back pain in pregnant women are all part of the two-hour nature walk as you’re accompanied, if you’re lucky, by someone of seemingly limitless knowledge. The animals you’ll see, apart from monkeys, are mostly smaller denizens of the undergrowth, but no less worth spying for that – fiery red squirrels, slow-flying shade-loving butterflies and giant millipedes and, possibly, an elephant shrew snuffling through the leaf litter with its probing proboscis.