South of Neptune Paradise Hotel, the Diani Beach road returns to gravel, although it continues in a driveable condition, past one or two secluded properties around Kinondo, and past Kaya Kinondo itself. There’s little transport down here, so you’re likely to be driving or walking. You get to a hard right-hand bend, then 100m later a sharp left turning for Chale Point. Chale island is 4km further south, and 300m offshore. The island, once an uninhabited beauty spot, was acquired in the early 1990s by a property developer, with the help of two local MPs, despite being public land and a gazetted Mijikenda kaya. The resulting resort, the largely Italian-patronized Sands at Chale, owned by The Sands at Nomad in Diani, angered local people and wiped out acres of natural vegetation. The owners claim the development has been sensitive, that only a third of the island has been built upon and that the other part is a nature reserve. If, instead of driving down to Chale Point you keep straight ahead, you emerge, after exactly 3km of slightly rough-and-ready coral rag road, onto the main highway down to Tanzania, at a point 13km south of Ukunda.
Wasini island and offshore
WASINI isn’t far offshore, but there’s no standard, cheap and simple way for tourists to reach the island. Only 5km long and 1km across, Wasini has about a thousand inhabitants, and is totally adrift from the mainstream of coastal life. There are no cars, nor any need for them: you can walk all the way around the island in a couple of hours on the narrow footpaths through the bush. With something of Lamu’s cast about it, the island is completely undeveloped, and people tend to be conservative in dress – something you should be sensitive to while visiting (don’t wander around in a swimming costume). The village of Wasini, an old Wa-vumba settlement, is built in and around its own ruins. It’s a fascinating place to wander and there’s even a small pillar tomb which still has its complement of inset Chinese porcelain. The beach in front of the village (and in fact the shores all round the island) – littered with shells, pottery shards, pieces of glass and scrap metal – are a beachcomber’s paradise that you could explore for hours (though be wary of pocketing sea shells or any artefacts).
Behind the village is a bizarre area of long-dead coral gardens, raised out of the sea by changing sea levels, but still flooded by twice-monthly spring tides.
Walking along the boardwalk, built by a local women’s group, with funds going towards education and healthcare in the village, through the coral grottoes, with birds and butterflies in the air, gives you the surreal impression that you’re snorkelling on dry land. The ground is covered by a short swathe of sea grass – the tasty mboga pwani (sea vegetable) – and patrolled by fleets of small crabs with enormous right claws. Beyond the coral garden, the boardwalk continues into the mangroves, giving an excellent chance to visit an environment not usually easy to get into.
The village of MKWIRO, at the eastern end of Wasini, is still largely a fishing village. The inhabitants have traditionally had little contact with Wasini village, but the arrival of a diving business means they are now also engaging with the tourist economy.
Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park
Wasini has ideal conditions for snorkelling, with limpid water all around, and the waters offshore are the most likely area on Kenya’s coast for seeing dolphins. Several operators run full-day trips in large dhows to the reefs around Kisite island, part of Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park, which is actually made up of Kisite National Park, which covers 11 square kilometres, and Mpunguti National Reserve, which has less protection and covers 28 square kilometres. The area is renowned for having some of the best snorkelling in Kenya. Similar trips, on a more ad hoc basis, can be arranged with boat captains at the dock in Shimoni: depending on the number in your party, demand on the day and the kind of vessel provided, the price for a three-hour trip could range from Ksh3000 to Ksh10,000, excluding park fees. You’ll get the most out of the trip by getting down here as early as possible, adding lunch to the deal, and making a whole day of it. Always check that there are enough life jackets, and that they’re usable.
The boats normally go out of the Wasini channel to the east, then turn south to pass the islets of Mpunguti ya Chini and Mpunguti ya Juu (“little” and “great” Mpunguti) on the port side. Some 5km further southwest, Kisite Islet, a coral-encircled rock about 100m long, is the usual destination and anchoring point. The best parts of the Kisite anchoring area are towards the outer edge of the main “coral garden”. There are fish and sea creatures in abundance here, including angel fish, moray eels, octopuses, rock cod or grouper and some spectacularly large sea cucumbers up to 60cm long. At certain times of the year, however, the water is less clear, and repeated anchorings have destroyed much of the coral in at least one small area. Ask the crew if you’d like to try to find a better area: the Mako Koke Reef, the other main part of Kisite marine park, is about 4km further west. The KWS headquarters, by Eden Bandas, where you buy park tickets, has a good display of information about local marine wildlife.
The people of Shirazi call themselves Wa-Shirazi and are the descendants of a once-important group of the Swahili-speaking people. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they ruled the coast from Tiwi to Tanga from their eight settlements on the shore, one of which is believed to have been this village. Around 1620, these towns were captured by the Wa-vumba, another Swahili group. The Wa-Shirazi, now scattered in pockets along the coast, speak a distinctive dialect of Swahili. Historians used to think that they originally emigrated from Shiraz, in Persia, but it now seems likely that very few of them have Persian ancestry and that the name was adopted for political reasons.