Where the hotel hustlers left off after you settled in, the dhow-ride men take up the challenge. You’ll be persistently hassled until you agree to go on a trip and then, as if the word’s gone out, you’ll be left alone. The fact is your face quickly becomes familiar to anyone whose livelihood depends upon tourists. Dhow trips are usually a lot of fun and, all things considered, very good value. The simplicity of Swahili sailing is delightful, using a single lateen sail that can be set in virtually any position and never seems to obstruct the view. Sloping past the mangroves, with their primeval-looking tangle of roots at eye level, hearing any number of squeaks and splashes from the small animals and birds that live among them, is quite a serene pleasure.
There are limitless possibilities for dhow trips, though only a short menu of excursions is usually offered. The cheapest is a slow sail across Lamu harbour and up Takwa “river”, fishing as you go, followed by a barbecue on the beach at Manda island, then back to town. This might commence with some squelching around in the mud under the mangroves, digging for huge bait-worms. If the trip is timed properly with the tides, you can include a visit to Takwa ruins, or, for rather more money, you can stay the night on the beach behind the ruins and come back the next day. This is usually done around full moon. Takwa has to be approached from the landward side up the creek, and this can only be done at high tide. A further variation has you sailing south through Lamu harbour, past the headland at Shela and out towards the ocean for some snorkelling over the reefs on the southwest corner of Manda around Kinyika rock. Snorkel and mask are normally provided, but bringing your own is obviously much better. Although all dhows should carry enough useable life jackets, this is particularly essential if you’re venturing beyond the reef, where the seas can be very rough and accidents happen all too often.
The price you pay will depend on how many are in your party, where you want to go, for how long, and how much work it’s going to be for the crew. Agree on the price beforehand (a full day with lunch starts from around Ksh1200 per person) and pay up afterwards, although some captains may ask you for a small deposit to buy food. Be clear on who is supplying food and drink, apart from any fish you might catch.
Cameras are easily damaged on dhow trips, so wrap them up well in a plastic bag. And take the clothes and drinks you’d need for a 24-hour spell in the Sahara – you’ll burn up and dry out otherwise. The Promise Ahadi Dhow Operators Collective (0710 519156), on the waterfront in Lamu town, organizes recommended dhow trips.