South of Mombasa, a continuous strip of beach runs between Likoni and Msambweni, backed by palms and broken once or twice by small rivers. Along the 100km stretch of coast south from Mombasa to the Tanzanian border, there’s just one highly developed resort area, Diani Beach. South of Diani, the coast is little known and, in most tour operators’ minds at least, nobody stops again until they reach Shimoni. This is great news if you have the time to go searching out untrodden beaches. With your own vehicle, or on an organized trip, you can also visit the Shimba Hills National Reserve and the neighbouring Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary, either overnight or on an easy day-trip excursion.
Along with the rest of the coast, the hotels in this area have been hard hit in recent years by the precipitous drop in foreign tourism; most are still open for business, though prices tend to be lower than usual.
Diani Beach ought to fulfil most dreams about the archetypal palm-fringed paradise. 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 recent downturn in tourism has 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 take one of several tracks leading off inland that 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.
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, and close your windows if there’s food in the room.
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.
Most of the people who live along the southern coastal strip here are Digo, and their neat rectangular houses, made of dried mud and coral on a framework of wood, are a distinctive part of the lush roadside scene. Digo women tend to dress very colourfully in multiple kangas. Although they belong to the Mijikenda group of peoples, the Digo are unusual in traditionally having matrilineal inheritance: in other words they traced descent through the female line, so that a man would, on his death, pass his property on to his sister’s sons rather than his own. It is an unusual system with interesting implications for the state of the family and the position of women. However, the joint assault of Islamic and European values over the last century has shifted the emphasis back towards the male line, and in many ways, women in modern Digo society have less freedom and autonomy than they had a hundred years ago. The site of one of the Digo’s ancestral villages, a sacred forest at Kaya Kinondo, near Diani Beach, can be visited with a Digo guide.
South of Neptune Palm Beach Hotel in Diani Beach,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. But 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; there are plans to eventually open it up to day visitors. 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.
Funzi Island is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel that you can walk across at low tide. Unlike exclusive Chale, you can easily camp on the island if you’re equipped for a fair amount of self-sufficiency, and Diani operators run bird- and crocodile-watching day-trips here. The village of Funzi is at the southern end, about 6km from the mainland, and there are beaches and sections of reef scattered close to the forested shore on both sides of the island.
Only 5km long and 1km across, Wasini Island 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, Wasini 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. The boardwalk through the gardens was built by a local women’s group to help conserve the mangroves and corals, with funds going towards education and healthcare in the village. Walking among these eerie grottos, 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 kokoni (sea vegetable) – and patrolled by fleets of small crabs with enormous right claws. Beyond the coral gardens, the boardwalk continues into the four types of mangroves growing here, providing an excellent chance to visit an environment that’s usually inaccessible.
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.
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 Ksh10,000 for a small boat to Ksh17,000 for a dhow, 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, near the jetty, 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.
The first real magnet on the coast south of Mombasa is Tiwi Beach, which lies a couple of kilometres to the east of the main road. Popular among budget travellers having a bit of a splurge, Tiwi rates as genuine tropical paradise material and attracts lots of Kenya resident families down from Nairobi. The reef lies just offshore, and there are good snorkelling opportunities at high tide, especially at the northern end. With the exception of the large Amani Tiwi Beach Resort at its southern end, Tiwi is still cottage territory, with a handful of plots vying for business. The main drawbacks (though you might think they’re advantages) are the relative isolation of the beach from Mombasa and Diani, and the lack of restaurants and bars outside the cottages and guesthouses. The clear pluses are fewer tourists and fewer beach boys. In the dry season, you can walk to the south end of Tiwi Beach and wade across the Mwachema River to Diani Beach and the strange Kongo Mosque, right next to the Indian Ocean Beach Resort.