Marine Safari

On Saturday I went on a marine safari to Kisite Marine Reserve. I got picked up in a private touring matatu from my cottage at 7.15am, and we drove along the strip picking up other passengers from their hotels.  This also enabled me to see some of the other hotels along the strip – some of them are unbelievable and about $175 a night!  I am paying about 15 pounds a night for my room with a bathroom.  By the time we had collected everyone, dropped somebody off at Barclays and then returned for them, had the inevitable stop for petrol and then another pause for an unknown reason, it took about one hour before we even left Diani.  At the second stop, in Ukunda, which is the settlement on the junction behind the tourist strip of Diani, a lot of passengers got harassed through the windows by people asking for money.  Not me though, my firm-toned catchphrase of “Hapana, asante” /”No, thanks” was on good form, although I think it probably has something to do with the other people looking more monied than I do.  Ukunda is very African and not at all touristy, made up seemingly entirely of iron shacks and people carting water in handcarts.  In fact it reminded me a lot of Kitengela.  Although in Ukunda they have tried to set up some kind of garbage disposal, unfortunately it is in sheds along the roadside, cleverly labelled “Gabbage disposal”, and has marauding dogs scavenging there, and the method of garbage removal, as I was privileged enough to see, is one man picking up the rubbish with his hands and putting it into a sack.

Past Ukunda there is a huge palm forest, on both sides of the road, fantastically tall palm trees for miles and miles, that have grown incredibly high because there are so many of them competing for light.  We drove on to Shimoni, a town in the far south of Kenya near the Tanzanian border.  From there we got on a motorised dhow boat to sail to the marine reserve.  A dhow is a traditional Swahili sailing ship, made of wood; nowadays most of them are motorised, which in practicality means they just have an outboard motor clipped onto the back of the boat.  Tourists are not allowed on sailing dhows because they are too temperamental, slow and dangerous.  I had some foreboding about the boat I was on, for a few reasons I was unsettled by the dhow I had ended up on.  Our matatu group had been split up and there was only me and a Swiss couple on our boat from the original group.  The others had our guide with them, and they set off well before us.  We were still at the port waiting for our boat to fill up with some other minibus-loads of tourists.  When our boat eventually filled up with enough people to make it worthwhile to leave, the outboard motor didn’t work.  It started, ran painfully for a few seconds and then cut out.  With this kind of power behind us, our boat didn’t get very far out of port.  We waited in the harbour for a long time for another boat to bring another motor out to us.

The new engine was clamped onto the back of our dhow, and several new people got aboard to try and help us.  Once it was securely clamped on, one of the men tried to start it, and it was discovered that this motor didn’t work either.  In fact it was even worse than the original, as it did not even begin to start.  It was very frustrating, particularly as it was so hot and I was longing to get into the cool green water that was just laying invitingly beside the dhow.  After another long wait, another, larger dhow came to pick us up and we all transferred into that boat.  It had no engine trouble and at last we were out of the harbour and away!

Dhows at Shimoni jetty
Dhows at Shimoni jetty

We sailed around the island of Wasini and the smaller islands near to it, heading for a sandbar in the Kisite Reserve.  It was a long, hot journey.  The islands and the clear green blue water were spectacularly scenic but I hadn’t bought a camera, stupidly imagining that on a marine safari there would be nothing to see that wasn’t underwater.  This was completely wrong, of course, there was loads to see and I wish I had taken it with me!  Unfortunately I have become paranoid about my camera malfunctioning for some reason and losing the pictures on it, since I have lost a few pictures due to “picture error” already, one computer claimed my camera had a virus when I tried to upload photos, and I’ve had a few problems with the lens shutter and also the button to press to take the picture.  After a long journey during which everyone in unison applied lots of suncream, we approached the sandbar.  As we were coming up the channel alongside it, the guide suddenly directed the man at the rudder to turn outwards away from the sandbar, towards another boat which was sitting in the channel.  I was feeling frustrated again, as we had waited long enough to get here and I didn’t want to wait any longer; I can’t describe the strength of my wish to get into the water, out of the hot, hot sun and swim among the tropical fish and the coral.

However there was reason behind the turning, and I soon understood what it was when we saw a group of dolphins break the surface of the water!  There were lots and lots of dolphins, too many to count, swimming around and underneath the boat, breaking the surface to breathe and then diving back under.  Some of them came really close to the dhow and we could see them very clearly.  They are a lot bigger than I would have imagined them to be, wild dolphins, up close.  A couple of other dolphins jumped out of the water into the air.  Hardly anyone managed to photograph them, so I didn’t feel too bad!  It was amazing seeing them and it gives you a really warm glad feeling to see dolphins swimming up close around the boat you are in.  There is something really special and wonderful about them, almost magical.

After the dolphins we turned in to the sandbar, and anchored in the sand away from the reef.  The picture looking out to the sandbar was one of the most classic depictions of a tropical beach you can imagine.  The dhow drifting in the clear green tropical waters, the sun and the pure white sand lying out ahead, lapped by crystal waves.  I was third to jump out of the boat because I was so keen to get in, as I knew if I waited all the older people would take forever, when really it is just a simple matter of jumping off the side of the dhow.  They provided snorkel masks and tubes, but my mask quickly filled up with water and I had to swim over to the guide and ask him for another one.  He kindly gave me his and swam back to the dhow to get another one.  Under the water it was serene, beautiful, relaxing and exciting at once.  Relaxing because it is so quiet under the sea, everything drifts by, and relaxing because it was cool and refreshing after being in the sun on the boat; exciting because the things I saw down there I have never seen before.  It is like entering another world, like visiting a completely alien landscape.  Some of the coral grows like underwater trees and shrubs, with proper branches with colourful fish hiding in them.  Other coral is like huge round bulbous lumps, with geometrical patterns like hexagons or maze-style lines covering them.  I saw one very big fish that was about the length of my forearm and hand (although it’s hard to tell distance and size underwater, it can be quite disorientating).  It was pale purple, yellow and green, and had a shimmer down its sides like a rainbow.  There were lots of other fish, all colourful, different shapes and sizes and shades, and when I go home I am going to have to study tropical fish so that I actually know what I’ve been seeing underwater!  I saw a very strange, transparent yellow, long thick fish, with a long nose or beak at the front.  It was a very odd looking creature.  And lots of black-green sea cucumbers, lying on the bottom.  And some absolutely huge black spiny sea urchins, which would really really hurt if you trod on them.  Looking down and swimming over this other world was absolutely mind-blowing, definitely one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

Once we had swum over part of the reef and back, we swam in to the sandbar.  I wish we could have spent more time swimming, but the guided group has to cater for everybody, and one older, larger lady didn’t seem able to swim at all and she was dragged along by the guide on his life float all the way.  I felt sorry for him, as it did not look easy or enjoyable.  I swam in to the sandbar and lay in the shallows.  The water was very very warm, and crystal clear, and I had no desire whatever to get out of it.  I felt like I could stay there my whole life, lying on the sandbar and swimming with the coral and fish.  Looking out to the channel and the dhow drifting on anchor waiting for us, was everything you can imagine.  Everything was so bright under the tropical sun, the sand a bright, brilliant soft white, the shallowest sea completely clear, and then it turns green, and where it is deep beside the dhow it goes a beautiful tropical green-blue.

We swam out back to the boat.  You can see the change in depth very clearly underwater.  The dhow was anchored in the deep, then the sea bottom sloped up very steeply to the sandbar.  The coral grows where the depth changes, from the start of the slope right into the shallows.  The water is a lot cooler on the far side of the reef, and very very warm by the time it gets to the shallows beside the sandbar.

I fell in love with the dhow boat.  It is very old and parts of the siding are broken, and have been nailed together with other bits of wood.  It was a larger dhow and big enough to live on, for a few weeks or months.  It has so much enchanting charm with its wooden dilapidation.  It is now my dream to own one, and sail it round the world.

On the way back we went for lunch at a seafood restaurant on Wasini, which was included in our safari.  I ate crabs and lobster, which were served on a large wooden block, and had to be broken into with another wooden block.  It was a very adventurous meal.  Afterwards we headed back to the jetty at Shimoni.  The passengers from our matatu who had gone on the other boat had been waiting two hours for us (we’d been greatly delayed by the engine problems) so there was no time to see the slave caves at Shimoni.  I was driven back to my cottage by about half past 5 in the afternoon.

Yesterday I spent reading and writing, and keeping out of the sun because I got a little sunburnt on the safari.  Today I went for a swim, came into town in a private car this time which was free because I have got to know the tourist information lady whose name is Sophie.  I booked my marine safari through her.  While I was on the dhow, I met a lovely British couple on their honeymoon and they had just been on an awesome safari to Tsavo East and seen hundreds of elephants.  Although I had been going to leave safaris in general because they are expensive, the marine safari had just really whetted my appetite for a land safari!  So I bargained with Sophie the tour information lady for a two day safari for about £180 which is not too bad.  I am going on Thursday.

My banda in Diani
My banda in Diani

My “cottage” is just a bedroom and a bathroom and shower; I have no kitchen, nowhere to prepare or cook food and no utensils or anything basic to eat with.  There is no restaurant near the beachalets and I am hungry very often.  I have come into town now so I am going to eat now, in fact I am so hungry that I am going to have to leave the internet cafe right now!

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