You might need some shorts. It can get a bit muddy,” warned Juma, the manager at Mike’s camp. It was the first indication I was not setting out on a comfortable jaunt.
“And don’t you have any covered shoes,” he asked, looking doubtfully at my tattered flip flops. I pondered the need for covered shoes. Weren’t we just going to poke around on the beach to look for some crabs?
A short while later, I was gazing at impenetrable mangrove forest. I took a couple of steps, and sank to my knees in mud. Quickly deciding that shoes were more of a hindrance than a help, I kicked off my flip flops and set off after my guide.
In a valiant, but ultimately vain, effort to keep up with Dulloh, a 58-year-old veteran crab hunter, his son, Hassan, and I clambered over entwined branches and squelched through swamp. It was exhausting work, and as I tired, I started to make mistakes, putting all my weight onto a rotten branch, or stepping onto a needle-pointed stick poking out of the mud.
But it was also unexpectedly exhilarating.
Not since I had been pushed and shoved around an assault course as a young army cadet had I enjoyed both mud and physical exertion quite so much. It wasn’t quite what
I had been expecting to do in Kiwayu, a beautiful island off Kenya’s north coast better known for its vast sandy beaches than for its mangrove swamps.
Dulloh stilled my thoughts: he had found a crab. He passed me the crab-catching stick, a simple wooden pole with an upward spike at the end. The idea is that the crab, its curiosity struck by this new toy, clamps onto the pole, and is pulled out of the safety of its deep underwater cavern. I probed, but nothing happened.
Taking the stick from me, Dulloh poked some more. He said softly, “Simba” [lion], referring to the size of the crab. His son sighed impatiently. Not for him a career of crab-hunting. He wanted to be an engineer, or perhaps a soldier.
This was only his second time in the mangrove, he admitted, and he didn’t much like it.
As we chatted, Hassan’s father pushed the stick in again and again, twirling it around to attract the hounded creature. With a soft “ooooh” he pulled back the stick towards the surface, and the crab appeared. With unexpected nimbleness, Dulloh had grabbed it.
He grinned: it was huge.
By now, I was tired. We headed back to Mike’s Camp, the low-slung thatched property on the other side of the creek, to weigh our catch. It was a kilo, and I paid $4. The camp’s chef took it away with a glint in his eye.
The rest of the morning was given to relaxation, something that’s easy enough to do at Mike Kennedy’s place, an eco-lodge where even the open loo with its view of the Indian Ocean is a place for contemplation.
With open sea and miles of wide, sandy beach on one side of the island, and a creek perfect for swimming on the other, Kiwayu is for many their version of island paradise.
The camp is simplicity itself: donkeys lug jerry cans for bucket showers over the sand dunes to the main camp, while guests sleep in sprawling thatched bandas that are entirely open to the elements.
Elsewhere on the island, which is part of a marine reserve, time has similarly stayed still. Kiwayu, the quiet and pretty fishing settlement that sits above a horseshoe bay, has experienced none of the gaudy construction that has blighted other parts of the coast.
The island has always held a fascination for Mike, although for a long time it was just a place on the map. In the late 1980s, he set off with some friends from Watamu by road with motorbikes and a jeep to reach it.
They lost the jeep to a river in full spate, and were thrown into prison for a couple of days for riding bikes without plates. When after all that he finally reached Kiwayu – remote and unblemished by tourism – he was sold. “I spent four or five glorious days going ‘Wow, wow, wow. What a beautiful place’,” he says.
He opened his lodge in 1992.
For two decades, Mike’s business thrived on this fishing island as visitors sought ever quieter coastal hideaways, and the garrulous host attracted a mix of celebrities, sports fishermen and locals. For amusement, Mike once took a small plane up to the Somali border, just 30 miles away, and dropped watermelons on insurgents’ camps.
But the proximity to war-torn Somalia would prove to be more than just an interesting aside. In 2011, at Kiwayu Safari Village over on the mainland, armed men stole into the camp at night and attacked
British holidaymakers Judith and David Tebbutt. They shot David dead, and whisked Judith away to Somalia, who was to spend six months in captivity.
The attack was followed by the kidnapping of a disabled French woman from Manda Island near Lamu, who subsequently died for lack of medication. Western governments advised against all but essential travel to the northern coast, advice that was extended further south after a spate of attacks on coastal villages in 2014. Tourism more or less ground to a halt. For five years, Mike recalled, “we were really, really struggling.”
In the meantime, the Kenyan government has boosted its security presence along the coast. On the mainland opposite Kiwayu, there is a bolstered police force as well as Kenya Wildlife Service rangers. Somali piracy is in abeyance with the presence of Western navies off the Somali coast, while security forces claim to have routed militant elements in the Boni Forest, a longtime hideout along the border for Somalia’s al-Shabaab insurgents.
At one stage, Mike manned a 24-radar post, and brought armed guards over to the island if guests were staying. These days, he said, he doesn’t feel the need for those extra measures.
One Western diplomat agrees that security is much improved, but cautions the travel advice reflects not so much the potency of the threat from al-Shabaab or other groups but rather the ability of the
Kenyan security forces to respond quickly and effectively in the case of an incident.
Did Mike ever consider giving it all up, I wondered. “I knew I’d just weather the storm,” he said. “I consider this my home now – I’ve lived here for 25 years – and I knew things would just start working again.”
Since late last year, bookings have picked up considerably, he says, and, most notably, foreign visitors are starting to return. As I come down for my final meal before a 4 am departure by dhow to Lamu, I wish I had more time to settle into the island experience.
The chef brings me dressed crab – the very same crab I held alive in my hands hours before – and I solemnly sit down to eat it. For once, I don’t take such a delicacy for granted. Nor should we, I suppose, take Kiwayu for granted. If the events of six years before tell us anything, it’s that paradise is fragile indeed.