Tana River Delta, Kenya
Driving north from Malindi to the Tana River Delta, we stopped at a little roadside shack for lunch. We parked at the side of the road just before a check-point which had one of those spiked contraptions lying across the road which rips car tires to shreds if you are driving the wrong way. We had barely sat down at the table when the server looked out the window, her eyes rolled and she let out an ear-piercing scream – before we had time to even follow her gaze, an almighty crash announced the unintended arrival of an overturned truck with a load of logs.
A narrow escape
It came to a halt level with the shack – a mere 4 feet away - whereupon the two men inside it hopped out of the side window, apparently unharmed. The brakes on the truck had simply not functioned and the driver had had to decide if he was going to plough into Sketty's Landcruiser and rip his tires to shreds in the process, or try to go on the soft verge and get around it without hitting the shack. Unfortunately the verge hid an overgrown shallow ditch and with the heavy load of logs and the speed, the truck had tipped over on its side and skidded to a halt just feet away from us. I felt terribly grateful for several reasons, still being alive was the main one. Had he hit the shack or had the truck toppled the other way we would have been toast, or rather jam. Had he hit the Landcruiser, Sketty would have lost his livelihood for a while as would I for a lesser time because my computer, back-up external hard drive, discs and camera would have been smushed - and we might still have been jam because his tyres would have shredded when he was roughly level with the shack and the truck would have toppled over on its side anyway. So all in all I thought the driver was a bit of a hero.
The entire village dashed out to see the excitement including one wizened old woman who was dancing round the truck, chanting and gesticulating maniacally – Sketty said she was an evangelical Christian getting rid of evil spirits which I thought a trifle odd, but in this part of the world there are quite a few charismatic Christian sects, and in any case in Africa both Islam and Christianity were grafted on to animism so there are a few practices with which more northerly bishops and reverends might not be entirely familiar.
Leaving the truck drivers with the security officers, we continued north towards Tana, a remote area that sees few visitors. The wind had picked up by the time we arrived at the Tana River Lodge which was still closed for the season, but the manager in Malindi had generously allowed us to stay, and a skeleton staff prepared the cottages and cooked dinner and breakfast for us. Located on a bluff overlooking the Tana River delta the charming lodge is surrounded by palm and casuarina trees, and by the time dinner was served on the verandah of my cottage, a howling gale swooshed through the trees tossing palm fronds and casuarina branches wildly. There being no electricity, appropriately we used hurricane lamps. Dinner over I dived inside the mosquito net-shrouded bed and fell sound asleep instantly.
The next morning we were to meet up with Abu Musa who was going to guide us to Mwana, Shaka and Ungwana. He turned up with three other men, two of whom wore uniforms and were armed with semi-automatic guns. Living as I do in Yemen, this did not seem remotely out of the ordinary, and I did not even ask why they were there. It transpires that they were there because the site is so remote that water buffalo can be hidden in the bush along with lions and wild boar. I was mildly taken aback by this casual snippet of information; rampaging water buffalo, tusked hairy boar and lions looking for lunch were not something I had counted on - I thought they were several hundreds of miles away in the 'real' bush, not on the lush coast. Worst of all, one of the men stayed to guard the car while only one came with us.
Abu Musa was challenged in the time-keeping department. The night before he had given us a rough estimate of how long it would take to visit all three sites which was about an hour and a half. Sketty suggested that we would probably take longer than most people so we should count on three hours all told. In Griana, a local dialect, the espression 'nee haha' means 'just here'. It is the standard answer when you ask, “how much further?” and is meaningless really since the answer is the same if you have 100 meters to go or a further 2 hour trek. Abu Musa had clearly adopted some Griana habits even if he wasn't one. He had neglected to include the driving time to Mwana, our first site – one hour. Then he forgot about the walking time along the beach to get to Mwana - admittedly quite lovely if still blowing a howling gale – 30 minutes. Time at the site, which sadly is disappearing back into the undergrowth, and another 30 minutes walk back and driving time to Shaka meant another 2 hours.
At Shaka, we walked a further 45 minutes along the beach to the site, ghost crabs scuttling and sidling and diving down tiny sand holes as we trudged along disrupting their routes. When I got there there was little more to be seen than a crumbling mosque and the wall of a house stubbornly clinging to a wall that was eroding with every whoosh of the Indian Ocean surf, which that day was particularly high. Abu Musa was the site caretaker and he took his duties very seriously. He urged me to take pictures to take to the Museum curator in Lamu as he said he had told them repeatedly that the ruins were disappearing under nature's onslaught and he was quite distraught about it. I did so and I told not the curator because we never did find him – but everyone else we met at Lamu museum. I fear however that the conscientious, if time-challenged, Abu Musa is doomed to disappointment as the ruins are so remote that most people will never see them – they are simply too far out of the way to be on the way to anywhere. However just to illustrate what he means....
What's left in Shaka...
Ungwana is the best preserved of the three sites and being the closest site to Tana River Lodge is probably the only delta ruin with a chance of survival. Our arrival at Ungwana was heralded by a troupe of red-bottomed baboons who scampered across the fields having just helped themselves to half the crop of a nearby mango orchard. Here was another mosque with two mihrabs, one of which was delicately carved, and two monumental entrance doors in the qibla wall. The tombs here are unusual in that they are incised with crosses and although it is not a 'Christian' cross, it is nevertheless a rare thing to find on a Muslim tomb. Much of the site has been cleared but the remains of stone-built houses are rapidly being enshrouded in vines.
Ungwana Mosque mihrab
By the time we returned to Tana, it was about two pm instead of 1130 as we had calculated and we still had a three hour drive to the Lamu ferry ahead of us, on a graded track. The road hosted several kilometers of bony, horned cattle – it looked like a massive rustling operation conducted by tall, slender men wearing patterned skirts, carrying a big stick. In contrast to the gargantuan, hormone-laden machines we call cows, these beasts were delicate and rather pretty – the tribe looking after them are the infamous Galla, now called Orma. We stopped to pick up two young tribesgirls – Sketty told me in advance that they might smell a bit peculiar because they smear themselves with a mixture of ghee and some local herb to protect their skin, and while it does emit a most distinctive whiff, it is not unpleasant. Everyone hitches rides here because the only public transport is one bus which goes from Kilifi to Malindi in the morning and comes back in the evening.
Cattle drive on the road to Lamu
We arrived at the jetty where Sketty's brother who lived in Lamu had come to meet us, just as a boat was being loaded for the short crossing to Lamu. When not another person could possibly be squeezed on board, another car load were. Mattresses, suitcases, plasma TV's, live chickens and air conditioning units were all loaded on top of a canvas makeshift roof on top of the craft. When I saw another load of commodities coming down the ramp, I asked Sketty faintly if perhaps there was another method of getting to Lamu? We ended up in a speedboat which got us there much quicker. In the 5 days I spent in the archipelago 3 boats overturned with the loss of one life, due to strong winds and rough seas.