This non-blog occasionally dips its toes in travel blog territory (by request). This is often born of a desire to collate phot- erm, I mean, helpful travel tips (and a reluctance for repition). My solo trip to Coastal Kenya was wonderful.
This was originally planned as a friendcation but the ensuing solo trip proved necessary and healing. I had taken a lot of knocks and needed somewhere safe and far away to lick my wounds and recalibrate. I was lost and starting to question my friendships, career and potential. Calling this trip necessary is an understatement.
Since I started working, I strive to take leave in every third of the year and divide my time between a local, overseas and African trip. Kenya has been on my radar for some time, particularly the open secret that is the island/archipelago of Lamu. Actual travel blogger extraordinaire (at Just Rioba) is Kenyan and had just documented her trip there; her enjoyment of something on home turf sealed the deal. As a rule of thumb when travelling, I go where the locals are queuing.
Afrotourism is largely geared towards a European/American audience where the currency is mismatched making traveling as an African in Africa wildly expensive. Booking local flights months in advanced using Cheapflights and Skyscanner mitigated this quite a bit. Then came the question of where to go. I decided well in advanced that I wanted a coastal experience. I chose to forgo Nairobi (it seems like a vibe but a vibe that requires someone local or who has experience to help navigate) and the safaris (yes, I’ve heard that they’re world class but I’m South African so FOMO didn’t pay me a visit here). The focus was Lamu. We then decided on Mombasa as a second location to keep things slightly diverse.
I also decide beforehand how/where I’d like my money to go. Do I want luxury accommodation/First class travel? Or do I want to buy cool sh*t, eat like a queen and pay for experiences? In case it’s unclear it’s almost alway the latter for me. As such, I read a million and one AirBnB reviews and picked up the trends of what visitors found helpful at certain locations (eg. Air conditioning, mosquito netting, proximity to transport). I then chose the cheapest reasonable options. Here’s an initial optimistic mockup (roughly accurate give or take R2k).
I also downloaded a couple of maps to help decide which coastal towns to visit and spoke to several people who were either from or had visited the area to help. Mombasa is like New York in that it’s an province/area and a city/town. Watamu, Malindi and Diani dot the Mombasa coastline but are about 50km in opposite directions so for value I had to pick one. I narrowed it down to Diani. I was told to skip Mombasa Town but my stubborn ass didn’t listen.
The Kenyan Shilling is about 100KES to $1. It was easier to thing in dollars. I went with a cashpassport (Absa) with dollars and withdrew 2/3 in cash KES and split it between bags because I was visiting non metropolitan areas and didn’t know if ATMs would be conveniently available.
South Africans don’t require Visas but please make sure you get your yellow fever vaccine (or in my case remember your yellow card). Leaving won’t be a problem but you won’t be allowed to reenter RSA without producing it.
I got a Kenyan simcard hassle free immediately after landing. It came with a reaonable data plan and airtime so I could safely Uber and generally be connected (being solo and all). It was mad cheap, South African networks are robbing us blind. Additionally mPESA is a local widely used, highly convenient way of paying for things. It’s a bit like Snapscan but instead of credit cards it’s via your cellphone network provider. I never figured it out but I saw it everywhere, even spaza shops so I recommend it.
Trip structure: 10 days. 2 days Mombasa Town. 5 days Lamu. 2 days Diani. 1 day travelling.
I connected to Mombasa via Nairobi. I stayed in bit of a dodgy AirBnB that I soon realised was inside someone’s house (I’d assumed it was an outside room). In the end I’m glad I stayed there because the hostess was doting, the area safe and having someone directly checking on me helped me get over the nerves of being alone. You need a day. 2 tops. It’s humid, a little messy and there’s some lovely history, architecture via the one museum and the pretty tusks and that’s pretty much it. Or so I thought. Getting around? Tuktuks are your cheap, nimble, only occasionally unstable, friends.
On my second day I went to the beach and took a glass boat bottomed boat tour with the most adorable Kenyan family of unequally yoked smimmers. The glass boat isn’t what I pictured (yes, I pictured a glass bottomed boat). It’s more a window at the bottom but otherwise the guides are helpful and the experience immersive. I befriended a couple of starfish then proceeded, wet and dripping, to a local grocery store to meet one the highlights of my trip: my new friend Khawaii (pronounced Hawaii).
I signed up for one of the few Mombasa AirBnB experiences: a night food tour. I was intrigued by the timing and the activity. By happy luck, the tour date I’d wanted was fully booked but she offered a different date where it ended up just being the two of us. While navigating through traffic to get to our first food destination I discovered a Kindred spirit: we discussed history, politics, black female African travellers, bureaucracy and red tape and small businesses. She saw that Mombasa has a rich food culture; one surprisingly untapped by local tourism despite food tours being the norm worldwide. She started taking people to her favourite spots like she would a visiting friend or relative and once it took off, began the redtape-ridden process of registering her small business.
When I tell you that Mombasa comes alive in the night time! It’s a Muslim town so I don’t mean clubbing. The same streets I’d walked earlier were awash with food vendors, laughter, fragrant aromas, children playing under street lights and people communing; picking up a quick snack, supper or conversation after a long day’s work. We slipped through alleys in the dark as I enjoyed Khawaii’s structured approach to food, culture, history and architecture. From freshly squeezed ginger/coconut juice, spicy coffee and Turkish delight multiple sautéed meats, cassava chips with fresh coconut water at the seafront, full pastries and savoury pies I can’t name. It was easily knew of my favourite travel experiences. Ever. Support this girl, she’s a gem and she’s onto something.
There’s One flight per day on selected days. I booked an Inn near the seafront that also played host to a rooftop bar (via Airbnb). This included a transfer from the airport (by boat) to the lovely Lamu: In my opinion Africa’s Venice (even better because the humans who live there are lovely and pleasant). I felt very safe here. But as a traveller anywhere, keep your wits about you.
The island is water dependant: boats and little motorbikes and donkeys are the only modes of transport. I heard that the only 2 cars on the island are for the governor and the donkey ambulance (which begs the question “what happens to the humans?” and the answer is boats). It’s a relatively emerging tourist destination and it’s only just occurring to locals to exploit this but it’s a mostly idyllic undisturbed island that embodies the local motto: pole pole (slowly slowly). Shela is the prettier cousin down the “road” a short boat ride/motorbike away that is more polished and touristy. I personally loved staying in Lamu town. By the 3rd day I was left to my own devices, minimal haggling and the captains just greeted me by name (Palesa, Ntoetse didn’t work out).
I spent my days wandering around, catching rides and buying gifts and nights swimming the sticky humidity off. By lucky accident I befriended a local restaurant owner. I kid you not, a very high man brought me to him having seen my distress at the price of calamari outside a fancier hotel restaurant; I don’t know why I followed him! I tried a new type of fresh seafood, that I watched them grill, for supper every night as we talked under the stars with whichever cast of characters patronised him that evening. I had to answer for Xenophobia (embarrassed doesn’t cover it) but noone was aggressive or upset. I tried lobster for just under $10. It was magical.
Recommendations: a day trip to one of the surrounding islands, a sunset cruise (or two) in a Dhaow (they charge per trip so the more people, the cheaper it’ll be) and hopping over to Shela and Manda Bay. That’s where the fancy resorts are. I called it “influencer beach”(not the real name). Non-hotel guests need only part with 5 dollars to chill poolsode/beachside at one of the few places on the island that serves alcohol. Across the bay are the beautiful sand dunes. Please don’t feel pressured to do all the things you see/hear about, I had time. It’s your trip, Instagram isn’t going to compensate you for peace lost. The whole place is literally telling you to chill. In my birthday I celebrated on the Floating Bar and danced like noone there knew me (because they didn’t).
Transport tip: always speak directly with the captain. Do not allow a middle man to negotiate anything where a boat is concerned.
It’s the kind of place you find leathery skinned white expats who have found paradise and are not leaving. Most gorgeous white sandy beaches. It was easily the most metropolitan and touristy part of my trip. I had to consistently tell vendors I wasn’t American to get anywhere near a reasonable price on anything.
I visited the beaches, ate excellent food and chilled and kearbed that the fabulous (as beer goes) Tusker beer also came as a cider. I fed bushabies at StiltBackpackers. My only athletic activity was a wonderful full day dhaow trip to the Kisite Marine Park (via TripAdvisor) that included snorkeling, dolphins, turtles and all manner of marine life. I was the token black girl which earned me a lot of ogling, easy rapport with the crew and a guarantee that I’d never be left behind. Highlights: Ali Barbour cave restaurant. Issawow.
Kenyans are beautiful, unaffected and friendly (at leat the ones I met) people. It’s refreshing. I had the best conversations and the coolest solo trip. Highly recommend.
Like anywhere, learning good basic greetings in the local tongue will be well received.
Support black girls:
Rioba has graduated from travel blogging to surating travel group experiences for girls on the continent. Check her out here.
Khawaii’s food tour is a game changer. That said, a full 24 hours is more than enough time in Mombasa Town.
Apps like CultureTrip and Vamoos/CheckMyTrip are super helpful.
Friendliness and street smarts will ensure that you can go solo.
Good luck on your future travels!