I had managed to bypass Kenya on my circuitous route through East Africa, partly due to my option of taking a flight from Ethiopia to Uganda bypassing the desolate northern Kenya, but also due to the dichotomy the Kenya provides – one of most developed of East Africa in economic terms, but also one of the least developed in terms of infrastructure and governance, largely due to corruption. Whilst Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia try to do what Rwanda appears to have already done and build reasonable roads to allow the economic machine to slowly bring development to the country, reports from friends and other travellers paint a picture of a Kenya that has been hamstrung by half completed projects, rampant corruption and a laziness induced by relative stability over the last few decades in comparison to its neighbours.
Everyone I met had recommended against going to Nairobi unless needed to transit through, due to its apparently deserved moniker of ‘Nairobbery’ and lack of inherent attractions. Kenya also boasts decent national parks and its own members of the African great lakes, but it seems like there are nicer versions elsewhere. Being at Mt Kilimanjaro, we were only a few clicks from the border and due east lay Mombasa, one of the Swahili coasts more historic port cities. Being a fan of history and logistics, I thought it was worthy of few days.
The border was the first occasion to get out my Yellow Fever certificate, proving my immunity to what was once the scourge of nations, spread by migration and travellers, and the reason why the quarantine flags boats fly are yellow. I wasn’t quite sure why I had to pay money to the bus conductor to get my certificate back after the border, but the conductor murmured something about needing a beer. Probably just another muzungu tax like the inflated matatu (minibus) price that was levied on us whities. The first taste of Kenyan roads was indeed that. Due to the way the bitumen had evaporated as soon as we left Tanzania and entered Kenya, leaving instead a rutted dust bowl, it was a battle to balance the stifling midday heat by keeping the windows open, with the dust that would engulf the cabin as the bus slowed allowing our cape of dust to overtake us. The balance would ultimately end in us coated in a thin film of dusty grime by the end of the trip.
In time (several dusty hours later), the road improved as we hit the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, and after passing kilometre after kilometre of trucks parked waiting for presumably a weigh bridge, the warm sea air was and inner city clatter was greeting us. Mombasa has been a port city servicing sea faring vessels for as long as man has been exploring over the horizon. Nowadays it acts as a port servicing Kenya and the landlocked countries inland such as Uganda and Rwanda. From it streams the endless torrent of semi-articulated trucks that rumble their way onwards, with their heavy loads wearing out roads and overnight truck stops being great study populations for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer first came to Mombasa in 1498 but things didn’t go so well so they instead chose nearby Malindi as their base. Following the Turkish establishing a base in 1589, the Portuguese feared a threat to their trade routes, invading Mombasa in 1593 and building a fort to protect the natural harbour. Considering themselves the protectors of Christendom, they named the fort Fort Jesus, with its unique shape roughly that of a human with its angles providing robust defensive positions due to the protection of the other walls. The fort, made of coral, subsequently changed hands as the Portuguese were displaced by the Omanis in a siege lasting 2 1/2 years, and the fort continuing to change hands as different Omani forces, the Portuguese and later the British staked a claim to different parts of the Swahili coast and its seaports. The cities Old Town has lost most of its charm and old buildings but did offer glimpses of the diversity that the spice trade and other industries once brought to the region.
Today the population predominantly Muslim, with burkas and other headwear commonplace. It was odd to see more of this here than in my stopover in Abu Dhabi 5 months earlier. The city still retains vast arrays of spices at the local market, each bought by the scoopful. Other than that, my travel was limited to catching up on some much needed Internet time to email and do some assignments for the diploma I stupidly decided to continue to study whilst travelling…
After my three night sojourn, it was time to head south, via what was advertised as an eight hour but was in fact a 12 hour bus trip down the coast to Dar Es Salaam. We passed though Tanga, a small port city in northern Tanzania which I was fortunate enough to share a nickname with, somehow acquired by Dan Cochrane’s progression of calling me ‘Wrightang’ in similarity to how rotary cars were referred to as ‘Rotangs’ (or at least what the petrol head bogans at high school seemed to occasionally refer to the as). I had heard murmurs of a ferry from Tanga to Zanzibar, but could not find anything to back this up, instead having to bus much further down the coast to Dar, and making it too late to catch the ferry the same day. It did allow me to get to the Tazara train station and secure a ticket for the following week for the weekly express train that I was to catch. I bumped in to a couple who had been working in Uganda, so the 3 of us sorted a cabin on the train and then had to negotiate some intimidating and very misleading touts at the ferry terminal who were full of claims of “that ferry doesn’t go til 4pm” although the sign said departs in 30 mins, or “that ferry isn’t running today, come over here instead”. After ignoring all their ranting, we found berths on a ferry that did in fact leave in 10 minutes, and after paying, the tout who 5 minutes before had aggressively been telling us that boat wasn’t sailing and we’d need to pay twice the price to go on the faster flasher boat he was trying to get commision for, was now trying to ask us for commission for organising the ferry that he claimed didn’t go today.
Being back on a boat after a couple of month on the land was a novelty, and as we chugged out into the Indian Ocean amongst the Dhows busy at work, got a chance to relax, do some work and get in a bit of reading.