The sticky humidity of Kenya’s coast is a shock to the system after Nairobi’s airy upland plains where, even in the hot season, temperatures rarely rise above the low 80s F. Back in our day, when were travelling the Mombasa Highway quite often, the road south comprised 300 miles of ragged tarmac that descended in stages through nearly 6,000 feet – from highland plains to lowland plains, and thence through the rugged thorn scrub of the waterless Taru Desert, until the final drop down to the Indian Ocean. It was like plunging into a warm bath, the air thick with sea smell and frangipani blossoms.
During the rains, large sections of highway were often washed out, sometimes with horrendous chasms opening up. In the dry season the potholes through Kibwezi were filled with sand like mini deserts. And if we found ourselves stuck behind a fume-belching truck, we could travel many miles before finding a stretch of road with a sufficient tarmac on which to overtake it.
None of this stopped us from setting out though. You simply had to be prepared for anything, and this could include a brooding big Cape Buffalo holding the road hostage through Tsavo. And now here’s an excerpt from the diary I kept, and just found loitering in my filing cabinet:
Kenya Diary 30th August 1994
It was raining and steamy when we arrived in Mombasa at lunch time. The streets were jammed with hooting traffic, and there were vast rain lakes everywhere. The pavements were brilliant red with row upon row of ripe tomatoes, laid out by the Swahili women in their black buibuis. Everywhere the roads rang with the chink-chink of the metal washer rattles on the delivery guys’ handcarts. The carts were piled high with everything and anything: crates of sodas, cooking oil, jerrycans of water, baskets of pineapples, coconuts, mattresses, a wardrobe. It struck me that Mombasa feels so different to much of inland Kenya it might as well be another country.
For once we drove straight onto the Likoni Ferry without the usual sweaty wait in a tail-back of trucks and safari vans. Soon we were bowling along the coast road to Tanzania, moving between plantations of coconut palms that bowed with the sea breeze, flitting past tiny white-painted mosques and palm thatched homes built from coral rag. Here it was the skyline not the pavements that was a brilliant red: all the roadside Nandi flame trees were in flower, fist-sized blooms glowing like coals against a stormy sky.
By two thirty we were sitting down at a Tiwi beach bar, eating spaghetti and homemade tomato sauce while the rain drove in suddenly across the reef, drumming on the thatch. The sticky heat dissolved in the wind and the ocean took on a mean and steely look, and roared. It all seemed very Somerset Maugham, that is if one overlooked the presence of the spaghetti.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell