Melting in Mombasa


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

Jennifer Nichole Wells OWPC: humid

37 thoughts on “Melting in Mombasa

  1. Funny Tish, I posted some excerpts from a diary I kept in France recently, around the same timeframe. I debated using italics but chose not. Curious if you have an opinion about that, as to why you use them (not challenging it, just curious).

    1. Just a visual thing really, I thought: to differentiate between the then and now. If it had just been diary, I probably woudn’t have used italics.
      Glad to read you’ve ‘landed’ in Germany, even if your plans are still to-ing and fro-ing.

      1. I’ve been thinking about italics more than one should, lately. I finished Cloud Atlas and love how Mitchell uses them. Amazing to see how one can really use formatting in a fashion that does it justice, that suits the change. I worried with my blog (and over-thinking it, I’m sure) it would be too hard on the eyes if it exceeds 500 words or so, and how it would appear on a mobile. Am I over-thinking it? Please tell me if I am. Or don’t bother, sorry – I think I’m lonely. Though I’m here with my family, which is odd. Bye for now. (They’re doing other things too, honest.)

      2. Well now you’ve got me thinking about it. I suppose I only look for clarity on the screen, but I’ve not explored this properly. Nor have I bothered to find out what a post looks like on a mobile. You need a chum who reads you that way, and can give you some sensible feed back. I personally don’t like reading long pieces on my pc, but I’m not up to speed with tablets, phones et al, and suspect that these may be quite a nice way to read blogs, a bit like Kindle (but I’m only guessing). In which case, as long as you space the words reasonably on the page (I tend to go for a para break around every 5 lines), I don’t think you need to think too much about the length of the piece. You’ve got my email address haven’t you, if you want to talk that way. It’s a shock to the system changing continents and lives. In the meantime just write. I forgot to say how much I liked your signing off your post with that comment about Bob Dylan aka Robert Zimmerman. You will settle in your new writing milieu. It could be a blast :D. It will be.

    1. My diary is definitely one ‘of sorts’. I wish now I had been more diligent. I was convinced at the time that I would remember everything. My 2 brilliant aunts though did keep all my letters, which I now have. It goes through my head that WHEN I have nothing better to do, I might inter-edit the three sources into one record.

  2. So wonderful that you kept a diary of your time there. I’m terrible at thinking I’ll remember specifics of days, don’t write them down, and then I forget so quickly. I’m never one for humidity, but it sounds like a peaceful, wonderful place nonetheless.

    1. The stickiness was somewhat relieved on the south coast by the sea breeze, which was really very wonderful. But Mombasa town used to steam away above and beyond one’s European capacities to cope.

  3. Wonderful memories, Tish! I’d love to see those flame trees and I wouldn’t even mind a bit of drumming on the roof stuff 🙂 Have you processed your photos to look heat-hazed, or is that the result of scanning? Effective, anyway 🙂

    1. I have fiddled about with the pix a little, but they were basically taken from a moving Land Rover, and normally I would have discarded them. But with a bit of added manipulation in the histogram thingy, I thought they conjured the idea of wet heat. They’re a bit like runny magic painting book pics of one’s childhood. I’m now wondering if I have a Nandi flame tree pic. I certainly have some Madagascar flame tree pix. I shall ponder on this.

  4. How beautiful. Your words took me there to the dust and the heat and the vibrant colours of Africa. Love the photos processed (?) to look as though we are passing by and catching a glimpse of the washing on the line behind the baobab tree. Treasured memories Tish. Life must be so different now.

  5. These are the time when I with WordPress had better — more — formatting options. Like, the ability to use a different font to indicate another time or place. It use italics too. I also sometimes indent the italics to further differentiate times and place. And/or use a different color text. But a different font would be so useful 🙂 Great post.

    Did Maugham have something against spaghetti? 🙂

  6. What wonderful pictures you create with your words. I hope we see more of your diary, and the letters to your aunts – great people, aunts. After my recent flurry of memoir, I’ve been contemplating posts on old travels in the form of postcards, as a way of sifting endless albums of junk photos, and saving the good-ish ones. I love what you’ve done with these photos.

    1. It’s astonishing that things have got so bad when Kenya’s economy needs good communications between coast and hinterland. I gather from Kenya Poa posts that the scavengers on high are running down KQ so they can grab it and sell it at a profit. There is a horrible irony in the name of Pres. Uhuru – freedom to be robbed stupid.

  7. What marvellous things diaries are. When younger I’m sure we all think the memories will never fade, The overall picture does stay but the details need a jog, the things on the delivery guy’s cart the spaghetti with home made tomatoe sauce, and a few words scribbled in a diary at the time will bring back a torrent of memories. What an amazing lifetime of memories those diaries must represent Tish. So pleased you are sharing them with us.

    1. Your appreciation is much appreciated, Pauline. I do need put this other life into some sort of coherent shape. Hm. When though – before or after I go to the allotment? 🙂

      1. Ah yes, your lovely allotment, the plants are calling Tish… The diaries will still be there waiting, always waiting, full of your memories……

  8. Wow! Such dedication wi th the diary, so great to be able to picture these things. I am largely too lazy for diaries 😦

  9. Oh those loitering diaries; what fun they are. How useful, too. 🙂 The only time we went from Nairobi to Mombasa we went by train. Since I didn’t keep a diary I don’t remember how we travelled back to Nairobi! Do you remember The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley?

    1. Oh yes. I’ve read most of her books – the agricultural ones too, and her novel set in Kikuyuland – Red Strangers. She’s a good documenter of settlerdom of the priveleged classes – all slightly dotty in its kindliest perspective.

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