And blurred is often how we felt after driving down the Nairobi-Mombasa highway to Tiwi on Mombasa’s south coast. We used to spend Christmas down there. It was a three hundred mile trip, descending from the air-conditioned high plains of Nairobi to the wet-hot steaminess of the coastal strip. On a good day it would take around five hours. Other times we’d break the journey, staying at Tsavo Inn or Taita Hills. Sometimes the road was hardly there at all, washed out by December rains. You never knew until you got there. The final leg of the trip also always involved the infamous Likoni Ferry that carries traffic from Mombasa Island to the southern mainland.
To catch it, you first had to drive through Mombasa, negotiating mad matatu drivers and throngs of push-cart guys, shunting impossibly huge loads of cooking oil, coconuts, pineapples, coca cola. Then came the broiling wait for the ferry. If you timed it badly, the traffic tailed back into town. Being tetchy Brits who do not bear overheatedness well, we did not welcome being sitting ducks for all the street traders, despite the fact that roasted cashew nuts were a favourite. Grumpy old us.
But then, when we found ourselves close enough to the head of queue to see the in-coming ferry, it was all change. Suddenly the excitement hit. This place was Africa with bells and whistles, and in every sense. All of life swarmed by as the ferry spilled out its trucks, multi-coloured matatus and crowds and crowds of humanity. The burst of colours under the tropic sun set the brain afire – the women in their vibrant kanga wraps, men in kanzus and embroidered kofia caps, the youth sporting the rich world’s recycled tee-shirts with every imaginable corporate slogan draped from skinny shoulders.
There was always a frisson of anxiety as we boarded. Would we make it to the other side? After all, the ferry had been known to cut loose and drift off towards the Indian Ocean. But no. It never happened to us.
Even so, the final glide up the mainland slipway always seemed a minor miracle. We’re here! And here was Likoni market – throbbing with rhumba rhythms, and hooting-whistling matatu crews. Ramshackle stalls line the road – hoteli, hair salons, tailors’, fruit and veg sellers, Chinese multi-coloured enamel ware and plastics. There are smells of steaming market waste, hot mandazi donuts, joss sticks, cheap perfume, diesel and dust.
The foot passengers poured around us. We crawled through the melee. Until – at last – the open road – the long straight causeway that runs south through Kwale District to Lunga Lunga, the last town in Kenya before the Tanzanian border.
This road is lined with coconut plantations, the palms all leaning with the sea breeze. Cattle graze beneath baobabs and kapok trees. There are guest houses, and small-holdings, schools and tiny mosques. The homes have corrugated iron or palm thatch makuti roofs. The walls are coral rag or wattle and daub. Verandahs feature. There are more trading centres, curio carvers, furniture makers, general stores, charcoal sellers, second hand clothes, kangas flying in the breeze like flags.
We never went as far as Lunga Lunga. Tiwi was far enough. To arrive at Maweni, the little beach village perched above the Indian Ocean, to immerse in clear waters, and finally unblur with bottle of Tusker beer – bliss.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell