Kenya: Malindi, Watamu Marine Park and Gede Ruins

by on February 17, 2014; Africa; Kenya; Travel

After much procrastination (Nyali was really, really nice) we finally left Mombassa for Malindi via our first intercity matatu. At first Sean was a bit hesitant to take a matatu with “express” in the name given the reputation of the taxi vans, but having a chat to the driver apparently this was just because it didn’t stop along the way to Malindi. The side benefit of this is that the matatu doesn’t end up being filled up with more people than seats. After Sean had inspected the tyres and ensured there was enough room in the back for our bags, we hopped on and waited for the matatu to fill up with passengers. The driver’s assurance of “No more than nine” passengers turned out to be eleven, but we were pretty comfortable in the back seat so no drama. The road was excellent (for African standards) and the two hour journey north up the coast cost 350Ksh (=$4.80NZD) each. Little bit cheaper than the $60NZD that you pay for the Hamilton-Auckland Airport shutttle!

Once in Malindi, we stayed at a friendly budget hotel called Ozzy’s. Very basic and adjacent to a mosque (being called to prayer at 5.00am is no way to wake up!) but pretty cheap and the staff we’re nice, especially Lawrence, who really looked after us during out stay. Lawrence was a funny guy, always making jokes (occasionally unintentionally), one conversation we had about whether we had towels in our room had us in stitches:

Lawrence: “If you don’t have any towels, just give me a call”
Us: “Umm… I don’t think we have a phone in our room, do we?”
Lawrence: “No, no, no… just go to the top of the stairs and then call down ‘LAWRENCE! LAWRENCE! LAWRENCE!'” he explains, cupping his hands to his mouth.

We arrived in Malindi on Valentines’ Day and went to the restaurant “Old Man and the Sea” to celebrate. Bit on the expensive side for budget travelers but we thought we would splurge. Mainly does seafood, with both of us opting for Swahili-style seafood cooked in a thick tomato sauce – delicious! Now the reason I’m mentioning this is that a miraculous thing happened after dinner. I received my first Valentines’ Day rose since going out with Sean. . .from the waiter!

(Sean: I’m still taking 100% of the credit for this)

Malindi is something of a hotspot for Italian tourism, you’re just as likely to be greeted in Italian than English and there are a number of excellent gelato and pizzerias, which all seems very strange to come across in Kenya. The main reasons we came to Malindi though was the excellent marine parks in the area. Although there is a reef extending most of the Kenyan coast, the Malinidi and Watamu Marine Park (about 20 minutes south) are supposed to be some of the best. We decided on Watamu and rang one of the resorts who organise snorkeling trips in the park the night before, but ended up being 5 minutes late (matatus taking a little longer than expected) and missed the boat! Fortunately the people at Turtlebay resort were super accommodating and hired another boat for us so we ended up paying the same for our own private boat. After a quick meet and greet with our captain Abdul we were soon on our way to a sand bar on the edge of the reef. There we saw a baby octopus and a huge, bright red star fish in the above-water coral block after which we were taken to the snorkeling area. The water was beautiful and there were a huge variety of colourful fish on display, although the coral definitely looked less than healthy. On the ride back to shore we were speaking to our Captain about this and he took the time to take us to a less tourist-trodden section of reef, although with correspondingly less fish. Sad to think that clumsy tourists can be so detrimental to the reef. Despite this, we would rate the marine park pretty highly but the steep $20USD per person daily park entry fee (excluding tour costs, which was pretty cheap) definitely seemed like gouging for just a bit of snorkeling and kept us from exploring more than one area of the park.

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The following day we checked out the Gede ruins, one of the biggest ruin-sites of early Swahili civilisation found all along the coast of east Africa. Gede was a town of 2,500 souls inhabited between the 13th to the 17th centuries and has a bit of a mysterious past with no mention of it’s existence in historical texts, despite being so close to Mombasa. The site is pretty expansive and contains houses, mosques and a ‘palace’ (although whether it was an actual palace or just a very wealthy resident is purely speculation). We picked up a guide at the entrance who showed us round and explained what history was known and theorised about the site and pointed out the features of the various ruins. The most memorable of these was the specially designed echo chamber in the mosque that allows the speakers voice to be projected further and the expansive palace that had water channels beneath some of the floors which, when filled from the deep wells nearby, was thought to have been used as a primitive form of air conditioning. To get a really good view of the ruins a very rickety platform had been constructed in one of the trees – good view, but you wouldn’t want to stay up there long! No one knows for sure why the town was abandoned but the most widely accepted theory is that the water in the wells dried up due to the lowering of the water table.

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