KILIFI: KENYA’S BEST HID­DEN VIBES

Any true Nairo­bian will tell you—some­times the walls close in a bit and a rapid suc­ces­sion of ut­terly bizarre and ex­haust­ing hap­pen­ings will send you scur­ry­ing for so­lace out­side of the big bad cap­i­tal city. Typ­i­cally, Kenyans in need of such an es­cape he

Nomad Africa Magazine - - Top 10 | Must Visit African Countries - Words: ALEX ROBERTS | Pho­tographs: BIKO WESA

one can find beaches to be over­run, the ho­tels over­booked and all the good wa­ter­ing holes laden heavy with Nairobi es­capees. In or­der to avoid such awkward prob­lems as run­ning into the same co-worker you’ve been avoid­ing, there is only one true option within the Kenyan Coast: Kilifi town. To get there you’ll have to go north from Mom­basa, but it is a bit of a mis­sion, es­pe­cially, if you’re go­ing by bus. After trans­fers and ne­go­ti­a­tions just north of Mom­basa in the plea­sure-seek­ers town of Mt­wapa (fa­mous for gam­bling, pros­ti­tu­tion and other as­sorted vices), you’ll find your­self rolling over tar­mac cov­ered in waves of heat on the way to­wards Kilifi. You can’t re­ally miss the town, after fields of sisal that sprawl out end­less for at least 20 kilo­me­ters across a sin­gu­lar mas­sive plan­ta­tion, you’ll cross a bridge into the very heart of Kilifi town.

It doesn’t much reg­is­ter as be­ing a ‘des­ti­na­tion’ and that’s kind of the essence of Kilifi. There’s a sin­gu­lar mid­size gro­cery store and it bor­ders one of two liquor hole-in-the-wall-shops that are usu­ally crawl­ing with ex-pats clam­mer­ing for gin to sup­ply the end­less week­end ahead. There seem to only be two types of vis­i­tors to this sleepy high­way junction town: Those who’ve long since carved out their niche of coastal vibes and have been com­ing out to Kilifi’s jun­gle haven for years and those who’ve ac­ci­den­tally stum­bled upon it for the first time, prob­a­bly from word of mouth some­where in a popular Mom­basa night­club.

The ul­ti­mate point is this: Many quiet places that should’ve never be­come loud have been deaf­ened by the very tourists they had orig­i­nally tried so des­per­ately to cater to. This is the case in other beach front towns on the Kenyan coast; Diani in the South, Nyali beach north of Mom­basa, Mt­wapa far­ther north still and high-end town of Malindi (a fa­vorite of Ital­ian ex­pats) one hour fur­ther north on the high­way from Kilifi.

De­spite the nearby tourist havens, Kilifi hasn’t yet suc­cumbed to the same crush­ing tourist traf­fic. Its roads still wind empty into the deep reaches of the bush, where only the oc­ca­sional house’s com­pound breaks up the aca­cia and views down into the ocean.

The bushes still crawl with geckos, pheas­ants, chameleons and in­cred­i­bly deadly snakes. Prices are still low and the pace of life still idly slides by, one day churn­ing into the next; one can sud­denly re­alise that it’s two weeks later and they’ve missed their flight out of Kenya en­tirely.

Part of the town’s ad­van­tage in be­ing over­looked is its ge­o­graph­i­cal lay­out; the town is wedged be­tween the white sand ex­panses of Bofa Beach and a bridge that opens into a mas­sive bay some 20 kilo­me­ters square.

Many ho­tels chose to be built in the wilds of the bush, over­look­ing the bay or the chan­nel lead­ing into it rather than fur­ther out along the beach es­carp­ment and fur­ther away from the town proper and the high­way econ­omy that helps to drive it. That’s how it’s re­mained seem­ingly un-

changed for decades now: Mango hawk­ers still pep­per the roads try­ing to sell their wares, the dance clubs of­ten are con­verted boat build­ing yards and har­bour the feel of abandoned ware­houses and some of the Kilifi fab­u­lous would rather take a mo­tor­boat across the bay for cock­tails than hop over on the bridge.

At night, one can find one­self hav­ing a few too many glasses of mnazi (lo­cally brewed palm wine) that ev­ery­one in Kilifi seems to have within reach and wan­der down the wind­ing in­tri­cate paths to­wards the still wa­ters of the in­let. Stick your feet in and splash to watch hun­dreds of bio-lu­mi­nes­cents shoot away from your feet, form­ing their own con­stel­la­tions in the wa­ter that seem to re­flect the very stars in the sky above them. Many a soul has dis­cov­ered some of the Kilifi se­cret fea­tures and now is some­what of a loy­al­ist: Ev­ery De­cem­ber load­ing a car or duf­fel bag full of shorts, leather san­dals and bot­tles of booze be­fore tear­ing off through the Mom­basa high­way away from Nairobi and away from the ev­ery­day mun­dane hap­pen­ings of life in the big city. This is a town for the ex­pe­ri­enced trav­eller, of some­one who’s seen their fair share of des­per­ately long bus rides and found the hid­den gems out­side of the norm to match.

Per­haps the best kept se­cret in all of the Coast and maybe Kenya at large is the white sand ex­panse that is Bofa Beach. The sands of Bofa run for ap­prox­i­mately 15 kilo­me­ters and the sen­sa­tion of space and empti­ness is be­ing over­whelm­ing at times.

Some clever peo­ple no­ticed how empty it was long ago and built white-walled Swahili style vil­las that dot the hills look­ing over that beach proper like clams cling­ing onto a reef. Sev­eral ho­tels are scat­tered up and down the palm tree spine of Bofa, but they run their op­er­a­tions in dis­tant view of each other, with­out the wall-to-wall hus­tles that come along with Kenya’s bet­ter ‘brand name’ beaches.

The sands are star­tling empty, with only the lazy sounds of surf of the bath­wa­ter warm In­dian Ocean to meet you. Gone are the beach boy hus­tlers, the sell­ers of trin­kets, the fly-by-night weed ped­dlers that all too of­ten fill up seem­ingly ev­ery me­tre of space on other beaches in East Africa. In their stead is a sense of tran­quil­ity. One

Along the edge of the sand you can find small cafes on the dirt roads lead­ing away from the beach, sell­ing bot­tled wa­ter, co­conuts, sliced pineap­ple and freshly caught fish. Lo­cal joints closer to down­town such as the Kilifi Club and the Boat­yard churn out piz­zas, fresh seafood, beer and in­ter­na­tional foot­ball matches on TV sets straight out of the 1970s.

can wade out into the gen­tle slop­ing shal­lows of the In­dian Ocean amid the great turquoise ex­panse and sim­ply not be both­ered. Even the waves are kept at bay by a huge reef that sits a five minute jet­ski ride from the shore.

Along the edge of the sand, you can find small cafes on the dirt roads lead­ing away from the beach, sell­ing bot­tled wa­ter, co­conuts, sliced pineap­ple and freshly caught fish. Lo­cal joints closer to down­town such as the Kilifi Club and the Boat­yard churn out piz­zas, fresh seafood, beer and in­ter­na­tional foot­ball matches on TV sets straight out of the 1970s.

This is how­ever, still the equa­tor and one can find them­selves hav­ing a sud­den on­set drain­ing of en­ergy within a mat­ter of hours of the swel­ter­ing sun re­flect­ing off the beach into their eyes. Good thing that Kilifi is a town built on a foun­da­tion of sun­downer cock­tails.

It is long ru­moured that the small city orig­i­nated the dawa; a fa­vorite ‘coastie’ cock­tail of vodka, honey, lime and ice, but such claims fall on dis­puted ears far­ther up and down the ocean front towns.

There a cou­ple of well hid­den wa­ter­ing holes that a weary trav­eller in need of strong drink, good com­pany and coas­t­e­rian sun­sets can ven­ture to.

As the sun­set, it’s a bor­der­line ne­ces­sity to take a row­boat out to the dhow (Swahili style wooden ship) that bobs at an­chor in the bay of Kilifi. Sev­eral souls now live on the ves­sel full time and it also dou­bles up as a float­ing dor­mi­tory for the back­pack­ers that re­side on top of the bluff above the in­let of the bay.

While the ship turns in space il­lu­mi­nat­ing the light-up life within the bay’s wa­ter, the sun will set slowly, usu­ally drawn down by the strum­ming of a gui­tar, the slow se­duc­tion of song or the ex­per­i­men­tal set of which­ever DJ is vis­it­ing that par­tic­u­lar week­end.

Don’t be se­duced by the pace of it all, un­less you have an open-ended ticket and no real plans; talk­ing to the usual sus­pects in the Kilifi scene, the story can of­ten blend with the same tones and themes,

“I just came out here two years ago on a three day week­end,” they’ll tell you, typ­i­cally over their third Kenyan made White Cap beer, “I just loved the en­ergy, and sup­pose that ex­cuses for ex­tend­ing out here kept be­ing made.”

In­deed they do, and if you hop off the Musafir and wind up the re­claimed tire path up the bluff, you too can find the rea­son for ev­ery­one find­ing them­selves in the beach­side jun­gles of Kilifi: The bar of Dis­tant Rel­a­tives Back­pack­ers.

This has be­come the hub of those on the road, the kitchen churn­ing out Coas­t­e­rian co­conut beans and English style break­fasts, happy hours zoom­ing by over pitch­ers of des­per­ately strong cock­tails at the pool­side, lights strung up in the baobob trees that lit­ter the grounds far­ther down the bluff. There’s no bet­ter place to play a game of pool and find strange com­pany than the cured wooden bar top of what lo­cals re­fer to sim­ply as ‘back­pack­ers’.

The in­tox­i­ca­tion of it all seems to hang heavy in the hu­mid air it­self, one would be wise not to start a bar tab in Kilifi as it has claimed many a rent check for trav­ellers that gave into in­dul­gence. Res­i­dents of the re­gion are quick to share ques­tion­able le­gends of ‘witch­craft’ and as­sorted coastal juju, and such mem­o­ries will quickly come back into your mind as you stare wideeyed at how much you owe a bar­man for gin and ton­ics.

As you emerge from the over­hang­ing jun­gles of Kilifi, sun­glasses on in the back of a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled cov­ered mo­torised rick­shaw) and start to head back to­wards what­ever life you’ve cho­sen for your­self, a feel­ing will come over you that strikes all those who ven­ture into the vibes of Kilifi for the first time: That just thirty min­utes from any place you know is some­thing in­cred­i­ble that only you have un­cov­ered.

Sim­ply put, a week in Kilifi will reignite your de­sire to find what’s over the next hill or hid­ing in the cove just be­yond the beach you know.

Some­times it’s wiser just to give over to im­pulse.

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