Three days with the sweet people of Watamu

The realisation of a beach holiday did much to dissipate the Post-Tournament Depression that descends upon so many ultimate players.

Our smiling trio, dubbed Team Beach, boarded a not-so-small twin prop plane that sent us east from Nairobi towards the warm waters of the Indian ocean.

Team beach

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On the plane, I sat next to a guy who said he worked for the airline. Odd, considering all the selfies he was taking and snaps of the fields through the clouds. Nonetheless, I asked him for advice on transport to Watamu from Malindi. He said he would sort me out when we landed.

Sure enough, he made some phone calls and a Helen would pick us up outside. Now words such as ‘big’ or ‘vast’ are not ones you use to describe Malindi International Airport. It took us all of four minutes to disembark, grab our luggage and walk a few metres to the exit. But when we walked outside, there was a beaming Helen with my name scribbled on a piece of foolscap, the ink barely dry.

Our hosts at Paki House were great. Our smiling trio enjoyed a warm welcome in more ways than one, despite being in the dead of winter. The humid air forced us to get into beach gear pretty quickly. Second on the agenda was water, as you can’t drink what comes out the tap.

A short shopping trip by foot with our host Enoch resulted in an ATM visit, 12 litres of water from an Indian shop and some fruit from a local store. Upon return, Enoch whipped up some absolutely delicious mango smoothies with what I had just bought and we were pretty smitten sitting on the breezy porch overlooking the pool.

Watamu is Swahili and translates to ‘sweet people’, which is quite true in reality. However, Watamu and surrounds are also known as Little Italy, given the number of Italians still living there. For the most part, these are the leftovers of colonialism, as East Africa was split up amongst the British, Germans and Italians in the late 1800s.

As such, there is a touch of Italian flavour in some of the architecture, names of resorts and of course, food. And it was at one of the many Italian restaurants where we found ourselves having lunch. The fish, Italian ice cream and local beer were all delicious, but the unfriendly owner was far from it. Tipping is not customary in these small towns and our confused waiter took his dilemma to the spectacled owner who pocketed the cash and said “Thanks…”

James on our red chariot for the day

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But that turned out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise as it forced us to look for other options for meals. Sensing this, our other host Donald mentioned they could cook for us for a small fee and offered to take us shopping. So it was off to the beach to find the catch of the day.

After walking past a 200+ kg blue marlin alone in the back of a tuk-tuk, we found a fresh snapper and went into town with the fisherman and his posse to get it weighed. Our trek took us through old-town Watamu, with dusty streets and small colourful homes punctuated by friendly residents taking advantage of the final rays of sun.

In the fish shop, a feast was set at the table with men circling…it made for an intersting scene. We paid for the 3kg fish as the call for prayer rolled through the streets. Of course, I thought aloud. It was Ramadan and Watamu’s large Swahili-Muslim community had been fasting for the day. Some pounced on the food while one kind man invited us to eat with them. We pointed to the fish, said our goodbyes and grabbed the rest of the ingredients on the way back to Paki House.

Enoch, Donald and Patience prepared us a mouthwatering snapper dish with a light tomato and garlic sauce served with basmati rice. It was outstanding and we took some solace in the fact that this time, our tip would reach the right pockets. Aside from eating like Kings and Queens, of course.

Easing our way into the tuk-tuk life, we went to the Gedi Ruins the following day. Here, we found the ruins of a 12th century Islamic community, complete with a Great Mosque. It should come as no surprise that the port city of Mombasa just 100km south of Watamu has the highest concentration of Muslims in Kenya.

The site had old stone walls covered in rich green moss, aided by the relative shade of the forest canopy above us. Some of the trees looked just as old, with one growing on top of a wall with it’s roots drilling down into the ground, virtually keeping the wall in place. The place oozed both history and mystery.

This tree found its way back to the soil

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Such was the area’s ties to Europe, that the Portuguese attempts at monopolising trade would lead to the abandonment of the growing town, which held an estimated 2500 inhabitants at it’s peak. Well that, and the frequent raids from the cannibalistic Wazimba tribe in the 1500’s. It must have been a rough place to live.

On a noticeboard outside the town’s second general supermarket, we had seen an advert for sunset yoga at a place called the Treehouse. This place had an incredible view, a view I was looking forward to after the tuk-tuk had to change to the lowest gear to get up the windy road through the bush.

We did yoga in a circle at the top of the Gaudi-styled white building with a 360 degree view of the ocean and the palm-tree-littered inland. As we breathed out and did our Namaste’s, our Cape Town-taught yoga instructor Morris said, “…and now you can watch the sunset.”

On cue, the big red ball hit the horizon and as the palm fronds swayed in the sea breeze. We realised this wasn’t Morris’ first rodeo.

Yoga with a view

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After an evening eating the rest of the fish – this time made into a coconut curry – and drinking too much beer, it was time for snorkeling. It was here where we met most of the other tourists in the town, also taking advantage of the calm day.

Our boat, named Millennium, picked us up and we putted close to the white shoreline. Once stopped a few hundred meters out, the crystal clear water surface was just two or so metres about the reef, meaning we had little work to do to see the wonders of the ocean.

While the fish were beautiful and plentiful, the coral was not. Coral bleaching is an issue on the Kenyan coast and perhaps one in every 60 coral – and there sure were thousands – we saw was vibrant and healthy. At the end, the boat driver tossed some bread crumbs in the water, causing a fish frenzy all around us like an overpopulated fish tank.

The trusty Millennium Falcon dropped us off at the beach and we decided to take a stroll to town to get some lunch. And here is how we learned why it was off-season in Watamu.

Our Millenium Falcon

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The constant onshore winds bring with them tonnes and tonnes of seaweed which builds up on the beach and dries out. It doesn’t smell or anything, but some places there isn’t a towel-sized space of white sand.

Because of it’s status as a protected marine reserve, local government is not allowed to move the seaweed and residents must wait for the wind to change direction and with the aid of the tide, nature will take it all back. This was strange, given the diggers driving on the sand doing construction on a fancy resort right next to the seaweed. Clearly, the rules can be broken.

That was Watamu Bay, which is considered the main beach. But there are many small bays along the picturesque coastline within walking distance of each other and many don’t get the Harbinger of Seaweed breeze. This is where we spent our time.

We should have learn’t our lesson the first time about it being off-season. In town, a local said he would walk us to where we wanted to go, another Italian restaurant that had been suggested to us. Papa Remo. Our man Bekker was friendly enough and took us through the old town again and back onto the beach, telling us it was a shortcut. This was another subtle clue we missed. A short cut for a man who walks seven kilometres everyday and has no job is not really a shortcut.

After some stunning scenery, we arrived at a beachhead where the tide was high, blocking our path to the next bay, where Bekker assured us the restaurant was, even though it looked pretty remote. If we timed it between the waves, it would be over waist high at best. This was a no go.

So much to Bekker’s disappointment, we had to go back to the road, the long way around. We had walked for over an hour on this shortcut in the midday sun after an early start and moods soured even more when we found Papa Remo’s to be closed. Not just the restaurant, but the entire resort was a ghost town behind a thick set rusty chained gate. I’d be lying if I said there was no swearing.

Bikes are taxis in Kenya, and one pulled up to see four sweaty strangers standing under a small tree. Bekker sent him to town, since we had marched beyond the outskirts, to get a tuk-tuk for us.

Hunger and anger had become one as we arrived at a different Italian restaurant – about 100m from where we met Bekker – and sent him on his way with a small tip he arguably didn’t deserve. We feasted on more superb seafood and ice cream, which quickly drowned that memory, before heading back to Paki House for a much needed rest.

With throwing arms starting to itch, our final afternoon was spent throwing on the beach as the sun went down behind the palms, silhouetting the coconut pickers who were scampering up the palms with nothing but their hands and feet. Boats were coming in with the day’s catch to waiting crowds, with the smallest helpers been given the biggest things to carry.

We had gone full circle, as we were in the same bay we bought the snapper on the first night. Only this time, we were doing our best to take it all in, because we didn’t really want to leave that stunning place.

Hakuna Matata, Watamu.

Afternoon crowds welcomimg the days catch

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