top of page

On The Boat From Lamu - 1978


It was the school holidays and the volunteer teacher friend and I decided to go to the fabled Lamu during the break. Lamu, an arab town on an island off the coast of Kenya three traveling days from the north, hitch hiking, busses, ferries and walking. A light bag of ragged shorts, a sleeping sheet, ever dwindling supplies of cash and a few tee shirts


The streets were narrow and stained blood brown with chewed betel juice, no cars, just donkeys. The ornately carved wooden doors hid courtyards and homes. Flat roofed white houses. A dockside with old cannons and dhows white sailing silently past. Men wore white djellabas, the women black clad and veiled, like nuns only with gold bracelets on brown wrists. Each morning the call to prayer droned from the mosque and woke us on the roof of the hotel on which we stayed


In the past the traders came south on the trade winds as far as Zanzibar for ivory, gold and slaves bringing spices and rices, returning home as the trade winds turned and blew them back north century after century. This local historical relationship with the gulf was still strong. Young men went to university there and down on the dockside a lifeboat stacked with traditional carpets returned to a massive traditional sea going trading dhow loaded with locally cut mangrove poles. The mosque called for prayer three times a day every day


The Lamu traveller lifestyle was exclusive: We were travelers not backpackers having sought out the remote and exclusively inaccessible, hard to get to destinations. There were only a few dozen of us scattered across the little town but it was typically easy: breakfast at a coconut thatch, simple cafe with trestle tables and cups of caffeine strong Kenyan coffee, and perhaps a studious diary or a paper thin airmail letter write up. A stroll to the post office to check for those treasured Poste Restante letters from friends and families. Maybe a wander to the beach for a swim or a dozing book on the roof of the hotel in the afternoon. More food and a couple of beers last thing at night. We sat on the roof of the hotel with the other backpackers and exchanged multi national traveller’s stories as the insanely beautiful sun sets traversed the long skies of the equator


There were side trips and drama, we rescued a fellow traveller from robbery and stabbing on the beach, I lacerated my chest on mangrove stumps on a remote island and ended up in the local clinic for stitches and jabs but in reality, the days were profoundly relaxed and passed easily in a warm, inexpensive, well fed budget traveller’s daze


But, the school holidays and the money ran gradually down and time to leave became more and more pressing. The rainy season came and all the roads back to Mombassa were washed out and impassable. The light aircraft that brought in the well heeled tourists and soporific traditional chewing red stemmed chewing Mirrah for the locals were totally out of reach for us Poste Restante travelers


I went to a tamarind scented Duka, a local store that sold colourful piles of aromatic mysterious spices that disappeared in to the black clad folds of the local women, bars of soap, rice, batteries and razor blades and bought a large 1lb tin of porridge oats. Add water, add milk, add juice add pretty much any consumable liquid at all and you have sustenance for as long as the tin lasts. At least enough for the three day hitch hike from Mombasa to the north. Then I went over to a small doorway office of the local arab sea trader. More long white djellaba, leather sandals, sunglasses and turban. I haggled, haggled, haggled for two deck fares on the local coaster to Mombassa, ‘single only, one way only, deck only - with food’. Unintelligible arabic script on torn pieces of paper were our tickets and probably also instructions to only feed us whitey infidels only the scrag end of any food during the 3 day trip southwards by sea to the modern and ancient port of Mombassa. 


Then, all our money was totally gone. We didn’t even have the price of a cup of chai between us


On the flat hotel rooftop we gathered up our few remaining possessions and traded a couple of bent paperbacks for the trip. The Grateful Dead, Blues For Allah tee shirts had been sold off for the price of a final breakfast and away we went down to the dock with our now sagging backpacks slung lightly over our brown tanned shoulders


The coaster was all that it was meant to be, rust stained, stubby and broad, oily, decrepit, clapped out, untidy but crewed by a ragged bunch of cheery bare, crusty footed deck hands who laughed at the ‘epic’ travelers who boarded the boat to Mombassa under the watchful eye of yet another white clad, dark sun-glassed arab captain from up on his cockpit stool in the cracked glass bridge


The coaster was little more that a tug boat but we found a quiet corner of the deck and settled in with the other deck passengers, brown eyed shy toddlers and mothers clad in all covering black. Ropes were cast off and the white Lamu dock grew evermore picturesque as it faded into the distance and the memory of those few traveller’s colour slides that we snatched on our tiny 35mm cameras


The repetitive dunk of the motor drove us out through the channel beyond the reef and we turned slowly towards the sun and dozed as an identikit coast of sand topped by palm trees and greenery plodded past us hour after hour. Nothing to do except doze and read, sit in the up and down plunging bow of the boat and look at the sea. The ragged crew called us and rice, chilies and chicken was spooned onto white chinese enamel plates. 


The food was surprisingly good and we were hungry


The money was all gone. We’d spent every single last cent we had hanging on to the traveller’s life on Lamu for as long as we could


We rolled ourselves into our sleeping sheets on slept on the rolling deck. A billion stars gleamed in the clear sky above and the stolid donk of the motor drove us deeper into our sleep and ever southwards


Dawn came and a quick check over the rail revealed more identikit shoreline, breakfast was yesterday’s cold rice with cups of African chai, handfuls of tea, sweet condensed milk and more sugar boiled up in a massive enamel teapot - sustaining but not for teeth


The passengers were a varied bunch, us, a couple of ragged travelers like us, a number of local women and children, a few single men in slacks, white shirts and inexpensive flashy wristwatches. The standard traveling mix, except one old white gent. An unusual chap, unusual because he was at least seventy. He wore roughly patched shorts and shirts made from the same faded navy blue fabric that the uniforms of the local primary school children were made from on the treadle sewing machines in little shops on the main walkways through the town


We engaged him in conversation during tea after breakfast. In a quavering but cultured Oxbridge accent he informed us that he:


“Used to be a DC in the NFD” 


My teacher friend translated that he’d been a District Commissioner in the Northern Frontier District, the semi arid land that bordered Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. Inhabited by roving traditional Turkana and Pokot tribespeople that lived on milk and blood let from their herds of cattle. An area of Kenya noted as one of the most dangerous and remote areas of the country if not the continent, rife with cattle stealing from raiding border crossing thieves. A hard country of drought, starvation and privation. This man had certainly lived an interesting and tough life as the most senior administrator managing this difficult tribal area. He seemed impressed that I’d taken the trouble to go there and travel through it from sudan in the north. He explained that he was:


“Going to Henley to meet my son, watch the rowing on the Thames, probably will be the last time, might have cracked a leg last month, don’t reckon the old ticker will still be going next year”


We laughed and said that he’s last for ever and then were distracted and a major boat commotion erupted. Flying fish, brilliant blue with fin wings were flying hundred of yards across the surface of the sea. A couple of dozen flitted onto the rusty deck of the steamer and were being gathered up by the crew with great excitement before they slithered out of the deck drain holes back into the sea


“Damned good eating” remarked the ex District Commissioner and the commotion settled and we returned to our torpor and and paperbacks, looking forward to dinner


Dinner, rice, fish chili and another night of thudding dreamless sleep. In the morning the coastline began to change and huts appeared on the skyline. Then Mombasa, the ancient, medieval fort city port. White castle towers overlooking the blue, blue gap in the reef. An ancient ship parked rusty incompetently shipwrecked brown on the corner of the reef entrance. A jumble of white painted arabic houses climbed the hill behind the rotting dockside


With much shouting and wild hand signals the coaster tied up to a buoy some fifty yards from the shore. The engine died and a leaking rowboat bumped against the side. We travelers were first in either on the basis of prestige or perhaps a safety test for the women and children behind us. The District Commissioner was lowered with his small canvas bag and thick walking stave into the boat with us. He looked distinctly unnerved. The boat rowed towards the jetty and a flight of sea eaten, creaky, slimy green steps leading upwards to safe ground


The boat bumped on the steps and we barefooted onto the green slidy steps. The DC looked unsure and distinctly scared. I took his bag and slung over a shoulder with mine. My friend took his stick and we eased him onto the steps between us. They were greased  treachery. We linked hands and slid him between us. With an arm around each of our shoulders we carried the old man up the creaking steps and carefully deposited him on his two feet on the stone jetty


“Thank you chaps” he croaked and then reached into his short pocket and pulled out an ancient bent wallet. “We don’t need any money” my penniless friend said


He looked hard at us both, handed us a grubby red 20 shilling note and then said:


“This is not your money, it is a gift that you must pass on to others that you meet on your travels who need it”


The old man took his walking stave out of my friend’s hand, turned and in his faded shorts and shirt stumped off up the pathway to the city without a backward look. I looked at my friend, we both knuckled away a tear and picked up our bags to begin the two day journey towards home

bottom of page