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Touring Kenya's Lamu Archipelago

On the southeastern shore of Lamu Island, two men ride donkeys along the dunes outside Shela Village.

Photo: Monika Hoefler and Jens Schwarz

As Lamu overflowed with Maulidi pilgrims, I deserted the island to avoid being stampeded by enthusiastic donkey riders, who were already doing practice sprints along Old Town’s flag-festooned promenade. With a swimsuit and some toiletries wrapped in a makeshift kikoi bundle, I hired a small powerboat to take me deeper into the archipelago. We traveled north on a canal between clusters of mangrove into Manda Bay, rounding Pate Island as numerous dhows headed the other way. I waved to the crews dressed in matching T-shirts for the upcoming competition. The captain, Ali, told me the red strings hanging from their masts were juju luck tokens. During the races some crews even throw live chickens overboard for additional good fortune.

After two hours, the terrain we passed shifted from mangrove forest to dry hills and scrub: this was Kiwayu, the northernmost island in the archipelago, and the least developed—closer in character to the tribal mainland. The boat turned into a half-moon bay with a fishing village at one end and our destination, Kiwayu Safari Lodge, at the other, nearer the reef. Under a fringe of coconut palms, the barefoot camp consists of little more than thatch huts and a main dining banda. My quarters contained a rope hammock, a bed, and a discreet bath in an alcove. There were no windowpanes, no doors, no locks—simple, yet perfectly suited to the far-off setting. The lodge’s English manager, George Moorehead, often barters with tribesmen for wild honeycomb, gathered from prickly acacia trees, to serve at breakfast. When he heard how much I love the rich taste of the mud crabs that thrive in the mangroves, a meaty pair landed on my plate for lunch. “My father-in-law started this place,” he told me. “But I’ve taken it on. Can’t imagine going back to England now.”

I spent the afternoon paddling a kayak around the bay. Just beyond the reef break, clouds towered in the south. The staff told me they could smell the Kusi rains coming, though they were still weeks away.

At dusk kanga pillows and palm mats were hauled onto the sand. Brass lanterns provided the only light for miles in any direction. Moorehead lent me a handheld telescope that digitally identified constellations. I was delighted to locate Canopus, a navigation star beloved of ancient voyagers, only visible in the Southern Hemisphere; it was impossible to be lost under its bright influence. Conversation died. Rare are the places in the world with so few distractions. Leaving the other guests, I walked to my hut and crawled under the mosquito netting. At last I fell asleep.

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