GUARDIAN It is said that many of the baobab trees are older than Christ; but then all of equatorial Africa’s east coast is riddled with hearsay. Over a few days, I was given the gen on an infamous murder case, informed of cheetahs dancing in mangroves, and of a giraffe who fell in love with a windsock. All wildlife was covered.
Shelagh village on the island of Lamu is the ethnic equivalent of Saint Tropez; you need a brassy mentality and platinum card to enjoy the place. It’s a generic, happy Africa where Princess Caroline of Monaco can slum it when she’s feeling native. I meet a few ex-pats, including a tall, slim man, thoroughly tanned and totally pickled. He has startling, ultramarine eyes imprisoned in roasted flesh behind his Cartier spectacles. He tells me, between volcanic, hacking coughs, that it’s the only place to be; I’m not convinced and head south.
The boat trip from Shelagh is exotic, travelling through immense mangrove forests and past the occasional cove, arriving an hour later at Kipungani Explorer. The resort is charming because it’s everything that Shelagh village is not: simple, isolated and with an atmosphere from another time. The office, piled high with box-files, has an airy, make-do colonial feel, like the pleasant managers who might have stepped out of a black-and-white movie.It’s understated and stylish; each large room, or banda , is made from palm thatch and is a good spot in which to chill.
Talk of turtle eggs hatching caused excitement, but nature being capricious, it meant that they didn’t during my visit. The local ecology and community is important at Kipungani; there’s talk of making the place totally eco-friendly – although they appear to be well on their way to me, and already look after the turtle nesting sites.
I take a boat to “the Point”, an elbow of land at the far end of Lamu sticking out into the Indian Ocean. The beach there is 12 kilometres long and I am the only person on it. The sense of space is incredible.
Opposite Lamu Town is the jetty for connections to Manda Island airstrip. It is the most primitive (read pretty) airport I’ve been to. The baggage reclaim is a concrete altar under a thatched roof that is bizarrely Anne Hathawayesque. An Air Kenya plane is waiting, I’m the only passenger, and we take off on a 15-minute flight over mangroves and islands. My destination, Kiwayu Island, goes one better than Manda – it’s merely a grass strip cut in the bush, with the added risk of ploughing into a dozing buffalo on touch-down.
Ten minutes from Kiwayu Safari Village by speedboat are the perfect white coral sands of The Baobabs of Kitangani, an exclusive island hideaway. This sybaritic luxury is designed for just two people in the local “Bajuni” style – local thatch and matting without the use of nails. A path leads up a gentle hill to a vast, open bedroom the size of a small supermarket with a bed of such gargantuan proportions that it defies belief (it’s nine feet square, a little on the small side if it were a studio flat in central London). A few yards further on is another open room complete with bar, hammocks, Lamu beds, dining table and a stunning view looking west across a lagoon to the mainland and over a vast plain to hills in the hazy distance. My reaction to the place is physical: I want to scream or laugh hysterically, or run and hug a baobab.
The engines of a 22ft rib gurgle like an expensive car and I am powered off, leaving Kitangani in my wake. Pushed back into white leather seats by the turbo-charged engine, I glug from a cool beer as I’m sped through mangroves, past creeks and into the sun, eventually docking beside an eccentric jetty built of twigs. Munira Island Camp is a small place at the far end of Kiwayu Island. It’s extremely simple – very picturesque. Delicious vodka tonics are brought – limey and chilled by huge chunks of ice – and the sun sinks behind Africa. It occurs to me that I am the first to see it go down that day – I can’t get any further east on this continent. A telescope is trained on the sun as it disappears (the Earth’s atmosphere making a natural filter) and the last vestige turns neon green. I’m entranced. Within minutes, a crescent moon appears, wearing the faintest of halos.
The tiny island of Chumbe is six kilometres off the coast of Zanzibar (it’s one of the few entirely eco-hotels in Tanzania). I watch previous guests alight from the transfer boat, but I’m the only person going back out to the island. The boat captain is stuck deep in his thoughts, so I keep mine to myself and enjoy the ride. The plastic seats are recycled. Some are cracked and repaired with nylon fishing line.
I’m greeted, and ushered into the main building, an enormous, sweeping makuti thatch pentangle that entirely covers the remnants of a lighthouse keeper’s lodging. The original house is now offices and a sweetly earnest classroom/field-centre: kids’ drawings and collages decorate one wall and a nature table dominates another.
The head ranger, Omari, walks me around the island. I find an exquisite cowrie shell that I’m inclined to keep, but, having been given a stern lecture on not to remove anything from the beach, I reluctantly put it back. There’s all sorts of coral, a couple of baby conger eels under a rock, ridiculous starfish, sea-anemones the size of small cushions, and any number of crabs, stripy fish in rock-pools and the husks of sea urchins.
After lunch, I’m equipped with fins and a snorkel and taken offshore. It’s overcast, so the explosion of coral colours beneath the surface are muted; even so, it’s still spectacular. A couple of hours later, Omari comes to find me, and we meander through the forest to look at land, rock and hermit crabs, fleshy plants that exude white poison, fossilised coral and giant clams, and baobabs that were obese long before Livingstone ever set eyes on Zanzibar. I’m shown the lighthouse – more like the Tower of Babel – and we conclude our stroll. There’s a naturalness, conviction and enthusiasm for this project that is rare nowadays. I’m distracted as I’m eating dinner – Omari has a rare coconut crab to show me.
A message awaits me in Stone Town, Zanzibar – “flight to Kinasi, Mafia Island at 12.30, please be at the airport by 12”, although where exactly, I’m not sure. A man approaches me near the check-in: “Mr Nick? I am Rashid, come this way.” I pay 2,000 shillings departure tax and wait without a ticket. Rashid waves from across the Tarmac and points to a red aeroplane – he tells me to sit in the co-pilot’s seat while he goes elsewhere. Joseph, the pilot, joins me – it’s just the two of us, and we climb to 7,500ft to look down on a wonderful blue world. Below me, as we come into land, is a whale shark – a huge shadowy mass much bigger than a boat. I consider pointing it out to Joseph, but resist the temptation as we skim treetops and head towards the runway. Kinasi is perched on a ridge overlooking the ocean; it is manicured and lazy, a place that always catches a breeze.
Next morning, a guide, Kirobo, takes me to Choley Island, a place heady with the scent of frangipani. Kirobo introduces me to Alan, the manager of an unusual tree-house hotel, and then shows me the rest of the island: there’s a colony of fruit bats, a shipyard with a beautiful dhow under construction, a school, wells, everywhere the curled rinds of orange, a dilapidated mosque and simple mud huts. I like the place.
Mid-afternoon, and I take the Kinasi dhow to a tiny island where the lagoon ends and the ocean begins. The snorkelling is great, the coral is luminous, verging on fluorescent, and the fish outrageously coloured. I see stonefish (ugly and poisonous), pipefish, moray eels tucked among the coral, starfish that Erté obviously designed. Back on board, and instead of motoring, the dhow is put under sail and we creek majestically to Kinasi.
The most extraordinary colours are visible in the sound before Pemba Island. The palest white leaks into an exorbitant turquoise. Pemba is unseasonably festive – the smell of Christmas cake mix follows me on my journey across the island; it’s the scent of cloves drying in the sun.
Waiting for me in Mkaoni is a super-flashy boat. If I thought transport in Kiwayu was like an expensive car, then this guy is an executive jet. But not even that prepared me for the hidden beauty of Fundu Lagoon; it sneaks up on you as you speed across the bay, gradually peaking from out of the jungle. It is effortless and luxurious in a barefoot, sensual way. Swahili cuisine (a tangy mixture of African, Arab and Indian ingredients) is of a similar standard all along the coast; but the food at Fundu is good. I sink what might rate as the best bloody mary of all time and sleep, dreaming of the white sands and blue seas that greeted me.
Next day, I head to the Ngezi forest – the last tract of tropical rainforest on the eastern shores of Africa – tucked in the northern-most reach of Pemba. I wasn’t prepared for the smell – thermals of warm scent wafted out of the sticky, delicious, atmosphere and mugged me. The vegetation, an amazing mixture of 50m trees and creepers, leaves the size of Li-Los and dense undergrowth, is an excessive backdrop for the cacophony that followed me everywhere. The forest is percussive, the sound of maracas, eccentric clicks and the whirr of a dentists’ drill come flooding through the greenery. I was stalked by a butterfly with wings the size of saucers and had to dodge crabs kitted out with bright-red boxing gloves. The monkeys just laughed at me.