Malindi, Kenya: Worth the Slog

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Hippo on the Gelana river in Tsavo Park
Hippo on the Gelana river in Tsavo Park

Magical Malindi for Wildlife, Relaxing Beaches and that Light

By Greg Cummings

The 15-hour-long bus journey across Kenya, from Nairobi to Malindi is not for the faint-hearted. At the back of the bus, you feel every pothole and speed bump but are more likely to survive a crash.sailing on a dhow in Malindi

At the front, next to a wired and agitated driver chewing khat, the ride is smoother but a lot more hair-raising and you’re unlikely to survive a crash.

Once the bus reaches its destination, however, the terror quickly evaporates. Arriving by air has the same effect.

As your plane descends into this tidy Indian Ocean conurbation, all the stresses of long-haul travel are replaced by the pleasure of knowing you’ve reached the jewel in the crown of the Swahili Coast.

Malindi’s Sea Breezes

Malindi is simple, casual, and cosmopolitan. Sea breezes moderate its climate. It never gets too hot here. The port town prides itself on its tolerance, shaped by eight centuries of maritime trade across the Indian Ocean. Vasco de Gama once stayed for a fortnight. Despite a growing population of 120,000, it is green, tidy, and aesthetically pleasing.

Malindi town.
Malindi town.

Built in the Moorish style, its buildings — none taller than the minarets of mosques — are packed tightly together along a lively network of narrow streets leading to the ocean. Walking along the waterfront, you pass a mosque, bars, a Portuguese church, the Hindu Union, and a national museum.

You may even hear the cry of a muezzin blended with church bells or see a fully veiled woman walking alongside one whose shoulders are bare, talking as friends. There are three distinct communities here: Kenyan, Anglo, and Italian. Anglo and Italian rarely mix.

It used to be a much more happening place. The ebb and flow of wealthy foreigners once helped boost Malindi’s economy. But foreigners rarely visit these days, which in no way diminishes its charm.

Malindi hanging gardens.
Malindi hanging gardens.

Coffee at Bar Bar Downtown

Start with a coffee and a croissant at Bar Bar downtown, and pour over a copy of ‘Malindi in the Pocket’, a local guidebook.

It’s brimming with information, promotions and when the happy hours are scheduled at the beach bars. The fastest way to get around town is by motorcycle taxi, or boda boda.

The alternative, the three-wheeled tuk-tuk, is a rackety, bone-rattling mode of transport, especially on coral roads. If you’re traveling solo, you’re better off on the back of a boda boda. Riding one requires some skill.

You have to hold on to the bike, not the driver. Never let him exceed 20 mph. Lean sideways on corners and be prepared to bail in an instant at any time.

No cross-town journey should cost more than $2. A driver who knows where he is going is a bonus. Many do not have a clue. How a town that’s five miles long and two miles wide poses such a navigational challenge is mystifying.

Pride of lions beneath a palm tree in Malindi.
Pride of lions beneath a palm tree in Malindi.

The best accommodation is on Casuarina Road, a route lined with hedgerows that dazzle in the equatorial light. Bougainvillea bombs, ten feet tall with pink, white, red, purple and orange flowers burst from behind coral walls. Set back beyond them on darkly shaded grounds are the homes once owned by the wealthiest of the expatriate community.

Many of these magnificent houses are available to rent on Airbnb. No need for air-conditioning. Their Makuti roofs — traditional thatch roofing made from the sun-dried leaves of coconut palms — are molded into large aerodynamic air vents that funnel cool breezes through the house.

Malindi from the air.
Malindi from the air.

Neem House can accommodate up to 12 guests. The house is exemplary of the Swahili style, a fusion of African, Arab, Persian, European and Indian cultures.

Designed and built to a high standard of excellence by hunter/safari guide Frank ‘Bunny’ Allen, who sought inspiration from Lamu’s ancient palaces, Neem House is an architectural wonder.

The floors are tiled with Gelana stone and Arabesque archways and carved wooden doors predominate. The house has a traditional flat roof enclosed by machicolations and, with a vantage higher than the treetops, is ideal for sundowners, stargazing and a spell of nostalgia.

On a safari led by the Prince of Wales in the 1930s, Bunny Allen was second gun to Denys Finch Hatton, the lover of ‘Out of Africa’ author Karen Blixen.

In the 1950s he managed location shoots for Hollywood movies, including ‘Mogambo’ in which he also acted as Clarke Gable’s stunt double.

During the shoot, the womanizing Allen had affairs with both of Gable’s co-stars, Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner, and Gardner was then married to Frank Sinatra. Brave man. Fuhgedaboudit.

Tsavo East National Park in Malindi

Tsavo East National Park is a mere 90-minute drive from town, over good roads. It’s possible to eat breakfast on the beach and then view elephants on the savannah before supper.

Rarely are such outstanding ecosystems found so close together. Tsavo has the largest population of elephants in Kenya.

Its vast, inhospitable landscapes seemingly untouched for eons, are teeming with wildlife. “A million miles of bloody Africa,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in Green Hills of Africa — a term of endearment for those who’ve seen it.

Nowhere else on Earth do you find that unfathomable light, that pale blue hue in the sky.

The savannah is not as peaceful as it appears, though, rather brutal mayhem for the creatures who live there — survival of the fittest. That is down to the perfection of predation. Forget its spots, a leopard’s DNA has not changed in three million years. And we can thank Mr Leopard for our faculty to run quickly.

Stretch Land Cruisers are best for wildlife viewing in Malindi.
Stretch Land Cruisers are best for wildlife viewing in Malindi.

Hire a “stretch” Toyota Land Cruiser. Modified for safaris, its chassis has been lengthened to make space for an extra row of seats, and larger windows and two pop-up roofs have been installed for optimum game viewing.

They call them seven-seaters but, taking into account the space that a fridge and other wilderness essentials take up, the Stretch is only really adequate for four passengers and a driver.

A local driver is essential. Do not attempt to self-drive through a game park. Local drivers have current knowledge about the roads, terrain, recent mudslides, and washed-out bridges. And they know where the game is likely to be found.

They are also far better at dealing with vehicle breakdowns and can call on local support when needed. Avoid getting stranded without a phone network when the lions come out to feed.

Hippos, Lions and Elephants

The Galana River flows through Tsavo, wide and shallow. Low water levels expose large slabs of hydro-formed rocks on its riverbed. Its banks are shaded by giant doum palms. Hippos wallow in their shade as do large prides of lion. Herds of elephants, too, can be seen crossing the river. It’s an Eden.

During their first visit here, many people experience a sense of deja vu. It may be a primordial memory from when our ancestors passed this way and stood on the banks of this timeless river. Tsavo is a landscape of the soul, a mythical place. How could we ever forget it?

After a few days in the wilds, civilization can be a shock. Exiting the bush, you exchange impala for goats, elephant for cows, and savannah for farmland. But before unpacking and washing away the dust and grime, best to first drink a few ‘golden coldies’ at a local watering hole.

Malindi Sea Fishing Club
Malindi Sea Fishing Club

The members-only Malindi Sea Fishing Club (daily memberships are available for about $1) looks like somewhere Papa Hemingway might have put back a few whiskies and exchanged fish tales, except that the club is located on the seaward side of the breakwater. When Hemingway fished here, this plot was underwater. Over the past 30 years, waterborne sediment flowing from the Galana River, which enters the Indian Ocean just north of the town, has caused the waterfront to prograde by around 600 feet. So when the shoreline shifted so did the club.

Malindi beach walk morningEvidence that the ocean was once much closer can be seen in the old photographs of anglers posing on the club’s gantry next to their record-breaking catches. A few hang on the clubhouse walls alongside trophy mounts of billfish and sharks, which add a dramatic touch to its decor and provide cover for insect-hunting geckoes. The centerpiece, “Kenya’s 1st Grander”, is a 1,250 lb. blue marlin that was boated after an epic six-hour fight on the open sea.

Worth visiting, and only a 20-minute drive from Malindi, are the ruins of Gede, a medieval coastal town located deep in the Arabuko Sokoke forest. Built in the 11th Century, the town was abandoned in the 17th Century. No one knows why. Perhaps the Portuguese drove them away. Perhaps the water dried up. Gede’s fathomless wells are a testament to the lengths its inhabitants were prepared to go to draw water.

Now baobabs grow from the coral brickwork, and the ruins are populated by visitors, school groups and rival troops of Syke’s monkeys. Syke’s range all along the coastal forests. In the hurdy-gurdy of a monkey’s day, if the sun shines when it’s raining then they’re off to a wedding. For all their cheeky pantry-raiding shenanigans, however, they can be quite hilarious.

You may return home to find clues to a monkey’s visit: toppled knickknacks, teeth marks in the soap, and palm nuts scattered across the floor. That must be money for them. The civic-minded monkey is obliged to pay for its damages. Just remember, they are wild so treat them with caution.

Hanging Gardens of Malindi
Hanging Gardens of Malindi.

Closer to home, the Hanging Gardens of Malindi is the only dedicated orchid nursery in Kenya and an inspiration for the green-thumbed traveler. Proprietor Nick Conway imports orchids from across the world.

His garden design ideas blend local natural resources like stone, wood, and flotsam from the ocean. “One of the joys of gardening in the tropics is the speed everything grows,” says Nick.

He has been collecting and propagating orchids as a hobby here for many years now, so the idea of a transition to an orchid nursery occurred naturally.

Diners are spoilt for choice. Italian, Swahili and British influences make Malindian cuisine among the most varied in Kenya. Baby Marrow, Rosada, and Pizza O serve exceptional pizzas, antipasti, and seafood pasta dishes.

Local restaurants specializing in fish and chicken, like Shukrani and Seafront Swahili Dishes, offer more bang for your shilling.

But for the most idyllic beachfront meal, make the 30-minute drive over coral roads to Malaika Estro Beach Restaurant in Mayungu.

Malaika’s crab tagliatelle is delicious. You’ll find fewer than a dozen people on this remote beach.

Typically the sky is baby blue and a row of clouds is scrunched up against the horizon like bedlinen. Below them roll three lines of surf that shimmer in the sunshine.

The Reef is Exposed

Closer to the shore at low tide, the reef is exposed and the breezes carry a whiff of algae, salt and coral. On the Indian Ocean, what sounds like a far-off crowd is just the wind in the Casuarina trees, and what sounds like trouble brewing on the horizon is just surf striking a distant reef.

Malindi Marine National Park offers snorkeling safaris, glass-bottom boat rides and camping. The park, established in 1968, protects a chain of maritime idylls where lagoons and mangrove forests punctuate long stretches of coconut palm-lined beaches whose sand has the consistency of baby powder.

There is no better way to savor local cuisine than on a sandbank at low tide after sailing there in a dhow. The snorkeling is sublime.

Malaika Eatro Beach Restaurant in Malindi, Kenya.
Malaika Eatro Beach Restaurant in Malindi, Kenya.

Over 600 species of fish range in its vast coral reefs where stag horn, organ pipe, and boulder brain corals thrive. Another way to enjoy the park is on an early morning walk. In the 1960s, George and Joy Adamson of Born Free fame owned a waterfront house here.

They were often seen playing on the beach with their rescued lioness, Elsa. Mercifully, these days, big cats are rarely seen lying around in the sun.

After experiencing magical Malindi, your journey home may seem a little too daunting now. So stay a while. Make Malindi your home. There are worse places in the world to settle.

Greg CummingsGreg Cummings, who divides his time between Kenya, Sicily and Vancouver Island, is the author of two novels, ‘Gorillaland’ and ‘Pirates’. His memoir ’Gorilla Tactics: How to Save a Species’, which recounts a 20-year career as a gorilla conservationist, will be published by Chicago Review Press in September 2023.