We arrive at Heathrow … ready. Outside cold winter presses against the glass, and our mobiles ping with the last twitches of the lives we’ve just left.
By morning we’ll be in Addis Ababa.
The plane touches down into gold. Mountains quilt half the window in yellows, and the rest in the smoked dust of the sky.
We spend the next few hours in the airport, a large warehouse of a place, and then settle back into the neat efficiency of Air Ethiopia for the last leg of our journey to Mombasa.
It’s in Kenya that we get to touch Africa…even though we’ve seen her through the window in Ethiopia it doesn’t feel like we’ve rubbed skins with her. That changes the instant we leave the plane in Mombasa and feel the air, full of browns and greens and warmth.
Visa applications, luggage collection and security checks follow…and so do the welcomes. Lots of smiles and “karibu” and the sense that staff really are thankful for our visit.
Outside eager taxi drivers spot us, clearly the strangers in town, but we’re of little use as we divide into our pre-booked vehicles for the two hour drive to the coast.
Our route is along the new Chinese-built road, past the shine of the Chinese-built railway station, and beyond the activity at the ‘may-soon-be-China’s’ port.
There is no sign of old Mombasa, but plenty of time to admire Kenya as our speed is sedate – our driver ever-alert to the unmarked speed bumps designed to toss the unwitting into pancakes.
In the front I chat (in English) to our chauffeur about snakes, the rains, the ownership of palm trees, and the absent children gone to find work in Saudi Arabia. It sounds tough for the girls…some come home within weeks.
The road, a lush map-inch below the Equator, tracks north, blind to the ocean and propped along its edges by the green walls of internet hubs and the unfinished hopes of all ages of entrepreneur. There are straggles of goats but little sign of tourists.
Finally we arrive amongst the baobabs on the outskirts of Kilifi. A dirt road takes us the last few miles, then turns off through red trees and monkeys to our villa.
Stones crunch under the tyres as we pull to a stop. In seconds smiling hands open the doors and stretch out for our luggage…”karibu“. We follow through under the arch and into the deep cool of the garden.
Shades of tree turn to blue and then to sea. Breeze, drinks, colour and lunch fill the table laid out in one of the garden’s thatched houses.
Through the doors the view stretches down to the shore, and its tether of small boats, then along Kilifi Creek and out to the ocean.
We are here, drenched in light, miles from London…and have a full week to do nothing. What a place to be a guest.
Of course we do plenty, and the days vanish.
The supermarket takes some of our time, so does the cramped bottle store next door, but, thanks to the locals amongst us, we wheel through like experts and stagger out beneath paw paw, mango, coffee, cashew nuts, and clanking crates of Tangawizi and Tusker.
Some days we visit the town – first its centre and then its markets and leafy suburbs.
On others we walk the beaches – some palm-fronded and cricket white.
And others more like the creek at Takaungu.
For culture we take in the ruins and reptiles of Mnarani.
For sport we waterski and windsurf, we fish and sail in dhows.
We are in a rhythm of sea and space, long meals, and mornings that start early with the sun and the call to prayer.
As the Christmas holiday comes closer Kilifi turns up the party mood.
The bottle store bulges on to the street, and the supermarket parking jigsaws to a standstill. In some aisles there are flounces of shoppers in party dress, and in others the aching want of small families on wish-list safari.
Beach life turns from trickle to tide as families in their finest swirl over miles of sand, framed by sea and shore. They are courteous, proud and “karibu” as they move through and around our games of football. Occasional police helicopters fly the shoreline, and a small plane skims low over the waves.
It’s a blue-sky, festive feel…but easy to forget it’s Christmas…until the church bells billow through our mosquito net at midnight. Then slowly the time points connect. Outside the “askari” coughs – he will still patrol, silent as the night, long knife ready.
In the morning, Christmas morning, the young men swim the creek. There and back…against the warnings, but they do it, carefully shepherded by a local expert, a judge of time and tides. We watch from the garden as the splashes fade to the far side and then start back. We are proud as new shoes to see our team come home.
One day visitors come – Kenyan friends. The talk is of wildlife, and the exhausted pain caused by corruption and mismanagement. The death of eight relocated rhinos is the freshest scar. It is a miserable tale of advice ignored and blame evasion, connected ominously to one of the world’s best known conservation organisations.
As we talk a Chinese tank of a ship puffs across our view. She is loaded with raw materials collected from further down the creek at Mnarani, and headed now for Lamu’s ambitious new port, set to become one of Africa’s largest. The ship’s smoke fades over the horizon, a finger-print from the future above the dug-outs and dhows that slip to and fro, no bigger than when they began.
Then the ship is gone… the blue skies still ripple the ocean and the baobabs still catch on the sun.
It is late afternoon, a new moment on an old shore, but soon it will vanish like a seed pod on the wind.
It is a fine and privileged way to edge towards the end of 2018.
A few days before the year vanishes we say our goodbyes to Kilifi, and turn a freshly hired four-wheel drive towards Tsavo.
Asante sana Kilifi.
Here are two links that may be of interest:
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019