Off the Beaten Path in Mombasa

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March 19th 2013
Published: March 19th 2013
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The boat terminal was a flurry of activity, with stalls and hawkers trying to flog things to passing foot passengers. Cars and trucks were queuing up in the haze, and Amos and I jostled and squeezed with the crowds of foot passengers, waiting for the signal to board. Very soon the announcement came and we entered the fray. A man just ahead of us was carrying a couple of chickens and in front of him, another man was carrying a pile of cardboard on his head.

Like the ferry crossing in The Gambia, Amos and I hit the top deck for the journey. But unlike the Gambian crossing, this one only took five minutes. At the other side we faced the same mad crush to get off.

Amos and I headed to a line of waiting motorbike taxis. After some negotiation Amos told me to get on the back of one. Two days previously in Kigali the thought of jumping on the back of a motorbike had worried me no end - and that had been on decent roads with a crash helmet. Yet here in this part of Mombasa - where the roads were little more than dirt tracks - I jumped on the back without even thinking about crash helmets

What the hell, I thought. It was time to live a little. A few seconds later we set off down a bumpy orange backstreet passing simple dwellings with tin roofs. Amos was also on the back of a bike, his in front, leading the way. But then as we careered along, getting deeper into the township, I began to have a nagging feeling. Had I made a mistake is agreeing to this tour?

Suddenly we turned left, and then right, and then right again. Or was it left? I couldn’t remember. A woman by the side of the track was hand washing some clothes. Two men sat in a doorway doing nothing in particular. Suddenly an old man spotted me and stared as I passed.

Where the hell was Amos taking me? I had assumed it would be some sort of African village, not this. What if I was being driven somewhere nasty? What if this was some sort of elaborate kidnapping scheme? After all, Amos was working freelance, without his company or anyone else knowing where we were. I was literally flying solo on the back of a motorbike through a place where no other Westerners dared to tread. We turned up another little backstreet and I grimly hung on, wishing I’d stayed back at the hotel.

Suddenly Amos’s motorcycle veered sharply right and a second later so did we. The track was even bumpier now, flanked by more tin-roofed shacks. A woman carrying a baby on her back gazed at me as I passed and I wondered whether the safe house was going to be around here somewhere. They could keep me holed up for months until the ransom was paid. Or perhaps they were the middle men for Somali militia. Somalia was the next country up from Kenya, and as a Brit, I would be prize booty for them.

We came out of the residential area and onto a main road with the ocean on my left. I was glad we’d left the township behind. Even in my slightly worried state I still managed to get my camera out to take a photo of myself riding on the back of a moving motorbike, it would serve as a nice reminder of my outing or else act as evidence in my kidnapper’s trial. Half a mile down the road we finally came to a stop and Amos climbed off his bike and came towards me.

“Come,” he said, “I show you the beach.”

Perhaps I wasn’t going to be kidnapped by Islamic militants after all. I followed Amos towards a quite beautiful beach and calmed down. A few monkeys and a troop of small school children hovered under a large tree. It was hardly prime kidnapping ground. I gazed out at the tranquil Indian Ocean that looked like it belonged in a holiday brochure, thinking how foolish I’d been. Amos was a married man for God’s sake, and he had a two-year-old son. Also, he wasn’t a Muslim, he was a Christian, he’d already told me.

“Tell me,” Amos asked. “What did you think of the journey through the village?”

I paused, thinking of what to say. I couldn’t exactly tell him I thought I was being abducted so instead told him I’d enjoyed it, which I suppose I had. After all, this was what travel was supposed to be like – breaking the boundaries of everyday life, sampling something new, stepping out of comfort zones.

“I’m glad you liked it. Not many tourists get to see what you have seen. Come, let’s get a beer to cool ourselves down.”

Twenty minutes later Amos and I were sat in bar near the ferry terminal. It was called The King Fisher. Instead of sitting in its stuffy interior we decided to sit outside. We each took healthy gulps of Tusker Lager, savouring the cooling liquid after the hot and dusty journey on the motorbikes. After another sip I asked Amos if he’d ever been to Europe.

“No. I would love to visit there one day, I think, but I would not want to live in Europe. It is too expensive and I think it has lost touch with its traditions. The country I would most like to live in is the Congo. Outside of Kinshasa, it is largely untouched and still holds the deepest African customs.”

Amos took another sip of his lager and looked wistful. “My dream would be to move my family there, build our home on the banks the River Congo. I would clear the land down to the brown river so that we could grow whatever food we needed, and be able to catch fish. But I cannot see this ever happening. Congo is becoming dangerous, and anyway, my wife likes living in Mombasa.”

After finishing our drinks, Amos and I crossed back over the river where I was to experience a brand-new form of transport. It was the mini-bus taxi. Lines of them stood waiting for departing ferry passengers. Before I had chance to say anything I was bundled aboard one, pressed shoulder to shoulder with the humanity of Africa. And then with a hard hand slap on the side of the vehicle, we were off, forcing our way through the jam of other such vehicles. Amos was sat behind me, staring out of the window. For him, this was totally normal.

The journey was a madcap adventure of beeping and sudden, jolting stops. I stared outside at the scenes of Mombasa passing by my window, marvelling at the real Africa. Fruit stands, corrugated metal, colourful ladies and scorching sun. The minibus stopped and a push of people boarded, squeezing aboard the already packed-out vehicle. Money was passed to the driver’s assistant as we set off. I smiled and turned to Amos. He nodded and gave me the thumbs up. Five minutes later we climbed out and stood on the pavement. The mini-bus taxi juddered off into the traffic of downtown Mombasa.

“Thank you Amos,” I said once we’d arrived back at the hotel. “I really enjoyed this afternoon, and am glad you were the one to show me.” I handed him a hefty tip.

“Thank you,” he said as we shook hands. “And if you are ever in Kenya again, please seek me out. I would love to show you many other things in Mombasa. Today we have only scratched the surface.”

This is an excerpt from my latest book, Flashpacking Through Africa: Travels through 17 African Nations, available on Amazon Kindle

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20th March 2013

Every trip is a great ride in Africa...really enjoyed yours in Mombassa

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