A cluster of multiple islands tucked into Kenya’s North coast, the Lamu archipelago has long held an irresistible appeal for tourists. Lamu County is seasoned by history, her stretched medieval streets, and ancient Arab architecture glorifies the town founded during the 12th Century . It is the oldest and best-preserved example of Swahili settlement in East Africa.It was extolled as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO’s World Heritage Center in December 2001. UNESCO describes it as:
“Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, retaining its traditional functions”.
Lamu County is home to two of Kenya’s forts namely the Lamu and Siyu Forts which are located on the Lamu Island and Siyu in Lamu East respectively.The County has maintained its social and cultural integrity, as well as retaining its authentic building fabric up to the present day. Built in coral stone and mangrove timber, the town is characterized by the simplicity of structural forms enriched by such features as inner courtyards, verandas, and elaborately carved wooden doors. Lamu has hosted major Muslim religious festivals since the 19th century, and has become a significant center for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures. A conservative and close-knit society, Lamu County has retained its important status as a significant center for education in Islamic and Swahili culture as illustrated by the annual Maulidi and other cultural festivals.Like most people on the East African coast, the inhabitants of Lamu are known as the Swahili- a group of people with mixed Arab and African Bantu ancestry
Means of getting to Lamu
There are several ways of getting into Lamu county depending on your budget and travel interests .Its located 350 km north of Mombasa
- By Plane-fly 540 flies to Lamu every day from JKIA airport Nairobi through Malindi.There are also several private flights and companies operating from Nairobi to Lamu. These includes Lamu air, safari-link, air Kenya and yellow wing air services. From Malindi, you will be landing at Manda Airstrip where travel guides are available to Escort you to your hotel which is either Lamu town, Shela village or Manda beach.Kenya Airways stopped its services to Lamu end of November 2008.Flight to Lamu from Nairobi take approximately 100 minutes and those connecting can take an average of 200 minutes.The distance from Nairobi to Lamu is approximately 345 miles.
- By Bus-Tawakal and Tahmeed buses from Mombasa have the best services.During rainy seasons, the trip by bus may take longer than expected because about 125 km from Malindi to Lamu has no tarmac road. For those preferring to drive to Lamu , 4 WD is recommended due to the rough road . Parking at Mokowe Jetty can be organized at KES 200/ a day.
- By Boat-There are no regular boats going to Lamu but one can be hired from Malindi or Mombasa and the price is negotiable but starts from for over 10,000
Things to do in lamu
- Lamu Yoga and Massage-Lamu has become a major attraction for yoga enthusiasts. Two yoga teachers have started centers, Fatuma’s tower & Banana house that offer classes in both Ashtanga, Hatha as well as natural holistic healing. Lamu Yoga is recommended as a form of exercise and fitness.
- water sports , Dhow trips and excursions -you can enjoy a variety of water sporting activities like snorkeling , wind surfing, fishing and deep sea diving .Boat transfers and Dhow cruising vary from captain to captain and the prices are usually negotiable.
- Dhow safaris-Sunset cruise going around the Island and to Takwa ruins.This is sailing using the wind which is totally relaxing and romantic. Explore the mangrove bushes and different types of birds from the dhow, see a clear view of Shela village and Lamu town from the Takwa channel. Morning dhow safaris involves leaving in the morning after breakfast for a half day sailing, fishing and swimming at Manda beach.On board the dhow is equipped with fishing lines, bait, fruits and lunch. Barbecue is done in the dhow while you swim and you have a choice to eat either from the dhow or on the sand at the beach. Dhow and donkey remain the only forms of transport on and around Lamu. There are only two cars on the entire island: one belonging to the governor, and an ambulance for the donkeys.
- Joshi Dhow Race Festival and donkey riding – A form of entertainment for all age groups It’s a great opportunity for the Muslim women to come out and cheer for their home dhows. Normally, they are supposed to be indoors all the time
- Lamu cultural festivals
Every year, Lamu County comes to life during the annual Lamu Cultural Festival. Lamu cultural is an events designed to encourage local skills or practices that are central to Lamu life and culture . These include traditional Bao game competition, Swahili poetry and Henna painting . Other events inclue swimming, Dhow racing and cross country race along the waterfront. The highlight of every Lamu festival involves the town’s most endearing symbol- the donkey race.
- Maulidi festival
This is a four day Islamic festival held every year during the third month of the Muslim calendar to celebrate the birth of prophet Mohammed. Maulidi festival is celebrated in the month of June at the Riyadha Mosque where it was founded by Habib swaleh in 1866. The festival involves music, veneration and Islamic recitals.
Tourist Attractions And Heritage Sites in Lamu County
Manda is an island of the Lamu Archipelago known for the prosperous 19th century ports of Takwa and Manda town.The serenity of the lulling ocean and breeze blowing through mangrove swamps is such a delightful lusciousness.The Manda island is linked by ferry to Lamu and is home to Manda airport and Manda toto to the west .The charmed destiny is separated from the mainland by the tapered Mkanda channel and Ras Kilindini ,the main port located northwards.The island is home to archaeological ruins of Takwa and Manda town .There are several new luxury homes and a couple of boutique resorts like Manda Bay ,Diamond Beach villa and Mkoko House.
Manda Town Ruins
Manda town owes its origins to trade with the Persian Golf during 9th and 10th centuries.Built of bricks, stone and coral , flourishing on trade with Persian Gulf , Manda Town was once great and upbeat. The most striking feature of Manda town ruins is large walls that ran parallel with the sea. These walls were built brazenly high to salvage sections of the shore, and somewhat to merge the town with the edges of the peninsula. At its peak, the Manda town covered some 40 acres (160,000 m2) and its population is estimated to have been about 3,500. Manda prospered until the 13th century when it began to decline.
The Lamu Museum
Lamu Museums are located in the Lamu Archipelago in Lamu county. One ticket to Lamu museum guarantees you entry into Lamu Museum, the German post office museum and the Swahili House museum.The National Museums of Kenya helps preserve and promote this rich cultural heritage of Lamu in collaboration with County Government of Lamu.
Swahili House museum
The Swahili house museum is located in Lamu Old Town . The Swahili House Museum is an example of an 18th Century Swahili house and gives visitors a glimpse of the traditional set up of Swahili home architecture. Houses are usually oblong and built around a small open courtyard. The houses in the few remaining very traditional towns, are single-story buildings, but in a wealthier and crowded town, such as Lamu, most are two-storied and many have three stories – the structurally safe limit. A story is typically added when the occupying family expands by the marriages of its daughters. In some grander houses the ground floor was occupied by slaves and used as warehouses, and the family members lived above. Drainage is an important consideration: houses have flat roofs and house drains send the often heavy rainfall into the streets drains, which empty into the sea.
The axis of a typical house runs north and south. The entrance to the courtyard is properly at the north end and the owners private rooms are at the south end. The vagaries of the street layouts mean that a staircase from the front door may twist and change directions so as to end up in the right place.
The traditional house is a very private place, its outside walls having only holes for ventilation. Light comes from the open courtyard. The entrance is through a large seat-lined porch (daka) raised a foot or two above the street, with a double wooden door traditionally elaborately carved and decorated with geometric or floral and leaf patterns and Quranic inscriptions.
German post office
German Post Office Museum is located in Lamu old town, Lamu County .This building was the first German Post Office ever established along the East African coast. The Post office was established on November 22nd 1888 by the Germans, led by Clement Denhardt.German nationals Clement Denhardt and G. A. Fisher first made contact with the Lamu hinterland in the late 1870s. They soon struck a friendship with Ahmed Abdullah Simba, the Sultan of Witu, who at the time was having problems with the rulers of Lamu and Zanzibar and so welcomed a new ally. Shortly afterwards, Witu became a German protectorate. The communications and trade contacts for the German Protectorate in Witu could at the time be served through Lamu, a well-established town with links to the outside world. The Post office operated for more than two years before its closure on March 3rd 1891 after the withdrawal of the German settlement in Witu.
Lamu Fort is a massive two storey stone structure located in Lamu Old town in Lamu County . It lies about 70 meters inland at the main jetty within Grid Reference 114 498 on the Lamu 1:50,000, Kenya Survey Map sheet No. 180/1. The Fort was built between 1813 and 1821 with Omani assistance. Initially it provided a base from which the Omanis consolidated their control of the East African coast but the town later lost its economic importance. During the British Colonial period , and after the independence of Kenya, the fort was used as a prison. Today it houses an environmental museum and library, and is often used for community events.The fort was originally situated on the waterfront but today it is located in a central position in the town, about 70 meters from the main jetty on the shore. The powerfully built two-story stone building contrasts with the Swahili architecture of the other buildings in the town.
The Takwa settlement is situated on Manda island. They are the ruins of a town which was abandoned around the 18th century .It is believed Takwa was a thriving merchants town,and the inhabitants were pious.The Great Mosque at Takwa is relatively well preserved. It is reported that when Takwa was abandoned, its inhabitants settled just across the bay at Shela on Lamu. It is said the fall and abandonment of Takwa happened in 17th Century .It is believed the fall was as a result of wars between Takwa and Pate people .The Takwa Ruins were designated a Kenyan National Monument in 1982.
Siyu town that lies on the North Coast of Pate Island. Siyu town is legendary for withstanding the Sultans of Zanzibar in numerous battles .In 1843 the Sheikh of Siyu Bwana Mataka and the sheikh of Pate revolted against Seyyid Said ,the Sultan of Oman .A year later (1844), the overpowered Sultan got even with a larger army but was fend off and sailed away. In 1845 Siyu gave the Sultan, one of his most severe military rout. Siyu would be come the last town in the Coast to succumb to Zanzibar’s supremacy under Sultan Masjid in 1863.
Unlike Mombasa’s Fort Jesus and Lamu where the forts were put up by foreigners, Siyu is unique since it is the only town that built a fort of its own.The imposing Fort Siyu is located across the tidal channel in Pate Island ,about 25 km to the north East of the medieval Lamu Town.A boat ride from Lamu along a lovely stretch of mangrove lined creek leads to the treasure.
Basing on Oral traditions, it is indicated that the fort was built by one of Siyu’s leaders, Bwana Mataka, whose full name was Mohammed Ishaq bin Mbarak bin Mohamed bin Oman Famau in the 19th century to safeguard Siyu residents from Omani Arabs’ domination.He also rebuilt much of the town including a fine stone mansion for himself, of which the remains are still to be seen. Siyu Fort was gazetted in 1958 as a “National Monument”. Apart from the impressive fort, Siyu is host to the remains of magnificent mosque and tombs.
Faza is a settlement on the North coast on pate Island , within the Lamu archipelago. Faza town lies calmly in the northern Coast and it dates back to the 14th century when it was virtually ruined by the Pate army. It was inhabited and again and dealt the same setback in 1587 by the Portuguese. Faza was later resettled. The Portuguese in Faza constructed a chapel there, however, nothing remains of it. In the 18th century Faza again fell into decline due to the rise of Pate.
Shanga is an archaeological site located in Pate Island. Shanga ruins covers about 15 hectares . Shanga was excavated during an eight-year period in which archaeologists examined swahili origins. The archaeological evidence in the form of coins, pottery, glass and beads all suggest that a Swahili community inhabited the area during the eighth century. Evidence from the findings also indicates that the site was a Muslim trading community that had networks in Asia.
History has it that the early inhabitants these ruins were Chinese Merchants from Shanghai,where the word ‘Shanga’ must have been derived. Some Chinese pottery have been retrieved from the ruins further collaborating the belief.Legend has it that some shipwrecked Chinese sailors intermarried with local women. Some of the Washanga names are said to be of Chinese origin .Found in the ruins are tombs made of coral with striking similarity to Chinese Ming Dynasty tombs ,complete with terraced entries and half moon domes.
Shela Village is a tangle of narrow sandy lanes, tall stone houses, some smaller thatched dwellings, mosques, ruins and a spacious square fringed by a few market stalls.The beach starts a five minute walk from the village — seven miles of golden sands that are never crowded, a sea ideal for swimming, Body surfing , diving ,fishing ,water skiing and windsurfing
The village is located about 3.2 km south of Lamu town.The earliest inhabitants of Shela village are said to be people from neighboring Manda Island .Shela is home to the most spectacular beaches on Lamu island thus a center for tourism; with several guest houses like Shela House,Fish Bone House, Dhow House,Garden House,Kijani House ,Palm House , Peponi and Fatuma’s Tower .
Pate Town is situated on the South-West coast of the island.It is the largest island in the Lamu Archipelago, which lie between the towns of Lamu and Kiunga, close to the boarder with Somalia. From the 17th century, pate island was an early site of Arabic colonization . According to the Pate chronicle , the town of Pate was founded by refugees from Oman in the 8th century and re-founded by members of the Nabahani family , also from Oman, in 1203. The Pate Chronicle also claims that in the 14th century Pate was so powerful that it had conquered most of the towns on the Swahili Coast
Kiwayu is a small island in the eastern part of the Lamu archipelago , situated in the Kiunga marine national reserve The main economic activity is fishing, and there is one school, no clinic and one well on the island. The main attraction for tourists on Kiwayu are the tidal pools and snorkeling/diving pools located on the eastern side of the island. Kiwayu boasts idyllic beach and fabulous snorkeling on the coral reefs .For centuries the the bay of Kiwayu island has been a calling point for Arab dhows trading in ivory, carpets and carved chests travelling between Arabia and Zanzibar. Safari-link operates daily flights from Wilson Airport to the Kiwayu airstrip. To connect from Lamu to Kiwayu , there are two options :by private charter , the flight takes 15 minutes or by boat which takes 1 hour and 40 minutes via mangrove channels. The nearest hospital is on Lamu island outside of Lamu town. To get to Kiwayuu from Lamu, you must take a dhow for around 7 hour trip or a motor boat for 2 hours.The nearest attractions include Boni and Dondori game reserves to the east.On the island ,there are two modest lodges ,kiwayu safari lodge and Munira safari lodge
Kiunga Marine National Reserve
Kiunga Marine National Reserve is situated along the Indian coast of Lamu County. Kiunga park covers 270 square kilometres. The marine reserve encompasses a chain of roughly 50 calcareous offshore islands and coral reefs in the Lamu Archipelago, running parallel to the seashore and end-to-end with Dodori and Boni National Reserves on landfall .Visitors can view the teeming sea life in the coral reefs, sea grass and extensive mangrove forests which are a refuge for sea turtles and dugongs. The reserve provides ideal opportunities for wind surfing, diving and snorkel ling, water skiing and sunbathing. Kiunga is also home to phenomenal reptiles and fish which include Sea Turtles , Leather back Olive Ridley, Turtles, Lobsters Reef fish, Crabs, Sea urchins, and Sea stars
Dondori National Reserve
Dodori National Reserve reserve was documented in 1976 and named after the river ending in the Indian Ocean at Dodori Creek, a breeding place for dugongs. The reserve covers 877 km² of woodland and forest area with large populations of wildlife, including elephants, Coastal Topi’s , lions and buffaloes.
Dodori hosts a rich bio-diversity mainly consisting of coastal forests, mangroves, swampy grasslands and Savannah. Away from the rivers and channels, impenetrable thorn bush is scattered with gigantic baobabs. At the Dodori coastal area, waterholes are frequently visited by gazelles, antelopes and water birds. Dodori River and its delta, has some of the thickest, mottled assemblage of mangrove forest species in Kenya. The paradise of voluminous rivers and channels, which run through gigantic baobabs, is the breeding grounds for dugongs (sea cows) and the green turtle and which are threatened aquatic mammals. The waterholes are often visited by antelopes gazelles, and water-birds.
The Reserve is managed by K.W.S and is part of a larger area that has been recognized globally as an important cultural heritage area and a prized conservation site by international organizations such as the World Wild Life find and Conservation International . Together with the nearby Kiunga Marine National Reserve , the Reserve was named a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve in 1980.
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