E. African Islands a Quiet Haven


kinasi 1LAMU, Kenya (AP) — Swimming with dolphins, staying in a tree house on the coast, spectacular snorkeling, and diving sites filled with colorful tropical fish — the East African islands of Lamu and Mafia offer visitors all this and more.

A trip to Lamu involves flying to a dusty airstrip in neighboring Manda Island and taking a boat ride to Shella, a village on the eastern tip of Lamu.

Residents have preserved much of the traditional way of life, with donkeys still providing the main means of land transport on streets that are too narrow for vehicles.

Lucky visitors will see and swim with dolphins that often race up near the shore to feed on schools of fish close to mangroves and coral reefs. We saw dozens on the second day of my stay, during a boat ride from snorkeling.

Dolphins ignored our dhow, a traditional triangular-sailed boat, allowing us to get so close that we could hear them expel air through their blowholes.

I put on snorkeling goggles and eased into the ocean, where some inquisitive dolphins soon came up close — with adults swimming on my side and the young keeping a safe distance ahead or underneath. As they swam away, those ahead looked back with curiosity at the sight of this alien creature that was obviously out of its element in the sea. The encounter was the highlight of my visit to Lamu.

I stayed in Lamu in a renovated stone house that an Arab merchant built after marrying a local woman in the 19th century. The couple had no children and after they died, the woman’s relatives could not afford to maintain the building. It gradually crumbled into a pile of limestone and mud until a local resident repaired it and opened it to tourists. Now, every night here, guests are treated to a candlelit, rooftop dinner — usually a spicy dish featuring the catch of the day.

Omani Arab sultans who ruled the eastern coast of Africa first settled in Lamu before moving to Zanzibar. They left behind narrow, winding alleyways and an eight-mile (13-kilometer) long, unspoiled sandy beach in Lamu that now attracts tourists.

Both Lamu and Mafia were once part of Zanzibar, then a prosperous sultanate that thrived on the slave and spice trades. Zanzibar lost Lamu after a sultan struck a deal with British colonial rulers to let the island become part of Kenya. Mafia was sold to Germans who ruled Tanganyika — now Tanzania — in 1890.

My trip on the East African coast also took me to Mafia Island and one of Africa’s largest marine parks, the Mafia Marine National Park in Chole Bay. We got a preview of the rich marine life with the sighting of two whale sharks, the largest of all fish, swimming near the Indian Ocean’s surface as our plane approached the island.

Most of the marine park is less than 66 feet (20 meters) below the average tide levels, offering dramatic underwater viewing of marine wildlife to the expert and novice diver or snorkeler, said scuba diving instructor Marco Stiantoni. Chole Bay has colorful algae, sponge and soft coral beds, fringing coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds.

The sanctuary is part of efforts to preserve an impressive array of marine and terrestrial wildlife in southern Tanzania. The region is also home to the Selous Game Reserve, the largest wildlife reserve in Africa, and the vast mangrove swamps of the Rufiji River Delta — one of the key fish-spawning locations on the East coast of Africa.

We took a car ride across Mafia Island and then a boat trip to Chole Island, which is part of Mafia’s archipelago. There, at the Chole Mjini lodge, visitors can stay in one of seven large tree-houses by the sea, surrounded by mangroves and other tropical vegetation.

I chose tree-house No. 2, built around a huge baobab tree and supported by stilts, with a four-poster bed inside. It had an upstairs room that is also a viewing platform, reached by a stepladder from the bedroom. From here I could watch the rare Comoros bats fly out at sunset, heading to neighboring islands to feast on tropical fruits.

A trip to the village was like stepping back in time to how life used to be in parts of the East African coast in the 1970s. Bicycles are the most sophisticated form of transportation. Natives comb the beach when the tide rolls out to catch squid, while others use a line and a hook to catch dinner for the family.

Tourism has spawned alternative sources of income for residents who now sell their produce to the hotel and work there, said resident Mashaka Hassan, 36.

The lodge, at one end of the Chole village, has been involved in setting up and financing projects to assist the community. They include the only hospital, primary school and kindergarten in the island.

These are partially funded by guests through a village levy included in the cost per night, and all the projects have helped improve the quality of life for villagers.

-The Associated Press